Northern Ireland

Cider making finding new shoots in Armagh

Image caption The press may look old tech but it is an effective way of crushing apples

Another pothole and the car lurches to one side, almost clipping a brightly coloured cock pheasant that is furiously flapping and crowing in its bid to get airborne.

I've just decided that I must have taken a wrong turn when a sturdy, rather stern looking, Georgian house looms into view.

I pull into the adjacent yard and instantly it's clear that I am, after all, in the right place. Everywhere I look there are beautiful, shining apples - of every shape, size and colour.

The man I've come to see, here in the deepest depths of Armagh's orchards, is Philip Troughton, a long-time apple grower who is now the biggest of the county's burgeoning crop of artisan cider producers.

Less than a decade ago, despite Armagh's long-standing reputation as the orchard county, it couldn't boast even a single cider maker.

Fast forward to today and there are seven, soon to be eight, producing anything from under 7,000 litres a year to Philip's 120,000 litres.

It doesn't take Philip long to get to the heart of the matter as he explains: "The first thing involved in making good cider - is good apples.

"The more varieties of apples you put into it, the more complex you get the final taste of the cider."

I watch, fascinated as hundreds and hundreds of apples are washed, chopped and then pressed in a rather old-fashioned, but seriously effective, press.

Image caption Philip Troughton says the quality of the apple is important

The pure juice glints and twinkles in the light as it flows from the press into the waiting vat.

Because of the nature of artisan production, where only whole apples are used (never concentrate), the pressing for the whole year must be done in a single month - at a time dictated by the harvest.

Indeed, the pace of the entire process is dictated by factors far outside the growers' control - the weather, the growing seasons, fermentation.

"To say it's been a long-term project is an understatement," Philip said.

"We talked about making cider for many, many years. My father, who farmed this place before me and was one of the first major suppliers to the big cider makers in the south, actually at one stage bought a press. But there was no artisan food industry at that time - there was just no need or demand for it.

"So he decided not. All through my time I've wanted to make cider and in the mid-90s I took the plunge."

At that time, Philip planted his first cider orchard, but it was to be many years before it bore fruit and more years still before they honed their skills to the point where they could make cider on the farm.

Image caption Seán Mac An tSaoir said there was a knack to making good cider

For a few years, Philip shipped his apples to England where a master cider maker worked his magic with them and sent the finished product back. The magician now, though, is Philip himself

And there are a growing number of such magicians practising the mysterious art on a smaller scale. People like Davy Uprichard. His passion for the cider revival project is clear to see.

"You have to have a feel for how the ingredients you're using and how they are going to translate into your final product," he said.

"Whenever we were blending our very first blend, we had upwards of ten varieties of apples that we tried before we came across the blend that we wanted."

Davy's output is growing and growing year on year. He says the market here is changing, but that we are still some way behind consumers south of the border.

Image caption The cider apple helps spread the harvest

"I think the market in the south is what we should aspire to," he said.

"They're very interested in their craft beers and their craft ciders. Not only are they very interested in them, they also recognise that they cost a little bit more to produce and so cost a little more in the bar or the off-licence, but they seem to be prepared to pay for that higher level of quality."

And it's quality upon which the project will stand or fall according to the man considered by many to be its main driving force.

Seán Mac An tSaoir is a scientist concerned with the cultivation of fruit with DARD's Agri-food and Biosciences Institute.

DARD, CAFRE, Loughrey College and the growers all came together in 2000 to form an association, which is still going strong.

"You can make cider in ten days, as in you ferment apple juice," he said.

"But making a palatable cider that people will come back to a second time? Well that's where the art comes into it."

Seán, who is himself a small producer, is passionate about apple varieties, something that's very clear as he shows me round the planting experiments at Loughgall and he says the county's farmers are open to the idea of growing alternatives to the almost all-powerful bramley.

He said: "A lot of the farmers still remember the old days when you brought a different apple to Belfast every two weeks during the autumn and early winter. And they would hark back to the differences in tastes, textures, all of that, which they would have enjoyed in those days.

"So there is still an interest in growing different apples and the cider apple has the advantage of spreading the harvest load because it comes in much later than the bramley."