Today we checked out of our AirBnB house and headed back to Cardiff, but made a couple of stops on the way.
The first was in Taunton, the heart of cider production in Somerset. Sheppys is a 200 year old producer of cider and they have a sizable operation. In addition to producing cider, they have a nice restaurant, gift shop, orchard, and museum. They provide tastings of their various ciders as well as offering a paid tour of the orchards and cider production process.
Unfortunately we were really unlucky today as they weren’t doing any tours, but when I had called ahead they told me we could still visit their museum. When we got there, the museum was closed as they were doing electrical work in the area and so I had to content myself with tasting their various wares.
I have started making my own alcoholic cider at home, so I have a decent understanding of the process. Basically all you need to make cider is unpreserved apple juice and yeast. In places where they press their own apples (like Sheppys), they don’t add yeast, but instead rely on the natural yeasts that hang out around cider mills. Sheppys have a whole host of ciders, with an alcohol content from a low of about 4% to a high of about 8.3%.
In practice, cider making is a bit more complicated than just fermenting apples. For starters there is the variety of apples used to make the cider. At home, I have to use quality apple juice from Whole Foods or Trader Joes, which is made to be drunk as apple juice, as so is made from sweeter apples. Cider makers prefer to use tarter apples, or at least a mix with tart apples as part of the makeup. In addition to blended ciders (i.e. from different apple juices), Sheppys produces two “single variety” ciders that taste totally different to each other.
Then there is the style of cider. Sheppys produce both “scrumpy” (traditional “rough” cider that used to be part of laborers’ wages) and modern bottled cider. Scrumpy is allowed to ferment until bone dry, i.e. until the yeast has consumed all the sugars in the juice and is produced from unpasteurized juice, which typically makes it very strong. It was traditionally bottled in stoneware jugs and corked – Sheppys bottle theirs in plastic jugs that resemble the old fashioned stoneware. Once opened, this cider has to be consumed within a couple of days. There is no carbonation, so this style of cider is very strong and flat.
“Modern” cider, for want of a better term, is usually sweeter and more complex. Sheppys age many of their ciders in oak for at least part of the time and their oak vats are very old. Futhermore, the cider is carbonated when it is bottled, which is what makes commercial ciders fizzy. When I make cider at home, the fizziness comes from a different process – an additional fermentation stage with some added sugar in the bottle that the residual yeast converts to CO2. Since the bottle is sealed, there is nowhere for the gas to go but to get dissolved into the cider. This also produces much smaller bubbles than carbonated cider and so is a bit different to the commercial bottled stuff.
Anyway, it was fun to try a wide variety of ciders, and it was amazing how different they could make the different versions taste.
Heading on, our second stop was in Bristol, where my sister in law, who was with us, has lived and worked for a number of years. She suggested going to the M-Shed, a free museum that has an eclectic collection of artifacts related to local history. Across the street from the museum is an interesting parade of shops and restaurants that are housed in re-purposed shipping containers. They have stacked a 2nd storey on top of the first, but left half the area open to create a nice balcony. We had lunch there before visiting the museum.
The special exhibit at the M-Shed was entitled “Skeletons – Our Buried Bones” that featured a number of historic skeletons that were excavated in Bristol and London over the centuries.
Part of the exhibit has an area explaining how one could tell if a skeleton was male or female, young or old, and whether or not it was suffering from some common historic diseases such as syphilis, tuberculosis, scurvy, etc. It then invited you to try to figure out such information about sample skeletons. If you ever watched the TV Series Bones, it felt a little like that.
Quite fun and a great stop before we made our way back to Cardiff for the end of our UK journey.