Welcome back, to the handful of you still indulging my appley evangelism. Yesterday we filled the first half of the case with exceptional examples of individual styles, today you get the wildcards.
I won’t hang around … we’ve cider to drink.
7. Cryo-Conditioned 2017, Little Pomona
(Bottle conditioned dry cider, Herefordshire)
Alongside Ross-on-Wye, Oliver’s and Find & Foster, Little Pomona makes up a quartet it seems nigh-mandatory for every cider article to name-check. But, given the quality of drinks made by each of those producers, it’s hard to argue that they don’t deserve every word of praise they get.
James and Susanna Forbes have both come from a wine background, and that dictates the approach they take with their ciders. Doing the rounds at cideries I often get a lot of blank looks and polite smiles when I start gabbling excitedly about vinous concepts and approaches. At Little Pomona I’m just talking their language.
Cryo-Conditioned is another bottle conditioned cider, like yesterday’s Raison d’Être, but instead of adding a little sugar for the conditioning, they used a touch of ice cider. That’s fermented to dryness in the bottle, leaving a light sparkle and a touch of sediment.
I love the amount of detail you get on the Little Pomona bottles and – this is hardly important to the cider itself, but a nice touch nonetheless – their labels tend to be some of my favourite in the business. As of the autumn just gone they’ve quadrupled their capacity and invested in some very flash new winemaking equipment. Rivals will have their work cut out to keep up.
Colour: Hazy copper
On the nose: Here’s a weird one – smelt it initially and thought it was the most Ross-on-Wye-ish aroma I’d found in a Little Pomona. Checked the apples and lo and behold, Michelin and Dabinett, of Raison d’Être fame, are prominent. That big vanilla spice; earthy, rooty, leafy herbaceousness twisting around big, broad-shouldered apple. What I love most is that, as shifting and complex as the aromas are, there’s a wonderful, elegant, refined directness. The mousse is pretty lively to begin with, but calmed down after a little time resting in a wine glass.
In the mouth: Bone dry, but that vanilla and ripeness of fruit keep things fulsome and friendly – even juicy. Tannins are stupidly well-managed; with the mousse and that pronounced fruit there is just the perfect crunchy bite. Again, the carbonation’s excitable at first; this is almost a cider for lovers of sparkling wine, full of green and yellow fruit, pierced by grapefruit. To me, it’s a pleasure to drink; bright, vivacious, beautifully crafted dry cider. Just at the start of its journey – already delicious, but with years left to offer. Will any of the remaining bottles actually be given that long I wonder?
Serve: as you would a good Chablis, or a weightier Blanc de Noirs Champagne. Just a few notches cooler than cellar temperature. Perhaps one to put in the fridge and then leave out once opened.
Drink with: Pan-fried salmon. Or something in a rich, creamy sauce.
Drink when: you’ve a couple of fellow booze nerds round and you want to score points.
After an alternative? I don’t know of anything made quite the same way, but the dry, bottle-conditioned cider from Yorkshire’s Thornborough is well worth a punt.
8. Strange Bru, Caledonian Cider Company
(Dry cider, Ross-shire)
£3.50 (Good Spirits co had it at the time of writing but now seem to be out of stock.)
If, when I lived in Inverness a few years back, you’d told me that there would soon be a producer on the Black Isle making dry cider in the west country style from proper Ross-shire apples I’d have thought you were bonkers or lying. But, thanks to Ryan Sealey at the Caledonian Cider Co, that has now been the case since 2013. What’s more, in this taster’s experience, you won’t easily find a better west country-style cider outside of its traditional heartland. (And you’ll find precious few that are as good inside it.)
It really isn’t very often these days that I’m completely taken aback by a drink’s unexpected brilliance. When you’ve tasted a certain number, you can sometimes make an educated guess as to how good something will likely be. So I’ll come clean and admit that I anticipated the Caledonian Cider Co being decent at best – until I took my first sniff of Strange Bru.
It’s one of the very few completely dry ciders you’ll come across, uses mainly (possibly entirely … Ryan?) cider apples, all locally grown, and is fermented in whisky casks (well what else would they use in Ross-shire?) with wild yeast. It is an absolute treat, almost criminally cheap and should be a buy-on-sight bottle. Doubly so if you encounter Ryan’s keeved Islay Cask, but that’s so rare I discounted it from my list. To be honest though, grab any Caledonian Company ciders you can find. Local Rocket is the only one that has, to date, eluded me. I am determined to put that right this year.
