What’s normal now? I haven’t a clue. Nothing, really. My own personal version of normal sailed off into the sunset weeks ago – possibly months by the time you read this – when I sat down to work at the kitchen table and tried to work out what VPN was. Today’s normal is a roll-call of what at any other time would be the extreme nub of weirdnesses. It’s deep breaths and anxiety whenever a shopping trip’s needed. Its once-a-day walks turned into a swerving, slaloming game of pedestrian Pacman. It’s a breakfast stool for an office chair, dinners via videocall, longing gazes at gardens through the flat window and risqué memes from aunts and mother in our family whatsapp group. Small luxuries have concentrated into the deepest of clung-to privileges. Simply writing an article for Malt comes with guilty pangs of “is this desperately trivial … is this just head-in-the-sandism?”; gabbing on about drinks in the shadow of a fraught, grieving and unknowable world, aware that right now I’m one of the very, very lucky ones.
A little ray of light has been watching the response of the craft cider community on twitter. I know we’re a bubble, and a small one at that, but there’s been a level of energy, of support, of what marketers call joined-up-thinking that can sometimes seem faint and frail under normal circumstances. So now we have maps and lists of cider producers and how to buy their wares. I’ve seen a doubling down on tastings, on educational videos, on support for locals. And I’ve seen a colossal, an unbelievable, increase in purchases, all seemingly driven by a desire to see our favourite cideries still standing and thriving when we reach the other side.
That last one’s been on my mind somewhat in the last week or so. On the one hand I want to do my bit, I fret that I’m not doing enough, and I worry again that writing Malt articles about txotx and French cider and Foxwhelp is just blinkered, tone-deaf frivolity of no help to anyone. On the other hand I live in a studio flat, my bottle collection is now far larger and more invasive than it needs to be, and I’m increasingly aware that there is always something in my line of sight. I can’t help reminding myself sometimes that I’d do well to remember my own advice of a year ago and my new Malt colleague’s of just the other week. I don’t want to labour the point too much in this article – just to say that I hope fellow drinks wonks are staying safe, sipping wisely, and know that they can give me a shout in the comments or on twitter if it’s all getting a bit too much. I think we could probably do with some moderative solidarity more than ever right now.
Without wishing to scuff the sheen of cider’s current online positivity, I suppose the main point of my musing is that I hope it doesn’t fade when we reach the other side. I hope that drinkers continue to support their locals and the wider craft cider community; that it’s not left to pubs to prop up the cideries we all love and occasionally take for granted. I hope that through the long weeks indoors, these cideries are able to batten down the hatches and continue to get their ciders to market, and I hope that they are still able to do so when our shared online sips spill into real togetherness once more.
One cidery I have been thrilled to see start making deliveries directly to customers is Pang Valley. I’ve written about them before; their Royal County was the “eastern counties style” entry in my essential dozen at the start of the year. For my crust they’re bottling Berkshire’s best cider at the moment, and based on a visit earlier this year they’re only going to get better. The geophysicist has installed them as her “house ciders” of our lockdown and guards them with special jealousy. I was pleased to see that Rick’s on the cusp of bottling one or two new ciders … in the meantime I thought I’d run through a few of his existing creations.
First up we’ve got last year’s bottling of Abbey Gold, a blend of west country varieties – Dabinett, Michelin, Brown’s and an unknown variety harvested from Berkshire’s Douai Abbey. Then there’s an older bottling of the same cider from a few years back … date unknown, but likely to have been 2016 or so, made in the pre-Pang Valley days when cidermaker Rick traded under Wyatt’s Cider.
Also flying under the Wyatt’s Cider flag is a bottle of Berkshire Gold, from one or two vintages ago. As the name suggests it’s all Berkshire apples, locally-harvested cookers and eaters. And rounding the quartet off is a bone dry version of Berkshire Gold bottled last year under Pang Valley.
