Thursday, 29 November 2018

Another orchard extension

Last year we tripled the site of our orchard, from 1000 to 3000 square metres (3/4 of an acre in old money). At that time, there was a plot of similar size beside our own that a friend was trying to buy, but this year he decided against it, and asked if we were interested. After a bit of consideration, I said no, but a few weeks ago, while walking through our own orchard, I strolled though the plot for sale and began to have second thoughts.

This new plot has not been looked after for quite some time. The trees are often too close together, and in summer, the canopy is almost unbroken even between rows. Very overgrown, and what I kept describing as like something out of Middle Earth. My original negative decision was based on the amount of work our existing orchard already needs. Although it was better cared for, I still have a lot of cutting to do to rejuvenate, or open up most of the trees, and the thoughts of taking on another 90 or 100 trees was a bit overwhelming. Until I strolled through...

The man selling it got my number from my friend, and called me to ask if I was interested, and I told him we'd think about it over the weekend. Which I did, to a rather extreme level. My poor wife was sick of me running through scenarios, and pointed out that we wouldn't have to do anything if we owned it. There's no commercial pressure, just a hobby, and to be honest, part of the appeal was to try and preserve this as an orchard, as it borders onto tillage, and other sections of the overall orchard have been felled and sown with crops instead (see the treeless strips in the aerial image below).

So, the decision was made. We agreed a fair price, and today the legal contracts were signed, so we are now formally the owners. This now doubles our overall orchard size to over 6000 square metres (1.5 acres), which is rather daunting as a hobby!

Green areas are what we've owned till now. Today we added the red area.
The orchard itself has six rows of threes, four of which are continuations of one of our existing plots. The varieties of trees are pretty must the same, as they were all planted at the same time, in 1958. Varieties that were popular then, like Glockenapfel, Boskoop, Jonathan, Jonagold, Goldparmäne, Brettacher, Cox's Orange Pippin, and several others that I have not yet identified, but which are really interesting in terms of flavour profile.

Originally, the ends of every row had cherry trees, which our current plot is missing, so we will gain, I think, 5 very large cherry trees. Inside the cherry trees, each row then had a few pear trees, and this is repeated a thee ends of the rows we are purchasing. Mostly they seem to be conference, mirroring the ends of the current rows, but there are a few other varieties, like Bürgermeisterbirne/Köstliche aus Charneux, and I hope some perry pear trees and more Williams Christ.

We will have our work cut out, and probably need to take some drastic measure to open the plot up, for the sake of the trees. Personally, I'd also like to get in a full row of classic English and French cider apples, but let's see how it all develops. I'm probably nuts...

Friday, 23 November 2018

Milestone: sandstone framing done

The facade, around the 1930's, we think.
Back at the end of 2010, when we bought our house (wow... I have to let that sink in for a moment... 8 years!), the front door was a really ugly aluminium thing from the 70s or 80s, probably. At that time, they had taken out a section of the original wall, rebuilt it with clay blocks to straighten it and fitted the brown aluminium door. They had discarded the original sandstone frames visible in the black and white photo above, and put some tiling around the door frame. It was probably the height of modernity at the time, but by the time we got it, the door was not sealing properly, thereby letting in a cold breeze, and of course, the tiling was really ugly and dated, not fitting with the age of the house at all. We decided to leave the door in until the major works were finished, as we didn't want a shiny new door getting damaged when bring materials in and out.

2011, the "modern" framing around the original door.
In December, 2016, pretty much all of the heavy internal works had been completed, and we finally got a new front door, a little more in keeping with the house, and which made a huge difference to the heating. No more draft, no more ice on the inside of the door in deepest winter.

December 2016, the new door was fitted.
At the time, I'd cut out an L-form profile around the door to accommodate a sandstone surround, which would bring it back to the original style. I made sketches, with dimensions, to make it easy for prospective stonemasons. During 2017, we had other things on our mind, but had made tentative queries seeking pricing from a few stonemasons in the area, but most were happy just doing gravestones (a steady supply of undemanding customers, I guess), and made ridiculous offers.

How it has looked since December 2016.
In early 2018, the Mayor suggested a stonemason that they had used, and who specialised in restoration of old buildings, Melchior Naturstein. Really nice work. I mean, they normally do medieval church and castle renovations! By summer we'd met the boss, and he gave us a price that didn't induce cardiac arrest, and we ordered.

I guess they are pretty busy with much larger projects, so it too a while before they had time to fit us in, but today was the day they came to fit the surrounds. The profile was modelled on the second original door frame, which is still in situ (see below), and we wanted a proper step in front of the door, for which we had no template, so trusted them to decide on a block step profile that would fit.

