Burley village in Hampshire’s New Forest National Park, is a quintessential forest settlement where ponies and cattle roam the streets. On the edge of this tranquil, pastoral hamlet — and marked only by an understated and simple oak barrel — is New Forest Cider; a small, quiet farm where they serve cream teas, scones and home-made scrumpy from similar wooden barrels in an old barn for most of the year. However, for a single weekend each October, the peace is shattered when the Topps’ family hold their annual cider pressing event, and create the concoction “jus’ as ‘twer made in grandfer’s day,” with steam-driven cider presses and machinery that is over one hundred years old.
During this little countryside extravaganza, the air around the farmyard is filled with smoke, steam and the sweet, pervasive smell of fermenting ripe apples; thousands of them. An old Wurlitzer fairground organ wheezes out old tunes, and in an open-fronted barn The ‘Skimmity Hitchers’ band play their amusing Dorset-centric scrumpy and ale songs, watched by a small crowd, most with pints of strong, traditional cider in their hands, drawn from the barrels in the converted cowshed-cum-shop opposite.
From the barn, it is necessary to negotiate a pile of apples the size of a small mountain, before reaching the field beyond where small static Lister engines are ‘put-put-putting’, logs are being cut with contraptions on the back of tractors, shepherd huts overflow with interesting country characters demonstrating various rural crafts, and runner ducks and white geese mingle with visitors. Whilst each of these is interesting in themselves, the impressive centrepiece is formed from two vintage cider presses and accessories being driven by steam engines operated by a team of passionate enthusiasts — some of whom are dressed up in the early 20th Century farm attire — set at the far end of the field.
The Vintage Workman Cider Press
The biggest of the two cider presses in use is a trailer-mounted machine on wheels. It was made in Gloucestershire, and originally used around that area at the beginning of the 20th Century. The complex contraption comprises two separate presses and a central ‘scratter’, which is the device that smashes the apples into a pulp known as ‘pomace’. The whole thing is belt-driven by a steam engine from an overhead shaft. Barry Topp, who set up New Forest Cider in 1987 and owns this rare press, explained the history of it which, when not in use for the annual festival, is now kept in retirement in the barn at the farm: “It’s from 1890. They built four of them, and this is the only known one that’s up and running and in working order,” he said. “It’s made by ‘Workmans’, they were down on the Severn, near Lidney. It was in use on the Barclay Estate farms. We got it at auction in the mid 1990s, and we’ve used it every year since we’ve had it back here. We had to rebuild it. The floor was rotted as well, and we had to get some pitch pine cut out to make a new one.”
Although huge, the press is on wheels and designed to be mobile. It was conceived as a ‘state of the art’, efficient and profitable machine; “Workmans built them at the time as a contractor’s tool,” Barry said. “The person who had a traction engine would tow it round to orchards, and they would actually do the pressing right there. It was hired out and taken round from place to place.”
Although it remains very original, Jeff Carpenter, who was operating it during the cider festival, is convinced that it would have been even more efficient that it is now; “I don’t think you would have had to use shovels and buckets to get the apples up there to the scratter,” he conjectured. “I think they would’ve had an elevator, so you’d just start with the pile on the ground and shove ’em all into the lift.”
A strap from a steam engine connects to an overhead shaft and runs the press. The operators can, by using three sets of dog clutches on the mechanism, set the drive to operate either one of the two presses or the central scratter. It was a very efficient in its day; “You see, you build one side, and you set that in motion to be pressing, then you go on the other side and work that one,” said Barry, “so that one, you’re like, working — either filling or emptying it — while the other one’s being squeezed. It’s about a half-hour cycle to get all the juice out. They reckoned that with this, three people on a twelve-hour day could turn out two thousand gallons of juice as long as they had the apples there to do it.”
Producing the Pomace
Apples require considerable persuasion before they release their juice. Placing them directly into a press doesn’t work. First they need to be mashed and pulped into what’s known as ‘pomace’, and this is what the aforementioned mill or ‘scratter’ is for. Because the apple skin contains many compounds that contribute to the taste, the fruits aren’t peeled first; they’re simply thrown into a hopper and a spinning drum which is set with teeth mashes them up. Barry explains further; “You can’t press apples as apples, they’ve got to be ground up to extract the juice. With the scratter in this big old press, if you look into the hopper, there’s a drum. We call it a ‘hedgehog’. It’s a piece of wood turned out from an apple tree trunk, and it’s got nails driven into it. The original one had split iron nails that had gone rusty. To make it more hygienic — and because if you’ve got iron, then with the acidic nature of the apple juice, you get black juice ’cause of chemical reaction — we put stainless steel screws in and cut them to the correct size.”