On a side note, for eloquent thoughts on the state of the cider world, the challenges associated with orcharding in difficult locations and the hoops through which the craft cidermaker must jump, I can’t do much better than point you towards Ryan’s blog.
Colour: Hazy light bronze
On the nose: Everything about this nose says West Country … really good West Country. The rich, spicy wumph of apples; skins, leaves and all (incredibly leafy-herby, actually; a reall ‘outdoors’ cider) alongside the vanilla and wood of oak casks. And yet there’s a zingy, pithy, almost grapefruity leanness that says … hang on … this is something different.
In the mouth: Oh that’s ace. A good whack of vanilla and pepper and oak – surely a Speyside whisky cask or two? – alongside rich, dry, big, bold apple fruit. That leafy, herbal note and light citrus peel provides edge and bite whilst flickering, well-integrated tannins give structure. The lightest, savoury, nutty nuance of oxidation adds to the cider’s complexity without distracting in the least from its zip and freshness. Just does exactly what you want of a really good dry cider. If I still lived in Inverness my fridge would never be without this. If I still lived in Dundee I’d do the drive up every other week to stay stocked.
Serve: cellar temperature or after half an hour in the fridge, tops.
Drink with: it’s a clichéd, obvious choice … but the geophysicist and I eat a tonne of haggis (she makes it for breakfast sometimes, presumably because some people just like to watch the world burn) and this would match it perfectly (not at breakfast, obviously). If you want to be a little less nauseatingly Burns Night, shepherds pie, Bolognese or any not-too-spicy casserole would work. This cider has the muscle and brawn to match something properly hearty.
Drink when: you just want to kick back with something really, really decent.
After an alternative? Stay in Scotland and track down anything from Steilhead. As both of these cideries’ products are very hard to come by online, I’d also head south of the border to check out this Ganley & Naish.
9. The Wonder 2015, Once Upon a Tree
(Ice perry, Herefordshire)
The fourth Herefordshire entry in my mixed dozen. I realise that looks fairly uneven, but had I not been restricting myself to one entry per producer it could easily have been far more so.
Herefordshire is single-handedly responsible for 20% of the world’s cider production. It is the only county it is impossible to drive around without spotting orchards. And, alongside the enormous from-concentrate factories, it is where you will also find the highest density of the most exciting small producers.
Such as Once Upon a Tree, run by Simon Day. Simon’s been around wine literally since he was born. Talk to him and he’ll tell you his lightning bolt moment with cider was when he realised that – but for the necessary grinding of apples before pressing – it was made, at its best, in exactly the same way as wine is from grapes.
Since then Simon has been making outstanding ciders and perries with a winemaker’s sensibility. His fruit all comes from Dragon Orchard, and his range is comfortably among the most interesting you’ll find in the UK. Beautifully presented blends in wine bottles, champagne method ciders and perries, even cider that has fermented on the skins of grapes. (Do try his Dabinett & Pinot Noir if you can). But comfortably the most eye-catching thing he makes is The Wonder, one of the very, very few Ice Perries I’ve ever come across, and one of only two I’ve encountered in the UK. (And I’ve not been able to track down a bottle of the other one to taste.)
On the nose: It’s the sheer freshness that grabs you first; honey and white flowers overlaying citrus and bruised apples and pear tart – baking spices and all. More than any ice cider this shows off its familial relationship to sweet wine. Incredibly refined and poised.
In the mouth: The Sauternes impersonation continues on the palate with almost botryitic notes of orange marmalade, quince, runny honey and light toast. But underscoring it all is that beautiful, bright clarity of pear and a delicious seam of acidity that cuts through the pronounced sweetness and unctuous mouthfeel, turning the whole thing into an elegant, refreshing, complex joy, bursting with light and life and depth and wonder.
Serve: well chilled
Drink with: I am so not the person to do dessert wine food pairings. I imagine someone would tell me this goes fabulously with stilton, too, but I can’t stand cheese of any sort. Just drink it. Once people have a taste they won’t care what you served it with.
Drink when: an occasion comes along that’s more special than Christmas and your birthday put together. Or, if you can’t wait until then, as soon as you can get the bottle open.