The secondary entrance, with original sandstone frame.
And the result? I'm blown away. I didn't want to do this, as I thought it wouldn't be worth it, and I wanted it just plastered and finished. But my wife really thought it'd be good. She was completely right, and it was worth the wait

The front of the house looks complete! It's not quite done though. In spring the lower half will be painted, and the door on the far left needs a new outer stall door, like that on the far right (both former cow stalls). But for now, it just makes the facade look so much better. Really happy.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Apple Harvest and Cider 2018

2018 was a strange year for our apples. The spring started warm and dry, and like all across Europe, the summer was a scorcher, and very dry indeed, shortening the season on many crops. "Notreif", or emergency ripe, one of my farmer friends said. And apples were of course affected. Varieties that we would normally be harvesting in mid-October were dropping en masse from early September, and the quality of the drops was not great, presumably a reason the trees decided to shed them so early. Nevertheless, it was indeed a bumper year for fruit, with most trees straining under the weight of the apples.

This was also the first year harvesting from the second orchard plot we purchased around this time last year. With about three times the amount of trees we had before, we didn't really have to care about the early drops, most of which we ended up discarding, as they would not keep. But we had plenty that we properly harvested using the tried and tested tarp-and-shake method.

This year we pressed over several weekends, including pressing for friends and neighbours. In total, I think we pressed about 2.5 tonnes of fruit, using the same mill and presses as last year. This time, however, as we had a greater choice in varieties to choose from, we also pressed some single varieties, to get a feel for them. If they work alone, fine, if not, I'll either bland them or get them distilled.

As well as our apples, this year I was also offered quince by a local chap. I expected a few sackloads, but it ended up being just over 300kg, which we pressed yesterday. Quince schnapps is quite popular here, so i reckoned that's what we'd do with them. But the juice is really tasty, with a decent acidity, a slight bitterness, and lots of sugars and perfumy, fowery flavours. If it still tastes good after fermenting, I'll set some aside for ageing as a kind of quince wine.

It's a difficult fruit to process, being rather hard and quite dry. But with a fine milling, the juice is released, though from about 280kg of fruit, we got 120 litres of juice, so about 42% efficiency. Other methods might be to use a steam juicer, but we couldn't have done that in any great quantity, but we might experiment with a 5 litre batch to compare.

For ourselves, we currently have the following in fermenters:

  • 60L Gloster
  • 60L Goldparmäne (King of the Pippins or Reine de Reinettes)
  • 60L Jonagold
  • 60L Conference pears (actually to be distilled, but if it tastes nice, may keep it)
  • 160L blend of several varieties, that has since been transferred to an oak barrel.
  • 240L mixed varieties that is destined to be distilled in the next couple of months.
  • 120L quince (also pressed for distilling, but the juice tastes so good, I may keep 60l as a wine/"quince cider", or for blending.

Pressing is not finished quite yet, as we have apples in storage (tumping, I learned is the correct term) that will be pressed for a keeved batch next weekend. Last year i made 50 litres of keeved cier as an experiment, and while i didn't think I got a full keeve, it fermented long and slow in our coldest cellar, and stopped with a final gravity of 1.012, so still has quite a nice sweetness to it. I'll report more fully on this year's batch, which i will increase to 120 litres.

So quite a busy and early harvest and pressing season this year, which has further distracted me from finishing the attic conversion, but I'll try to get back to that in the coming weeks, so I can start the tree pruning with a good conscience. Speaking of which, the orchard will expand again later this year, doubling our plot to 6000 square metres (about 1.5 acres). But that'll be a post in its own right!

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Attic conversion, part 1

The attic has been a thorn in my side for a few years now, and it's something that I return to, do a chunk of work on, and forget for half a year, until guilt sets in again. This month, I'm returning to it, and am determined to make major progress. But I noticed that I have not posted about any of the activities over the past couple of years, so a little retrospective is in order.

Back in 2012, it looked like this:

At that point, the roof had been redone, and I think we'd even cleaned off the oak beams, but it was not a priority location.

At some stage, I'd ripped all the old 1950s floor boards out (someone had kindly written the year underneath), with the intention of levelling the floor, but it wasn't till September 2017 I completed the floor under-construction, and got boards down so it is easy to walk around. Fast forward to last year:

And that it how it has sat for nine months. Nine! There's still an awful to to do, but my plan is to get one side (there are basically two rooms) done, so we can clear space and move storage items up here. But ultimately, we want a guest room and something like an office/hobby room for my wife, so she doesn't have to be clearing her stuff away.

