The other night I hit a little personal milestone. The 500th new cider or perry I’ve tasted in 2019. It wasn’t something I’d planned from the start of the year, but as the tastings and events and cidery visits snowballed it became a little, dimly-distant hare that I decided to chase. Finding myself in the aftermath of June’s Cider Salon on somewhere around the 300 mark it finally began to crystallise as an achievable target. And on Saturday night I opened, tasted and recorded number 500.
As you’d expect, once I found myself tootling past 450 or so, a little time was spent idly pondering the potential identity of the 500th new taste. Scrattings was spooled; special bottles in the collection were set aside. I had in mind something suitably auspicious and celebratory; a pour from the slightly hazy and roughly-defined “fine” end of the ledger. Perhaps something champagne-method from Eve’s or Find & Foster. Or – we’re well into Christmas, after all – the unctuous decadence of a mouthcoating Eden, Brännland or Saragnat ice cider. I flirted with the notion of an Oliver’s perry and, were there anything from Little Pomona that I hadn’t already ticked off, I dare say I’d have given them hard consideration too.
And, as is so often the case, when one daydreams and muses, and as the nights lengthen, and as the finishing tape not only of the year, but of a challenge – even a silly, self-indulgent challenge – begins to loom, I found myself looking back. Not just at the ciders themselves, but at the visits to cideries, the conversations with producers, the events and tastings and discoveries and question marks.
This year I have tasted ciders from nineteen different countries and four different continents.There have been dry ciders, sweet ciders and medium ciders; still ciders and sparkling ciders. Ciders whose flavours boom and rumble with their depth of fruit and oak, and ciders whose zest and tang and lightness trill along the uppermost octaves of aroma’s spectrum. There have been ciders which have slumbered in bottle for over a decade and ciders with the scent of harvest still fresh upon them. Keeves and pet-nats and champagne methods; ciders made like Prosecco and perries elevated by bottle conditioning. I have tasted cider apples, cooking apples and eating apples, perry pears by the dozen and – yes – I have tried a handful of fruit ciders, too. (Meaning, inevitably, that about fifty per cent of you will tell me I haven’t actually tried 500 ciders and perries after all).
Taste that many in a year and what becomes most apparent of all is cider’s current state of flux. It’s something that perhaps slips under the fresh optimism of much of the current online conversation and the wonderful, refreshing positivity of the rethink cider hashtag. Yes, it is quite possible that many of the greatest ciders and perries ever made are currently being fermented and bottled. But those dizzy peaks represent the thin end of a convoluted, confused and nascent wedge. It is striking, when one trawls the online world of cider, how large a percentage of apotheosis is dedicated to the same five or six producers. I’ve mentioned at least two or three of them already. More concerning, on digging into the liquid evidence, is that the pre-eminence of this tiny cluster of producers is not due to a savvier social media presence, or well-weaponised marketing tactics, but because, when it comes to cider and perry, the gulf between the best and the rest is simply more pronounced than it is for any other drink.
This is not, I hasten to add, mainly the fault of producers themselves. In the UK – and at least eighty per cent of my 500 new ciders this year have been from the UK – the aspiring cidermaker finds herself trapped between the Scylla and Charybdis of a government with no interest in promoting what ought to be a national crown jewel, and a drinking public with scant notion or understanding of the true identity, potential and quality of real cider and perry. A state of affairs all the sadder because, to all visual intents and purposes, we are the one country in the world in which cider is drunk in any venue with a license to sell alcohol.
I would like this article to strike a more positive tone. I would like to focus solely on what is inspiring and good and uplifting in the world we collectively adore. But the truth, as Arthur Miller has it, is holy, and the truth is that ignoring the flaws and foibles in the world of cider will hamstring its elevation to the position in which we all would wish to see it.
The truth is that for every sip of mind-bending brilliance that I have taken this year there has been another which has been acetic or mouse-tainted or artificially sweetened to cloying excess. The truth is that the state of national orchards is still parlous; that apples in their millions are still left to rot; that growers, faced with the choice between a cash sum for grubbing up trees or the hope that the real cider market will exponentially blossom, are more and more frequently making the financially understandable call. The truth is that educating the public on the soul and finesse and wonder of fine cider and perry is so much harder, so much more thankless than simply dazzling them with short-hand flavourings and gimmickry gussied up as innovation. The truth is that publicans and drinkers who would not think twice about knocking back wine at fourteen per cent alcohol will blanch at any cider over six. The truth is that the average cider encounter is with something made from less than fifty per cent apple juice – largely from concentrate. The truth is that most punters think of real cider, when they think of it at all, as something rough and rank and vinegared and farm-funked that they endured on a holiday to the West Country and hope never to stumble across again.
The most memorable conversation I have had about cider this year was when, chatting to two cidermakers, their talk turned to discussing the number of fully, properly, fermented-all-the-way, absolutely-no-sugar dry ciders that exist in the UK. Their conclusion? That, barring their own, and the tiniest smattering from other producers, there really weren’t any at all. Given the number of ciders labelled “dry”, that assessment sounds controversial. But really, honestly, how many of the ciders you’ve tasted match the level of sweetness their bottle proclaims? “Do you know”, asked Polly Hilton when I visited her orchards in September, “why so many people say they want dry, then actually drink sweet?” It was a genuine, frustration-curdled, non-rhetorical question; knowing I was in the wine industry she hoped I’d have some answer. I didn’t. I still don’t.
