Outside of France and Spain, where traditions are de rigeur (or, as Google translate assures me, de rigor) and exceptions to the rule are … well … just that, specialists are rather a rare breed when it comes to “fine cider”.
I should qualify that. As far as still cider goes, there are specialists aplenty. But when it comes to digging into just one style or process, focussing specifically upon that and becoming expert in it, the picture is rather different and the numbers are rather lower. There are a few examples; Cwm Maddoc and Ross on Wye with bottle conditioning might be two, Pilton with keeving another, Chalkdown with traditional (champagne) method, perhaps, a fourth. Generally speaking though cidermakers like to cover a lot of bases. Experiment with various different things in very small quantities. Tony Lovering, who we met in our Halfpenny Green article, might be described as a sparkling specialist, but his tent is pitched across a number of very different and individually complex styles of cider and varieties of apple.
Outside of cider this is comparably rare when it comes to fruit-driven products. Brewers can (and do) generally do what they like, since their gig is more about grain manipulation, and they can get their grain from anywhere, but if you are making your product from fruit and want your fruit to be fresh and to speak of the place you are from, then your options tend to be more limited. You couldn’t make a drink like champagne in Châteauneuf-du-Pape or vice versa, for instance; conditions simply wouldn’t allow it, which is why specialists are more commonplace in wine, particularly old world wine. But since comparatively little research has gone into matching the best apples to the best growing conditions, or the very best styles to the best regions, or indeed the best apples to the best styles, cider is more of a mixed bag. And in some ways that offers the maker more scope for experimentation and the drinker more scope for variety, so far be it from me to decry it too vociferously.
But what if specialism is thrust upon you? What if you want to make cider but your growing conditions don’t permit you to simply do whatever you want? What if your style of drink is dictated by your place and not simply suggested by it?
Enter Andreas Sundgren, of Sweden’s Brännland. In 2010 he started making cider and quickly came to the conclusion that his local apples on the Baltic seaboard were unsuitable for normal cider production. For context, Brännland sits at latitude 63. Inverness, home to Caledonian Cider, themselves no stranger to the destructive effects of cold weather on apple production, sits at latitude 57.4. By my calculations, based on 69 miles per degree of latitude, that’s a difference of 380 miles. For context, it’s the same latitudinal difference as exists between Caledonian Cider and the orchards of Herefordshire. Or, returning to our wine analogy, a slightly greater distance than between the vineyards of Champagne and those of Châteauneuf du Pape. Our whisky-loving readers will be familiar with the extreme cold to which Sweden’s High Coast, née Box, Distillery is subject. Brännland sits another 116 miles up the coast. So you see where Andreas might find himself with a challenge.
His solution? Ice cider. We’ve covered this most luscious of sweet dessert ciders a couple of times now, initially in our “essential case” articles and latterly in more of a spotlight article in June. But to dig deeper into the style, and into the unique challenges of making cider at such extreme latitude, I reached out to Andreas, and he kindly furnished me with the information below.
Malt: Why choose to make ice cider?
Andreas: A combination of the core character of Swedish apples and the climate of where we are situated, latitude 63. When we started ten years ago the idea was to make a simple dry cider but as we trialled (and errored) we came to the realisation that, to our minds, Swedish apples were not well suited to dry cider. On the other hand, for cider with residual sugar they are absolutely stunning. And we wanted to make a style of cider that could show the potential of apples as a basis for a serious wine without any additives and so, ice cider became our choice.
We’re far north on the Baltic seaboard and the winters here are cold enough to make ice cider according to the Canadian appellation that states that natural cold must be used to concentrate the juice.
Malt: Let’s talk about the making. Firstly, what sorts of apples do you use? What flavours and characteristics do they bring?
Andreas: We look for a balance between sweet and acidic to balance the residual sugar in the finished ice cider. Scandinavian varieties Ingrid Marie, Kim and Aroma are the core. Flanked by Cox Orange and Belle de Boskoop. The Scandinavians bring balance, tension and zing and the Cox and Belle body and bottom.
Malt: Talk me through your cryo-concentration method.