After an alternative? Llanbethian Orchards in Wales make the only other Ice Perry I’ve heard of in the UK. And since you can’t even find it on their website, good luck tracking one down! (If you do find one, I’d love to know what it tastes like … their Ice Ciders are delicious.)
10. Poiré Granit 2018, Eric Bordelet
(Medium sparkling perry, France)
If you want to learn all you need to know about how good perry can be, get yourself a glass of the Oliver’s from yesterday, and stick it next to a glass of this.
Eric Bordelet is cider and perry’s Mr Terroir. Visit him, and, I’m told, you’ll be looking at geological maps of his orchards before you’ve finished shaking hands. Like Tom Oliver, he makes both cider and perry, and like Tom, whilst both are extraordinary, it’s his perries that will really have you tasting stars.
Granit is his top bottling, made from 300-year-old – yes, three-hundred-year-old – perry pear trees growing on granite slopes. It’s a completely different affair to the Writer’s Perry; lighter-bodied – though not at all lighter-flavoured – more delicate, a little sweeter. But it’s utterly, mesmerizingly magnificent. If there’s a better poiré in France I’ve certainly not tasted it.
Colour: Pale straw
On the nose: Sweet. Baby. Jesus. Imagine the purest, the brightest, the most blindingly whistle-clean aromas you can and you’re still not in the ballpark. There’s lemon and lime and quince and juicy pineapple cubes and green apple; there’s a slatey minerality and a dazzling, brain-tingling freshness, but most of all there’s the huge, whetted, staggering brilliance of pear. Never mind Granit, this should be called Poiré Quintessence.
In the mouth: Everything of the nose follows through on the palate … but even more so, herded by the twin sheepdogs of clean, mouthwatering, immaculately-weighted acidity and vivacious yet creamy mousse. If you really concentrate you suddenly realise that there is actually a good smear of sweetness, but such is the brightness, the intensity, the vigour that everything remains in balance. If you love the whites of the Loire, of Alsace and of Germany, this poiré has to be in your wine rack. Prior to this note I had tasted a few other vintages, but this 2018 is probably the best yet. I can’t wait to see how it develops. 2018 was a super vintage for cider and perry in England – clearly it was every bit as good across the channel.
Serve: chilled. Treat along the same lines as you might Sancerre, unoaked Vouvray or Spätlese-Auslese Riesling.
Drink with: the freshest seafood you can get your hands on. (Or, if it floats your boat more than it does mine, this would doubtless be wonderful with goats cheese).
Drink when: in the company of seasoned winos.
11. Oliver’s Twist 2018, Eden
(Dry, bottle-conditioned cider, Vermont)
I am almost out of superlatives for Eden, so suffice it to say that if I had to use just one producer to convince someone of cider’s brilliance, without knowing their preferences beforehand, I would strongly consider this place. The ciders they make have more than enough to keep enthusiasts happy, whilst also being nailed-on crowdpleasers in the best way possible. Their ice ciders are decadent, their champagne methods are superb, and at least a couple of their cellar series would make my all-time top ten.
Eleanor Leger makes them from apples grown in local orchards and documents each of her growers on Eden’s marvellous website. In honesty, I could have picked almost anything Eleanor makes to fill this slot – the British Bourbon Society’s Andrew Watson will tell me off for not choosing Guinevere’s Pearls, and leaving out an Eden Ice Cider feels almost like heresy – but I’ve gone for Oliver’s Twist because it is a single variety Foxwhelp.
Perhaps alongside Yarlington Mill, Foxwhelp is my favourite cider apple. It’s a bittersharp, meaning it has both tannin and acidity, and in the right hands it makes the most vibrant, tangy, dazzling, unforgettable single variety ciders of all. The received wisdom is that the best ciders are always made from blends – my take is that the best Foxwhelp is a beautiful thing as a solo act. (Although a little Foxwhelp in a blend can elevate that cider to dizzying new peaks).
Not unlike the Riesling grape, Foxwhelp has the capacity to age delightfully, but is gorgeous in a wholly different way when drunk at its youngest and most citrus-scentedly alive. Not many producers have the chutzpah to release unadulterated Foxwhelp at outrageous full-throttle. Ross on Wye have made a couple of stunners (I’ll never forget their First Press 2018) – and Eden make this. It was inspired (as many ciders are) by a visit to Tom Oliver’s cidery, where Eleanor tasted Foxwhelp for the first time, straight from the barrel.
