Catching the eye of the casual punter is the toughest gig in fine cider. Whilst purists/disciples/zealots (delete as appropriate) might thrill to the latest bone dry single variety, obscure perry or high tannin beast, the average customer in the street, the shop, the pub has never heard of Foxwhelp, isn’t really interested in Islay casks and doesn’t know what perry is.
More than that, whilst the UK consumer loves to talk a dry game, there’s a preponderance of sweet-leaning palates in this country that are continuous bones of frustration to dry cidermakers. As a small aside, I suspect most folk would enjoy good dry ciders more than they think, but have mentally turned “dry” into a euphemism for “uncompromising”, “unapproachable” and possibly, I’m afraid “rough, vinegary scrumpy”.
In an effort to appeal to a broader market, several cidermakers have turned to so-called “fruit ciders” or “made wines”. To many long-in-the-tooth cider drinkers and producers this is a heresy inspired by the insidious and cynical neo-alcopops such as Kopparberg and Old Mout that now stalk the fridges of almost every English pub. Artificially flavoured, sweetened to cloying excess, diluted to within an inch of their lives, minimal in juice content (all concentrated) and responsible for the cancellation of goodness knows how many UK apple grower’s contracts.
But several producers have now experimented with blending fresh pressed fruits from outside the apple and pear family with their ciders and perries. UK duty, which increases dramatically when these drinks move above 4% abv, have meant that many such things are heavily diluted, often rather vapid and not, to my mind at least, particularly interesting. But one producer who has taken the hit on duty and set out to create “made wines” offering the fullest expression of their fruit is Martin Berkeley at Pilton.
I’ve long been a fan of Martin’s work. He was one of the producers I encountered early on my journey into craft cider. Back then his output was entirely apple-based, and almost wholly utilising the predominantly French technique of keeving. But in the last few years, whilst his keeved ciders have remained a fine cider staple, he has become increasingly interested in working with alternative fruits to create new and often completely bonkers-sounding drinks. Plum wine and keeved cider aged in an ex-Laphroaig barrel? Check. Oak-aged cherry wine blended with keeved cider and meadowsweet? Check. Keeved cider aged on Pinot Noir skins? Check and check again.
Since I’ve not really covered made wines on Malt before, other than a rant or two about Kopparberg and a Quince-Apple blend that popped up in our Kertelreiter exploration, I thought that the time was right to dig into this murky world a little. And I thought that by talking to Pilton we could kill two birds with one stone and investigate keeving too. So I reached out to Martin, and he was good enough to agree to a chat, presented below.
Malt: So to start with, give us a potted history of how you came to cidermaking?
Martin: I was in software beforehand and having been for a few years I was maybe looking for a change. And so next to our house where we live there’s a big traditional orchard, so I got inspired by all this fantastic cider fruit that wasn’t being used and so started making cider as a hobby with friends initially. My wife had been brought up in France, so she said “well can you not make a French-style cider?” – she liked that before, so that was the introduction to keeving, so I read Andrew Lea’s book and got into keeving that way.
I also like the challenge of taking something that has been undersold in the UK – cider’s a cheap drink – and trying to reposition it as a marketing exercise I guess I saw that as. I’m interested in marketing and positioning and branding as well. So there was as much interest in that side of it. So that was it, and I didn’t have the sense to just get out of it and keep it as a hobby, and like all these things it’s grown bigger and bigger and then it’s kind of difficult to get out of it then!
Malt: Can you talk us through the keeving process? (Feel free to go into as much detail as you like!)
Martin: So my definition of keeving is you’re making a naturally sweet product, just using the sweetness – the natural sweetness – in the apples without adding anything. And then sweetness is retained by the fermentation not completing, and the fermentation doesn’t complete because the juice is depleted of nutrients. So you end up with a long, slow fermentation that may be slightly funky or slightly sulphurous because of that lack of nutrients, which means that the yeast can’t complete its metabolism, so you tend to get a succession of wild yeasts fermenting over a long period of time, so you get a different flavour profile also because of that.
