Let’s start by going full cider geek here. Up until the last couple of years, if you had asked me what my favourite cider apple was, I would have said Dabinett immediately. A well rounded, bittersweet (high tannin but low acid) and resilient, good cropping variety, which are the main reasons why a quarter of my orchard is planted with it. I think there’s also an element of it being the first single variety cider I ever tried and so has an amount of nostalgia attached to it, but I’m not alone. Highly favoured by Bulmers in the seventies, it’s probably now the most ubiquitously planted variety in England. However, this article isn’t about that apple and although it’s an outdated metaphor the Dabinett is still regarded as the “Queen” of cider varieties, whilst there is another still heralded as the “King” and that’s the Kingston Black.
Kingston Black is a bittersharp (high tannin and acid) variety thought to be named after the village of Kingston in Somerset. Contrary to the name it’s not black at all, although a very dark rich red, on the sun facing side of the fruit. In 1950 a couple of decades before Bulmers mass planting, Long Ashton Research Station reported that the Kingston Black was the most widely grown cider apple in the West of England, so why the fall from grace? Ask any cider maker about it as an apple and you’ll be regaled with stories of how difficult it is to grow, how it often bears little fruit (highly biennial) and how susceptible it is to common diseases. Begging the question of why does it still has such regal status in cider making circles?
That’s kind of the point for writing this. Honestly I’m not sure if it really does still deserve that status, unless you’re a cider maker on some sort of ‘rite of passage’. It definitely takes a certain level of determination or blind passion to become a cider maker, so what’s another challenge in the grand scheme of things, especially if the reward is creating something, rightly or wrongly regarded as possibly the perfect single variety. That is a lot of maybes but as a side note: it may not surprise you to know that I have also planted Kingston Black trees.
So is it really the ‘king’ of cider apples or are we leaning on folklore or some early 19th century marketing campaign that has not been challenged? Gabe Cook in his book “Ciderology” looks at a number of cider apples, his view of the Kingston Black: “the ‘king’ of cider apples. End of.” (p49). Andrew Lea is a little more guarded in his book “Craft Cider Making” with the comment “allegedly the ‘perfect’ cider apple” (P30). Try as I might though, I can’t find a great deal of literature that explores or explains exactly why it is on the receiving end of such faith. A trip to the Cider Museum in Herefordshire is needed, but sadly can’t be done at the moment. So, if you compare to the world of wine for a second, there are a number of grape varieties that are highly regarded above others for making exceptional wines. These though have been tested over time and as Adam discussed in his “fine cider” article a few weeks ago, there is “general consensus” when it comes to wine. The cider bubble is much smaller than wine at the moment and many drinkers aren’t really aware of the hundreds of varieties, let alone which one produces the best ciders.
In terms of the holy trinity of apple constituents; tannin, acid and sugar, there is no doubt that the Kingston Black has a good balance of all (providing a good amount of sunshine). If you’re creating a West Country style cider, then the addition of sharpness from an apple high in tannin as well, is essential to balance acidity without compromising tannin. However there are many other bittersharp varieties that I think do the job just as well: Foxwhelp or Porters Perfection for example. However, you won’t find many single varieties of those. Why is that? (still coming up with questions here…) Personally I have tried a lot of different single varieties over the years and there are a number that have stood out me as almost always being great; Yarlington Mill, Dabinett, Somerset Redstreak and Tremletts Bitter. These are all bittersweet varieties, some of which I think Adam would agree with me on. Except he has a penchant for more sharpness, so throw Foxwhelp in there for him. You’ll notice I haven’t listed Kingston Black and in my mind I cannot recall a single variety cider of that apple that has etched a notch in my pressing rack. That’s not to say it’s not out there, there are many that I haven’t tried. So that brings me on to trying a few more now.
The marvellous thing about single variety ciders is they not only let you explore whether you like an apple on its own or not, but also vintages and terroir and the latter is what I’m going to do here with a number of different Kingston Black ciders. I’m also joined by your staple cider writer for Malt, Mr Adam Wells. We have one bottle in common (Ross on Wye) that we’ll share both our notes on, and the others are all different.
