I have talked before about craft cider’s rhinoceros in the room. Which stems from the fact that it generally compares itself to Big Cider – industrial cider, of the sort whose apples are the malic answer to chlorinated chicken – rather than a standard worth being measured against.
You’ll have heard the sales pitch, if you’ve seen more than the most cursory handful of craft cider labels. “Unlike many ciders which can be made from just 35% apple juice, ours is made from 100% fresh-pressed juice and is therefore, de facto, better”.
I’m not knocking full-juice ciders – of course I’m not. In a perfect world such messaging wouldn’t be necessary, and the government would up its risible minimum juice requirement. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and constant measurement against the metrics and “ethics” of big cider risks the possibility of relaxed standards when it comes to actual liquid excellence.
Being made from 100% apples is a guarantee of nothing besides ingredients, which, whilst important, are hardly an assurance of inherent quality. What if the apples weren’t carefully sorted and cleaned, and contain all sorts of rot and muck? What if the 100% fresh-pressed juice was left exposed to oxygen and has become either sherried and cardboardy or a mouthful of acetic vinegar? What if mouse has crept in? What if it is giving off ethyl acetate or butyric? What if it smells like cheese or sulphur or some other hideous thing? What if the cider is, quite simply, a bit dull?
Average, uninformed consumers don’t share the same values and ethics as small-scale cidermakers or the most enthusiastic of cider obsessives. If a cider doesn’t, quite simply, taste nice they won’t care what the juice percentage is – they won’t even think about it. They will pull a face and go back to the familiar, safe consistency of a Stowford Press or a Thatcher’s Gold or a whatever else. What’s more, they’ll likely be put off from making further forays into craft/real/small/delete as appropriate ciders at all.
When I interviewed Tom Oliver back in July I was struck by his comment that “we need to be a little more forthright about what we consider quality to be”. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more it has rung true. Cider afficionados chattering on social media might mention individual bottles they hold to be great, but we seldom talk about the set of qualities that we believe amount to general greatness.
There are a few exceptions to this. Felix Nash has named his company “Fine Cider”, which at least nails his colours to the mast so far as producers he admires is concerned. The copy on his website also mentions minimum intervention and full juice, but whilst this is a start, it doesn’t necessarily dig into either specific qualities – or, importantly, absence of specific faults – that elevate one particular cider above any others. James Finch, my co-writer on this site, has done a sterling job in discussing his notions of fine cider through regular Friday videos and in calling out faults when he finds them in the reviews he has written on Malt. And I would hope that, through the 150-plus expressions I have now written critical tasting notes for, my regular readers (hi parents!) have started to build up a picture of my own likes and dislikes.
But it occurs to me that it might help if I was more specific. So here, set down, is what I’m looking for when reviewing a cider or perry. I don’t set the rules on what constitutes quality, of course – your mileage may very well vary and you are more than entitled to hate something I love, or to adore something I’d turn my nose up at. But at least, from now on, you’ll have a reference for what makes me tick, and understand how and why I’ve reached the conclusions in my reviews. (With the added bonus that you can now tut at me if I’m subsequently inconsistent). This one’s for you, Tom.
The first thing to point out is that this isn’t so much a question of: “I like this style and flavour” or “I don’t like that style and flavour”. Rather it’s the pitching of a broad tent under which apples as disparate as Yarlington Mill and Foxwhelp and styles as diverse as dry bottle conditioned and ice ciders can all comfortably nestle, the same way that wine lovers can appreciate Sauternes and Barossa Shiraz in different ways but to the same degree and whisky drinkers can treasure a peated Islay single malt as much as a barrel proof Kentucky bourbon. Preference and quality are two very distinct metrics, and it’s important not to muddle them.
But irrespective of style, the most important thing that unites any cider or perry with aspirations to greatness, the axel around which all other critical considerations revolves, is reverence for constituent fruit. Whatever the style, whatever the ambition, the apple or pear has to be the hero. Otherwise what’s the point making a cider or perry? Oak can ameliorate, and I’m not expressly against adjuncts to the same frothy-mouthed degree as some critics, but the fruit has to come first. Occasionally there might be some bonkers outlier that tastes good for what it is – I’m thinking particularly of the Oliver’s Out of the Barrel Room Michelin here – but, whilst a great deal of fun, it’s not what I’d call a world class example of a cider.
That respect for fruit takes several forms. If it’s a single variety, for example, is it clearly showcasing what that apple or pear is? Are its classic characteristics on display, whether or not they’re enhanced by oak? Would I have a chance of recognising it if its name wasn’t on the label? If the cider is a blend, has it made something that’s greater than the sum of its parts? Is it still allowing the constituent fruit to shine and to demonstrate the roles for which it has been selected?
My second biggest consideration when reviewing any cider or perry is: is it clean? I’m not talking about sterility and blandness here – I realise that, to some people, “clean” implies something uninteresting and shorn of character – I’m posing the question: is it completely fault free? It goes without saying that anything with mouse is unquestionably not “quality”. I have very low acetic tolerance too, in which respect I realise I part company with some drinkers, but to my mind any hint of vinegar counts as a fault. I don’t like oxidation where I feel that it is to the detriment of the cider’s fruit and freshness, and I don’t like anything showing ethyl acetate either.