So even a dry keeved cider would be different from a traditional, fast-fermented dry cider anyway – the long fermentation gives you a different flavour profile I think. And then that natural sweetness, that sort of fructose-based sweetness, does have a different profile to the sugar-sweetened – or artificially sweetened – cider, so there’s a nice point of difference. And it can be bottle conditioned, although we’re losing our nerve a little about that. Some of our best ciders have been bottle conditioned but it’s kind of difficult ad unreliable to do on a regular basis, so I think the cider’s interesting enough just with a natural sweetness, and I’m looking for other ways that we can use that natural sweetness to do other things in cider with blending.
Malt: Can you explain the chapeau brun a little?
Martin: I like to say there’s three methods of removing nutrients from your juice. So the first method is start with low-nutrient apples, which sounds a bit obvious! But a nice obvious romantic thing that people sometimes do is they plant a new orchard and they want to do keeving. And the two things don’t necessarily go together very well because when you’ve got a new orchard you want to grow the trees, so you’ve got to put on lots of nutrients to grow the trees to mature trees. And then that doesn’t go well because a lot of that nutrient ends up in the juice. So if you can start with old trees that have been deprived of nutrients – ideally somebody else’s trees so that then you’ve not had to have that conflict of trying to produce from your orchard and also produce keeved cider!
So low-nutrient apples, and then the chapeau brun step is a process – a classic sort of French artisan process – that is performed immediately after pressing. And a pectin gel forms in the juice and there’s a positive and negative attraction between pectic acid and calcium chloride in the juice, which can be naturally-occurring or can be added. And that forms a gel and also attracts into it a lot of nitrogen and some of the sort of rougher yeast compounds, and that can then be floated to the top, normally we do it with a very slow, wild fermentation, that’s just starting. So we float that to the top and it can be racked off.
Malt: What varieties of apple do you use or have you tended to find work best for your keeves?
Martin: Well we’re still at the stage of being pretty simplistic and I would say working really with our local method of cider orcharding, which is all about planting an orchard blend of cider apples, which would have been originally planted for the cider factory in Shepton Mallet. So there’s many small orchards on farms that have been planted that way with a blend of bittersweet and bittersharp fruit, so we can get access to that fruit. And so what we’re interested in is low nutrients, much more than any particular varieties. And it’s not quite so easy to be honest to get individual varieties, so we just go for that orchard blend and just concentrate on trying to get low nutrients and a stable cider is more important than individual varieties. But that might be a nice thing to do. There’s other people doing a lot of single variety stuff – that’s their bag if you like. So we just let those guys be expert in that and we’ll stick to the keeving.
Malt: Keeving seems to be really taking off at the moment. How do you stand out in an increasingly crowded market?
Martin: Well I wouldn’t say that craft cider has really got to be crowded yet! We haven’t got enough producers in the room – it’s more sort of a little mingle at the moment. Once we get to be crowded then we’ll worry about that. But at the moment we always need more people to really cement it as a category which we’re still at the exciting stage of it coalescing as a category or being a movement. So yeah I think we need a bit of excitement and a bit of a sort of talk of competition between makers. That’s sort of where we’re at really.
Malt: You’ve gone increasingly down the “made wine” rabbit hole recently … Quince, plum wine, Scarlett Sharpe. What attracted you to that?
Martin: I went on a trip to the States and saw what they were doing out there; got inspired by particular makers there who were doing that type of thing. And mainly by their freedom of just being free to do whatever they wanted, really, where there has been a lot of pressure in the past in UK cider to not stray outside the rules of apples and pears only and everything else, rather than being bad, was actually morally evil in some way! So to go to the States and see people just doing it because they thought it might be fun to try was quite liberating. And then having a different approach – maybe a bit more natural wine-style of taking the whole fruit and fermenting it … the only term I can think of is “on the flesh” or “skin contact”, but it’s a bit more than just the skin, sort of the whole fruit, fermented together was an interesting approach. So I’ve been trying to do that – see how that works out really.
Malt: As you say, “fruit ciders” … “made wines” … whatever you want to call them are quite a controversial topic in traditionalist cider circles. What’s your response to the people who get quite vocally angry about them?