Sheppy’s have been making cider for over 200 years in Somerset, now on the very large scale end of “craft”. I purchased this bottle quite a while ago from Waitrose at roughly the £2.50 mark. It weighs in at 6.5% abv with no indication of the year.
Sheppy’s Kingston Black year unknown – review
Colour: Pale gold/dark straw with gentle carbonation
On the nose: Flurries of ripe apples, burnt sugar and medicinal phenolics. It actually smells alcoholic and leaves your nostrils with spicy hints of clove.
In the mouth: This is sharper than I remember but then it parts into bitterness only to be followed up by the citrus like acidity of raw lemons. That light carbonation does not flow through into the mouth feel, becoming almost still as I drink it. In terms of balance it is more acid led on the palate compared to the nose which felt tannin dominated. The finish is quite clean, not a lot of complexity to work through.
The Newt in Somerset is a relatively recent state of the art cider making facility located in a gorgeous country estate. Head cider maker Paul Ross (formerly of Downside Cider & Perry), has got some serious form for making amazing drinks. This 330ml bottle was £3.50 to buy online, is a 2018 vintage and clocks 7.8% abv.
The Newt Kingston Black 2018 – review
Colour: Pretty much exactly like the Sheppy’s
On the nose: This smells more floral and fruity, I’m drawn to grapefruit in my mind. Those tannic phenolics are there but a bit more subtle and the spiciness has clove but also star anise. This smells almost spirit like with hints of brandy and stone fruit such as apricot or nectarine.
In the mouth: Bosh, straight into sharpness again, the follow up bitterness seems intertwined with the acidity giving some sort of balance, like grapefruit pith. That stone fruit is present in the finish as a light apricot note. More pleasant to my palate than the Sheppy’s which seemed a tad harsh or raw compared to this one.
Travelling up to Gloucestershire now, where Dunkertons have been making organic cider for nearly forty years and now on a similar scale to Sheppy’s. This Kingston Black is quite rare with only a very small batch being made every couple of years. This is the latest vintage (2018) which has an abv of 7.5% and cost around £3.
Dunkertons Kingston Black 2018 – review
Colour: Dark straw with slight haze and sediment. Very heavily carbonated.
On the nose: Initial nose is a sulphurous hit which dissipates quickly. Tonnes of phenolics follow; wood, leather, sandalwood. Then there’s a hint of spice as cinnamon bark and clove. I’m left with the overwhelming presence of barnyard, through aged timber, must, straw and leather saddles.
In the mouth: Initially it feels more tannin led. There is acidity but it’s playing second fiddle to the rich woody tones, which dominate the finish leaving dry smokiness that lingers. The acidity is like green apples, but it’s a fleeting appearance. Have to say I’m enjoying this the most out of the three so far.
I think by now, you’re all pretty familiar with Ross on Wye Cider & Perry. Three generations of the Johnson family have been making an incredible selection of cider and perry in Herefordshire. This single variety cost about £2.75 from their shop back in January and is a 2016 vintage with 6.5% abv.
Ross on Wye Kingston Black 2016 (Batch D19) – review
Colour: Pale Amber with really gentle slow bubbles.
On the nose: really earthy, with plenty of leathery and woody phenolics, there’s even a smidge of TCP like medicinal notes. Plenty of cloves spice too.
In the mouth: Really juicy, lots of fruit and ripe red apple skins. There’s a perception of more acidity than the Dunkertons to my palate, and it’s a citrus like acidity (bitter orange pith perhaps), but plenty of those tannins too. The finish is clean and crisp with a hit of that classic Ross on Wye smoked wood. It’s good, but not my favourite of their impressive single variety line up.