This chemical reaction problem that Barry highlights is something that old cider-makers always took great pains to avoid: Although the moving parts of traditional presses are metal for longevity, the parts that came into contact with the apples were always made of wood. This is because, as Barry mentioned, cider apple juice is very acidic and full of tannins which will corrode iron if allowed to come into contact with it. Therefore, in the old days, the tray and even the juice troughs, barrels and shovels for moving the apples around were wood too. Nowadays, of course, modern plastics and stainless steel are employed to avoid this problem.
Tannin is actually a loose term for non-volatile phenolic substances found in apples, grapes and other fruits. Apples have up to a dozen different ones with names such as chologenic acid, phloridzin and the procyanidins. Only this latter group are actually true tannins in the original sense of the word, meaning that they are able to tan protein such as an animal hides. Traditional ciders from the South West are usually high in these tannins, because this particular area has generally always used bitterweet and bittersharp apples, both of which have high levels of these. Barry Topp favours the Kingston Black variety, which he said is a single variety vintage which always makes very strong cider. The tannins also have the effect of making the cider quite astringent, especially if dry (unsweetened). In contrast, most ‘factory’ ciders have very few tannins.
The Difference Between ‘Real’ and Factory Cider
The factory ciders found on supermarket shelves are quite different to Burley’s output; “The big boys — the commercial boys — all they’re using is concentrate and adding value by adding a helluva lot of water to it,” revealed Barry scornfully. “Traditional cider made by proper makers is always intense in flavour. We take pride in the fact that we don’t cheat the public. We don’t add water, full stop. My trading standards officer said to me that some commercial brands are 60% water. It’s cheaper now for them to import Chinese bloody concentrate than use English apple growers.”
The Important Matter of the Scratter
There were two scratters in operation at Burley; the one integrated into the centre of the big Workman mobile press already described, and another small, free-standing one being driven exclusively by ‘Poppy’, a second rather petite and pretty steam engine, which was providing pomace for the hand press that was also in operation. Steve Lowe was operating the steam engine, and highlighted how dangerous these old methods of working were; “This old scratter’s a lethal machine, you wouldn’t want to put your hands in the top,” he said. “There’s two granite wheels in there, and it weighs about a tonne. There’s a ‘hedgehog’ munching in the centre shaft, then the apples drop down between two granite wheels, which crush ’em into even more of a pulp.” John Wilson, taking a short break from running the nearby hand press that the scratter was feeding apples to, added a further note of caution; “Yes, this one’s got granite wheels in the bottom. You can alter these, and also the teeth on the top for a finer pomace. But there’s no clutch on it. The steam engine just powers it at a constant speed. It takes a long time to stop. In fact, the only way to stop it quickly is pull the belt off.”
The Squeeze of the Cheese
Once the scratter has done its job, then it is time to extract the juice from the pomace by squeezing it out under pressure. To start, shovels of pomace are transferred from the output hopper of the scratters and tipped straight onto cloths placed in a wooden rack or ‘former’ on the press. The corners of this cloth are then folded up, and the former removed, resulting in a large square-shaped layer of pomace wrapped in material. This is known in the world od cider-making as a ‘cheese’. Another rack is then placed on top of this, and the process begins again until there’s a tall stack of cheeses ready for squeezing on the press. When squeezed slowly under lots of pressure, the pomace releases its juice through the cloth. John Wilson said that straw could sometimes take the place of cloths if they weren’t available, and that the end result would be much the same, but maintained that this “was more of a Somerset thing”.
