Mention Swedish cider to anyone and, if you get a response at all, it’ll be Kopparberg. Possibly Rekorderlig. The lowest of the low. Alcopops by any other name, sneaking cat-burglar-like into the cider category to circumvent laws designed to reduce underage drinking. Saccharine, artificial, ultra-diluted villains with lord alone knows how many uprooted orchards on their hands. Slayers both of apple ciders and of biodiversity. You’ll have gathered that I’m not a fan.
But last year, or possibly a little earlier, I came across Brännland, whose ice ciders I thought were delicious, and whose regular ciders I enjoyed more than a little as well. And around perhaps last November, a whole flight of new, swanky-looking, 750ml ciders popped up on Scrattings from a Swedish craft cidery called Pomologik.
They were all at the thorny end of the cider price scale, but feeling reckless and curious and clearly more fiscally-frivolous than usual, I bought the lot. And the first one I tried, Björk, was so good that I put it in my “essential case of ciders”, published on Malt at the start of January. I tried my second Pomologik some time later, which was a shame, because that one was probably even better.
By this point my interest was significantly piqued, yet when I did some digging I was struggling to come up with information. Google translate held up its hands in surrender most of the times that I tried to wrestle with the Swedish on the website. And when Google did play ball, whilst I could find a few bits and pieces about individual ciders, I was still left wanting to dig a little deeper into who was making them and what the thought processes were behind each one. More than anything I was curious to learn what the cider scene looked like in Sweden behind those grim, ubiquitous, artificially-flavoured denizens of every pub fridge in the UK.
So I pinged Pomologik an email, more in hope than expectation, and was thrilled when cidermaker Johan Sjöstedt replied in almost no time at all, agreeing to talk to me about all things Pomologik and Swedish cider. So here, condensed and edited for clarity, we go:
Malt: Who are you and what do you do?
Johan: I’m Johan Sjöstedt and I ferment apples for a living. It says Direktör on my business card and even if I do a bit direktör work I’m basically doing everything at Pomologik except accounting. When I’m not in the fields or in the cider bunker I’m mostly hanging out with my wife Maria and my kids Ebba and Gustav at the family farm where we live.
Malt: We don’t hear much about real Swedish cider. How did you come to be involved with it?
Johan: There is a reason for that – until these last few years it has been pretty much non-existent. There is historical evidence that cider was drunk at royal parties in the 14th century and it pops up here and there during the 16th and 17th but by the 18th century its vanished. Even to the point that the great Carl von Linné is complaining over the fact that no one in Sweden is pressing apples in order to make cider.
(All this info is very recently discovered and only available thanks to the fine work of Ciderfrämjandet a community whose sole purpose is to elevate craft cider.)
Up until now there have not really been any real ones and there are still a lot of people in the industry that are certain that it’s not possible to make good cider from Swedish apples.
These days we have an enormous surplus of apples in peoples gardens and even though I grew up on a farm and always had a connection to, and love for, apples it was the waste that drew me into it. The huge amount that gets thrown at the dump each year is such a waste. The more I started thinking about it the more I was certain we could solve it in some way.
Malt: Talk to us about Pomologik’s journey. How did you start, what’s changed or grown, and how much are you making at the moment?
Johan: Personally, it all started some thirteen years ago. It was my last year studying sommelierie and the first time I came in contact with real ciders. It was one of those mind blowing moments and pretty quickly we started talking about making our own.
After a few years and a trip to Normandy me and Karl Arbin, one of my friends who shared that epiphany, started to make our own in small batches. It was absolute crap, totally undrinkable to the trained palate. But I kept on doing more anyway, trying different approaches, maceration, different yeasts, different varieties and different temperatures. And one day it was not only drinkable. It was good. 2016 I bought an old cidery, the juice-making kind, not with a licence to produce alcohol. That was a stepping stone where I learnt more about different local varieties and this was the kind of cidery where private costumers bring their apples for pressing and get juice in return. That was when I meet Oskar, who became co-founder and he and I are still the only people in the company apart from hourly employed. We made some juice there that we sent to a friend’s brewery and put in two barrels that I bought to ferment, and that was our first vintage. The year after we moved to a new place and got a licence to ferment. We’ve been there three years now and at the moment we have 100+ oak barrels and 300+ hl tank capacity. We’re still selling vintage 2017 and the stock we have is spread over all three vintages we made so far.
Malt: Tell me about the sorts of apples you’re using. Are there any particular Swedish varieties you use? Do you have your own orchards?