Over to you Adam…
Ross on Wye Kingston Black 2016 (Batch D19) – review
Colour: Burnished gold
On the nose: What I love about Ross is that – yes – they’re specialists in letting individual apples shine, but it’s always in tandem with their inimitable stamp of place; this isn’t just Kingston Black, it’s Ross on Wye Kingston Black, and both of those characters shine through here. Huge, ripe, brawny orange fruit intertwined with earthy forest floor. Some leathery meatiness too, hinting at its relative maturity.
In the mouth: Ripe, full-bodied palate that strikes a lovely balance between tannin and nibbling acidity. Very textural cider, this. Flavours are so well-knit-together that picking out individuals from the harmony is difficult. Nicely matured dried leaf, dried orange and a bit of dark chocolate, lifted by peppery spice and juniper. Nothing dominates here. It’s a cider for Ben Stokes – a really good, balanced all-rounder.
Here’s where my bottles deviate from Mr Finch’s. First up, a drive just down the road from Ross to Hollow Ash Farm, where Cwm Maddoc cider is made. We last met them in the form of their Foxwhelp with Pig’s Face & Tom Putt. Today they’re sticking to just the single variety Kingston Black, served medium sweet via (I suspect) a process of cold racking. I’ve had only good experiences with Cwm Maddoc to date, and 2018 was, as we’ve discovered, a wonder vintage for English cider. So I have high hopes. I forget what 750ml cost me. Perhaps £5? Certainly not very much.
Cwm Maddoc Kingston Black 2018 Medium Sweet – review
Colour: Acacia honey (credit to the geophysicist for that …)
On the nose: All about fruits and florals. Red apple juice, honeycomb and capri sun. Raspberry and vanilla. It’s a very fresh, clean attractive nose all round with just a touch of butteriness in the background.
In the mouth: The geophysicist took a sip in the other room and texted me one word: “YUMMY”. Flavour intensity takes you completely by surprise on delivery; a huge, ripe mouthful of satsuma and orange blossom and mango and vanilla, offset by sweet spice. Medium, rather than medium-sweet for me, with just a little plush tannin and round, juicy, refreshing acidity. Immensely fruity and full-bodied and just so dangerously moreish.
Moving south to Somerset, our next bottle takes us to Burrow Hill, first properly visited in these pages when I wrote a trip report back in 2018, having been thoroughly spellbound. We’ve since touched in via their ice cider in my “essential case” published in January. Today’s bottle is their champagne method Kingston Black, but before we dive in, I thought I’d get a word from cidermaker and distiller Matilda Temperley, who kindly had this to say about the apple:
“The Kingston Black is a king among apples because it is one of the very few cider apples that can make a single variety without the need to use other apples or, worse, chemicals to balance the taste. It has the beautiful tannic body but an elegant one, and it possesses enough acidity to give a clean lingering finish so the mouthfeel is balanced as well as the flavour. It is a horrible apple to grow if you are after yield though. It also tastes remarkably different between say Hereford and Somerset so you really need to think not only about the apple but also the terroir.”
There isn’t a vintage date on the bottle, but my best guess is that it’s around three years old, having done something like two on its lees before disgorgement. A 750ml bottle cost me £13.50 from Scrattings.
Burrow Hill Bottle Fermented Kingston Black – review
Colour: Old Gold
On the nose: Bright Kingston Black aromas of orange and leather and that soft touch of diacetyl butteriness jump out of the glass, buoyed by the carbonation of traditional method. Everything’s crystal clear and poised and taut and defined. Some yeasty-breadiness nods towards the autolysis, and there’s a smatter of woody lignin and smoke, but the fruit’s the star.
In the mouth: Big, full-bodied mouthful of mousse scored through by fresh, citrussy acidity. Really vivacious. As the bubbles subside, back comes that big Kingston fruit; tangerines and oak and clove and orange chewits. The champagne method has brushed a hint of sourdough and almond onto it, but first and foremost this is Kingston Black.
