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Far from the Tree — How Duckchicken is Defining Urban Cidermaking in South London

Far from the Tree — How Duckchicken is Defining Urban Cidermaking in South London

“Well, this is it. My soon-to-be-husband and I are beginning our adventure into cider production,” Colleen O’Sullivan wrote of she and her partner James Mann’s burgeoning career as cidermakers in August 2016.

If I’d read that blog post on Duckchicken Cider’s website at the time, visions of the couple bouncing around farmhouses—replete with ruddy cheeks (and at least one tractor)—would have sprung to mind. After all, cider comes from the countryside, and having grown up in prime cider country in South West England myself, I’m often quick to picture rolling orchards and ramshackle barns.

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With those preconceptions dancing around my mind, it was something of a surprise when I first came across Duckchicken—a married couple making cider, slap bang in the middle of South West London. It is with even greater surprise—and a smidgen of confusion—that I find myself knocking on the door of their Streatham home, as opposed to the small industrial unit or railway arch I’ve come to associate with small-scale drinks production in London.

Colleen and James have long been avid travellers. Beyond work (Colleen is a tree officer, and James works for a law firm) it’s one of their greatest interests. When journeying across Europe, and beyond, the pair would always be on the lookout for cider-producing areas to visit. This is so that James—who’s only found himself enjoying beer very recently—could find something enjoyable to drink. As a result, these adventures furthered their interest in cider, and a conversation about cidermaking itself with James’ boss, Jenny, led to a visit to her mother-in-law Lin’s unused orchard in Pembury, Kent, kept only to preserve it. 

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After the land—which had been farmed by the same family for decades—was sold off, Lin managed to buy the piece of land just beyond her garden, “to straighten it up and to prevent building in the distant future,” Jenny says. “She’s had the orchard for 25 years just to stop it being developed,” James explains. “If she sells it, they’ll cut the trees down and build houses.” 

“I’d mentioned to James in passing that my mother-in-law Lin had an apple orchard at the end of her garden and no real plans for the apples, so James asked me to see if he and Colleen could use any that were otherwise going to waste, as they wanted to start making cider,” Jenny tells me. “Lin thought it was a great idea, and is thoroughly amused that cider is now being made from her apples!”

After being told they could use as many apples as they could take away, Colleen and James bought some equipment and fervently set about making cider. In their first year they produced 240 litres and interest rapidly picked up—they soon had their first order from Kidbrooke Festival, a beer and cider festival run by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in southeast London.

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“The first year we just thought we’d make it for ourselves,” Colleen says. “That was it, suddenly we were selling cider.”

In 2017 they returned to Lin’s orchard and took every last apple home with them. The following year, they were granted access to the commercial orchard next door to Lin’s orchard in Pembury, and were given permission to pick any seconds: apples that are too big, too small, or had fallen; fruit that would otherwise go to compost. And, just like that, Duckchicken was growing.

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They’ve since upped production to 2200 litres—almost ten times what they made in their first year. And they now supply a number of pubs in London including The Harp in Covent Garden, as well as various festivals around the country. The majority of these deliveries—bar one pallet sent to Finland—are made by bicycle, public transport, or an electric car they occasionally rent. What’s most impressive, though, is that every drop of cider is made in their two-bedroom flat.

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“It's a little unusual but not that odd. We've stocked spirits and beer that were commercially produced from someone’s residence before,” Phill Palgrave-Elliott, co-owner of bottle shop Caps and Taps, in North London, tells me. “I think these smaller producers tend to have a huge passion for their product and that comes through with a great story to tell the consumer and usually a delicious product. It's a scale where it's a side project that can usually be balanced with a full time job (at least to begin with) and can let people really concentrate on quality.”

***

Colleen and James’ hallway is, bar two of their five bicycles, filled with boxes. Looking past boxes of cider—their own or otherwise—and numerous brown glass bottles, my eye is drawn to a small blackboard on the wall of the kitchen. On it, “Wilkommen im Haus von Entehuhn” (Welcome to the House of Duckchicken) is scrawled. It’s here, in their tiny kitchen, that all of the production happens.

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“We don’t want to disturb the neighbours,” James says. “The apples are washed here, and then pressed—we have a hydropress, which [operates via] mains water.”

Once pressed, the juice is transferred into a tank to settle out the sediment, and a day later pumped into separate tanks on a rack outside. It’s then fermented with champagne yeast, and then left for five weeks or so as it undergoes fermentation.

“Some cidermakers would say that’s blasphemy, that it can’t be ready in five weeks”, says Colleen. “We disagree. Some of our ciders have been fantastic straight out of the tank.”

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In the fine cider world they are somewhat anomalous in that they pitch yeast—when asked by legendary cidermaker Tom Oliver why, James simply replied, “for control.”

“I’m obviously a massive fan of the good outcomes from spontaneous fermentation—there’s no doubt that I think it makes for a more interesting, characterful cider,” Tom tells me. “But at the same time, if you’re using cooking and eating apples, a pitched yeast pulls out some lovely aromatic qualities from the cider, gives you a good, clean fermentation, and gives you a cider with good keeping qualities.” 