Johan: We mainly use Swedish culinary apples. There is no tradition of growing cider apples so we’ve got to work with what we’ve got. We pick as many wild apples we can find, both proper wild Sylvestris types and seedlings. They give a nice addition of tannin that we otherwise won’t find around here. For cuvées like Lera we mainly use donated apples. Apples from people’s gardens that would otherwise be left on the compost pile. There is obviously some selection involved but mainly it is what it is and so far it has turned out really well. There are some varieties that we prefer and some that we’d never make cider from again and the difference between them is one of the most challenging and at the same time most rewarding part of what we do. Take for example one of my favourites, Åkerö, it’s basically the Pinot Noir of Sweden. Thin skin, very delicate, showing huge vintage differences and prone to pyrazines (green pepper notes) if harvested unripe. When it’s good it’s amazing but when you screw up it’ll take two years to oxidize the pyrazines away. The big challenge is to learn how to bring out the best in every variety, how long time do they need to sweat? How long do they need to mature in tank or barrel? Is oxidation preferable or should we keep it under CO2 to keep it fruity? Is all a huge puzzle, a fun one but one of those daunting 2000 pieces ones where half of them are sky. We planted a hectare last autumn. A mix of cider varieties and native Swedish ones I like. Some Sylvestris ones as well, not sure what to call them anymore, domesticated wild apples? The plan is to plant more and this time only cider varieties. There are also many old orchards with huge trees that we are allowed to pick from. Then there are also the wild ones. We have about 300 wild trees growing within 3 km radius from our farm. It’s nuts, I didn’t even notice them before but when you start to look, they are everywhere.
Malt: What are the challenges with making cider in Sweden? I imagine it gets pretty cold?
Johan: Apart from the horrors of frost during bloom the cold is not really an issue, I’d see it more of an advantage. The cold nights and the warm days are one of the reasons we have such great balance in our apples. I might be somewhat biased, but the culinary apples produced in this area is unrivalled. The amount of sunlight they get here in also a huge difference and makes heaps when it comes to phenolic compounds as far as my pseudo-scientific patriotic mind is concerned.
Malt: Your ciders come in a huge range of styles. Do you think that not having a long heritage, like Normandy or the West Country in England, makes innovation easier?
Johan: Yes, definitely. But the drawback on that is that there are no protected designations.
Malt: Talk us through a few of the different ciders you make.
Johan: Where to start… We make way too many styles and cuvées for our own good. It’s come to the extent that I have a hard time finding the energy to make labels for each one.
Since we’re still on a journey into the unknown I want to deep dive into every terroir, variety and production technique available if it has any distinguishable characteristics that I find interesting. It’s a treat from a geek point of view but business-wise it’s a fricking disaster. But all that exploring is what will help us discover what Nordic craft cider will be all about in 10 years. By mixing everything available to us we will find new ways to express the fruit, and that is what it’s all about in the end.
The Gravenstein Ice Ice Baby for example. In 2017 we sweated the Gravensteiners as long as we dared. It was a lot of sorting and the apples had gone full fatty yellow, a sure sign you got a terrible pressing ahead but the phenolics that comes from those apples are the exotic fruit stuff of dreams. Half of the juice went into stainless steel for fermentation. Natural fermentation took the lead but we pitched it with a small amount R2 from Lalvin after 4 days. We wanted those first apiculate yeast to add to the mix but also explore something I got in my head a few years previously, the idea that Gravensteiner was the Riesling of the apples. The other half of the juice was frozen solid and slowly thawed. The freeze-concentrated juice [Ed: cryo-concentrated ‘ice cider’ … see this article for more detail], now about 5 times the strength in flavour and sugar, went straight into 225 l burgundy barrels where it was left on its own to do its thing naturally. I didn’t intend to mix them both at the time. But after the juice in stainless had fermented to dryness and matured for a couple of months I was uncertain what to do with it. It had those crisp Riesling notes I had hoped for but it felt a bit bland as there was a slight dissonance with something that has the bouquet of a wine you know but lacking in ABV and body. So I tried it with a bit of the ice cider and it all came together. The more oxidated notes of the ice cider shattered the reductive Riesling notes a bit but in a good way. It became its own thing. Basically, we make it up as we go along.
It was the same with Volatil. We were pressing crab apples one day and tasting the pulp left over from the press, even though it’s dry it still had massive amount of tannin and flavour left in it. After that we put all the pulp in a container and covered it with a juice made from donated apples from the neighbourhood and left it to ferment to dryness. The idea was to rack it in good time since this was an open vessel and we didn’t want to contaminate it, but life got in between and I was too late, the acetic bacteria (that are always present unless you use strong chemicals and a lot of sulphur) had made their presence known. My initial reaction was not favourable but I found myself drawn to it and I realised the notes I really liked about it had a lot of similarities with sidra and it felt like being back in the basque country, eating salty cod and drinking super tart cider. It was a gamble as it’s as far from a crowd pleaser as I’ve ever made but I put it in barrels for a few months to smoothen out the roughest edges and then we bottled it in the basque way, still. It’s a love it or hate it cider but I thought putting Volatil on the label would attract the right type of drinker.
