The big apple

Categories: Reflections and opinions

Pete Brown, best known for writing about beer, has spent three years trying to understand apples, and our seemingly universal propensity for turning them into alcoholic drinks.

How does a beer writer ending up spending three years researching and writing a book about fruit?

Well, the apple is no ordinary fruit. What first attracted me to it is its ability to make cider, possibly the most misunderstood and under-appreciated alcoholic beverage in the world.

I first found myself in an apple orchard because, as a beer writer, people kept asking me about cider, assuming I would know. “It’s the same thing isn’t it?” they’d ask.

Well, no it’s not. Beer is brewed by steeping malted barley in sugar, adding hops and boiling. Cider isn’t brewed at all—it’s made, by pressing fruit to release the juice, then allowing that juice to ferment, just like wine.

About six years ago I knew a lot about beer brewing but very little about how cider was made, so I decided to find out. I spent two years visiting orchards, talking to apple growers and cider makers, and learning about a surprising number of different cider making traditions around the world, few of which seemed aware of any of the others. The producers of sharp, tangy Asturian sidra seem oblivious to the rich, earthy farmhouse cidre makers of Britanny, who in turn seemed surprised to learn about the existence of world-renowned ciders from Herefordshire.

Makes itself at home
This is what the apple does: it makes itself at home wherever it goes, to the extent that the people who adopt it in any given region believe it comes from there, that it belongs to them.

Go on, admit it—I bet you thought the apple was an English fruit, didn’t you? If you don’t already know, you’ll never guess from where it really originated.

After I finished the book World’s Best Cider, which I co-wrote with my friend Bill Bradshaw, I realised my passion for cider had grown into something bigger. There were questions, observations and longings around apples that hadn’t been answered by writing a book about cider. I wanted to know more about its mythology, which stretches from ancient Greece, via the Garden of Eden, to King Arthur’s resting place in Avalon. I wanted explore its curious biology and diversity. And above all, I really wanted to spend a lot more time in orchards.

Cultural importance
So I went back to Herefordshire and Somerset, back to the growers of cider apples, and also to farms that grow our favourite eating varieties. I spent time with geneticists and horticulturalists, biologists and breeders.

And I discovered a fruit whose deceptive simplicity and popularity masks deep complexity and astonishing cultural importance. As Thoreau said in his 1882 book, Wild Apples, “It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man.”

The Apple Orchard was published by Penguin on 30th September, just in time for another round of harvests and Apple Day celebrations. It had an entire edition of Radio 4’s Food Programme devoted to it two weeks, ago, and is the same station’s Book of the Week in early November. I was delighted to be invited to Borough Market's Apple Day to talk about it and I signed a few copies too.

(And by the way, the apple originally comes from Kazakhstan.)