Andreas: Harvest in September, October. Keep the apples in cold storage until December when we press. We fill IBC-tanks with raw juice and leave them outside to freeze. The first thing that freezes is water and the remaining liquid containing the sugar becomes relatively speaking higher in sugar than the raw juice. If the weather is cold enough 35 below centigrade the block is frozen solid. However, most years the juice will not freeze entirely because the final amount of liquid has a sugar level of 45-50%.
In February we bring the tanks into an unheated space and let them thaw slowly draining the bottom of the tank of sweet liquid. The concentrate is then fermented, filtered and bottled, like any sweet wine.
Malt: Has the weather ever been cold enough for cryo-extraction?
Andreas: The reason that we don’t do cryo-extraction is not related to winter temperatures. If we were to freeze apples in January and then attempt to press there is no mill or press in the world that could the job. You need two things to cryo extract if you want to do it correctly to make an ice cider true to that method.
- An orchard with apple varieties/individuals that will hold the apples on their shafts, hanging on the tree after frost and cold weather so that they can be picked and pressed in late winter.
- A long period of variations in cold and thaw and sun. A truly cryo extracted apple isn’t just frozen, it’s been dessicated by the cold to reduce the liquid content and break down the cell walls of the apple so that it becomes pressable.
A few Canadian producers have planted orchards like described above but very few seeing as ice cider as such is only 25-30 years old. We are looking at moving on to this in expanding our orchard project in northern Sweden, planting the worlds northernmost cider apple orchards.
Malt: Working with such concentrated sweetness of must, do you need a special yeast to be able to cope? Tell us about those?
Andreas: We use a mix between inoculated yeasts and natural ferments. The latter we simply monitor and give organic nutrients to. Many time we will have a wild strain start the action and then inoculate a known strain to finish. We ferment less and less alcohol every year and so inoculations will be thing of the past in the not too far future I think.
Malt: You’ve played around with barrels a fair bit. What have you found to work particularly well with ice cider?
Andreas: Entirely a matter of taste. My personal preference is for larger barrels, 500 litre foudres with a fairly light toast. Our ice cider both ferments and ages exceptionally well in that format. Something to do with the magical proportions, the golden mean, of those barrels I am sure.
Malt: I’ve got your Isciders 2016, 2017 and 2018 in front of me. Can you talk about how the conditions of each vintage differed, and how that comes across in the style and flavour of each cider?
Andreas: It is hard to speak of the vintages without being biased. I see from these notes that they all sound very similar but every vintage is entirely new and different. Also, I think that they don’t really show themselves until after a few years in bottle. The 2016 was lighter, the 2017 is a vintage that needs more time but will become great as it integrates. The 2018 is in perfect technical balance and will be a classic.
The 2016 harvest was different than earlier years with a higher level of natural acidity. As a result we decided to stop fermentations a little earlier than we otherwise do resulting in a marginally less alcoholic ice cider. For this vintage we’ve also increased the amount of fermentations in barrel.
ABV: 10% Residual sugar: 151 g/l Total acidity: 19.6 g/l
[Ed: point of wine reference for that sugar content – most Sauternes sits somewhere around 100-120 g/l, with only the higher end stuff creeping up to as much as 160-220. These Brännlands are on the luscious end of luscious.]
The 2017 Brännland Iscider presents itself as a big, mature vintage already at release. At pressing the juice was powerful and we decided to not ferment the vintage too far. The high acidity and residual sugar makes for a cider that will develop well in a long term perspective. The 2017, like the 2016, has been fermented partly in barrels and Brännland Cider will switch to a higher degree of barrel fermentations in the years to come.
ABV 9% Residual sugar: 175 g/l Total acidity: 22 g/l
The 2018 ice cider vintage is marked by one of the finest Swedish apple harvests in the past decade. The juice at pressing showed unusually high sugar levels without compromising the balance between acidity, sweetness and body that are the hallmarks of the vintage. The spring season fermentations were soft and harmonious and carried through in oak to an even higher degree than previous years. We believe that Brännland Iscider 2018 has the potential of a classic vintage with exceptional ageing potential.
ABV: 9% Residual sugar: 170 g/l Total acidity: 17 g/l
Malt: Am I right in thinking that these aren’t aged in oak though?