Malt: You seem to like working with barrels for your cider? Do you have particular favourites to use? What does each one bring to your ciders?
Johan: So far we only worked with used burgundy barrels. 5-7 years old and both red and white. Mainly because it’s my personal favourite among wine regions and the fact that they are uncompromising when it comes to barrels and meticulous in their work. The price point for burgundy being what it is there is really no reason for them to cut costs on oak and they always buy the best from local coopers. This also means that the barrels are never infected or leaky. Obviously they are a bit more expensive but after the first batch I bought I was hooked. I’m not really looking for barrel notes, we want the micro-oxidation to mature the cider slowly and in most of our ciders I think you have to be a professional to detect it. It’s been very exciting to notice the difference between different coopers and what toasting is better for what type of cider. This vintage we’ll be doing more experiments with other kind of barrels, some really wicked stuff. Not what you would expect. But it’ll be ready in 2022 so you have to be patient on that one.
Malt: Speaking as a wine nerd, I have to say there’s an incredibly wine-like quality to a lot of your ciders. Is that something you’ve been aiming for? Do you think cider should take more of its cues from wine?
Johan: Thanks, I take that as a fine compliment. I would not say that it’s been a deliberate aim but that is the techniques and flavours we have to go for in order to tame the Swedish apples. The thing that makes the apples here so incredibly good for eating straight from the tree, the high acidity, is also what the huge challenge when it comes to making a tasty fermented beverage out of it.
It took me many years and failed batches to figure this out. In the beginning I took cues from brewing and some of the cidermakers in Normandy but it always turned out the same – shit. It wasn’t until I was running out of vessels for my failed experiments that I had to pour out my old failing to make room for new one and I found one of the batches I made years previous and before pouring it out I obviously had to try it, and it was really good. But not in a traditional cider sense, in a wine sense. It was more similar to a Muscadet sur lie or a young Riesling. That’s where it kind of clicked and there was hope to make something more than just vinegar. From there on it was longer maturation times, malolactic fermentations and barrels.
I think there is a lot of inspiration to take from the wine side but we have to be careful in what parts we choose to inspire us. One of the reasons I pretty much left the wine community and embraced this one is the relaxed atmosphere. There is no pretention; snobbism and the hierarchies that plague the wine industry are pretty much non-existent. A few years back my wife told me: “I really like drinking wine with you, but I love drinking cider with you.” The reason was simple, when it came to cider she felt like her opinion was important and there was a discussion whereas when it came to wine my judgment (with two years of sommelier studies, internship as NOMA, working as a sommelier, working in imports and as a wine critic at one of Sweden’s dailies) was final. Wine drinking was more of a lecture while cider drinking was a mutual exploration.
Wine knowledge is one of the more prestigious you can amass, especially in countries that have no wine production. This makes for a very bourgeois power trip for those who have it and one of the drawbacks is that the industry attracts the kind of people that thrive in such an environment. I want the opposite for cider. All knowledge should be shared, and everybody’s opinion should be respected. This will not be a cider revolution if the perspective is from above. Personally I have enormous amounts of love for the term cider but it’s associated with cheap and often questionable quality so labelling my product ‘cider’ automatically puts me in a category where I constantly have to argue for the price of my products. Two of my colleagues here in Sweden have chosen another path. Bedstekilde who makes top notch sparkling champagne method calls it ‘apple wine’ and Fruktstereo uses the term fruit ‘pet-nat’ for their more expensive ciders. That way they’re finding a new audience that wouldn’t have picked up a bottle that said ‘cider’ on it. It’s a smart move business wise but no matter the angle I’m looking at it, cider is what I do and will keep on doing.
Malt: I’ve only seen Pomologik and Brännland in the UK, in terms of Swedish craft cidermakers. Are there many others?
Johan: No, we are still very much a fringe movement. But there is a lot going on. It’s an exciting time for Swedish craft cider, we have a few producers starting up these last two harvests and there is an incredible range. For example, we have Sentomcider, the duo Axel and Klara. They interned at Cyril Zangs and Agathe Letellier at Manoir d’Appreval in Normandy so the style is traditional (but still new by Swedish standards). On the other side of the spectrum you have Brutes, a bunch of expats who are aiming more towards the funky pet-nat side of things. Both approaches are completely different and that is very exciting to me. A lot of people ask me how the profile of Swedish craft cider is but there is not one answer to that question. We are all exploring different paths and in a few years’ time we’ll probably have an even wider range
Malt: What’s the Swedish cider market like at the moment? Is there a lot of enthusiasm for it locally, or is cider still very small?