To give a little more perspective, here's a short video. I'm hoping this post will keep me embarrassed enough to follow through, so I have some real progress to show in the coming few weeks!

Monday, 5 February 2018

Adventures in Distilling (Part 1?)

Germany is pretty well known for its love of rules and regulations, and the area of making alcohol in the home is no exception. Home brewing only became legal in December 1985, but even so, homebrewers are required to register with the tax authorities, but can brew up to 200L per year without needing to pay tax. But there are some areas where long tradition has meant fairly lax rules (from the perspective of an Irishman), particularly when it comes to distilling. Ok, you can’t really do much at home, though as of this year, you can buy a 2L capacity still without the requirement to register it with the tax authorities, but that’s just for playing with.

No, the real meat is the tradition of nearly every village in the south having its own Abfindungsbrennerei, a type of small distillery where farmers could bring their leftover cider, or mashes made of berries, pears, quince – whatever fruit they had to shove in a barrel – and get it legally distilled. Sadly, this kind of distillery is certainly on the wane, and this decline will likely accelerate after changes in state monopoly laws relating to distilling (basically, the state bought alcohol for industrial use from the distillers, but that ended this year) and I know of two in nearby villages that have closed since we moved into the area. But we still have one in our village, now in its third generation. And from what Horst says, he could be the last, as his son has no interest in taking it over.

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of being able to assist in distilling my own schnapps, something I had been looking forward to doing since I had my first apple mash distilled this time last year, but was not able to be there. That time, I delivered 120L of apple mash and received 21L of 43% ABV apple brandy to play with. This year, I broadened the variety, with 60L cider, 60L of cherry plum mash, and 75L of pulped grapes. I was eager to see how these would work out.

Horst’s still has been altered several times over the years. Originally, the copper was encased in brickwork that contained the firing chamber, and was, I guess, a simple alembic still. In 1975, his father-in-law took updated the still so it was free standing, and incorporated a stainless steel water bath that surrounded the copper, so it would not be in direct contact with the flames. But he still had to distill each batch a couple of times, at least, to get a good product out. In 2004, Horst took over and further modified the still to convert it into a column still, so he could do a batch in one go, and also distill continuously. But it remains wood-fired, with the heat controlled by a flue, so it all feels properly artisanal, in the best sense of the word.

Horst’s methods have been handed down, so there’s not a lot of science in it, just practical experience. But those who have been getting their spirits distilled by him over the years always say he does it well, and I certainly had no complaints last year.

We started with the cider. This was the remains from some experiments, all thrown into a barrel to get up to 60L, and was about 7% ABV going in. We retired to the adjoining kitchen for coffee and cake while it heated up, but as he’d done a batch for a neighbour previously, it was really fast in getting up steam. It was enthralling, peering through the little portholes of the so-called analyser, watching the vapour condense and trickle down again, before being taken up and over to the rectifier, where it was finally cooled and condensed, trickling out in a steady stream into a bucket. I knew enough about heads and tails, and had assumed there’d be some complicated tests to know at what point to discard the first runnings, or to stop collecting the hearts, the stuff you really want. But no, we did it by smell, taste, and even sight. The initial liquid smelled like UHU glue, and was milky, later turning crystal clear, with a rich, sweet aroma, before drying out. On the other end, an alcholometer was used to constantly measure the ABV of the spirit coming out, and collection was stopped when the ABV dropped to 45%. After this, the rest was collected till it ran to 10%, and discarded. Rinse and repeat for the others.

I ended up with the following results:

  • From 60L 7% cider, I got 4.5L spirit at 65% ABV. Pretty ok.
  • From 60L cherry plum mash, I got 5L new make at 66% ABV. Better than expected!
  • From 75L grapes, I got 5L at 62%. Actually, this was a disappointment, but I knew the original gravity of the grapes was a bit pants.

Each of these will be diluted down to 40 or 43%, so I guess I’ll have between 7 and 8 litre of each variety. If I want, we can also chill filter, but I am undecided on that as yet. I hadn’t realised he had filtered my apple brandy last year! I may try some wood aging again, but probably less wood than last year, and for the grape spirit, I had planned on making some compound gin. But then, I had expected to get more out of them.

But how much does all this cost? Everyone has a right to have up to 50L of pure alcohol distilled per year, which is a lot! Of course, you pay tax on it, but the Abfindungsbrennerei system is based on an approximation of how much alcohol you would get from 100L of mash. The word Abfindung can mean a settlement payment, of sorts, so in effect, you “settle” with the tax authorities based on typical volumes of alcohol per fruit type. If you get more than expected, then it’s a bonus, If you get less, it’s tough luck. But usually, the rates are well below what you would realistically expect to get. When you register with a distillery, you state the fruit type, and the volume, and this is declared to the tax authorities, who send you a bill, and the date and time when your batch will be distilled.