Her own is dry and bottle conditioned (are you sensing a pattern?). Chatting to Ross’s Albert Johnson and Matt Miller, an American cidermaker, we were pondering where Eleanor might have found the Foxwhelp in the USA. Turns out she got the apples from Steve Wood of Farnum Hill, who brought the graftwood over back in the ‘80s. So there you go.
As with so many ciders I keep telling myself that I’ll buy a couple of 2018s and pretend to forget them for a few years, but I know myself too well – they’d be gone in a month or two.
Colour: Clear lemon juice
On the nose: That pure, clean, intense Foxwhelp, ringing with classic strawberry fruit alongside lemon and gooseberry and cut grass and white flowers. Very difficult to nose without thinking of a Loire Sauvignon, even down to the wet-slatey minerality (though the red fruits lend an additional ripe roundness).
In the mouth: I do wonder what strain of Foxwhelp this could be. All the flavours follow through from the nose – almost with utter precision; more so than any other I’ve listed – yet the acidity, whilst typically vibrant and yellow and nibbly isn’t quite as razor-toothed as comparably-aged pure Foxwhelp from, say, Ross-on-Wye. Difference in strain? Difference in terroir? Difference in handling? Impossible for me to say. What I do know is that this is utterly refreshing. Like the love-child of a Pouilly-Fumé and a Belgian Geuze. On the higher end of carbonated for a bottle conditioned cider – perhaps that’s contributing to taming the acidity a little? – but the more insistent part of the mousse receded pretty quickly; I didn’t find it distracting. Lingering, lemony, lip-smacking fare. Vive la Whelp.
Serve: you can chill this one harder than the other dry bottle-conditioned ciders on this list. You don’t have to, but to my taste young Foxwhelp’s mouthwatering vivaciousness lends itself well to a bit of coldness. (And that extra fizz putts it in sparkling wine territory anyway.)
Drink with: the first barbecue of the summer. And the second. And the third.
Drink when: you can sit in the garden all day with the sun in your face and a cold bucket close to hand.
After an alternative? I’ll have to break my “no repeated cideries” rule here. Only the Foxwhelps of Ross-on-Wye let this apple sing solo to the same, untouched, extent. But I recommend you get in touch and ask Albert to just mix you up a case of single varieties. Best drinks education money you’ll ever spend.
12. Björk, Pomologik
(Medium-dry sparkling cider, macerated on birch leaves post-fermentation)
Bring up the notion online of adding anything to cider and you’d better settle in for a long, long ‘debate’. Thanks to the saccharine grimness of Kopparberg and friends, I really can’t think of anything more vociferously raged about than so-called “fruit ciders”. It makes whisky-nerd grumblings about caramel colouring, dilution, over-efficiency and lack of transparency look like mild distaste.
The problem is that all of the big brands use chemicals and flavourings on top of liquid made with as little apple juice as they can get away with, sugared, concentrated and diluted to within an inch of its life. They’re part of what gives cider an unfair reputation as sickly grot-juice for teenagers, and unsurprisingly, lots of people would like rid of them.
Unfortunately, this hatred percolates down to the smaller producers who, seeing the huge market for fruit cider, have tried to “do it properly”, adding real berries, hops, elderflowers etc to whole juice. These smaller cidermakers are further stymied by a UK law which imposes eye-watering duty on any “made wine” (the category into which fruit cider falls) over 4% abv. (This article is very good on explaining cider’s ridiculous duty situation.) The upshot being that it is very, very rare to find a something-added cider that has not been heavily diluted.
I should admit that the list of hopped, fruited or otherwise adjuncted ciders that have been to my personal taste can be counted without running out of fingers. But here, ironically from the country that gave us the hideous double act of Kopparberg and Rekorderlig, is one I absolutely adore.
I suppose it only really counts as “adjunct-light”. It is a single variety Cox’s Orange Pippin, fermented to dryness, then rested on birch leaves for 30 days before a further maturation in oak. Alas I don’t know very much about the people behind Pomologik, but if you’re more clued up than I – or are a cidermaker there yourself (long odds, but you never know) – please get in touch. All I know is that I practically had to defend my glass from the geophysicist once she’d tasted this, and the other Pomologik ciders currently in stock at Scrattings have gone down every bit as well.