Johan: It is very small. If you put all of our craft volumes together, we would probably not make up an hour’s production at Kopparberg. It’s a very immature market and the domestic demand will not increase in sync with production. That’s why all of us are looking to export.
Malt: A lot of people in the UK have perhaps only heard of Rekorderlig and Kopparberg when it comes to Swedish ciders. What’s the view of those brands in Sweden?
Johan: We didn’t have a cider culture to begin with so there was never a takeover or division. When they came along it was just another alcopop that was slightly better than the others. The lack of heritage also makes people very ignorant about these kind of products plus the companies have been really smart about their advertising. One of the ads was “with fresh spring water from Kopparberg.” Audacious as hell but very smart. There is no reason for water to be there to begin with, but to make it into one of the benefits is just a douche move you kind of have to respect.
I got a bit off track there. Basically, if you know your way around beverages you’d see it as absolute crap. But as far as the public is concerned it’s not an issue. In some ways it’s an export success that many are proud of in the same sense as IKEA.
Malt: Do huge brands like that make it harder for you to talk about full-juice ciders like yours?
Johan: Not really, or at least not yet. The main problem on that part is the fact that people don’t know enough, but the people interested in the real deal knows the difference, both taste wise and the core concept. But we’re starting to see some crafty versions coming to market and they will probably be a huge problem along the way if we don’t organise ourselves and start to educate the public about the differences.
Malt: I’ve heard that the minimum percentage of apple juice allowed in a drink labelled cider is even lower in Sweden than it is in the UK. What’s the situation like in terms of transparency on labels, and legal protection for craft ciders like yourself?
Johan: That is correct, we’re an embarrassing 15% fruit juice and the juice is allowed to come from concentrate (so basically 2% concentrate in the “cider”) plus you don’t have to list your ingredients. For somebody who wants to dive into these beverages it’s really hard to tell what is what. There is nothing in regards of laws, sub-categories at the monopoly or whatsoever to separate the 100% juice, hand crafted small scale products from the 15% Chinese concentrate based juice soda pops. Mainly because we never really had anything else. When this crap came to be in the nineties you couldn’t find a real cider made in Sweden. Right now brand recognition and fanbase is what keeps us small craft producers moving on the shelves. I’ve been blessed with a dedicated following and I know many of them buy everything we release at least one time.
Malt: Are there any cidermakers who have particularly inspired you? Why?
Johan: Eric Bordelet has been a huge inspiration for me. His determination, passion and attention to detail is something I look up to and find very inspirational. I remember the first time I tried his Brut, I was blown away, the cleanliness, focus and balance was unlike any other cider I had at the time. His ciders were also what opened my eyes towards cellaring and how good a vintage cider can actually develop over time if you treat it with the right care. I still have a few bottles left of his Poiré Granit 2009 [Ed: Granit 2018 reviewed here] and it’s not turned on me yet. He also has a heritage perspective that I find inspiring. Last time I was in Normandy he showed us his newly planted pear orchard. He reckons the fruit will be good in 75 years time when the trees have matured. His grandchildren will read the benefits. That kind of horizon is just mindboggling.
I’m also a huge fan of Tom Oliver. Apart from the fact that I love his ciders and have huge respect for his knowledge he is also a fantastic human being. Always happy to share any insight he has and a humble persona that you often don’t see in people who are that respected in their field. He’s just curious and open-minded in ways that I hope I can be one day. While many of us stick to dogma and find confidence in marking territory he’s out there exploring the boundaries of the whole cider world.
Andreas Sundgren of Brännland Cider has been a huge inspiration and support. His entrepreneurial journey and focus on top quality is something rare. Hardly anyone in Sweden knew what ice cider was 7 years ago and if you told people in the industry that you could make a dessert wine from Swedish apples that would rival Tokaji and Sauternes they would laugh at you. Without his support in the beginning of my endeavor things would have been very different in many ways.
Malt: What are you working on with Pomologik at the moment?