Andreas: Yes in terms of aging they are unoaked, but as I say they are partly fermented in oak. For the 2019 we decided to not ferment in oak at all.
Malt: How do you serve your ice ciders?
Andreas: Chilled but not too cold. Pair with desserts, cheeses, foie gras or just drink at the end of a meal as a dessert itself. I enjoy them mostly like that, as wines of meditation.
Malt: How big is cider in Sweden generally … outside of brands like Kopparberg and Rekorderlig?
Andreas: The craft segment is very small but growing. It will likely never become a large part of an industry but it plays a crucial role in influencing it.
Malt: Are other craft producers embracing ice cider? Or is it just you? Do you see the market growing at all?
Andreas: Not perhaps in Sweden but we are seeing ice cider producers popping up in Norway and Finland and also apple ice wines being produced using artificial cold in other parts of Europe. I think though that we are the largest producer at 75-100.000 bottles per year. Yes, the market is growing for sure.
Malt: How have you been affected by the pandemic?
Like most everyone. Loss of turn over and cashflow through the shutting down of the hospitality business domestic and export. We will come through it but it is a major spanner in the works.
Malt: Craft cider’s obviously a bit of a niche at the moment, and ice cider is a niche within that niche. What would you like to see change – or what do you think needs to change – in the way we talk about craft ciders in order for that niche to expand?
Andeas: This is a difficult one for me to answer in a simple and/or short way. First off, Brännland Cider has always looked at winemakers and seen itself as a winemaker that happens to work with apples instead of grapes. That makes us a bit of an odd animal in both camps. The reason for striving towards classical winemaking standards is not snobbishness but rather the idea that cider is wine plain and simple and that the quality wine industry has maintained, retained and developed a great deal more knowledge and experience than has craft cider. In cider’s transformation into an industrial product much has been lost and weirdly, rather than that sparking an immediate counter movement, some of the practices of industrial production methods has seeped into and been internalised also by the small and mid-sized producers. Pasteurisation, artificial sweeteners, added flavouring (whether they be natural or otherwise) etc. have all been accepted.
At the same time I hear a lot of dissatisfaction in the craft cider discussion about not being respected, not seen, not understood. My conclusion is that as long as cider doesn’t respect itself it will not be respected outside its immediate circle.
Basically I would wish for the craft cider industry to grow up a little faster, make a clear choice on what it wants to stand for and hopefully work through the quality of great, timeless ciders instead of trying to rebel against some imagined windmill or adapt to industrial methods. Self-respect and respect begins at home. Here the small to midsized wineries of Europe producing incredible wines year after year using great grapes, generational wisdom, injected academic knowledge (rather than chemical additives) and tradition are great role models.
When I started ten years ago I was told by so many cider experts that one couldn’t make a cider with residual sugar without using industrial methods. Luckily I am an ornery guy. They were all wrong. And there are so many truths of conventional wisdom that has proven faulty in the course of our journey.
Malt: Are there any other producers who have particularly influenced you or who you particularly admire?
Andreas: For style we look to the great Riesling makers of Rheingau and Mosel. I have the good fortune to work with one of the finest Rheingau winemakers, Markus Lundén of Weingut Breuer. As for aspirations Egon Müller of the Mosel, Austrian sweet wine producer Kracher.
My first mentor in the cider world was Eleanor Leger of Eden Ice Cider, beyond her immense generosity, she makes awesome ice ciders.
I also believe (and would stand on any cider makers living room table in a pair of dirty boots to say) that the greatest cider maker of our time is Eric Bordelet. He has such precision and we all trail in the dust of the beauty that comes out of his orchards.
We will of course be indebted forever to Christian Barthomeuf of Clos Saragnat who invented ice cider.
Malt: Finally, what’s on the immediate horizon for Brännland?
Andreas: We’re launching a new preferred client initiative in the UK shortly for those that want to be part of smaller releases of odd or limited editions from Brännland Cider. We do this in tandem with three partners in the UK, Fine Cider Company, Cider Is Wine and Novel Wines.