Colour: Amontillado sherry
On the nose: There’s a really intense aroma of a walk through an autumn forest with this one. Suggestion? Possibly – but other tasters concurred without prompt and without knowing this cider’s back-story. A huge, tangy juiciness of apple overlays oregano and silage and pine needle. Incredibly haunting, engrossing nose.
In the mouth: Sharp on the palate – that directness of clean, clear apple juice just a beat or two ahead of the beguiling, leafy, twiggy, almost smoky herbaceousness. Apple skins and citrus peel. No tannin, but a light, brisk bite of attractively pithy bitterness adds a fresh crunch. Not completely dry, but a long way north of medium. I’d be fascinated to taste an ‘unleaved’ batch of this to see what difference as been made. An intriguing and delicious thing indeed.
I’ve included this as a “wildcard” rather than creating a “with adjuncts” entry because I want to be clear that it hasn’t been included in this case for being the best in a pretty sorry category, but because the quality stands up to everything else I’ve listed. A stellar cider in its own right that ought to make quite a lot of so-called “innovators” feel more than a little embarrassed.
Drink with: feels like a good candidate for mushroom stroganoff. Something autumnal and full of vegetation.
Drink when: the leaves have fallen and you want to bring the outside in.
After an alternative? Yarlington Mill ‘On Leaf’ from Sandford Orchards should be your first port of call. Now I’ve broken my rule twice. But it’s not my fault ‘on leaf’ ciders are so thin on the ground.
***BONUS EXTRA CIDER ALERT***
13. The General, Sandford Orchards
(Medium cask aged Devon cider)
Yes, I’m making my case a baker’s dozen; bare-facedly cheating for two very good reasons. Firstly because I simply wanted to get Sandford Orchards into my mix and couldn’t think what to leave out. And secondly, because if my cider collection got whizzed by fair means or foul I’d get into all sorts of trouble if I didn’t replace it with at least one bottle of the geophysicist’s favourite. Which is this one.
Devon is UK cider’s fallen giant, and no one is doing more to stand it back up again than Barny Butterfield, Andy May and the team at Sandford Orchards. Go back a century and Devon arm-wrestled with Herefordshire for supremacy in acreage of orchard by county. But whereas Herefordshire is still the UK’s colossus of apple growing, Devon has lost around 90% of its orchard total in the last century, and much of what remains is in a devastating, neglected state.
This is all the sadder because written records show that many centuries past, the apples and ciders of Devon were as studied and highly regarded as fine wines of the time, with individual flavours and characters that simply couldn’t be found elsewhere. I’m personally guilty of forgetting how much I love great Devon cider; the likes of Smith Hayne, Yarde, Find & Foster, and Sampford Courtenay bowl me over whenever I taste them, yet when people ask me about my favourite region, my mind leaps to Herefordshire vs Somerset without a second thought.
Which is odd, because the classic style of Devon historically tends towards a sharper profile than its more northerly neighbours; a style that Foxwhelp devotees such as I ought to lap up. So I have no excuse for my occasional (brief) periods of Devonian neglect. Sorry Devon.
The geophysicist and I were shown around Sandford Orchards back in September by cidermaker Andy, who blogged brilliantly about cider before Sandford’s owner, Barny, recruited him to a greater cause. They’ve a huge range and – to my mind – do perhaps a better job than anyone else in offering all things to all drinkers. Their standard draught offerings tower above what you’ll find from the (much) bigger brands of rival counties (I daydream about my local one day serving Sandford’s Devon Dry) and they’ve an array of options at the nerdier ‘fine’ end of the spectrum too. Their ‘on leaf’ ciders (see above) are must-tries, as is their Tremlett’s Bitter, and I loved The Collaborators which they made with French Cidery La Ferme du Billy.
But The General is the geophysicist’s favourite, and whether that’s because at 8.4% it’s their highest abv I couldn’t possibly comment. It’s a big, brawny beast of a Devon cider aged in a mightily imposing oak vat named after General Sir Redvers Buller. And since I plundered her last bottle for the purposes of a tasting note, the geophysicist is gatecrashing my review in a MALT-FIRST-EVER to weigh in with her own notes.