And now for something completely different, as we cross the Atlantic Ocean and head to Vermont. Eden is one of my favourite cideries in the world, and perhaps my safest bet for converting the uninitiated, so gloriously accessible are the flavours of the ciders Eleanor Leger makes, despite her no-compromise approach to ingredients and production. In my glass today is Goodwood 2017, a pure Kingston Black, but one whose fruit came from two orchards. 50% from Zeke Goodband at Scott Farm and 50% grown by Steve Wood at Poverty Lane Orchards. When I got in touch, Eleasnor had this to say:
“First let me say that I think that the Kingston Black we work with from our little orchard and from our partner Scott Farm is somewhat different from the Kingston Black I get from Steve Wood at Poverty Lane Orchards and Farnum Hill. His has been confirmed genetically, ours has not.
In both cases, the fruit is small, very dark red, and bittersharp.
Also in both cases, the acidity is in balance with the tannin – I think that’s what most cider makers appreciate about Kingston Black as a single variety – it’s not hugely bitter and tannic, and the acidity is bright but not so high as to be off balance (as in Foxwhelp). The flavors/aromas of true Kingston Black can be a little weird – there is sometimes a beeswax, furniture polish, character, and I think it is particularly susceptible to diacetyl formation. The ‘sport’ (perhaps?) that Scott Farm and we have I like better because the tannin is even a bit less, it doesn’t have the weird stuff, and instead it has a wonderful citrus and rosewater character to the flavor.”
A bottle cost me £13.50 from Scrattings; what it sells for across the pond I’m afraid I didn’t bother to find out. (Spoilers, assuming it’s no more than £13.50 you should absolutely buy it.)
Eden Cellar Series #10: Goodwood 2017 – review
Colour: Bright gold
On the nose: Very fresh and mineral – beeswax and hay and wet stone and lemon peel. There are tones of light tropical fruit and a flicker of butter popcorn in the background. It’s not a huge, bounding nose, though it grows significantly as it warms (cellar temperature’s your friend here) but there’s real, clean, gently elegant complexity.
In the mouth: Much bigger and juicier. Bone dry, though the fruit’s so fulsome you barely notice. Oranges and lemons and more of that butteriness. Much more, in fact – we’re in oaked Chardonnay territory here, in the best possible way. Not much tannin, but a lean seam of pithy bitterness and flinty minerality runs through it. Acidity has softened nicely. Everything opens up epically as it sits in the glass. It’s very, very wine-like; I’m put in mind of the dry, full style of Little Pomona’s Old Man & the Bee or Art of Darkness. Which is to say that it’s a refined, captivating beauty.
I’ll not mince my words, for me the Kingston Black is not the greatest single variety apple. It definitely gives enough complexity on its own, but the citrus like acidity that I pick up in most doesn’t quite balance for me. On paper, citrus with spice and woody notes sound perfect and on the nose it’s definitely an apple that sings. However, when it comes to taste, the acidity feels harsh and in conflict with those deep tannins to be classed as “the perfect one”. Aging doesn’t seem to affect it either given the Ross On Wye is 2016; that acid is still almost as punchy as ever. All that being said I did really enjoyed the Dunkertons and if it had less carbonation (an issue I’ve always had with their ciders) I would happily drink it again if they produced enough. As I said though, the acid tasted much more like green apples to me.
It feels like a bit of a lazy conclusion but it totally comes down to personal preference obviously. I know Adam is going to have some interesting things to add, given the three additional bottles he’s tasted (which I annoyingly haven’t). I would encourage all to explore and make up their own mind. So for me; if not the Kingston Black, what do I think is the perfect single variety apple? Now there’s a question I’d like to explore.
It’s been some time since I had the three that James started with, and they’ll certainly set you back less than my extra trio, but I think I can say with confidence that the quality jump more than justifies the expense. If I had to sell someone on the merits of Kingston Black I don’t think I could do much better than with the quartet I’ve reviewed today. All of them so marvellously distinct, all of them with my full recommendation should you find them on shelves.
