How much do you know about your cider? No – I’ll rephrase – how much do you think you know? Because the truth is that it may be a good chunk less.
Let me be clear: I’m not belittling your intelligence here. But the cider industry has a unique capacity for refusing to show its hand; for depending on assumed knowledge to get you to open your wallet.
The industry wants you to assume cider’s made entirely from apples – it mostly isn’t. It wants you to assume that sweet, medium and dry are naturally achieved states – that’s generally not true either. “Bag-in-box must be the real stuff,” they hope you’ll think (Lilley’s is a particularly insidious culprit in this respect) – nope. Wrong. And those fruits and herbs and spices and botanical allsorts splayed across labels in pub fridges, they’re about as natural as Donald Trump’s skin colour.
The worst of it is that it isn’t only the industrial makers, the obvious short-cutters, who are banking on false assumptions to get you to part with money in exchange for less than you think you’re getting. As Andreas Sundgren pointed out in our recent conversation, the craft producers deploying tactics from the big cider playbook are legion. Added water, added sucralose, reduced skill and significantly reduced cost to the producer. And are those savings passed on to you? Possibly, but it’s hard to tell when there’s nothing written on the label besides “finest real Herefordshire cider made from apples”. Or something along those lines.
I’m not denying the commercial difficulty of flogging natural strength cider to poorly-educated pubs. I’ve talked to several cidermakers who despair of shifting anything above 5%, particularly outside cider’s primary pockets of Herefordshire, Somerset and possibly Devon. But in my eyes there is no value whatsoever in watering down your product. What’s more, it irritates me as a consumer when I discover that I’ve been sold something that is less than I believe it to be. Cider’s image problem will not be helped by dilution; sucralose is not the way forward for a product with ambitions of being mentioned in the same breath as wine. And disguising bad habits, omitting to mention them on the label in the hope that consumers won’t find out, or will make inaccurate assumptions based on a lack of knowledge is the most unforgivable sin of all.
This is why I grind my teeth slightly at the sort of flippant thoughtlessness that manifests itself in statements like “we don’t need to rethink cider” or “just think about cider in the first place”. People do think about cider. They think about it whenever they visit a pub or walk down a supermarket drinks aisle. There is virtually no one in the UK who doesn’t think that they know, basically, what cider is. And what they think it is, is sweetish, fizzy, bland gut-rot to glance at condescendingly whilst they order their cask ale or craft beer or glass of wine. Something for underage binges and park benches, to be left in the dustbin of your teenage years; the bad drink that went with the bad hair, the bad clothes and the bad decisions. Something that would be laughable at anything beyond £3 a pop, never mind £10, £12, £15.
“Rethinking cider” doesn’t mean snubbing everything that isn’t served champagne method in a 750ml bottle and trampling on every bit of tradition that has taken cider from Pliny the Elder to the twenty-first century. It means changing perceptions and understanding and quality right across the board; putting a fresh notion of a better drink into every possible mind. Getting someone to try a local craft producer instead of a pint of Strongbow is rethinking cider in action. Explaining to a pub why they’ve been hornswoggled by a Lilley’s bag-in-box and recommending something better is rethinking cider. Publishing an article on the risible minimum juice content of UK cider is rethinking cider every bit as much as is getting ice cider served in the Tate Modern or buying a mate something keeved for her birthday. What isn’t rethinking cider is sneering at anything with a whiff of aspiration, decrying wine bottle presentation as airs-and-graces pretentiousness and lambasting full juice producers for charging upwards of a fiver. That’s called inverted snobbery and it won’t help producers, it won’t help consumers, it won’t help anyone other than possibly the CEO of Heineken.
Craft cider will never compete with big cider on big cider’s terms. To succeed, it must not only claim to be better than big cider, but actually be unquestionably and demonstrably better. That means using the fruit, the whole fruit and nothing but the fruit. It means recognising and not bottling or selling products which are plainly faulty. It means eschewing all the shortcuts that whittle away at the quality and integrity of your product and then explaining why that makes a difference. Providing a transparent list of ingredients. “Better than Strongbow”, in-and-of-itself, is not a compelling sales pitch. It’s not something that will really interest a new drinker. Real ciders need to ignore the industrial players and concentrate on themselves; on bottling the best products they can possibly make. And then communicating what it is that makes them so good.
Big cider has woven a nebula of smoke and mirrors, and has effectively planted misleading and damaging apprehensions in the minds of the public. (Sound familiar, spirits drinkers?) It is up to craft producers – and the pubs and retailers that sell their ciders – to hold themselves to a higher standard and usher in a little more light.
The ciders we’re tasting today certainly aren’t shy on the detail front. I first came across Domaine Lesuffleur at February’s CidrExpo in Caen. (Where I came across a good 80% of the French ciders and perries I’ve tasted.) Benoit Lesuffleur is a wine broker who began making ciders using the apples grown in his parents’ orchards. Both, true to French norms, are keeved ciders made with 100% full juice and given a natural sparkle by being bottled before the first fermentation has finished.
Before I go any further, take a look at the back label:
If your French is better than mine, you’ll now know the names of the individual orchards from which these ciders came (Friardel and La Folletière.) You’ll know the vintage they were harvested, the varieties of apples picked and the categories into which those apples fell. You’ll even know the soils and subsoils on which the trees grew, that the yeasts were indigenous, and how long each cider spent on its lees before disgorgement. Can I translate all of this into flavour in my head? No. Does it matter that I have it? Yes. Because if the cidermaker can be bothered to go into that much specific detail then they can probably be bothered to do things properly. To give a damn. In short, they show their working because they are proud of it.
Of course, in addition to all that transparency, what matters most is that the ciders taste good. So we should probably find out whether they do. I should admit at this point that both of the bottles I’m tasting from were free samples from Benoit. But regular readers will know that such things don’t carry any significance when it comes to assessments on Malt. Or my editors would quite rightly be cross with me.
Lesuffleur Friardel 2016 – review
Colour: Bright copper.
On the nose: Clean, bright, chiselled aromas of apple skins, new pennies, tea leaves and dried herbs. There’s an apple juice note and a touch of tarte tatin, but there’s enough savouriness to retain balance.
In the mouth: A pronounced (perhaps a touch excessive) mousse makes this very mouthfilling and that metallic, herbal, mineral slant takes the edge off what would otherwise be rather pronounced sweetness. A medium scrape of tannin cuts through the juicy apple, dried orange and autumnal leaves. There’s a smokiness too. Everything’s very taut and clean-lined, but there are wonderful layers of flavour here.
Lesuffleur La Folletière 2016 – review
Colour: The same.
On the nose: More intensity of aroma; riper, juicier. There are similarities to the Friardel in some of its deeper tones, but this doesn’t quite have that smoky, herbal, mineral edge. It’s more fulsome – fatter of apple fruit. A little orange flesh, a bit of very ripe peach and a slightly bretty cheese rind aspect.
In the mouth: Again, fatter and riper, though with less definition than the Friardel. The tannins are plusher, softer. Alongside enormous apple and orange there’s a developed vanilla – even an animal touch of leather. Perhaps not as complex as its stablemate, but possibly the crowd-pleaser of the pair. Just a bit on the sweet side relative to its acidity and tannin for me too drink too much of it.
Friardel is my pick of the two, but both are good, solid French ciders, well worth trying should you come across them. Both offer a great deal that other cidermakers would do well to learn from, both in terms of the flavours they display and the working they show in doing so.
Many thanks to Benoit for sending us these samples.