Plum Wine Stage 2

2015 Plum Wine 1

Plum juice after adding sugar, lemon juice and yeast

So here we are, four days after first adding our plums to the plastic barrel and adding water to what will become our plum wine. We’ve stirred them twice a day (well  stirred in the morning and given the barrel a good shake in the evening), and today it’s time for these steps:

6. Add the sugar and stir vigorously to dissolve.
7. Add lemon juice and the packet of wine yeast and put the lid on.
8. Store somewhere warm. After a few hours you’ll notice something starting to happen… there’ll be a froth on the surface as the yeast starts to ferment, turning the sugar into alcohol. Stir the contents twice a day.
Yeast close-up

Yeast close-up


Four kilos of demerara sugar went into this barrel, three teaspoons of lemon juice, and the sachet of wine yeast. Firstly I stirred the sugar in like crazy – demerara being a bit chunky. Then the lemon juice and yeast – it says don’t bother stirring these in, but as we have so many lumpy plums still floating on top, I decided to stir gently. The floating lumpy bits are the plums that were still slightly unripe I’m guessing – there weren’t many, but enough to coat the surface in a layer of plum.

Place somewhere warm

Place somewhere warm

Once the lid’s back on tight, the whole thing was lifted on to the work surface above the boiler (somewhere warm) to start its business. It’ll stay there, much to the chagrin of Suz, in the middle of the kitchen, for five days, until it’s ready to siphon off into demijohns.

Cider Making Thoughts

I’ve been reading this book – “Craft Cider Making” by Andrew Lea. It’s a mine of information, and my head’s full to popping. Not being a natural chemist (I’m more of a monkey-see monkey-do type of person), I’m still getting my head around things, but as ever I thought I’d write down thoughts here, so I can learn from mistakes and successes.

The jist of a decent cider seems to be to get the balance of certain key elements right, to get the flavour you’re after. The three key elements are sugar, malic acid and tannin. Last year we made a cider using culinary and dessert apples, which produced a sharp and acid cider, similar to that made in the South East of England. It was good – it tasted like cider, but a part of me wants to make something a bit more ‘West Country’ or ‘Normandy’. To that end, this year I’ll be looking to use our cider apple varieties, which seem to be available in a decent enough number to have a go. To try and make life easier, I’m choosing to mix varieties that should ripen at a similar time, to save having to blend juices at a later date.

The first cider will be made from:

  • Tremlett’s Bitter
  • Slack Ma Girdle
  • Catshead

The first two apples are cider varieties, the latter being a culinary apple. Tremlett’s Bitter is a Bitter Sweet apple, ripening in Early October. Slack Ma Girdle is a Sweet apple, ripening in October, and Catshead is a Sharp apple, ripening in early October. The Catshead is used to raise the acidity of the mix, which might otherwise be out of the desired range.

The second cider will be made from:

  • Dabinett
  • Medaille D’Or
  • Newton Wonder

Again, the first two apples are cider varieties, the latter being a culinary apple. Dabinett is a Bitter Sweet apple, ripening in November. Medaille D’Or is also a Bitter Sweet apple, ripening in November. Newton Wonder is a Sharp apple, ripening in mid October. The Newton Wonder may have to be fermented earlier than the two cider apples, but I can blend the fermenting Newton Wonder cider with the juice from the cider apples once they are pressed, to allow them to all continue fermenting together.

I also plan to leave the apples outside for three weeks to allow the starch present to turn to sugar, which the yeast will feed on. Having had good success with the wild yeast method last year, I’m going to go that route again – leaving nature takes its course on the pressed apple juice.

This year I will also attempt to naturally carbonate the cider, by bottling it at a Specific Gravity (SG) of 1.005 (Edit 04/11/15 – Andrew Lea of The Wittenham Cider Portal recommends 1.003 might be more prudent, to help prevent bottle bombs). If this fails, if the cider moves below that, I can add a level teaspoon of sugar to each pint at bottling stage. This way they will continue to ferment slightly in the bottle, allowing the CO2 to saturate the cider.

I’m moving to swing lid bottles rather than capping them. As it’s for our own use, they’ll be worth it in the long run, and I damaged a couple of bottles last year whilst trying to cap them – which was painful.

Another Plum Tree Replaced by an Apple Tree

Well, another mild-ish winter, and only (only?!) one young tree failed to make it through the winter. Our Shropshire Prune looked fine, and to all intent and purpose, was waiting to come alive once the weather warmed up, but it never did. It honestly looked like it had been preserved – only a branch snapping off rather than bending proved the theory – it was an ex-tree. And as I dug it out to take back to the house to burn, it became apparent just how “ex” this tree was, as the trunk snapped off at the base! Now the puzzling thing is that this tree budded last year, and we had leaves. There was no sign of illness, it dropped its leaves in autumn along with the rest, but never woke up! It was never the biggest or healthiest looking, but it had a fair few scaffold branches formed.

