At the Core of Craft Cider

By Malu Lambert
Photography: C&D Heierli

When apple trees talk: they tell you how they love sunshine and bees. They ask us not to manipulate nature. They want their fruit to make real, unadulterated cider.

Elgin, the home of craft cider, is South Africa’s apple tree kingdom. “So when the trees talk here, you listen.” This is just the thinking behind Cluver & Jack Cider made from freshly-pressed apple juice. It’s a meeting of two farming families, Paul Cluver of De Rust Farm in Elgin and Bruce Jack of Appelsdrift Farm in the Overberg.

De Rust has been farming apples (and grapes) for over five generations. Not to forget they also make premium wine under the label, Paul Cluver. 

Framed against an orchard, Paul Cluver says, “We definitely know about growing apples, we know how to juice apples, too. What we didn’t know much about was cider-making.” 

But Bruce Jack did. Long-time friends, the pair teamed up. Bruce’s great-grandfather was one of the first to plant cider apple trees in South Africa, and Bruce himself has been making cider for years. It was a no-brainer. Plus, they both have a habit of talking to trees. 

Paul starts popping the caps off bottles of Cluver & Jack. The label is beautifully illustrated, and states: ‘not from concentrate’.

“It’s important to know the difference between the ciders made from concentrate versus those made from freshly-pressed apple juice,” says Paul.

Commercial ciders—and some craft ciders—are made with an apple concentrate solution. This difference in methodology creates a price disparity. “You pay more for orange juice than you do for Oros,” puts Paul.  

“The scary thing about apple concentrate is you don’t know what apples have gone in, or where they’ve come from. It’s also not always 100 per cent apple, a lot of it is bulked up with sugar cane.”

Apparently, South African law states that in order to call a product a ‘cider’, only 80 per cent of the base product needs to be apple-derived.

Apple concentrate is colourless and odourless. When making apple concentrate, the first thing that escapes is the aroma, this is then captured, and added back in. The colour of the resulting beverage will come from adding molasses, as well as oxidation. 

“Imagine a winery rehydrating raisins and then making wine from the result? 

“Craft for me is about authenticity, part of that is to say, I actually know what’s in my bottle.”

So what do they use? “We use a blend of apples. Different apples bring different components to the final product, almost like making a Bordeaux-style blend. The Granny Smith brings acidity, the Royal Gala some sweetness…”

The making of a cider is simple enough. The most complicated part is actually pressing the juice. You need to have the right equipment, aka a belt press (or at least access to it), which could explain why some ‘craft’ cider producers use concentrate.

Though, it’s not all concentrate-bashing. South Africa has the second largest cider market in the world (yes, Britain reigns), and that’s all thanks to the commercial cider market—which has opened the door for the smaller producers. That, and craft beer, says Paul, created a whole new market.

As a parting remark, Paul says: “Cider’s gluten free; so if you can’t drink beer, you can drink cider.”

There are currently five cider producers in Elgin. There are talks of making it an official cider route—but until that happens, we’ve created our own. Our next stop is the Peregrine Farm Stall, where Everson’s Cider has a pop-up tasting stand. 

Bearded and wearing a trucker cap, Michael Everson greets us. Son of garagiste winemaker and cider-maker, William Everson, Michael styles himself as his dad’s apprentice.

Michael says they specialise in classical wine-style cider, which his dad went to go learn to make in Hertfordshire in the U.K at age 60.

“We do the full spectrum—from bone dry to blended ciders,” says Michael. He readies a tasting for us. Pouring different ciders into small glasses, with a side of crisps. 

“We’re traditional cider-makers, but we’re also exploring the possibilities of what the fruit can do.”

“Ingredients are the most important. We use up to five different types of Elgin apples to be exact.” 

We taste through the range—classic apple, pear, cloudy apple—and end off with a mulled cider. This cider was blended by hand with the addition of spice-infused cloudy apple juice. “I literally stand there stirring whole spices in this great big pot,” says Michael.

Though that’s not all. There’s also an apple and pear cider aged in brandy casks, a Cripps Pink apple single varietal cider, and even a still scrumpy cider, called Gnarr.

“Traditionally in England, cider is still.”

Just outside Sxollie’s train station tasting room, we catch Laura Clacey lugging a crate of Sxollie Cider. All smiles, she hustles (as we later learn, is what a Sxollie is all about) us to an outside table overlooking the train platform.

Laura co-founded Sxollie together with husband, Karol Ostaszewski. They make a range of single varietal cider with apples from Elgin. Their approach is simple: freshly-pressed apple juice is fermented in stainless steel tanks. They add champagne yeasts, and then they carbonate.

“Carbonation adds length and gives backbone,” says Laura, pouring a glass of the Granny Smith. “We give it a subtle bubble.” (All effervescent ciders are carbonated unless they’ve been made in the same method as Champagne.)

Sxollie is on a mission. “We’re trying to be a global brand. To be a positive business story in South Africa. We’re all about the opportunistic and playful spirit of urban Africa.

“From both a branding and flavour profile, we’re trying to fly the flag for South African cider. We don’t believe you always have to look abroad for inspiration. 

“It hasn’t all been plain sailing, which is why we call our brand ‘Sxollie’, you’ve got to hustle to make it.” 

The other single varietals they do are Golden Delicious and Packham Pear Perry. “The flavour profiles can vary from batch to batch, just like wine vintages.

“You can appreciate it as you would a wine—but you can simply enjoy it for what it is, a refreshing cider.” 

Our winding path, bordered by apple orchards and wine estates, now leads us to Terra Madre—and to the exuberant Nicole Precoudis. 

We walk up the path to her apple farm (incidentally, the one other cider maker, Windermere, lives opposite, also on an apple farm). 

“I have a very serious love and passion for food,” says Nicole. The proof of this statement is all around; from the vigorous vegetable patches and numerous food products she makes (including incredible charcuterie), to the barn she’s currently converting into a ‘foodbarn’ for the public.

Nicole is originally from Johannesburg where she ran a couple of successful restaurants.

“I’m living my dream. I didn’t realise, though, that it was going to be on an apple farm!”

And because she’s in apple land, this serious foodie, of course, had to make a cider. But not just any. The Terra Madre Pommes Classique is a bottle-fermented cider made in the same method as champagne. This special ‘apple champagne’ is a collaboration with her good friend Ian Downie.

Nicole’s personality pops, and so does her cider. We drink refreshing glasses with her in the apple orchard—and if these trees could talk, they’d likely be saying; craft cider rules.