Pitched yeast also safeguards against the unpredictability of wild yeasts and their effects on dry juice. “With wild yeast and spontaneous fermentation, it’s more open to things going wrong,” says Tom. “Which is less obvious when it’s tannic, bittersweet fruit, but when it’s acid-forward cookers and eaters, you’ve got to be a bit more aware of it.”


“It’s focusing on the apple that’s the important thing.”
— James Mann

More recently, the couple have been experimenting with spontaneous fermentation, and have produced 120 litres of wild cider in 2019 so far—two demijohns of which sit on their kitchen table.

2018’s wild-fermented juice became Gigglejuice, a lightly sparkling pet-nat cider. Gigglejuice, so named because when Colleen and James first tasted it, and subsequently spent the evening drinking it, they kept erupting into fits of giggles, is exquisite. Every bit deserving of the grandeur of the champagne bottle in which it finishes fermenting, it is complex, with a crisp bite, a hint of sharpness, and only the slightest whiff of funk alluding to its nature. And at 6.5%, it’ll certainly get you giggly.

“It's a delicious cider,” says Phill from Caps and Taps. “It's a little tart but that's in no way overpowering—which makes it accessible for most cider drinkers.”

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Each tank in the rack outside the kitchen door—positively groaning under the weight of fermenting juice—is named, in accordance with cidermaking tradition. One tank, Hannez, is named after a goat they met in Alkmaar, in the Netherlands.

“Hannez is a good goat,” James assures me. “The owner of the windmill we were staying at had rescued him from the river and then tied him up to a tiny little shack. I think its previous owner was trying to drown him because he was blind.” 

Now living a life as a happy goat, Hannez will get to live on indefinitely, immortalised as a plastic tank.

***

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“It’s a bad autocorrect.” James says of their cidery’s names origin. “I was texting Colleen and ended up calling her ‘Sally Duckchicken’. I think Apple was trying to tell us something.”

“I was like ‘what the fuck does that mean?’” Colleen tells me. The name represents the pair well, whimsical and light-hearted, as does the logo, a naively-drawn chicken, and a duck with three legs.

“We asked our graphic designer in the pub one day if he could do our label,” she continues. “He said ‘yeah, if I can put a three-legged duck on it.’ He’s been wanting to put a three-legged duck on some logo for a really long time.” With many people you meet down the local pub, which is how Colleen and James met illustrator Jez Robinson, there are innumerable stories waiting to be told. A former biker, Jez was drinking in Hamburg in the 1980s, and was served a plate of duck. A little merry, and perplexed by its three legs, it took him some time to work out that the third leg was actually the head. And, as James tells me, it had been bothering him since.

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That attitude of not taking themselves too seriously extends to their cider—they make what they like to drink. Over the three years they’ve been in operation, they’ve made only dry, fully-fermented cider. They don’t have the desire to stop fermentation early and make sweeter cider, or the facilities to pasteurise, so they just let it happen. “Ultimately,” James tells me, “cidermaking is just pressing apples and waiting.”

Duckchicken’s ethos is driven by a wait-and-see approach visible in James’ patience: they take what apples they can get, they make what they can, and it turns out how it turns out.

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“The idea is that when we’re offered an apple by the orchard, we’ll just try [pressing and fermenting] it and see how it works and tastes, both on its own and blended with other apples,” explains James. Some apples, though, haven’t worked out. An experiment with the Worcester Pearmain variety showed them that the apple makes “terrible cider”, according to Colleen, imparting a harsh, acrid flavour. 

“That went down the drain, into the vinegar pot.” All bad or unused cider is turned into vinegar for their own consumption, in a pot in the kitchen—after all, waste not, want not.

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***

The cider we’re drinking now—pulled straight from a kegerator and then after it has been steeped with home-grown Cascade—is a mix of all three of their regular varieties: Cox, Bramley, and Russet. Sadly, James cites problems with alcohol duty (it would incur a significantly higher tax) as the reason they currently won’t sell hopped cider, as delicious as it is.

Though normally a blend that’s 50% Cox, and 50% Bramley and Russet combined, the cider in the kegerator today is an unknown mix of the three. Bramley, the most popular cooking apple, is a tart, tannic apple, and the eating varieties Cox and Russet are crisp and juicy, and dry, respectively. The use of cookers and eaters is what distinguishes cider from the east from West Country cider, which is produced solely from cider apples.

“When we’re boxing stuff up, we’ll just take anything and put it in the keg and save it for drinking,” says Colleen. Dry, crisp, and sprightly, it’s both brilliantly refreshing and dangerously quaffable. It tastes, well, just like apples, which James considers the perfect compliment.

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When I ask about how they view the cider industry, and its crossovers with the beer and natural wine worlds, the two remain philosophical. “I think we’re still in the nascent stages of ‘craft’—if you want to call it that—cider,” says Colleen. “We’re many years off anything on the craft beer scale happening, and it’s going to be way smaller than whatever has happened with that.”

“I think there’s a risk,” James adds. “With artisanal or craft ciders—I’m not sure about the word craft, beer has already taken that—it's focusing on the apple that’s the important thing.”

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