As ever, we’ve planted an apple tree in its place, in case there’s anything specific to plum trees in the ground. Luckily we had a reserve of year-old grafted trees, and another Old Merrybower was chosen to take the now vacant spot. It’s a pot-grown tree so we can get away with planting it at this later stage of spring, but we need to keep an eye on the watering. The Old Merrybower’s aren’t an early blossom tree, and the fact it was one of the last standing standard trees from the old farm orchard gives me hope that it has the necessary fortitude to withstand the Merrybower winds and rains!

On the plus side, we have another Shropshire Prune (labelled as Shropshire Damson on the Orchard Plan), which is slightly higher and drier ground, and which is now almost finished its blossom.

Updated Patch Plan

With a few changes happening over the last few months, as they have a tendancy to do, I’ve updated the Patch Plan, which you can view as a PDF by clicking on the image:

Acre Field 2015 02

  • The main changes are:
  • New thoughts on juicing room / workshop locations
  • Orchard planting locations updated to show recent Beeley Pippin and ‘Old Merrybower’ (a grafting from scion wood we managed to rescue from the old orchard tree that blew down in storms last winter at the farm next door)
  • Animal rotation timings and locations
  • Detailing of edible hedgerow varieties around the Acre field

Second Weekend in the Patch

I swear someone has sped the Earth up – each year passes faster and faster! Last weekend we had our first day in the patch, tidying up odds and sods, ready for the year ahead. It’s always a good feeling, starting over again, with thoughts of how things will be done differently from previous years, or the same if they proved a good idea. The geese were extradited from the hay quarter, to let the grass grow! They seemed happy to be back in the big orchard, their summer home, but their attitudes are definitely taking a turn for the worst, with breeding season upon us. The orchard pruning was also completed, with large cuts covered in Arbrex, smaller cuts left to heal on their own. Mole hills are popping up as they get ready for the new year, and their hill earth we squirrelled away to top up the raised bed, as it’s great stuff! Compost bins were emptied, and seeds bought for the year ahead.

Today, I spent the morning on a late hedge cut, after first checking for any new nests. Suz and Smiler cleared away hedge cuttings from a hedge next door at the farm, which has been laid and looks amazing. Jay took on the mantle of chief seed sower, and popped the following into propagators for indoor germination.

  • Lyon (Prizetaker) leek
  • Monarch celeriac
  • Green Magic F1 hybrid broccoli
  • Golden Acre (Primo III) round summer/autumn cabbage
  • All the Year Round cauliflower
  • January King 3 (savoy) winter cabbage
  • Evesham Special brussels sprout

After a lunch which saw us prise open Smiler’s first ever jar of home-made pickled onions (they were fantastic, he made them from growing to pickling), Suz and Jay took it on themselves to clear some of the rubbish on the lane where we live, Smiler scattered chicken manure fertiliser around the various trees and bushes, whilst I rotovated the onion patch, ready for planting out the sets tomorrow. I also got carried away with de-twitching the couch grass that had worked its way into the onion patch, have I mentioned how much I loathe that stuff? We’ve a plastic field trough set aside for weeds this year, which we’ll fill with water and drop any weeds into. Over the year they’ll rot down into great fertiliser liquid and we don’t waste any of the nutrients tucked away in them.


Formative Pruning – 4 Years On

A quick look at how some of the apple and pear trees are looking in the little (bush) orchard after four years of formative pruning.


Planting a Beeley Pippin

Typically the middle weekend of March is the first day we tend to end up down the patch. Nothing to do with any archaic tradition, or bizarre need to get down and dirty with the soil after being shacked up inside over winter. Just that things need doing for the year ahead, and it’s barely warm enough to get outside and do them! The year before last year the geese took it on themselves to nibble a neat, goose-head-high ring of bark (ring bark) from the Beeley Pippin in the big orchard, on MM111 rootstock. Once the layer of bark has been removed from a tree, from every side, the nutrients from the roots can’t flow up to the branches, and the tree dies. Luckily for us it happened in the late summer, and there was enough strength in the branches to keep the tree alive until it entered its winter dormancy period. We pulled it up, but first saved some scions from the healthiest branches, and grafted them. Today was the day we introduced one of the graftings back into the orchard, in the corner furthest from the geese as you can get, for its own sanity. A neat 3′ wide hole, a scattering of blood and bone, and a home made hare guard made from 6mm weld mesh all helped it settle in.

Suz in CompostSuz on the other hand must have taken the idea of getting down and dirty with the soil literally, and can be seen standing inside a compost bin. I hasten to add, nothing at all to do with the fact it needed emptying into the adjacent raised bed, and as you can see, the compost bin is rotated 90 degrees to all the others in the line, with the pull out side facing another compost bin rather than side-on, meaning only Mr Tickle could have emptied it whilst standing outside! Oops.

How to Plant a Fruit Tree – Video

We’ve planted a fair few trees now – and wanted to share how we do it here. Video seemed the best way to do it, though the wind had a different idea…

Cider Making

Finally we have enough apples to have a bash at cider making! A friend up the lane was selling his cider making kit, and it was perfect stuff to get going with – scratter attachment for a drill (Pulpmaster), small 5 litre spindle press, fermentation barrels, and umpteen bits and bobs that I’m sure are useful!

