There’s a place in this world that I love more than any other. In fact I might even say I’m in love with it. It’s magical. Remote, but not too much. Quiet, but not deserted. Beautiful beyond words, but in a rugged, real kind of way.
Worth Matravers is a tiny village off the Purbeck coast in Dorset. And in this very special village there’s a very special pub, the Square and Compass, well over 200 years old. It sits on a hill top, looking down over the village and the sea. And the Square and Compass has an owner who makes his own cider, Charlie Newman.
I visit Worth about once a year (would love to go more often), always a different time of year. Most recently I went in March – and was disappointed to hear that last year’s ciders had run out and the new lot wasn’t quite ready yet. It had never occurred to me until then that the pub’s supply of home-made cider wasn’t endless. While this meant I had to make do with something from another local producer, it also gave me a great pretext to visit Charlie’s cellar and find out how he makes his cider.
Charlie’s family has run the pub for over a century now, his grandfather having acquired the licence in 1907. But the cider-making is a recent thing which Charlie started only eight years ago. ‘Beforehand I used to make country wines from all sorts of things. Then at the pub we started having a cider day once a year at harvest time, but it wasn’t going anywhere. In the end I decided to make my own cider.’
The apples come from various places in the area and Charlie now also grows his own fruit. He likes to work with a mix of varieties: he ferments the juice of nine different apples, including Bramley, Redstreak, American Mother, and Dabinett.
When the apples start coming in in September, they are carefully hand-selected and cleaned. Clean is crucial, he says, in order to avoid impurities and infections. The apples are crushed in a mill, put into thick plastic bags and pressed in Charlie’s hand-made press.
The juice is then moved to poly barrels and wooden casks and starts to ferment naturally, on the lees, with indigenous yeast (that is, yeast floating around in the cellar and not artificially cultivated). Since it’s all a natural process and there’s no temperature control, the fermentation slows down and stops over the cold winter months, then recommences (malolactic fermentation) in March, ‘when the trees come into flower’, for a few more weeks. Around Easter-time the cider is normally ready. ‘Cider production suits a lazy guy, because it only keeps you busy once a year for a few weeks,’ Charlie remarks, smiling. But I don’t believe him. My impression is that he spends quite a bit of time pruning and planting and generally looking after the orchard where his apples grow. And then of course there’s the regular tasting and, whenever more cider is needed in the pub, blending.
Three blended ciders are made: sweet, medium, and dry. Charlie has given them pretty unusual names: Kiss Me Kate, Eve’s Idea, and Sat Down Be Cider. Then there are the ‘varietal’ ciders, from American Mother and Red Streak, for example. The oak casks come from France and were mainly used in Calvados production. The alcohol level of the final products is typically 7–7.5% ABV. Eight years ago Charlie started production with 4.5 thousand litres and has been increasing quantities every year. Now he’s reached his maximum capacity at 24.5 thousand litres (the cellar is rather small). How did he settle on the style of cider he makes? ‘The West Country has hard, dry, tannic ciders. The ones in the east are made mainly from eating apples and are lighter. I’m geographically in between the two, so I wanted my ciders also to reflect this in-between position.’
We tasted four or five different ciders. Kiss Me Kate, which will ultimately be sweet, is at this point still very dry but Charlie sweetens it back by adding sugar. ‘People like the sweetness’, he tells me. Well I’m a dry cider person… This Kiss Me Kate, by the way, contains 12 different varieties! To me it had a taste of pears actually, and it is still yeasty and has a very interesting perfume. The varietal Dabinette was something else I found interesting, with a slight barnyard aroma, very perceptible smokiness from the oak, a tannic mouthfeel and a slightly sweeter palate than in the others.
The ciders should be ready for drinking within a few weeks – may I be able to return soon to taste!