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West Milton cider makers Nick and Dawn Poole inspired to go full time after winning French award

PUBLISHED: 15:51 04 November 2014 | UPDATED: 15:51 04 November 2014

Dawn washing and selecting apples in the washing tank

Dawn washing and selecting apples in the washing tank

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Winning gold in a prestigious French competition with their sparkling Lancombe Rising inspired Nick and Dawn Poole to go full time into heritage cider making and put West Milton on the West Country cider map

The beautiful rich amber colours of real West Country cider are all down to the higher tannin levels of the true cider apples. There aren’t any eating or cooking apples sneaking into these exceptional West Country ciders. Every glass is full of English orchard sunshine, traditionally fermented cider apples, months of nurturing and long weeks of sheer hard work, often in freezing barns – and nothing else.

Born at King’s Farm, at the foot of Eggardon Hill, just a couple of miles from Lancombe Cross, Nick Poole has a deep knowledge of cider-making which is both local and traditional. His wife Dawn is from Axbridge in Somerset, so they are both blessed with natural cider-makers’ genes. Cider may be packed with sunshine but making it is a cold weather occupation. I visited Nick and Dawn last November when they were crushing apples in the bitter cold of a barn at the West Milton Cider Company. I returned during a hail storm in April to watch the bottling process.

Before he got into cider making Nick was a builder in West Milton. He first started to make cider part-time about 15 years ago and during this time he founded the West Milton Cider Club. His speciality is a naturally sparkling full flavoured refreshing cider which he called Lancombe Rising, after the barn at Lancombe Cross where he makes it. Lancombe Rising is made by the old English method of keeving. Known as ‘cuvage’ in France, the method is still used in Normandy and Brittany to produce ‘cidre boucher’. This method has largely disappeared from England but, with the growth of industrial keg ciders, keeving allows the craft maker to produce a naturally sweet cider that can be bottled with its fullest flavour.

After a lot of experimenting and research, Nick and his cider went on to win first prize at the ‘Concours de Cidre’ at St Helen de Bondeville in Normandy in 2009. The taste of apples and caramel are prominent in Lancombe Rising as the cider finishes its fermentation in the bottle at a medium to sweet level, becoming drier as the cider matures. The alcohol content is relatively low in this bottle conditioned cider at 2% for sweet cider and 5% for dry.

The keeving process removes natural nutrients and yeasts before fermentation begins. One of the problems with this method is that it needs a temperature of between 12 and 14 degrees celsius just to get going, hardly Dorset winter temperatures! It also creates a high level of wastage which is another reason it dropped out of popularity. Adding pectin to the freshly pressed apple juice in the barrel encourages gels to form. These trap the nutrients and yeasts, carrying them down to the bottom of the barrel as sediments or forming a crust called ‘le chapeau brun’ on the surface. The juice between the two becomes perfectly clear. This is racked into clean barrels and slowly fermented over the winter. Once bottled, the cider continues to ferment, but more slowly with the reduced amount of yeast, making the finished product full flavoured and much clearer, developing a natural sparkle as it matures.

Over the years, Nick found that demand for both his traditional draught West Dorset Real Cider and the bottle conditioned Lancombe Rising was outstripping his production, which was limited to 7000 litres a year before Customs Duty becomes payable.

So with a burgeoning cider business he decided to end his building operations and become a full-time cider-maker with Dawn. In this their first full year, they set themselves the target of producing 20,000 litres of cider in total. Of this, 10,000 litres would be West Dorset Real Cider and the other 10,000 litres would be Lancombe Rising in 75cl bottles and half-bottles.

From Orchard to Glass

Nick collects traditional cider apples from his own orchards and other local farms and orchards. Throughout the long winter weeks, the apple bin at Lancombe Cross is constantly filled and emptied. The apples are mostly Dabinett, Chisel Jersey, Yarlington Mill, Michelin, Bulmer’s Norman, Browns and Kingston Black, all excellent quality bitter sweets and bitter sharps.

After washing in the cider barn, the apples are crushed and pressed, either in a traditional rack and cloth press or by Nick’s new hydrostatic press which easily converts 180 kg of crushed apples into 100 litres of juice. The natural juices are then either keeved or pumped straight into vats for fermentation, which normally takes four to six months for traditional cider. As a general rule, 30 tonnes of apples produce about 12 tonnes of spent crushed apple called pomace which is used mainly as cattle feed in the West Milton area.

Depending upon the weather, bottling the Lancombe Rising normally begins in March. Gravity tests of the maturing cider are taken at regular intervals to see when it is ready. At this stage, the natural yeasts that developed during winter fermentation should be depleted, leaving just enough to continue a small fermentation in the bottle.

The bottling process takes about four weeks of virtually continuous labour for about 3000 bottles and 2000 half-bottles. After a minimum of six weeks, the clarity of the cider in the bottles indicates the condition and one or two are opened to test for natural sparkle and flavour. If it has been successful and the natural yeasts have done their job, the finished Lancombe Rising is released for sale.

Sometimes this period of maturation can take three months or more - another reason why bottling keeved cider has fallen out of favour with commercial producers.

So thank goodness for Nick and Dawn, part of a burgeoning artisan cider making community who are keeping a wonderful tradition alive and giving us apple-infused Dorset sunshine in a glass.

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Nick and Dawn’s Other Ciders

As well as their award-winning Lancombe Rising, the rest of the apple harvest goes into three other types of Dorset cider:

• West Dorset Reak Cider - A traditional barrelled cider left to ferment in the time honoured way. Full, smooth and easy drinking cider sold in a bag in a box mostly to the pub and restaurant trade in 3 litre and 20 litre boxes.

• West Dorset Fine Cider - A bottled blend of traditional farmhouse cider and sweeter keeved cider producing a raw, still, natural medium-dry cider. Bottled in small batches, regularly throughout the year, from barrel-stored cider.

• Milton Moonlight - New this year, it is slightly darker in colour than West Dorset Fine Cider, and is a lightly carbonated medium bottled cider. Its natural sweetness comes from the fruit, no sugar is added.

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Discover more...

West Milton Cider Club - In Powerstock Parish, there are two cider clubs, one in Nettlecombe and the West Milton Cider Club which Nick Poole formed in 2000 when he encouraged neighbours to put money into a kitty to make cider with the village’s surplus apples. The club holds a Sunday Lunch every month when they enjoy cider made the previous autumn. There is friendly rivalry between the two clubs, both holding annual wassails and occasional music sessions, and the Carol Service at the West Milton shed is always well attended despite temperatures often being below freezing. To discover more visit: westmiltoncider.co.uk.

The Lost Cider Apple of Dorset - Nick Poole and leading pommologist Liz Copas have written an excellent book titled The DATA (Dorset Apple Tree Analysis) Project - The Search for the Lost Cider Apples of Dorset. This summarises their extensive research into Dorset’s cider apples and orchards. Priced at £3(Plus P&P) order from Nick Poole at West Milton Cider Co., 1 Pear Tree Cottages, West Milton, Bridport, DT6 3SH. Telephone 01308 485235, email: info@westmiltoncider.co.uk

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