Cider Making 2Whilst I’d hoped to have enough of one or two varieties to go for a more calculated approach, the reality was the number of apples on none trees dictated which were used! A course Suz sent me on earlier in the year gave some great notes, and from those I read that one of their mixes for a cider was roughly two thirds Bramley (cooker) and one third Worcester Pearmain (eater). Well – we have neither in abundance, bCider Making 1ut I managed to scrat together the following:

3.2kg Newton Wonder (cooker)
6.5kg Lord Derby (cooker)
2.3kg Ribston Pippin (eater)
1.2kg Dabinett (cider)
1.0kg Medaille d’Or (cider)

Heaven knows what’ll happen! Eventually I hope to have a cider based on the local Newton Wonder, mixed with an eater I’ve yet to decide on, but needs must, so we have the above concoction. Tasting some of the pressed juice, it was fresh and quite tart. To give you an idea of the sizes of the apples – the Lord Derby apple (the green stonker) weighed in at around 280g, but was quite a light apple in terms of density. The Newton Wonder, top-right, weighed in at around 320g! Three to a kilo! A very dense fruit, the tree was quite prolific, and they were gorgeous apples 🙂

The actual method was very simple – I Cider Making 3washed everything down thoroughly, and sterilised the various plastic bins, demijohns and air locks. I washed the press down with water (it was quite clean to look at), but didn’t want to scrub it as I read that good yeasts can live in the wood. Then I placed a bunch of apples in a big plastic bin filled with water, and one by one pulled them out, checked Cider Making 5them over, rubbed them clean with my hands, removed any obvious insects and bad apple. Then I quartered them, dropped them into the scratter bucket. A few turns of the scratter, attached to the drill, and the pulp was ready. The pulp was bagged into nylon mesh socks, laid in the press, two at a time, then pressed.

From all those apples, I ended up with just over one demijohn of juice. The demijohn was filled to within 1″ (2.5cm) of theCider Making 4 bung line (the lowest point the bung will reach when then demijohn is sealed), then the bung and airlock attached (not forgetting to fill the airlock with water!). It’s worth noting that you can expect an apple to juice conversion rate of around 25-33%, so from 10kg of apples you could expect around 2.5 to 3 litres of apple juice. As I managed to fill an 8 pint (4.5 litre) demijohn, and I started out with around 14.2kg of apples, that gave me a 32% conversion rate, which I’m chuffed about!

That’s pretty much it so far – it’s in a room that will hover between 10 and 20 degrees celsius, but I may move it to the garage where the temperature is more consistent, albeit at the lower end of that range. Fingers crossed!

Last Winter’s Grafting Update

Old Merrybower graft

Old Merrybower graft

I thought it might be useful to show what the grafted apple trees look like 6 months after the deed was done.

Old Merrybower graft closeup

Old Merrybower graft closeup

Both of these varieties – the Old Merrybower and Beeley Pippin – were grafted using the whip and tongue method. Scion wood was taken from the donor tree whilst it was dormant, in winter. In these cases, the Old Merrybower was one of the last standard trees in the old orchard at Merrybower Farm, and had fallen down through a combination of very water-logged soil and extremely strong winds. We call it Old Merrybower as it’s likely around 100 years old, according to old maps, and we have absolutely no idea of the variety. The second graft used scion wood cut from a Beeley Pippin we already had, but which the geese had managed to ring-bark. Despite the ring-barking happening in late summer and the tree had already started to die back, the growing ends had enough life in them to survive the autumn, and we managed to cut them and use them to graft five new Beeley Pippin trees.

As you can see, the MM106 rootstock we used for both trees were from a different supplier, as we didn’t plan on trying to save the Old Merrybower tree, as it was well and truly planted in the ground when we put our order in. The Beeley Pippin graft is much neater – the scion wood was a perfect match in diameter to the rootstock, and we could graft at a good height from the soil level – around six inches.

Beeley Pippin graft

Beeley Pippin graft

The Old Merrybower, however, had to make do with the only MM106 rootstock we could get hold of at short notice, and it was fairly thick in diameter compared to the scion wood we needed to graft to it. For this reason we moved the graft quite far up the rootstock, and even then we only managed to get the cambium layer (the extremely thin vascular cambium tissues that are as yet undecided as to what type of cell they will become – stem cells if you will) to touch from each donor tree, on one side rather than two. That said, all five grafts of the Old Merrybower were successful, which heartened me no end to my grafting skills!

Beeley Pippin graft closeup

Beeley Pippin graft closeup

Looking at the closeups of the grafts, you can see the Old Merrybower is a bit messy, but the Beeley Pippin is a lovely graft, the zig-zag between scion and rootstock showing quite clearly – a bit like a Harry Potter scar.

We’ve donated one of each to the local village and their secret garden scheme, and Merrybower Farm will also get one of each, to replace the fallen tree. We’ll then find homes in our orchard for the other six – I think we can just about fit them in as we have a spare plot in the small orchard, and the last small cherry tree doesn’t look particularly well either.