One last aside: it’s my opinion that no one currently writes about cider more compellingly, entertainingly and well than Barny. Do spool through Sandford’s blog if you have time.
Adam’s tasting note
Colour: Old Gold
On the nose: Rather a ripe, comforting, strudelly thing, full of baking spices, cooked apple and lignin. A little brown sugar and cinnamon. A very clean nose, whose notes live in the deeper octaves.
In the mouth: The full-bodied, medium palate follows though; sweetness of spice balanced by a little hay bale and sack cloth. Again, the word I come to is ‘comforting’; full of a satisfying weight and depth of fruit, though a light ripple of acidity and ripe tannin maintains grip and freshness. Wears its alcohol lightly – flavours and body more than equal to it. A reminder of how lucky Devon pubs are with Sandford Orchards as their flagbearer.
The geophysicist’s tasting note
“I went into the glass with full intentions of doing a proper tasting note, but the involuntary reaction came: ‘mmm, yummy!’. And the problem continues – delicious. I just want to drink it, at an unusual, sloshing speed.
So … apples, sour, sweet, full bodied. If it was envisaged as on a tree it’d be the red, slightly fuzzy, full of flavour ones.
Pretty mild on the nose, probably why the flavour comes as such an unexpectedly powerful punch. A very big breath in suggests a damp sea cave with the sweet smell of over-ripe apples laying on the damp grass.
In the mouth … a problem … I’m drinking it too fast, on the cusp of uncontrolled rapture. Right … er … sweet, sticky, but not cloying as there’s tannins there too. Orange rind maybe; it has zest but it’s girded in earth and well balanced by sweet, heavily ripened apples.”
Serve: Another that could go either way. The geophysicist likes it from the fridge, and admittedly so do I. But it’s hefty and deep and rich enough to just stick in a wine glass at sort of cellar temperature too. In short: do what you want.
Drink with: the geophysicist’s signature dish: miscellaneous pasta.
Drink when: You’ve had a long old day poring over the minutiae of the physical processes and physical properties of the Earth and its surrounding space environment.
Want an alternative? “No,” says the geophysicist. “If I’d wanted an alternative I’d have asked for one.”
So there, over 7,000 words later (sorry), you have it. Thirteen ciders and perries that I’d happily stick next to any other drink in the world. What’s more, you can buy the lot with change from £150. Given that many (most?) of these have been made in batches of fewer than 1000 bottles, and bearing in mind the quality they represent, that’s practically a sick joke.
Which is the note I want to conclude on. The reason these astounding, delicious libations of craft and care are so inexpensive is that they don’t currently get anything like the attention they deserve. In the mind’s eye of the British public, cider is still the sickly, watery stuff that doesn’t taste much like apples and skulks balefully next to the beer taps at their local. And “real cider” is seen as some kind of noxious, brain-shrivelling, undrinkable scrumpy in the paw of a red-faced yokel.
The selfish part of me wants to keep great cider and perry a secret. To still be able to find and buy tiny-batch treasures months after release for eye-poppingly low prices. But the people who make these marvellous things deserve better.
If you are reading Malt, you fall into one of three categories. Perhaps you are here because you like the long-form writing – that’s certainly why I first became a fan. Perhaps you’re just here to rage and seethe at what those opinionated Malt bastards are saying today – that’s fine too: such readers are vital currency. But some of you are here because you trust our advice on what tastes good, and what you should shell out your own hard-earned cash on.
If that’s you – if you believe that I wouldn’t advocate something that I didn’t think was absolutely A-Grade stuff; if you trust me as a reasonable arbiter of tasty things; if you trust me with whiskies that cost £50 … £100 … £150 a bottle, I ask you with all my heart to trust me with this.
If you’re not sure about cider; if you’ve only tried the mass-produced, the from-concentrate, the big-brand supermarket stuff, please give real cider a fair chance. No two ciders or perries that I’ve listed in the last two days are anything alike, so do buy a pair, because I’m certain that at least one of them will be for you.
Great cider is a hidden, secretive world tucked behind beer and wine and gin and whisky and rum and its own often-shoddy big-brand stablemates. It is a world deserving of a proper reception; of its moment in the sun. So please, please, ye handsome-and-wise Malt readers, try one or two of the ciders and perries I’ve listed here. I strongly suspect that they will change your mind. If you’re lucky, as I was, they might change your life.