It's apple harvest season in NSW and Victoria, and cider makers across the nation are banking on a bumper crop to make up for "two seasons of hell".
"For the small cider makers, most of their sales come through the cellar door," says Jane Anderson, executive officer of peak body Cider Australia. "Lockdowns put a huge dint in the industry's bottom line."
In South Gippsland, Victoria, on an orchard overlooking the peaks of Wilsons Promontory, the Gurnett family of four-year-old Gurneys Cider have just started picking old English cider apples with names such as Sweet Coppin and Yarlington Mill.
They will process them in a new million-dollar cidery on their property near Foster, 170 kilometres southwest of Melbourne. The Gurnetts are industry leaders in Australian craft cider, a product made from crushed and fermented real apples.
"I was born in Somerset and lived there for the best part of my life," says Bill Gurnett, with the aural undulations of England's West Country. "I love Australia, but I missed our traditional English cider."
The vast majority of cider in bottle shops is made by giant foreign-owned beverage companies using a molasses-like apple juice concentrate imported from Brazil and China.
Craft cider, however, is made by 160 businesses nationwide that are mostly family-owned. It represents 10 per cent of the cider produced in Australia.
Gurnett, formerly a Parks Victoria ranger, and his family bought their 30-hectare property and planted more than 4000 cider apple trees in 2015. The family's eldest son, Tom, returned to Britain the same year to study cider making in Gloucestershire.
"We can't replicate the ciders they have been making for centuries in England, Spain or France," says Tom Gurnett. Gurneys Cider releases are dry, complex and intriguing – more like wine than the simple ciders made from concentrate.
"We produce a Gippsland cider that is true to [the region's] soil and climate," says Bill.
One of the cider apples harvested by the Gurnetts is the Toora Stoneblock, a variety found growing wild on a disused train line at the base of the orchard.
"The train ran from the 1890s, and people would snack on apples and throw the cores out the window," says Bill. "The tree most likely grew from a pip."
Also growing is Gurneys Cider's sales. Despite the severe loss of business due to lockdowns, the cidery is set to top 25,000 visitors annually in 2022 and predicts an increase in wholesale orders plus further exports to Japan.
Meanwhile in the NSW Blue Mountains, Shane McLaughlin from Hillbilly Cider has spent the past week watching heavy clouds gather. "Too much rain bloats the fruit, just like grapes," he says with concern.
McLaughlin moved from the wine industry to cider 15 years ago, planting hundreds of traditional cider variety trees on several different properties. These are supplemented with imperfect apples from neighbouring orchards that don't make it onto supermarket shelves.
He opened his cellar door in Bilpin, 90 kilometres west of Sydney, in 2020. "Just after the fires and just before COVID," he adds dryly.
McLaughlin's objective is to bring wine industry skills to fermenting apples.
"The Australian wine industry took an old-world product, and without the cultural baggage, used technology to make approachable wines for a global audience," he says. "We make ciders for the wine drinker who wants something more."
One of Hillbilly's biggest sellers is a low-alcohol cider called Sweet Julie, named after a wild-growing apple variety found by McLaughlin's neighbour. It is the first new commercial apple discovered in the Sydney region since the Granny Smith in 1868.
Hillbilly also makes estate ciders with 100 per cent heritage fruit in the Normandy style, aged in French oak and in bottle like champagne.
"Cider has found its way in the market, and while it is not knocking down doors like it was five years ago, I am pretty excited by its future in Australia," says McLaughlin.
Jane Anderson agrees and compares the fledgling industry to Australian wine in the early 1990s.
"This is an exciting time with a lot of new people entering the field and embracing the romance of cider – a lot of them are not in it for the money or the prestige," she says.
"You don't get into cider for the prestige. You make cider to make friends."
Saturday, March 12 is National Cider Day, celebrating cider made from local Australian apples and pears. A full list of cideries open to visitors can be found at cideraustralia.org.au.
Cidery Cellar Doors
Hillbilly Cider, 2230 Bells Line of Road, Bilpin
Bilpin Cider Co, 2369 Bells Line of Road, Bilpin
Darkes Cider, 259 Darkes Forest Road, Darkes Forest
Small Acres Cyder, 12 Akhurst Road, Borenore
Gurneys Cider, 343 Fish Creek-Foster Road, Foster
Harts Farm, Gate 2, 300 Tucks Road, Shoreham
Mock Red Hill, 1103 Mornington-Flinders Road, Red Hill
Daylesford Cider, 155 Dairyflat Road, Musk
Harcourt Perry & Cider Makers, 8795 Midland Highway, Barkers Creek