Whilst in the South East visiting friends I took the opportunity (and one of the said friends) to visit the “saviours of cider” at their London Taproom and met up with Roberto, cider maker for Hawkes. I first met Roberto at the Cider Salon in Bristol back in June when he was launching their collaboration with Tom Oliver “All Made Equal”. Which I am very pleased to say will be back for a second year, but hold on, I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s start with the tour.
Roberto showed us his workshop out the back of the tap room, all visible from the wooden benches and tables that line the wall of the old railway siding they’re based in. Six huge stainless steel tanks stand imposing at the far wall, four 5,000 litre fermentation tanks and two 12,000 litre storage ones. We saw the compact yet impressive belt press which Roberto demonstrated and then explained how the crates of apples are tipped, washed, pulped and then pressed. The juice is then pumped into the fermentation tanks, which are temperature controlled.
Roberto explained how it all started with Urban Orchard and the donations of unwanted apples. This is an approach they still take today with huge signs outside inviting donations in exchange for cider. Although donations this year are currently less, when compared to last year, Hawkes have grown and also bring in unwanted apples from pack houses in Kent, all cooking and dessert varieties. We sampled some three day old pure juice, which still tasted as if it had just been pressed. Then some twelve day old which was sharper and drier and Roberto explained would be the base for their Urban Orchard, starting at about 6.5% alcohol by volume.
We then moved on to the next part of the process and Roberto explained the cross-flow filter they use to create a clear product without any flavour tainting. We then talked packaging and Roberto explained how they keg on site, but bottling and canning is outsourced. We talked kegging for a few minutes and I was amazed at the cleaning process they go through following return and before re-fill. Rinse, followed by caustic wash, followed by rinse, followed by acid wash, followed by rinse and then another three rinses. It’s a time consuming process. Refilling only take 4-5 minutes and on a very (I mean very) productive day they can fill 100 kegs.
Before their investment from Brewdog, they supplied kegs to 56 pubs. Now they’re stocked (or will soon be) in all Brewdog pubs in the UK. Which is great news, having visited Brewdog pubs in the past with beer-drinking friends, only to find there was no cider available whatsoever... nada.
Let’s talk Roberto for a second; if you’ve met him you’ll know what I mean when I say he is quintessentially Italian. Laid back, charismatic, very friendly and of course (stereotypically) rides a Vespa. He started at Hawkes back in February 2017 having been previously brewing for a pub in Highbury for two years. Prior to that he was a winemaker in Italy, having studied winemaking for five years at university. In between he visited New Zealand, Australia and the UK before going back to Tuscany. It all started with beer though as at sixteen years old he started brewing at home. Cider he says is a much harder drink to get the finish right compared to wine, but he loves the difference and variety in the UK.
We talked growth next and Roberto explained how they plan to stay in London, hopefully take up a few more railway sidings; currently they have three although not all next to each other. The taproom and production siding, the office and the storage. We talked exciting plans to expand the range in the future and Roberto has a few interesting ideas up his sleeves. As we look in the storage siding at the crates of various apple varieties, Roberto explains how they press and make cider all year round, and how until about June, they are still pressing November UK apples. They have a two month window where there are no UK sources, so they currently import from the southern hemisphere.
Our next stop was the Taproom, where we pulled up a bench and spent the next three hours (yes three hours) chatting with Roberto while he shared some of his marvellous creations.
First up: Soul Trader.
A single variety, white sparkling wine-style cider which Roberto describes as having the “freshness of eating an apple”. Previously they have used Discovery apples, but this month it’s Jazz and it’s exceptionally crisp and clean. It’s 100% juice with the fermentation being stopped early to keep some natural sweetness, an alternative approach to keeving. They have released some in 750 ml bottles but had a problem with pubs giving the bottle with a pint glass, when it is something to be shared and savoured.
Next up: Slam Funk
This is made from 70% Urban Orchard (mixed eating and culinary apples) and 30% Dabinett, which Roberto described as “the queen of the cider apples; Kingston Black being the king”. It had a wonderful tannic hit accompanied by floral notes, those Dabinetts “giving bitterness to it”.
Our third taste was of Urban Orchard
I've had this from a bottle before, but this was draught and tasted different to how I remembered it. Note to self; grab another bottle and compare... Roberto describes this as their “most drinkable and sellable”, however my favourite of the three so far was the second (Slam Funk).
Fourth was a top secret 150 litre trial
Roberto has been working on which is a méthode traditionnelle (also known as méthode champenoise for those in the Champagne region). No name yet, but it’s an 8.4% blend of perry and cider but I’m not going to tell you in what percentages... after all it’s ‘top secret’.
Only Roberto had tried it before today, so it was an honour to be party to sampling it. We had it at five months in the bottle, but Roberto plans to wait another two to three months. That being said he did have 170 bottles, but that has dropped to 150 thanks to his sampling. It was wonderful collision of perry complexity and a balance of acidity and tannins.
Would be great to see it at the Cider Salon 2019, if it lasts that long.
Bring On Love Child
Mid drinking and chatting someone arrived to donate apples transported in a suitcase and holdall and we all watched while the apples were measured out. We then got back on track with our fifth sampling, which was of Love Child; a result of their partnership with Brewdog, co-fermenting beer wort with juice. My accompanying friend (also called Rob), really liked this one, but he is a beer drinker whereas I am not. That being said, I could see how it would appeal to the beer drinker with its intense yeast and malt flavour.
All Made Equal - Hawkes/Tom Oliver Collab
We then moved on to “All Made Equal,” a collaboration with Tom Oliver (which I have reviewed before). Interestingly it was originally proposed to be called “Town and Country”, and they spent two months back and forth sharing base ciders and agreeing on them. There’s some slight back-sweetening to compliment the smokiness of the 2016 cider from Tom. If you read my review you’ll know my feelings on this one, a real showcase of two distinct ciders that can, and do, exist in perfect harmony.
Our seventh and last sample was even more top secret that the fourth. Another méthode traditionnelle made with Granny Smith apples by Roberto and Theo (Assistant Cider Maker), both of whom hadn’t tried it yet. So Theo joined us to pop the cork and sample the fizzy sharpness which still had some residual yeasty notes (it had only been in the bottle for one month), but it was still really crisp and had the promise of maturing into something very special.
We finished with a few photos behind the bar and as we said our goodbyes and walked out into the crisp London autumn air, I didn’t feel even a wisp of the cold. Perhaps my leather jacket...or more likely my cider jacket.
Thanks again to Roberto and all the Hawkers for an amazing afternoon, for sharing your fabulous ciders, making us feel very welcome and for helping me turn a beer drinker into a massive cider fan.
James Finch (@thecidercritic)
Photos of Roberto and I taken by Rob Sterynowicz