In a west country pub, and old bumpkin stood next to me, propping up the bar. He turned to me and said “Sometimes, I likes to puts meat in cider.” He turns to his scrumpy old wife, sitting at a table by the window. “Donts I Doris? Gives the cider a bit extra flavour, it does, see?”
“Oh, you put meat in the cider?” I ask, with some sense of relief.
Well, this is how I imagine the conversation went, after I receive a message from a friend – who has been speaking to someone knowledgeable in traditional Devon cider making – to ask if I knew that they put meat in it. I remember my mam telling me that they used to put a sheep’s head in beer. I didn’t know why, and I’m intrigued by this meaty cider topic, so I decide to investigate.
Cider is such a wholesome member of the booze family, ruddy-faced country folk, gaily picking apples from pleasant cider orchards, pressing them in an ancient, wooden hand-operated press, then leaving the stuff in an old barrel in an old barn for a few months, before getting absolutely off their nuts on the results. However, have you ever noticed the small print on bottles of wine saying ‘suitable for vegetarians’? Weird
My investigation starts (and ends) with Google. One of the first sites I visit is that of Millhouse Cider, a cider museum in Dorset! What a great day out. So this lot should know something about the old rumour. They have published the results of their scientific experiment on their website. By fermenting some apple juice in two flagons, one with a lump of beef in it, and one without. After leaving it for five months, they blindfold some poor sods and force them to drink from both. All agree that the meaty cider tastes like shite. I hope it wasn’t part of the guided tour.
Next I search for sheep’s heads in beer. I don’t actually find a sheep’s head, but I start reading about British beers on Wikipedia. It seems that British ‘craft’ beers are not filtered, which leaves a load of yeasty bits floating around in them. When I say ‘craft’ I don’t mean they’re made with multicoloured raffia and Gloy glue, though that might explain the floaty bits. So it seems that some thirsty Brit had been making some home brew, and was too impatient to be bothered about filtering out the floaty bits, and chugged it straight away. However, when he found that one barrel, in which a small rodent had climbed in and drowned, the beer was missing it’s haze. The haze had precipitated onto the rat.
Well, that’s one possible story. However, no, instead of dead rats and sheep heads, they use the swim bladders of the sturgeon, or other animal proteins like casein (milk), albumen (egg) or gelatin (erm, spines and toenails). So that’s why some beers and wines aren’t veggie friendly, though they do use vegetarian alternatives, such as Irish moss, a type of seaweed. Is this making anyone thirsty for a beer?
With ciders, it seems that there’s another reason for adding a bit of sausage. This is where it gets a bit scientific, so you might want to head out to the pub now. If you’re a nerd, keep reading.
Cider apples contain less nitrogen than wine grapes or beer wort and tends to be fermented longer. The yeasts that turn the sugars to alcohol, need nitrogen, to keep going, so when all the nitrogen in the cider is used up, the fermentation can stick. It’s not all bad, and the French actually make their ciders by ‘keeving‘, or removing the yeast or the yeast-nourishing components, to leave a sweet, apply, but low alcohol cider. But that’s not how they do it in Devon. They just keep shoving the meat in cider, until it’s barely legal. In alcohol content terms. Fortunately, you don;t have to worry about picking bits of pig brain out of your Scrumpy Jack now, as substances such as ammonium phosphate and thiamin are now used to prevent the fermentation sticking.