If you don’t know Mark Jenkinson yet, you need to. The only person making traditional ‘keeved’ cider commercially in Ireland, Mark’s Cider Mill outside the town of Slane, Co. Meath (a food-producing heartland within the beautiful Boyne Valley) is a must-visit and there’s a fascinating story behind the uniquely quirky name of his signature cider, Cockagee…
Everything he produces – a signature cider, Cockagee, a perry, Piorraí, and a three-strong range of ‘revival’ ciders – comes out of his bonded warehouse outside Slane. Growing 120+ varieties of apple across 12 acres of an orchard, Mark’s apples are all hand-picked and most of his own fruit goes into his products but he does order in some supplementary apples as quite a lot of his trees are young.
He specialises in ‘cider apple’ varieties, which are very different to eating apples –– and he has a particular dislike of ‘Bramley’ as a variety, which overwhelmingly are grown across Ireland and which make up most of the cider trade. Cider apples are specific to the product they create, with a bittersweet or bitter-sharp, semi-stringent (but not sour) flavour, dry in the mouth and not particularly palatable in texture or taste to eat –– but wonderful in cider.
Mark’s approach to cider is just like that of a winemaker, merely substituting grapes for apples. He’s particular about his process and precise in approach –– his cider all comes from 100% apple juice, no other ingredients added. Whereas the big business cider-producing brands in this part of the world are making cider with probably 30% apple juice to begin with. Also, from pip to sip, any apple waste is repurposed by using it as compost in the orchard or being given to neighbour John McDonnell at Shalvanstown biodynamic farm as cattle feed.
Into natural, skin contact wine? Why wouldn’t you be into skin contact cider? Mark macerates his pressed apple pomace after the apples have been milled and they sit with their skins overnight (cuvage) to extract colours and tannins, whilst also facilitating the keeving process. As it sits, pectin leaches out and pectin is essential to the keeving process, because yeast is not added. As, you see, for keeving, nothing is ever added –– no water, no sugar, nothing but apple, so it’s pure and artisanal and romantic, but also hard work. So keeving produces a naturally-fermented (sparkling) alcoholic drink made from apple.
It’s a hands-on business, which is why it’s almost died out commercially in this part of the continent. Mark actually only does this over a six-week period in the Autumn when harvest happens, and it happens quite slowly too. The process, which gets its name from the ‘cheese’ racks it uses, involves tiered racks on a cloth press which dates back to Roman times. Each pressing is slow, taking 20 minutes to fully press the pomace. Gravity actually also plays a pivotal role in the process, as no pumps are used. A split happens with gel forming on top of what’s pressed (trapping the yeast within) and a concentrated apple juice underneath. This is – with gravity – poured off and then the clear apple juice allowed to continue to its naturally fizzy, fermented destiny. Other ciders, Mark explains, ferment down to a much drier taste, but this way the resulting taste isn’t dry.
It’s a slow, gentle process. Wild yeast fermentation. Slow to capture and keep the colour and flavour. Some UK mills are still doing this, but no one else in Ireland is. It’s still a process that’s widely used in northern France, and over the years it’s become known as a ‘Normandy’ style drink –– but this is how cider was always made before it became commercially mass-produced in Ireland and the UK.
Stepping into Mark’s tasting room, also snugly set on his little patch of land, is a former workshop turned treasure trove. Antique drinking vessels, furniture, signage and trinkets line the walls and decorate the space and it’s not only a space to absolutely marvel at but it fits with the product so well –– and Mark sells a small amount from here as well.
Cockagee is the signature bottle Mark produces, named after an old Irish apple tree variety, which was thought to be extinct but Mark believes he’s found it again – which the Seed Savers people agree with – and he’s planted 40 or 50 of them in his orchard. A forgotten name, Mark is now bringing it back and celebrating its heritage, and its peculiar name. It’s actually the Anglicised version of an Irish phrase ‘cac a gheidh‘, which in ‘old’ Irish means ‘goose turd’, which is an actual shade of green.
The name refers to the green hue of the resulting fruit, and these trees are unique in that the apples grow down the length of the branch and droop downwards and for about a week every year this particular patch of his orchard erupts into a khaki green palette. Mark says this is his pride and joy –– the best of the best cider apple: dry but refreshing, sweet and sharp and totally robust. “That’s how cider should taste,” Mark explains and urges the importance of the keeving process in achieving that.
Cockagee cider is unique in that it’s named after the tree, the apple and the resulting cider. Keeping the Gaelic names going, Mark also produces a Piorraí, or Perry in English, which is made using – again, like his cider – perry pears specifically for making this drink, and not eating pears. These rock hard, nasty little inedible things blossom into the most floral, creamy, light and elegant drink, which is nothing like cider. More like a dry Prosecco, it’s 6% ABV and it’s made entirely on site using French perry pear trees and Mark only makes around 1,000L a year, so it’s a rarity. We actually had this as our introductory drink last Christmas at our own dinner table and it was fantastic, perfect as an occasion sip!
Rounding out The Cider Mill’s offering is a three-strong range, which Mark dubs “the revival series”. Ciderkin; Windvane; and Lamhóg. Four, five and six percent volume respectively, these are reflections of different apples and the resulting expression in a cider. Ciderkin uses only eating apples, so there are no tannins resulting in a light, not very complex cider that’s perfect for summer. Windvane is more of a traditional ‘farmhouse’ cider which uses half cider apples and half eating apples. A darker colour, toffee-caramel flavour with crisp apple flavour, smooth with lots of body and not too sparkling with a slight dryness at the end. This is early Autumn in a glass –– perfect for harvest!
Finally, Lamhóg is the name of a traditional Irish drinking tankard which is believed to have inspired the modern ‘pint’ glass. This bold number is the highest ABV of the three and is effectively the ‘Maker’s Reserve’. 100% cider apples, it’s the cider equivalent of an IPA: dry, tannic, bitter and sharp in a very drinkable way. A real warmer from within, it naturally suits winter best with its bold and rich character.