For example, for apples, the tax tables say a result of 3.6 litres of alcohol per 100L of cider. Clearly this is really low, as with a 7% cider, in theory you could be getting up to 7 litres. Of course, take away heads and tails, but it would still be more than 3.6. But this is what the tax is calculated on, so for my example above, I paid 22 Euro tax on what should end up being about 7 litres of finished spirit. 

Horst is retired, but the distilling was only ever a seasonal thing, besides his normal job. Nevertheless, he has regulars coming to him each year, with maybe 1000L of cider to get distilled. He himself was doing up to 2000L a year, but as the state no longer takes it, it is hardly worth his while. With the costs of getting 2000L of juice pressed (€500!), plus the tax, then the rates he'd get selling his spirits to larger commercial producers, it's no wonder smaller distillers are closing. I've offered to press for him this year, for free. It'd be by hand, but I think with three presses (my two, and he has one I could restore for him) working in parallel, we'd do it easily in a day.

I have to admit, I'm now preoccupied with distilling, and thinking how we could improve the process a bit, but I have to wait till next year. Who knows, maybe when Horst doesn't want to do it any more, maybe I can keep the tradition going, so another village distillery won't be lost.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

New orchard plans

A few weeks ago, a lady popped by the house to ask if we were interested in buying a piece of orchard, just a 10 metres from the plot we bought in 2014. Four rows of trees that I'd been admiring, as they were well kept, and many labelled with the variety. Two rows had been in her family for many years, and the other two they purchased a few years ago. It was with heavy heart they decided to sell, but felt it was too much work as they had other projects to look after, something I could understand!

We had to chew it over, but decided we'd go for it, if for nothing else, to ensure that the apple trees stayed as they are, and not be felled and the ground incorporated into the adjoining tillage. We've agreed a fair price and are currently waiting for the legal parts to make it official.

On our current plot, we have the following apple varieties:
  • Goldparmäne (Reine des reinettes / King of the Pippens)
  • Cox Orange
  • Belle de Boskoop (both the normal and red mutation)
  • Klarapfel (White Transparent)
  • Glockenapfel
  • Jonathan
  • A couple others we do not know yet.

The new plot has all of the above, other than Jonathan, plus the following, that we know of:
  • Neckartaler (possibly also called Rheinischer Winterrambur)
  • Brettacher
  • Rubinette (one of the few "modern" varieties there)
  • Plus others unknown right now

The new plot has 54 trees (apple and pear), and our existing plot 30, with gaps across the two plots that leave generous space for another 20 new trees, which we will purchase for planting early in 2018. We've been researching German heritage apple varieties, of which there are a great many types, but also trying to make selections that would also be good for cider, in the Irish or British sense, rather than German.

So far, our list includes the following:
  • Börtlinger Weinapfel
  • Gravensteiner
  • Hauxapfel
  • Öhringer Blutstreifling
  • Rheinischer Bohnapfel
  • Schöner von Nordhausen
  • Zuccalmaglios Renette
We'll be adding some pear, cherry and plum trees to that list also, as the cherry plums behind our house are very old, and we'd like to ensure a supply in years to come.

I'd like to order some classic British cider apples from the UK. It's difficult to find suppliers that will ship to Germany, despite getting tips via Twitter from those in the know, and it seems that Orange Pippin Fruit Trees is one of the few that easily ship to mainland Europe, albeit with a limited selection of true cider apple varieties. So far, I think I'd like to order the following as half-standards:
  • Dabinett
  • Harry Master's Jersey
  • Ashmead's Kernel (as it sounds tasty)
Let's see where we end up.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Cider pressing 2017

Two weeks ago, the new mill and press got their first use. The harvest was a bit crap this year, after the late frosts, but we were lucky enough to gather about 330kg, enough to fill the wooden cask again, and maybe finally try keeving 60 litres.

The new mill is a real timesaver, compared to last year's manual efforts. Just keep it running, and feed it apples! The mechanism is really impressive, and it's easy to clean, as expected. The new press is also amazing! 250kg fit no problem, and from that, we got 150L of juice, so 60% extraction.
If you'd like to see the gear in action, have a look at the video below.

It's fermenting away now, and I'll leave it another while before transferring it to the oak cask. This weekend, I'll do a small pressing for the keev.