Cider making is bumper business for the Benedictine monks at Ampleforth Abbey. MAXINE GORDON reports.
CAMERON Smith is holding his breath when we arrive at Ampleforth Abbey's cider mill.
The team have installed bottling and carbonation equipment that has just gone live that morning.
Within minutes, a large blue box is filling with rows of Ampleforth's award-winning cider shining like liquid gold in the early morning light.
Cameron, orchard and mill manager, is visibly relieved. It seems to work. It needs to. The investment is considerable and will allow the mill to become a year-round operation rather than a seasonal one, creating much-needed jobs in the area.
One reason for the investment is the ever-increasing Ampleforth portfolio using apples from its seven-acre orchard, the most northerly in the UK.
The original Ampleforth Abbey Cider, which is sparkling, was launched ten years ago, and has won several awards, recently being named Cider of the Year for the second year running at the Dales Festival of Food and Drink. The team also produce cider brandies.
New for this year, however, is a still cider. And it couldn't come at a more perfect time. Cider has never been more trendy with demand and sales rocketing.
Cameron said: "There is a huge renaissance in cider making and drinking. Twenty-five years ago, orchards were being ripped up in the West Country and Kent. That's changed now and people are planting orchards as fast as they can."
Ampleforth is following suit: its replanting programme will see the orchard almost double in size from 1,600 to 3,000 trees over the next three years. There are 40-odd varieties of apple grown on site, carefully mixed together to create the right balance between sharp and sweet in each cider batch.
The new product, simply called Ampleforth Abbey Still Cider, has been launched in direct response to market research that showed half of all drinkers prefer still to sparkling.
Last year produced one of the best apple crops ever – reaping around 70 tonnes of apples for Ampleforth cider and brandy. Cameron is not too hopeful that a second bumper crop is on its way. The reason? The vagaries of the British weather.
"This year has been rubbish," says Cameron. "Winter was too mild and none of the aphids were killed by minus ten degree weather. They survived and have done quite a bit of damage.
"It was really good last year, and some of our trees are biannual; they are tired and stressed, so have a good year and rest the next."
Luckily, there is a loyal nearby farmer who happily sells his apples to Ampleforth to supplement the crop.
It can take a good 12 months for Ampleforth cider to be ready for drinking – quite a different proposition from some of the best-selling brands that turn their products round in a few days.
Cameron explains: "We make artisan, heritage cider. It takes 12 months of work, and you can taste the apple in it, especially in the still cider."
Apples are picked between August and November and pressed at this time. The nature of the product is that it tastes different throughout the season; early ciders are thinner and lighter because there is less sugar in apples picked in late summer than autumn.
Cameron adds: "The later apples have much more juice and create a fuller-bodied cider that is heavier and more alcoholic."
The new cider was officially unveiled at the Malton Food Lover's Festival in May and will be the toast of the Yorkshire Show next week, where Ampleforth will have a stand.
Revenues from all of Ampleforth's products are ploughed back into the work and running of the Abbey.
Father Terence Richardson, Prior of the monastery, said: "It is partly economic. Places like this need money to keep the roof on and the heating on and to care for elderly monks.
"Another part of it is that we already had orchards here, so we decided to restore them and put them to use making apple juice and cider."
The Abbey also brews beer, he added, although that is off-site.
Was there any ethical conflict, I wondered, for men of God making and selling alcohol to the masses?
Not at all, answered Fr Richardson. "We have a history of brewing beer that goes back 200 years. St Benedict allowed his monks to drink wine – and Jesus turned water into wine and served wine at the last supper."
With the orchard and cider mill going from strength to strength, Ampleforth looks set to be producing premium beverages for many years to come.