Another sad moment came when, tasting a cider with the man who made it, he spoke with regret at how much better he thought it could have been. And this was an excellent cider; dry, complex, sensitive to the apple. “I just wish it could have been what it was,” said its maker. In the face of refusal of his first vintage on account of its potency, he had diluted it to a level that local pubs would more readily accept. Still a wonderful, delicious drink … and yet. Adding to his concerns was a culture that insists on serving cider by the pint or half in unhelpful, straight-sided glasses, and a general snobbery from the UK cider-wonk community in favour of full-bodied, tannic, west country ciders over bright, vivacious, acid-led ciders from cooking and eating apples. The impression was one of hope … of optimism … but of waiting for something that still hasn’t properly happened.To me, this underscores that the largest hurdle real cider has yet to vault is not one of production, but of education. Cider’s paucity of in-depth, authoritative writing is astonishing to someone whose bibulous remit also covers the worlds of wine and whisky. In both of those fields there are blogs – admittedly of varying quality – ad infinitum and shelves that groan beneath the weight of books both specialist and general. Yet the other day, idly browsing the drinks section at Waterstones, I could not see a single book on cider available for sale. As to blogs … well I think it’s telling that cider’s most read is that of a commercial retailer whichposted fewer than a piece a week in November.
The seeds of change are starting, tentatively, to sprout. At the end of last year we had the one-two punch of Gabe Cook and Susannah Forbes both publishing books within a month or two. That has been followed this year with Felix Nash’s Fine Cider, which takes a more specialist, albeit slightly commercially vested direction. Just as encouraging are the fledgling editions of Graftwood and Full Juice Magazines, which will hopefully continue to provide current, informed views of the world of cider throughout the next decade.
But information is still slightly piecemeal. When Pete Brown and Bill Bradshaw published their seminal “World’s Best Ciders” a few years ago now I thought – admittedly more in hope than expectation – that it might form something of a cider writing watershed. Nothing since has matched or built upon its comprehensiveness. As far as blogs are concerned, there is nothing for the reader that offers new content on a daily basis, and those posting with the most regularity tend to be fairly simple, tasting note-focussed sites, dictated by individual preferences and seldom digging deeper into the stories, challenges, personalities and styles that form the building blocks of the drink we all adore. A small handful of individual writers – Ciderzale’s Haritz Rodriguez and this site’s James Finch being two excellent examples – do outstanding work in covering broad ground in an impassioned, informed and even-handed way, but they can’t be expected to carry an entire industry by themselves, or to have the free time to write new material every day.
One noticeable positive trend in 2019 has been an increase in the number of cider articles written by beer journalists. Indeed, as I write, the excellent Emma Inch has announced a new UK cider podcast to launch in 2020. But whilst I am hungry for any new scribblings on the subject of cider, many of these pieces have taken the same “I’ve just discovered cider, and guess what? It’s actually worth drinking” angle. And that’s before we get into the existent perils of cider’s incongruous connubial association with beer in the mind of the British drinker.
But it’s Christmas, and not just Christmas but the approaching dawn of a new decade. If we put aside for a moment the appalling maelstrom of modern British politics (easier said than done, I know) and focus solely on fermented apple juice, there is so much to look forward to in 2020. So much that will be built upon the foundations of the last few years. Ten years ago, in December 2009, not only was the information this article asks for unavailable, but it seemed inconceivable that it ever would be. The last decade has seen an astonishing, unparalleled leap in the consideration of cider at the highest tier of its quality. Little Pomona, Find and Foster, Pilton, Chalkdown, Starvecrow, Pang Valley, Caledonian Cider Co and Brännland are just a small handful of the producers I have been inspired by in the last few years who didn’t exist in 2009. Experimentation in styles – not simply flavourings – has increased; apple and pear varieties are more likely to be listed and recognised; vigneron-level respect for fruit more likely to be demonstrated than it was at the dusk of the ‘noughties. This decade has seen cider championed more and more vociferously by the likes of Forbes and Brown and Cook and it has made the rethink cider movement possible.
So many online battles have been fought over what cider isn’t and can’t be and shouldn’t be. What I hope this article stands for is what cider is. Can be. Will be. And, in the end, that hope influenced my 500th new cider of 2019 more than anything else. It came from Ross-on-Wye, the place I consider the most important cidery in the world, and was a simple, no-frills, whole-juice, bone-dry cider from the White Norman apple. A variety that barely existsoutside of the Johnsons’ farm; a page from a lost book that almost nobody will have heard of, that will likely never be a Dabinett or a Foxwhelp or a Kingston Black, but has been kept alive by the tree-tenders of Peterstow.
It has been kept alive because it is a part of our global heritage. Because it is a vital strand in bio-diversity’s tapestry. Because it is a variety worth making into cider. Worth talking aboutand drinking and considering and celebrating and preserving. Because the world, whether most people know it or not, would be the poorer for its loss. Because it encapsulates, to me, the essence of why we give a damn.
Oh … and because it’s delicious.
With that last thought, and the memory of its taste still fresh, let me wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, lit by the apple-tinted glow of golden fire.