Johan: These next few days I’ll be putting birch leaves in cider for the next vintage of Björk. The base cider and the technique is even better this time so it’s going to be epic. I’m very happy that it found its home in the UK. It was a dud here in Sweden and I had decided not to make it again but you guys seem to love it as much as I do. We’ll be bottling Kultur/Natur later this week, a 50% wild apples and 50% ribston mix that’s been on oak for 18 months. A meaty powerhouse of a cider with intense tannins and acidity with a good dose of brett. Some truly geeky stuff that will age gracefully for the next 10 years. Really looking forward to that one. After that we’re prepping for a rosé cider made from Ingrid Marie apples. Light, fruity and pretty much the opposite from the other one I just mentioned. They are all different, but they all have their place and time. I like to try different approaches and the core concept of making cider that I personally want to drink, and I tend to go for new things every time.
Reading back over Johan’s answers sent me down a rabbit hole of Swedish craft cider websites. There are clearly all manner of exciting things quietly taking place in the Swedish cider scene at the moment – just as there are in the Swedish whisky industry. I find myself rather desperate to visit, once international travel becomes “a thing” again; in the meantime I do hope that we see the likes of Bedstekilde, Frukstereo, Sentomcider and Brutes make their way onto UK shelves. If they do, I’ll be first in the queue to try them.
But for now we have Pomologik, and I’ve two very different ciders lined up today. By shocking co-incidence, they’re the two which Johan described earlier on: Volatil and Gravenstein Ice Ice Baby. Since we’ve learned about them in such detail already I can skip straight to the tasting notes without any further ado, except to note that they cost me £13.50 and £19 respectively from Scrattings. As touched-upon in my introduction, that obviously sits very much on the spicier end of the cider price spectrum, but how much of it is the inevitable premium on small-quantity import I couldn’t tell you. In any case, I’ve happily paid the same amount for ciders made in the UK. As long as the quality stacks up I’m more or less happy. So let’s find out.
Pomologik Volatil 2018 – review
Colour: Light caramel
On the nose: Hmm. Having drunk a lot of Basque cider recently I’m not sure that’s quite where this nose is at. There’s an acetic component, certainly, but the barrel seems to have tamed it a little, and we’re in slightly deeper territory here. Citrus, toffee apple, light sherry vinegar. A little chopped nuts and a bit of yeasty funk.
In the mouth: Acid-forward delivery – malic initially, then that volatile component plays around the edges. Not as vinegary as a lot of English scrumpy, but enough to divide, for sure. There’s significant acetic acid. Tart green apples, a little yeast and meatier Bovril and – rather appropriately – a touch of marmite. Becomes a little more Basque towards the finish, with a burst of citrus and pineapple. Volatil indeed.
Pomologik Gravenstein Ice Ice Baby 2017 – review
Colour: Orange marmalade
On the nose: Oh now that is lovely. Blood orange, rose petals and potpourri, then a peachier, stone fruit inflection. Nectarines, apricots. Not quite lychee but getting there. There’s a little beeswax, but this is mainly about that wonderful interplay between fruits and flowers. Fans of aged Alsace whites, apply here.
In the mouth: Gloriously taut and defined arrival, then straight back into that ripe, generous, floral fruitiness, structured by simply beautiful, pin-bright acidity. Maybe a semitone down from dry. Apple juice, nectarine, light baking spices and gentle oak. Full-bodied and packed with flavour. The mousse is creamy and the mouthfeel is indulgent. Culinary apple cider, in my experience, doesn’t get much better than this. In fact, make that cider full stop.
The way Johan talks about his approach, his wine background and his keenness to try new, bonkers things just to see what happens and for their own sweet sake put me more than a little bit in mind of the excellent folk at Little Pomona. But with that association comes significant expectation of quality, and having now tried five of Johan’s ciders I’m more than happy to put them on the same pedestal. I’d cheerfully call Pomologik the Little Pomona of Sweden, and UK fans of the latter should make haste to try some of the wonderful ciders from the former. In fact, now it’s in my head, I’d dearly, dearly love to see what might come out of a Forbes-Sjöstedt collaboration. (Please make it happen guys.)
Volatil, I’m afraid, is not for me. But echoing my article from this morning, I have a great deal of respect for Johan for admitting its acetic element openly and stating it on the label. One can’t really buy a cider called Volatil and then complain about volatility. If you’re ok with acetic you’ll find much to intrigue. If you aren’t, I’d steer clear. There are plenty of other Pomologiks to keep you very happy indeed.
Gravenstein Ice Ice Baby is simply magnificent. Worth every penny of £19; it’s better than many a wine I’ve enjoyed at that price. Next time you’re after a bottle of something special I would place this high up your list.
Huge thanks to Johan for taking the time to talk to me in such depth. When the world is back to normal again, I’ll have to shuffle Sweden to the top of my “to do” list. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping a digital eye out for the secret, tucked-away gems of Kopparberg land.