Pang Valley Abbey Gold Medium – review
Color: Old Gold
On the nose: One of those incredibly apple-forward cider noses – as in the sort of apple notes anyone would be familiar with through fresh-pressed juice. Alongside that are tones of honey, beeswax and clementines. Very fresh and entirely about the fruit. A real whiff of summer – that heavier fruit fatness and ripeness.
In the mouth: Follows through from the nose note for note, those plump apple juice and clementines presenting in wonderfully clean, easy-going, moreish form. Mild carbonation accents the plumpness nicely. I’d love it a few tones drier, but this is nonetheless delicious, with superb fruit clarity. Supremely accessible to newcomers.
Wyatt’s Cider Abbey Gold Medium – review
On the nose: That’s just spring in a glass, that is. Little, delicate teasings of hawthorn, blossom, fresh grass and meadowsweet. Touches of chamomile and sweet green apple. It’s perhaps a little light on aroma, compared to its Royal County stablemate, but jolly pleasant.
In the mouth: Fuller here, with a lovely, zingy acidity that cuts through the sweetness. Apples and soft pears with a touch of white flower. Reminds me of decent unoaked South African Chenin Blanc. Again, I’d love it a notch drier, and I’m sure it would have been even more vivacious a year ago, but it’s whistle clean and super-fresh. If you like your ciders medium you could drink this by the bucket.
Pang Valley Berkshire Gold Bone Dry – review
Color: Pineapple juice
On the nose: I feel I ought to have poured this from a great height with a shout of “Txotx!” Those aromas – somewhere between citrus and tropical – have whisked me straight back to the Sagardotegias of Astigarraga. Uncanny. Not an enormous nose, but with plenty of ripe lemon, green apple and pineapple.
In the mouth: Oh just pass me chorizo, salt cod omelette and steak already. They should rename this Basqueshire Gold. It’s all here: the bone-dry, rasping acidity, orange peel, pineapple and guava. There’s just a flutter of geuze too, and a whisper – the lightest whisper – of acetic acid, not vinegary at all, but lacing the edges of the pineapple flavours. This is a cider for Ciderzale to try, and no mistake.
Wyatt’s Cider Abbey Gold Medium – review
On the nose: There are some lovely, deep, developed aromas in this glass. Baked apple, sultana, leather and cinnamon. I’ve opened it just in time – there’s just a hint that it’s on the cusp of oxidation, but right now, far from curling at the edges, a gentle hint of walnut adds a lovely, light savouriness.
In the mouth: Delicious – toffee apple, nutmeg and a little smoky bacon. But there’s still so much freshness here – the nip of the Browns apple, I presume – and it scores through that richness and sweetness. I would dearly, dearly love a dry version of this, but that’s a very quibbly quibble. This is a wonderful cider. And if the bone dry came with a Spanish accent, this one is more than a little bit fluent in French.
Some bad news, first of all. Pang Valley Abbey Gold is the only one of this quartet you can actually buy. The Wyatt’s Abbey Gold is long since sold out, ditto the Wyatt’s Berkshire Gold, and the Pang Valley Berkshire Gold Bone Dry never went on sale. Why? Because it was bottled by another cidermaker and some of it got mixed up with another batch. So there will forever be an asterisk by my review, as I’ll never know exactly what I tasted. All I know is that it was jolly tasty, that it transported me back to San Sebastián for a while and that I am glad the geophysicist, a more adventurous soul, had the sense of fun to give it proper Basque cider treatment.
Rick and I have chatted enough to know that my usual preferences tend to sit on a slightly drier end of the spectrum than his. But as I say, there’s no doubt whatsoever in my mind that he is currently bottling the best, cleanest, most fruit-expressive ciders in Berkshire – an increasingly big statement. I can’t wait for the soon-to-be-bottled Pang Valley edition of Berkshire Gold, and I’d recommend any of Rick’s creations to anyone. The reception I’ve seen to his ciders on Reading twitter has been a wonderful glimmer of light in these darkest and most uncertain of times. I hope, when the world returns to normal, that the otherwise excellent pubs and taprooms of Reading will realise what a treasure sits on their doorstep.