The Vintage Hand Cider Press
The hand press being used — of the same vintage as the big contractor’s Workman — is owned by Barry Topp’s friend Arthur Rixen, and also kept permanently on the farm at Burley. Mike Selwood, aided by his two young sons, Gethyn and Morgan, was busy shovelling pomace from the scratter to the hand press. In between loads, he explained its operation; “With this hand press, you put the pressure on with a huge spanner and a hand winder. It’s done bit by bit. You’ve got to let the juice start to come out the apples slow. It’ ain’t no good just wanging it right down hard straight away. You do a bit, let the juice come out, then do another bit. It must take us over an hour to do one full press. Then you’ve got to empty the ‘cheeses’ out each time and build them back up. It ain’t a five minute process.”
The traction engines
During the weekend, motive power for the Workman press and the stand-alone scratter was provided by two steam engines. The Workman was driven by ‘Smokey’, an engine dating back to 1926. It was originally owned by Kent County Council, who used it for the first ten years of its life for hauling traction wagons and trailers during road-building projects. Following this, it was sold to another company in Kent who decided to convert it to a steam roller. It continued in this guise until the 1960s, when its working life ended.
Chris Gerrard from Burton, near Christchurch in Dorset, bought it in 1985 in pieces, and takes up the story; “It was owned by the Tarmac road-building company at that stage. They were intending to use it for demonstrations, but never got round to finishing it, and so they decided to sell it. I put it back into steam tractor form, because it’s a lot easier to use on the roads like this. I had to find a new ‘old’ pair of front wheels and then make a new axle and steering box. The rear wheels had been extended out for road rolling. I took those extensions off and got it running again. Almost all the parts have had to be made by hand. I drive it down here to Burley, literally under its own steam.”
Apparently it’s not easy supplying traction to the big Workman press; “We have to be careful because it’s such an old press,” Chris said. “We do everything very slowly, otherwise it shakes it to pieces. Once you’ve gone through all the apple mulching in the central scratter, and the cheeses are on the press, I just run continually at slow speed over the first half-hour or so, with the gears on the press allowing for that. Then, for a last fifteen minutes, you just leave it alone to get that last bit out of the apples before you bring it all the way up again and start all over.”
‘Poppy’, the other engine present on the day and supplying traction to the free-standing scratter is much smaller and older. It was built in Ipswich in 1890 and then shipped straight out Chile, where it was used for eighty years or so by a workers co-operative for driving machinery, and then later placed in a dairy. It eventually came back to England in a very derelict state. In fact, the front and back end of the boiler turned out to be full of concrete, and it was only this that was holding it together and plugging all the gaps up in an effort to stop the water leaking out. Operator Steve Lowe provided more detail; “In Chile, when the boiler was no good for driving machinery any more, they then took the engine from outside and installed it inside a dairy and just used it to boil water to sterilise milk. Then when they could no longer even use it for that because it was leaking so much, they scrapped it, and we bought it from them.”
Poppy was brought back to England in 2007 and has undergone a total restoration to bring it back into the gleaming condition that it’s in now; “There’s only one bit of the original boiler left,” explained Steve. “We had to remake all new safety valve gear and a whole new crankshaft. The old crank was bent when we got it, so we machined a new one out of solid three-inch plate.”
What is evident in all of the people involved is a genuine enthusiasm and passion for demonstrating these long-gone traditional cider making methods and associated machinery. They all consider such a display important in today’s high-tech, computerised world; “Soon nobody will even remember how things used to be done, and it’s part of our heritage,” said Chris Gerrard. Mike Selwood, seeks to hand skills down to the next generation by involving his young sons at the event; “It’s good for them to understand the whole food-making process; everyone drinks apple juice, don’t they, but they don’t see how it all happens.” Steve Lowe, who was operating Poppy the steam engine, held a similar view; “I’m lucky enough to have passed my passion for steam engines onto my sons; my oldest, two years ago, he bought himself an eight-tonne steam roller. We need to keep this stuff alive.” Jeff Carpenter nodded in agreement; “Generally people don’t understand this stuff. I’m not gonna run them down, but people from towns, they don’t understand where their food and drink comes from; they just think it comes from Tesco or Sainsburys, and that’s no good, is it? This sorta thing ‘elps.”
Many country shows have become engulfed in commercialism, but Burley’s simple cider pressing weekend actively rejects this in favour of providing a low-key opportunity to meet forest and country people engaged in cider-making and a range of rarely seen traditional crafts. Admission is just a couple of pounds and all profits are distributed to important local charities. Because of all this, it remains a jewel in the countryside calendar and credit to the Topps cider-making family.