Albert Johnson, who has been known to return bars of soap for being too sharp and tangy, will tell you that the Ross on Wye D19 is too acidic. I don’t think it’s quite the best Ross Kingston Black I’ve had, but a decent Kingston from Ross on Wye is still a better Kingston than you’ll get from most other places. I have since bought three more bottles. It’s excellent. And, as all of the Ross 500mls (and indeed 750mls) are, an absolutely mind-blowing bargain at something like £2.75.
The Cwm Maddoc, the only member of the quartet not bottled bone dry, is a ripe, juicy, fruit-forward, voluptuous charmer. The geophysicist’s clear favourite, and a glassful of sheer come-hither joy. These folk just rise and rise in my estimations; I think they’re one of the best under-the-radar cideries in the country, making some of the cleanest, most varietally-sensitive ciders and perries you’ll find. I wish they were easier to buy, and I wish there was also a dry version of this, but I really mustn’t grumble in the face of such deliciousness.
Burrow Hill’s champagne methods were not, I must confess, among my favourites in their range when I first tried them around a couple of years back. I’ve since made my way through four or five bottles and my impression is that quality has kicked up a notch. Like the Bollhayes I tried in a previous review, I love that it heroes the cider fruit; it isn’t trying to ape the flavours of champagne, merely use the same method. Kingston Black, with its sharpness and compliant tannin feels like an excellent cider apple for the style. I’ll certainly be back again.
Eden’s was the most wine-like of the lot. Indeed you’ll struggle to find many more vinous ciders full stop. The nose was a touch reticent, but the palate became a full-bodied, complex, buttery joy. I loved it. But then I’ve loved every Eden I’ve ever tried. If you love wine half as much as I do you probably want it in your life. Serve it at cellar temperature and thank me later.
I’m intrigued by James’s assertion that acidity and tannin clash. With my wine hat on, most of the best Italian reds and Bordeaux (to name only two examples) contain a significant quantity of both, and are much the better and more complex for it. But returning to apples, what stood out to me, tasting through these single variety Kingstons, was its versatility. It can alternately contribute acidity, tannin, body and flavour intensity, it seems incredibly sensitive to where it is grown, and feels stylistically malleable as an apple for turning into cider. And therein, I think, lies the nub both of why it is so praised, and why so many drinkers question its status.
People have described Kingston Black as “the perfect cider apple” because it can bring so many different attributes to bear, each one in reasonably significant quantity. If it was a top trumps card, crudely speaking, it would have 7/10 across the board. But because language like “perfect” is used, drinkers come to it expecting a thunderbolt, and that isn’t what Kingston does. Kingston Black is not about shock and awe. It’s not a 10 for acidity, as Foxwhelp is, or a 10 for tannin, as something like Chisel Jersey or Ashton Bitter might be. It doesn’t give the same perception of fullness in body as, perhaps, a Dabinett, or the spicy depth and flavour intensity of a Yarlington Mill. But where all of those other apples would, in other attributes, command a low “top trump” score, Kingston Black does pretty well across the board. Or, in other words, does nothing badly. Perhaps not so much “perfect” as a Jack-of-all-trades.
The purpose of blending, as I have quoted before, is to showcase an apple’s qualities and hide its shortcomings. The point of a single variety is to celebrate the entirety of an apple’s character; the sum total of its individuality. It’s why applying processes like dilution or chaptalisation or artificial sweetening to a single variety completely misses the point. You’re not supposed to drink Yarlington Mill and yearn for acidity. You’re not supposed to drink Harry Masters Jersey and think “I do wish this was lower-tannin”. If you’re going to bottle or drink single varieties you should fully embrace what that apple is; what it does that no other apple can. And where Kingston Black stands apart, where the essence of its character lies, is in being the most effective one man band in the apple world. It won’t blow you away in one respect; other apples can beat it individually on any one of its instruments. But nothing plays all of them quite so well at once.
Thanks very much to Matilda, Eleanor and Albert for taking the time to talk to us.