Martin: Well, I suppose the one argument you might say – or some people might say – for reasons to stay in cider is that there is so much to explore in cider with the different varieties, so I can see that as a case if you’ve got access and that’s your thing: single variety fruit. So some might say like Ross on Wye where they’ve got that fantastic library of lots of varieties that they can play with, so why would you need to go outside that, I guess you could say. Which would be true, but we don’t quite have that same easy access to that.
What we would say is one of the strongest reasons to do it is for the market. That a cider with a new apple variety is not really exciting enough to get, say, craft brewers interested in that. So it may well be a fantastic product, but if you want to replace a craft beer tap-line, that isn’t really going to do it. Whereas a dry-hopped blackcurrant that’s tart but still 90% apple, that might have a chance of turning some heads as an alternative to a fruit beer. So it’s as much about marketing and repositioning cider I think. That’s largely my reason to do it.
Malt: I suppose the main reason people get so angry is because of all the neo-alcopops that aren’t using whole fruit and are masquerading as cider. Do you think better legislation is needed to separate those from full-fruit, carefully made creations?
Martin: I think that’s looking at it from the wrong angle. I think the only thing that is important is what the customer thinks. Because all the legislation and the tax is largely irrelevant if the customer likes it and thinks it’s cool and is happy to pay craft beer or natural wine price, then the tax isn’t so relevant really. But to kind of sell it as cheap, quaffing product to compete with the factory guys then you’re on a hiding to nothing anyway.
So I think it’s more about what the customer thinks. And yes, fruit cider has such a bad name really because of all the other fruit ciders being sweetened and concentrate-based has given the category a very bad name. So it’s kind of exciting to change that perception by saying “well actually it could be something completely different”. And it’s super exciting, led by some of the things that are happening in Scandinavia with people like Frukt Stereo. So “fruit pét nat”, as a new way of describing the category, which is marketing a fruit cider but then calling it a fruit pét nat. And then all of a sudden put a funky label on it and you’re coming at it from a whole different direction.
Malt: Let’s talk about a few of your creations, starting with Max Lux 2014.
Martin: Well I think that’s a great example of how time makes such a fantastic difference to cider. So that’s my favourite cider, but it’s only been achieved by such a long time in the bottle. You know it’s mellowed out and any funkiness has softened away and it’s just fantastic. But I can’t claim much credit because it’s just a relatively simple bittersweet blend that was keeved and it was quite a few years ago that we made it – 2014 – and I guess we got a bit carried away and we made a bit more than we could sell. If your cider sells out every year then you think “well we’ll make twice as much next year”. But all of a sudden you might have just about reached the threshold of the market anyway and so we ended up with a lot of cider and it was put to the back of the shed and not sold. Because the alcohol also went to 6% because 2014 was a big year for sunshine. So we couldn’t sell it with the corks in it because of the tax threshold. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that we worked out if we took the corks out and put crown caps on we could rebrand it. By which time it was actually a great tasting product. So it was an interesting story of serendipity or whatever you want to call it!
Malt: Obviously there have been a few stellar vintages since – notably 2018. Would you do another edition of Max Lux? And do you think cidermakers could emphasise the characteristics of different vintages more?
Martin: I think definitely, yeah. That would be a beautiful way to do it. Somebody said to me “why don’t you just make Max Lux and not make anything else?” But you know, if you make however many thousand bottles a year and then put it in the shed for five years, so having the budget to do that every year for a while until they were all fantastic and if maybe some years maybe they weren’t so good and you throw that all away, commercially it’s super-difficult to do, really. So commercially making that work would be a problem.
Malt: So next up’s Queen of the Brue. You were interested in quince before most other people were. Tell me a bit about the fruit and what you love about it?
Martin: Well again that was part of my trip to the US. I went to a bar in Brooklyn – last-minute recommendation of somewhere to go – and ended up sitting next to a guy, Dan Pucci, who was the beverage manager at a cider restaurant called Wassail, which was open for a while but is now shut down. Famously one of the first cider-specific restaurants in the States. So obviously we looked through all the list in this super-trendy craft beer bar, somewhere where they have a 750ml bottle list, which is mainly craft beers and natural wines, but also ciders. And they had this 100% quince – quince cider I guess you’d call it – on the list.
