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SOMERSET, England - True or false: The English keep their beer chilled, their pubs smoke-free, and their cider well-fermented? Yes, all true. The beer's not ice- cold, but it's definitely not warm, and pubs across the country ban smoking. And cider - well, what we call cider is just apple juice to the English, who ensure their brew delivers an 8 percent alcohol punch. Beer is about 4 to 5 percent alcohol, so sipping cider, not gulping, is advised.
Cider farms dot England's southwest, especially in Somerset, where there are more than 25. Equipped with a cider map (
» READ MORE: www.somersetcider.co.uk
), it's easy to explore local pubs, sample varieties of ciders, and see the golden liquid made. This month, the last of the apples are crushed and the first of the early varieties come on tap, making it an ideal time to visit. And on Jan. 17, the locals wassail - an Old English word for blessing - their apple trees to ensure a good harvest. So here we go a-wassailing.
Cider-making dates to at least the 1200s in Somerset, where orchards flourish, and cider may be blended from up to 12 types of apple. It is the mix of apples that produces the range of taste from sweet to dry. Dozens of varieties grow here, from bitter sharp and bittersweet such as Brown Snout and Dabinett to sharp or sweet, including one named Slack-ma-Girdle.
Nothing is added to or taken from real cider: It is simply fermented juice from apples. Big commercial operations add sugars and preservatives and make their drink from apple concentrate. The Somerset cider farmers like to make this fact clear.
Julian Temperley, owner of Burrow Hill Cider for the last 30 years, explained, "You'll notice that Strongbow [a commercial cider] has nothing about cider in its name." He expressed equal disdain for pear cider and its high alcohol content, which he wryly noted has "no apple press, no orchards."
Many of the farms here let visitors watch apples being washed and crushed, and the pulp dropped onto burlap-covered racks stacked nine high before being pressed for the precious juice. At Perry's Cider Mills (
» READ MORE: www.perryscider.co.uk
), in the hamlet of Dowlish Wake, workers toss the leftover pulp - called "cheese" - into a wagon to be fed to animals. Nothing is wasted.
The juice goes directly into 120-gallon oak barrels for a five-to-six-month fermentation, meaning the first ciders of the season are available for tasting this month and in January.
Down the road from Perry's, the New Inn (
» READ MORE: www.newinn-ilminster.co.uk
) serves dinner and a variety of local brews, including Perry's blend. Locals gather each evening in this 17th-century pub to chat, warm up by the Inglenook fireplace and play darts. Owner Richard Handlay serves gourmet fare unexpected in a country pub. And if you've had a bit too much of the brew, there are four new B&B rooms (about $120 single, including breakfast) available at the back of the pub.
Burrow Hill Cider makes cider and cider brandy - a potent 42 percent alcohol apple spirit available in 3-year, 5-year, and 10-year-old blends aged in oak casks from France. While Perry's Cider Mills and Sheppy's Cider Farm Centre (
» READ MORE: www.sheppyscider.com
), near Taunton, have rural-life museum exhibits attached to their brewing operations, the Somerset Cider Brandy Co. (
» READ MORE: www.ciderbrandy.co.uk
) at Burrow Hill offers a tour of the distilling operation and a splendid view of the orchards.
"If you come here in February, it's warm as toast [inside the distillery] and smells lovely," Temperley said.
Burrow Hill grows and blends 40 varieties of apples for its cider and cider brandy. "The Kingston Black is legendary," he said. "Often when you taste sweet things, you have to rush off and have a cup of tea" - but not with his cider brandy, he asserted.
On a half-day walking tour of the countryside organized by the Foot Trails company (
» READ MORE: www.foottrails.co.uk
, about $36 per person, including lunch and a seven-mile trek along public footpaths), hikers admired hedgerow bushes loaded with sloes. Ripe in fall, the berries are harvested and steeped for weeks in sugar and gin to make sloe gin. The mixture is about ready now. Just one more reason to visit Somerset in the winter.
Stay at a farmhouse B&B. The prices are lower than in towns and include a hot full English breakfast, and you can appreciate the rural atmosphere of cider country. Wambrook Farm B&B outside Chard is just a few miles from Perry's Cider Mills and costs about $60 a night, single (
» READ MORE: www.wambrookfarm.co.uk
Get the smallest car with reverse-warning signals available. You'll need it when you back up in narrow country lanes to let other cars pass and to make it out of tight parking spots. (Be sure to have a designated driver.)
More, more, more.
Check out dining, book accommodations, and more on
» READ MORE: www.visitbritain.us
. For information on Somerset, see
» READ MORE: www.visitsomerset.co.uk
. See a listing of pubs serving cider by county on
» READ MORE: www.ukcider.co.uk
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