A Brief History of Apples and Cidermaking in Ireland by Mark Jenkinson, September 2012
Apples are an integral part of Irish culture and history and are first recorded from pips found at an archaeological excavation in Co. Meath and carbon dated to over 5000 years ago. These pips were almost certainly from the wild Irish crab apple Malus Sylvestris and which although rare can still be found in the Irish landscape today, it can be distinguished from the much more common seedling crab apple trees by the fact its branches often have thorns on them. In the 7th and 8th centuries AD the ancient Irish law tracts or Brehon Laws classed the Apple tree among the ‘seven nobles of the woods’ along with Ash, Oak, Hazel, Holly, Scots pine and Yew and they distinguished between wild and cultivated apple trees indicating that sweeter more palatable apples were already being grown at that time. The fine for cutting down one of these trees was 5 milk cows and double that if the tree belonged to a chieftain……..at that time, a King’s ransom to say the least !
Apple trees, orchards and apples feature prominently in almost all the ancient Irish manuscripts and texts from the earliest times right up to the early modern period, confirming the widespread cultivation and use of apples throughout Irish history. Many of the Irish varieties that came to prominence in Ireland and the UK during the 19th century (and still available today) such as the Irish Peach, Kerry Pippin, Scarlet Croften and Irish Russet etc. are thought to have originated in the 15th and 16th centuries and the earliest mention of specifically Irish varieties of apple trees occurs in 1598 when a writer discusses the fruitful nature of Irish orchards and the merits of the fine old Irish varieties contained in them.
It is not known how many Irish varieties of apple trees may have existed in the past but thanks to the work of the late Dr.J.G.Lamb and more recently the Irish Seedsavers Association, the Armagh Orchards Trust and University College Dublin, over 70 distinctly Irish varieties of apple trees have now been identified and documented from all over Ireland. These have been propagated and saved from extinction and are now held in mother orchards in Dublin, Armagh and Clare. Many of these trees have unusual if not colourful names such as Maidens Blush, Buttermilk Russet, Bloody Butcher, Greasy Pippin, Lady’s Finger of Offaly, Red Brandy, Munster Tulip, April Queen, Honeyball and Peach Melba to name just a few. Although some 70 varieties have been saved, there are still over 50 varieties known and documented from the past that are missing and have not been found to date.
Apples are divided into three categories depending on their use, Desert or Eating apples are for eating straight off the tree, Culinary or Cooking apples are used for cooking, and Cider apples are used for……..you guessed it, cidermaking. Cider apples are further categorized into four main types based on taste, Sharps, Bittersharps, Bittersweets and Sweets. The skilled cidermaker will blend a mix of these resulting in a rich, full bodied and well balanced cider bursting with flavour.
For various historical reasons it is thought that cidermaking in Ireland stretches back at least 2000 years if not much further. The religious orders and monasteries would have been instrumental in the production of cider just as they were with the brewing of beer, bee keeping, river fisheries and animal and crop husbandry within the vast tracts of farmland they controlled. The ancient texts are so far somewhat silent on the matter of cidermaking, although the first definite mention appears in the 12th century when a tribal leader from Ulster is praised for the cider he made from the produce of his orchards.
We have to wait until the early modern period and the 17th,18th, and 19th centuries before the discussion of cidermaking in Ireland becomes commonplace among writers of the time. The Civil Surveys of the 1650s contain numerous entries regarding orchards and cidermaking and it seems that farmhouse cidermaking was well established in Ireland by this time, this was further bolstered by the Plantations and also the settlement of the Huguenots from France and the Palatines from Germany. It appears the heyday of Irish farmhouse cidermaking was during the 18th century and the opening decades of the 19th century, with writers both here and abroad commenting on the excellent qualities of Irish ciders. An example of this quality can be found in a late 18th century commentary about a cider competition held in Dublin where the judges refused to give the premier award to one of the entrants until it could be proven that no fine white wines had been used in its making as the quality was considered so superior.
Contrary to popular belief, cidermaking was not confined to the traditional apple growing regions of Ireland we are familiar with today such as Armagh (the orchard county), Dublin, Tipperary, Waterford and Kilkenny, as records exist of cidermaking from at least ten other counties all across Ireland. As with many things in Ireland the famine years almost wiped out cidermaking and it was not until later in the 19th century and the early 1900s that a revival occurred. In the apple growing regions the then equivalent of the department of agriculture employed instructors skilled in cidermaking to visit farms and advise on all aspects of cidermaking and at the same time apple crushing machines and presses travelled to the farms during harvest to process the apples and many farmers developed their own labels and brands for their ciders. By the mid 1940s after two world wars and our own civil war, farmhouse cidermaking was once again in decline and the few remaining crushers and presses no longer travelled but were in fixed locations and farmers had to transport their crop to them for processing which meant it was no longer an attractive proposition for many.
It is only in the last half dozen years or so that we are once again starting to see a revival of craft cidermaking in Ireland, there are now at least 10 producers offering over 20 different ciders, this has in no small way been facilitated by the public’s growing awareness and interest in the food and drinks they consume, how they taste and where and how they are grown. People are genuinely fascinated and are seeking out the age old connection between food and the land it’s grown on, as can be seen in the success of GIY Ireland, slow food Ireland and many other initiatives. They are keen to explore new (or perhaps forgotten) tastes with complexity and character and the real human story behind them.
This new generation of cidermakers offers all of the above and more, they are passionate enthusiasts dedicated to the art of cidermaking producing a natural healthy product (consumed in moderation of course) from local orchards on a seasonal basis. These ciders are as diverse as the producers who make them, full of character and distinctive local flavours unique to each maker. This reawakening of an almost lost local food tradition is reflected in the recently established CiderIreland producers group representing craft cidermakers from all over Ireland and also the establishment of Ireland’s first Apple & Craft Cider Festival to be held in Cahir, Co.Tipperary this September in conjunction with Slow Food Ireland, The Apple Farm and Irish Seed Savers. With the help of these new initiatives and with new producers emerging all the time hopefully we can reclaim our craft cidermaking tradition and catch up with the rest of Europe where seasonally produced local ciders are a fact of everyday life.
Old cider mill and press: in the backround is the round stone trough and stone mill wheel used for crushing the apples which would have been powered by a horse and in the foreground is a double screw press with cloth layed out ready for the apple pomice and half barrel in front ready to collect the juice, this is of a type that was used all along the Atlantic fringes in cidermaking regions including Ireland, this example is from Jersey in the Channel Islands.
© Mark Jenkinson Sept 2012