And I was super-excited by that, and came back and managed to find that somebody maybe only four miles from me, a big commercial apple grower, had been replacing apple trees with quince trees when they died out because it was too wet. And he had 100 quince trees and quite a crop of quince that he didn’t really have much of a market for. So I got a bit overexcited and bought all his quince, and made Queen of the Brue in the hope that it would turn out like the cider that I’d been drinking in the States. And also made Pomme Pomme at the same time, which was sort of a cross between the quince and the apple. So Queen of the Brue is a fantastic experience, but it’s not for the faint-hearted, whereas maybe Pomme Pomme is a nicer, softer sort of hallway house between the two. But I think it’s a great thing. And it’s been exciting seeing more people get involved in quince since. Little Pomona I think has been equally excited by it and I’ve been stoking up some of the brewers, taking pomace and quince juice to three Bristol brewers who have been making quince products with it as well. So that’s been fun.
Malt: Presumably this won’t be your last foray into making drinks with quince. Are you working on anything else at the moment?
Martin: Well the exciting thing with quince is two years ago – the Queen of the Brue year – there was four tonnes from those 100 trees and this year there is zero – there is nothing – because of a late frost which wiped out the harvest. So there’s no quince activity this year. So quince is sort of “year off” this year. But it was quite fun working with the grape skins – Pinot skins – last year, so we might do a bit more with that. And plums, there’s a nice abandoned plum orchards a bit further up country – ex jam orchards which have been preserved in a charitable trust. So that’s a nice resource to work with. So yeah, just seeing what else is around.
Malt: From the label description, Scarlett Sharpe has to be one of the most wonderfully bonkers drinks there is. Talk me through it.
Martin: Well how that sort of ended up – I quite like, again, talking to some of the brewers. I don’t understand with brewing what goes in, but what’s sort of interesting is that some of the fruit IPAs are technically dry in that there’s no residual sugar left in the final product, but the drink experience and the aroma is sweet. And a lot of that aroma is from fruity aromatics from hops, so it’s sort of a hop trick that the brewers have mastered. So that’s what’s happening in Scarlett Sharpe, is a lot of the aroma is from fruity hops. And that’s kind of fun saying to somebody “try my fruit cider”, because they’re expecting a pink cider to taste sweet and fruity, so when the aroma is sweet and fruit from the hops they’re thinking that’s coming from the sweet drink. And when it turns out to be a dry, tart experience then that’s kind of a fun thing. So it’s a bit of a play on the fruit IPA experience as well.
Malt: You’ve talked a lot about brewers – do you tend to find more creative inspiration in that direction than from other cidermakers?
Martin: Well I think things have changed a bit in the last couple of years, but certainly in Somerset where we are there are not – obviously there are quite a few cidermakers in Somerset but they’re quite spread out. And again one of the things that inspired me in the States was the cidermakers there are in the country like us, but they were taking much more regular trips into the cities and hanging out in beer bars and talking to brewers and being inspired in collaborating with them.
So I thought that is really what I need to do more – or what cider needs to do more – to learn what’s happening from the cool kids in the city. Cidermakers tend to be a bit more isolated in the country and the brewers are always getting a bit more inspiration from each other. You know, popping into each others’ breweries and borrowing spanners and malt and stuff. So their collaborations and cross-fertilisations of ideas are much easier for them. So we have to make a bit more of an effort, us cidermakers, to do that. So that’s been a bit of a conscious effort to try and learn from them. But more recently with things like the Cider Salon there have been more opportunities for the cidermakers as well to try and get a bit more inspiration from each other and try and move the ideas on a bit. So that’s been good.
Malt: Are you working on any beer collaborations at the moment?
Martin: Yeah, in fact I’m going to go and pick some plums with Stuart from Yonder. I got inspired with what they’re doing with mixed fermentations. Which it’s quite exciting – almost frustrating – this mixed fermentation as a new super-trendy idea in beer, which is of course what cider’s been doing for years, but we need to make it cool. The beer guys think they’ve invented it and it’s super trendy, but we need to learn from how they market it and position it. So that’s one thing, and yeah there are a few other ideas out there.
