Cider – the drink of choice if your day involves more than the typical amount of time spent sitting on a park bench. But how did one of our iconic national beverages get chucked in two litre plastic soft drink bottles and end up guzzled by teenagers?
You can’t move for craft beer pubs in London these days – which is an excellent thing – but it’s got to the point that if you happen to stumble across a real old boozer with dingy corners and sticky carpets, still pouring Tennent’s and not a lot else, you’re rather shocked. Where’s the draught Camden Lager, the bottles of Kernel and the Redchurch Hoxton Stout? Yet even in the most adventurous tap rooms and beer bars, craft cider simply doesn’t exist.
Except it is being made. And by people just as passionate about their apples as others are about their hops and grapes.
“We’ve been poised for a craft element taking the lead in cider for five years, and it hasn’t happened,” says Pete Brown, author of World’s Best Cider.
But why? It took a recent trip into apple orchards and cider factories to understand one of the main problems – cider is treated like an offshoot of the beer world. And it certainly isn’t made with malts and hops.
Having toured around Hereford with Heineken, who currently own Strongbow, Bulmers, Old Mount Cider, Scrumpy Jack, Symonds, Stassen, Blind Pig and Woodpecker, the farm-level passion for orchards, apples and the cider the farmer contributes to making was evident. Between Strongbow and Bulmers there’s even an apple grower of the year competition and it’s taken very seriously in this part of the world.
Here, when it’s time to bring in all the year’s crop, you’ll have a line of traffic throughout the night and into the day of people transporting apples in huge semi-trailers to the boot of their cars – all trying to seize that small window of time when the apples are ready to make cider.
Cider is made exactly like wine, and not a lot like beer. The apples are juiced and fermented and volia, you have cider. Of course there’s carbonation, sweetener and a lot more finesse to the process than just a bit of yeast and apple juice, depending on what style you’re making. This was something Pete Brown found out when, as a beer writer, he was often called upon to cover cider and quickly understood that, if anything, it was a lot closer to wine.
“It is made the same way as wine, and for some reason people keep talking about brewing cider, and it simply is not like that.”
From the Fine Cider Company
Just like grape varieties for wine, there’s a lot of cider apples. But while many grapes make outstanding wine on their own, cider requires a little more artful blending.
“They call it the holy trinity,” says Susanna Forbes, drinks writer and owner of Little Pomona cider. “You’re looking for a balance of tannin, acids and sweetness. Apples do have a tannin – which is different to wine tannin – but in a similar way it gives cider body. Just as with grapes you get it from the skins and pressing, and apples have tannins in the pulp and in the skin. If you don’t have enough tannin, or acids, which you might call tang, the cider will be sweet and flabby.”
Premium cider is even carbonated in the same way as champagne, with a second fermentation in the bottle. Perhaps even more interestingly, you can find still cider.
“That can be when it gets really wine-like,” says Pete. “I always warn people about the funky, sharp ciders because they can be very alienating when you’re used to sweet, fruity flavours. But if you blend different apples and you’re keeping a vigilant eye your fermentation to keep the yeast healthy, you can produce a beautiful still cider that is easily mistaken for riesling. It’s here that I don’t think people like CAMRA help cider – at any of their beer festivals you’ll find these lovely ciders in pint glass and room temperature with an abv of 7%. Served in a chilled wine bottle between people over a meal and suddenly it’s less boozy and makes for a great lunch-time choice.”
The similarities of cider to wine don’t stop there either. Cider can express terroir and you can taste this when you separate out the apples and where they were grown, be it from the bottom of boggy hill to the driest tops. On the east of England there are also more dessert-style apples with less tannins while the west has more tang. A Kingston black, one of the best cider apples, will taste slightly different grown in Cornwall to Somerset.
So if we start to understand apple varieties, and the complexities they offer, and that cider is perhaps its own beast, sitting neatly between wine and beer, are we ready for a craft cider revolution?
“I think it’s a really good time to think about it,” says Susanna. “There’s a real interest in what’s being made locally with projects popping up not just in the countryside but in cities as well. There is, I think, a small bunch of us setting up and doing something a little bit different, there’s finally the variety.”
One of the best ways to change perceptions around cider is through food pairings, and depending on how tannic the cider is, it can go wonderfully with meats and cheeses just like a wine. Restaurants in London such as Lyles, BAO, St. John and Fera at Claridges already have great cider on their lists and there are pop up dinners beginning to take place.
“We need to give people a standard of quality, which is about juice content and apple varieties – we need to talk more about how good cider is made,” says Pete.
There are plenty of encouraging people in the world of cider, people like Pete and Susanna, who understand that there are brilliant ciders out there that aren’t just about summer serves or park bench sipping. We’re still years behind America – who even have cider restaurants with cider sommeliers – but we need to stop thinking of cider as sweet and mass produced and learn more about its smaller players and the wonderful world of apples. Now all that has to happen is a few pioneering bars to stock up – build it and we will come and drink it dry.