In the cidery we are getting ready to bottle the 2018 barrique and finish the 2019 after summer holidays. The 2019 is a very interesting vintage that has forced us to examine what our style really is and should be.
On a macro scale, most of my work time is taken up by running the rather big EU-project we were granted in December to establish 10 hectares of apples orchards in the Swedish sub-arctic region.
My thanks to Andreas, and best wishes as he embarks on, apparently, making his challenges more challenging. Sub-arctic cider? Blimey.
In the meantime I’d better get on with tasting those vintages. As stated in our discussion I’ll be working through a mini-vertical of the 2016, 2017 and 2018 vintages of Brännland’s flagship Iscider, At present Scrattings have the ’17 for £24 per 375ml or a case of six for £120, whilst the Fine Cider Company sell the ’18 for £19 a bottle as I gather the shipping process has recently been made cheaper and simpler.
Worth quickly touching on price, as we always get a few folk spitting feathers when we cover ice ciders. Like any good dessert wine, far more apples are required to make a bottle of Ice Cider than a bottle of regular cider. One estimate I’ve seen suggests at least four times as many. So even before considerations of craft and care are weighted, there’s a significant price implication. But so far as value for quality is concerned I’ve yet to begrudge a penny I’ve paid for an ice cider; if anything, given how good some of them are, they’re a steal.
Let’s see if this trio continues that trend.
Brännland Iscider 2018 – Review
Colour: Light caramel
On the nose: Light and delicate. A little florality, petrichor and nectarine. Orange blossom and candyfloss. Very fresh, with a stoniness you don’t often find on an ice cider.
In the mouth: Laser-like acidity on arrival that skewers the unctuous body and luscious sweetness to give this drink an incredible energy and precision. Wild strawberries, red cherries and fresh apricots. Light honey and citrusy gooseberry. Astonishing concentration. Delicious, but five years or more of patience will be very well rewarded.
Brännland Iscider 2017 – Review
Colour: A few tones deeper
On the nose: More generous and, as the colour suggests, sits in deeper octaves than the 2018 whilst retaining that thrilling freshness and vitality. Significant tones of honey – manuka and ulmo – dusky oak, vanilla. Crushed raspberries and blueberries. Black cherry compote.
In the mouth: Again that huge, focussed, super-intense arrival. The citrus has deepened; blood orange, dried pink grapefruit, huge black cherry. Cola syrup and blackcurrant tunes. It’s so lipsmacking and vibrant that the sweetness almost plays second fiddle to the acidity. Fruity dark chocolate on the finish. It’s giving more than the 2018 at the moment, but again there is really no rush.
Brännland Iscider 2016 – Review
Colour: Pretty much the same as the 2017
On the nose: The most typically apple-scented, but in a developed, slightly caramelised way. Fresh slices beside lightly-baked. Brown sugar, sultanas. Sweet spices. A little of that blood orange citrusiness and touches of caramel. Not as intense or complex as 2017.
In the mouth: Big Haribo Tangfastic acidity, like its stablemates’, undimmed by the extra year’s ageing. Passion fruit, key lime and fresh apricot. Mouthwatering red cherry and strawberry laces. Still fizzing with energy and life.
Tasting these together, as someone commented on twitter, was a fascinating privilege. All are totally distinct but united in an electric acidity, a mouthwatering cherry tone and an outrageous concentration. All three could be forgotten about for a decade and would doubtless, opened in 2030, still have that verve and energy and precision. What’s astonishing is that structure and concentration of flavour are so great that they distract almost entirely from that enormous sweetness. No one could possibly describe these as cloying; they are enormous ciders, but there is a balance, an equilibrium, to their immensity.
The geophysicist and I, without conferring, separately picked the 2017 as our runaway favourite followed by the 2018 – which, to my mind, will need the most time for its depths to fully unravel – and the 2016 a little way behind that. But seriously, all three are not only among the most refined, chiselled, fruit-led ice ciders you’ll encounter, but contenders for some of the best dessert drinks – wine, cider or otherwise – that you’ll come across for anywhere near the money. If you only try one ice cider this year I would strongly recommend making it a Brännland.
Many thanks to Andreas for taking the time to answer our questions.