Malt: You were very involved in South West cider week. What’s your view on Somerset cider in general at the moment? And are there any changes you’d like to see?
Martin: I guess South West Cider Week was a good example – and again following on from Cider Salon of cidermakers realising that any resurgence or movement isn’t going to come from anybody else, it’s got to come from us. And that our competitors are not really from within cider, our competitors are beer and wine and bad perceptions of cider. And we can do things relatively easily to change that. So something like South West Cider Week was super easy to organise, just doing little events and activities. But by doing them all together, under one central banner, then it makes it bigger than the sum of the parts. So I think there’s more we can do with that. It’s good to have a bit of a push back – the Three Counties have in the past been better at doing these sorts of things, so we need to learn from them and maybe do our own thing and have a pride in Somerset. And it’s good for everyone – the whole community.
Malt: Whilst nobody’s been going to the pub, fine cider in 750ml bottles has had a real moment. As one of the driving forces behind the Cider Salon, and by extension the promotion of these things, what do producers need to do to maintain momentum when people gradually start returning to normality?
Martin: Good question. I’m hoping that the sort of transition period that we’re almost in now, with people going to the pub or taprooms, that those venues will realise there’s an opportunity to have a bottle fridge, or an extra bottle fridge and that 750s are the things to put in those fridges, so it’s a bit of a combination of slowly going back to drinking out but also still drinking more at home. So not going out as much as you used to, so that take-home opportunity is an opportunity for those venues as well. But yeah we’ve got to keep doing new, cool things in cider to keep the interest growing and working together between producers. So there are some ideas, some things coming out in the autumn. But yeah it is a challenge. It was such a short opportunity, looking back at it. We hope we made the most of it.
Many thanks for Martin for taking the time to talk – particularly since I interrupted his deliveries to do it.
It’s about time we dipped into all this Willy Wonka-ness. I’ve three creations in front of me, described by Martin above. The first, Max Lux, is our most straightforward; a keeved cider from 2014 sitting at a chunky (for a keeve) 6% abv. A 750ml bottle will cost you £8.49.
Next up, Queen of the Brue 2018, is his 100% Quince. Like Martin and James Forbes at Little Pomona I’ve become a great fan of this tart and aromatic fruit, but have never tasted it outside the context of a blend. As a full-juice made wine above 4%, lumbered with that extra duty, it inevitably sits at a rather ambitious price point – enhanced by the high price of quinces when compared to apples. A 750ml bottle will cost you £14.99.
Scarlett Sharpe 2019 is unquestionably the weirdest bottle in our lineup. Blackcurrant wine, barrel-aged in former whisky casks which had since held Martin’s Tamoshanta (reviewed here) and then blended with keeved cider and dry hopped. (With Mandarina Bavaria and Mosaic hops, since you’re asking.) I have absolutely no real context for anticipating what it will taste like, but finding out cost me £10.99 for a 750ml bottle.
Pilton Max Lux 2014 – review
Colour: Burnished gold.
On the nose: Complex, intense fare. Lots of cinnamon and peppery, woody spice mingles with a slightly meaty savouriness that does dip into a little touch of farmy sulphur. Smoky apple skins and earth.
In the mouth: Despite the years it has retained its freshness and definition. Much more complex than the average keeve; not simply an apple juice bomb. That’s likely because this sits on the dry end of keeves; it’s a full-bodied creature full of chalky, pithy tannins that finish with the light, metallic bitterness of nails. Definitely a food cider, rather than a simple sipper. Red apples – skins, juice and dried – with a brush of raw woodiness. Black pepper, ginseng, toffee and char. A good scrape of saddle leather. The light touch of sulphur found on the nose is notably absent here. This could easily continue to age, but is already crying out for juicy roast pork to sink its teeth into. Structured, grown-up, visceral and contemplative. Impressive.
Pilton Queen of the Brue 2018 – review
Colour: Bright gold.
On the nose: That is a super full-on, fresh, zingy and enormous quince nose. Bursts out of the glass with raspberries and fresh roses and citrus and vanilla and light butter, but all are sideshows to that absolutely immense, golden quince.
