You can divide the calendar of fine cider making by the four seasons into which we divide the year. After summer’s great efforts, autumn slinks into place, bringing with it picking season. It’s time to harvest the apples and set them on their way to becoming cider, and this is the primary pursuit of this season for any cider-maker and takes substantial and timely effort.
Ripeness is key, and it seems many in the mass market make the mistake of harvesting their fruit too early, favouring ease over allowing the fullest flavour to develop. One of the key factors to ripeness is how much starch in the apple has turned into sugar. You can test for this with iodine, but many of the best makers will simply walk the orchards themselves, to judge from experience when the time is right to pick a specific variety.
Different apple varieties will not become ripe at the same time; indeed, many varieties were selected precisely for cider-making in order to spread out the harvesting time, as more apples can be harvested and more cider made when they don’t all become ripe at once. Those that come first are called early picking varieties, those that come late are late picking varieties, and their picking time can vary by as much as four months.
The origin of the term “windfall” refers to when fruit has been blown from a tree by the wind. In particularly dry years apples can fall early, with the stems weak from a lack of moisture in their cells, and a little time on the ground can help the starch in them turn to sugar. And in the 17th century cider-makers would often store the apples once picked or collected for as long as a month or two before pressing.
Which apples you actually use is the next question. Any with rot or that are under-ripe (apples will not all ripen on the same tree all at once) are not what you are looking for. At Little Pomona in Herefordshire for example, they go one step farther, creating four categories for picked apples: grades A, B, C, and D.
When picking apples from the tree itself, tree size makes a difference. There are three key categories of apple tree (as well as others), each a variation in size. First is a full standard tree—the stuff of generations past, these are the giants that can be a few stories high. Then you have half-standards, and finally bush orchards, trees grown on rootstocks that keep the trees small and bush-like in scale. Bush orchards are favoured by the growers of apples for the mass market, as they have small flexible trunks which can be shaken by a machine mounted on a tractor, in order to shed the apples from the tree. But for full standard trees, often preferred by the small maker, hand-picking is how things are done, and where necessary a simpler device is used—a long pole with a hook on it called a “panking pole.” Apple trees can be large, but when it comes to size perry pears claim the title, as they can be four or more stories tall, with a wide span. Th e nobility of centuries reaching skyward, they must be some of the largest fruiting trees in the world and they can be tricky to pick, even with a panking pole.
After picking comes pressing. The apples are ground and pressed for their juice, to be entombed in barrels or tanks for metamorphosis into cider. When working with late picking varieties, pressing can run as late as January for some.