In the mouth: That is tangy! Needle-bright, with notes of raspberry and sour cherry and lemon. Dryness is hard to calibrate amidst that ripe, blooming fruit and acidity, but certainly the drinker’s impression is that it is entirely dry – there’s no tooth-clinging sugary film whatsoever. Incredibly fresh in the delivery of its flavour and absolutely throbbing with that tart, mouthwatering quince. There’s a higher-toned floral character and a trace of refreshing, food-friendly bitterness to the character of its tangfastic acidity. A little lightly-buttered toastiness rounds it off nicely. Electric, thrilling and delicious stuff.
Pilton Scarlett Sharpe 2019 – review
On the nose: Good grief. I dare say it’s the hops, but the aroma is lemon in the form of a many-headed beast. Lemon oil, fresh lemons and lemons left out to warm in the hot sun. (An aroma I discovered by accident during this heatwave.) It’s a citrus bomb. The red fruits curl in behind; sweet strawberries, tangy raspberries, a bit of darker berry too – though actually it doesn’t express as particularly “blackcurrant”. It’s certainly intense, but not what I expected (whatever it was that I was expecting.)
In the mouth: There’s a bit more overt blackcurrantiness here, nestling in amongst that hoppy, oily, super-sour lemon. Bonkers stuff. The hops are bittering ever so slightly, perhaps in conjunction with the tannins from the cider. The sour cherry and raspberry character continues too – this is much more red fruit than black. It’s very pointed and defined and direct – a jolt of bonkers, unique flavour. Really concentrating there is a soft roundness of apple and vanilla oak, but it’s a subheading at most. Like the quince, the impression is not far off dry.
Unlike other flights I’ve done in my cider reviews on Malt, this really didn’t need to be a side by side. We’re hardly examining little similarities here; these three drinks are utterly apart, immensely intense and without easy comparison anywhere across the whole spectrum of bottled liquid. I suppose the Max Lux is the least unusual, but even there it’s drier and more complex than virtually any other keeve you’ll find; a bold, structured, tannin-driven giant of a cider that demands attention and deserves high-protein food.
Queen of the Brue was possibly my pick of the trio. Complex, blisteringly fresh and packed with energy. I got an advance taste of this back in September when I visited with my mother; at the time it wasn’t quite ready, its sharpness, bitterness and concentration all a little too pointed. But time has done it a power of good. The flavours have unfurled and the excesses of acidity and bitterness have been curbed, whilst still providing more than sufficient structure. I love it, I will certainly buy another, it’s an easy recommendation to anyone interested in tasty things.
Where to start with Scarlett Sharpe? Well, if all you drink is cider, if you view yourself as “apples only” and have no interest in straying from that particular path (which is fine, incidentally) then this clearly isn’t for you. Buying something which says “blackcurrant wine and dry hops” on the bottle and then grumbling that it doesn’t taste much like cider would be a distinctly questionable act. This clearly is not cider – it doesn’t sit anywhere on the cider spectrum, though saying that if I have a slight niggle with it it’s that the element of keeved apple in its makeup is almost completely masked. I dare say I’d notice if it wasn’t there, but it’s virtually impossible to pick out, and as an element of the drink’s makeup I’d like to experience a little more of it. Just a tiny niggle though. Still tasty.
This is openly not being sold as cider; there’s nothing furtive or sneaky or misleading in its presentation or marketing. It is a different drink made with different fruit in a different way for a different purpose. Does it result in something that is very pleasant to drink? Yes it does. It is vivid and bright and intense and awfully tasty, and the geophysicist polished it off in no time and asked for another bottle. If you’re after something that is purely a reflection of apple and orchard and keeve then you should probably stick to the rest of Martin’s range, which you will have a great deal of fun with. If you are more broadly interested in well-made drinks, irrespective of creed and species, investigating Scarlett Sharpe will be well worth your time and the entry fee. I, for one, wish that more producers of made wines took the same, considered, innovative approach as Martin. It would make that particular world a far less bland and anodyne place.
Many thanks to Martin for taking the time to speak to us.