As it is in wine, Brettanomyces – “brett” – is more open to debate as to whether it constitutes a fault or not. My own hot take, and remember that this is simply personal opinion, is that it is not as problematic as those I’ve listed in the previous paragraphs. I have liked some ciders which showed an aspect of Brettanomyces and I have disliked others. My suspicion is that it marries more happily with ciders made predominantly from the burlier bittersweets. With that being said, when I think of the very best ciders and perries I’ve tried – the ones that would make my personal list of greatest hits – I can’t think of any in which brett has played a significant role.
Oak. I’m a fan of it. Indeed I often think that cidermakers are overly timorous in their use of it. Again, it’s a question of degree – I didn’t get on much with last week’s bourbon cask Ramborn because I thought the fruit had been walloped. But ciders in which the cask has added layers to the fruit without masking the character of the apples or pears tend to be among the bottles I love most of all. I’m thinking of expressions like Raison d’Être, like Art of Darkness 2017 and like Eden’s Falstaff. In each one the character of the fruit itself is marvellous, clear and expressive, but the element of oak has added an extra dimension which could not otherwise exist and elevated an excellent cider into greatness territory.
That’s not, of course, to suggest that unoaked ciders and perries can’t knock me off my feet too – just look at my reaction to the Newton Court Black Mountain – but there has to be some extra level of balance, length, intensity, complexity. On some level a great cider or perry should be arresting from first sniff, compelling throughout and should linger in your mind long after the bottle has emptied.
Importantly, and returning to my earlier paragraphs, I do think that only happens when a cider is made from the juice, the whole juice and nothing but the juice. Dilution does not a masterpiece make. It makes a painting that’s been exposed to the sunlight for too long. You don’t want an “if only” in your head when you’re drinking.
Regular readers will know that, for preference, I incline towards fully-fermented dry ciders and perries; as Little Pomona’s James Forbes has commented, there are flavours in such things that simply cannot be found in a partially fermented drink. With that being said, some of my all time favourites – cider, perry and wine – have had an element of sweetness, be it slight or pronounced. You don’t get much better than Eric Bordelet’s Poiré Granit or Saragnat’s Ice Cider and both are long way off anywhere close to dry. The key is balance, and when it comes to sweeter drinks that balance tends to come from acidity. It’s the same as with orange juice – if there wasn’t a degree of sharpness it would seem flabby and heavy-going. The acidity cuts through the sugar and the cloying body to create something refreshing and poised and dazzling and light on its feet. Structure and body are every bit as important as flavour when it comes to great drinks – if not more so.
What else? I’m not a huge lover of sucralose – I tend to agree with James’ excellent point that it clashes with the apple in a distinctly industrial way. I admire ciders and perries that speak of where they’re from, not least because such things are actually comparatively rare. I think tannin management is extraordinarily important and immensely underdiscussed – too coarse and they’re off-putting, too muted and what’s the point? I tend to find the best ciders have had a little ageing time – you come across a good few, especially from the West Country, that feel a bit young. But again, it all comes back to the first and most important point – has the apple or pear been showcased in its most sympathetic light; been given space and treatment that has coaxed it into its fullest possible expression?
There’s of course not one single formula for creating “the perfect cider”, and being too proscriptive would be to the great detriment of diversity. But there you have it. My loose set of rough-chiselled generalities which tend to encompass all the ciders I find most compelling. My personal touch-point for what I “consider to be quality”.
Having shown my hand, it’s probably time to apply it, and today we have three very intriguing Somerset ciders to contemplate.
The first up is from Pulpt, a cidery we’ve not crossed swords with yet on Malt. They set themselves up very much as the modern, sharp-looking face of Somerset, inspired by the craft beer revolution – not a farmhouse in sight. Their labels have laudably aimed at moving the conversation beyond sweet-medium-dry by including a diagram of expected, if rudimentary, flavour characteristics. My glass today is the second of their limited edition 750ml bottlings, “Tropical & Delicate”. It’s made entirely from the Gilly apple, a bittersharp of which I have, to my knowledge, no experience whatsoever, but which appears to be a fairly modern apple cultivated by the now-closed and much-lamented Long Ashton Research Station. Six bottles will set you back £49.95 from Pulpt’s website (at the time of writing it appears to be sold out on Scrattings).
We’ve met Wilding before, when their Commix appeared in our article on Table Cider. They’re a modern producer, but one which cites a traditional approach: “fruit is picked from the ground in the old way, let mature and fully ripen before pressing, and then fermented gently and slowly with wild yeasts, no sulphites and plenty of time.” Given their ethos and presentation it’s perhaps no surprise that they’ve been added to the Fine Cider Company’s portfolio. They certainly seem to take many of their cues from the “minimum intervention” natural wine movements. The Wilding I’m pouring today is their Yarlington Mill, Porter’s Perfection and Sweet Coppin 2018. So a big, spicy bittersweet, a nippy, medium-bodied bittersharp and the light, easygoing Sweet Coppin to round it out. 2018, as we’ve covered previously, was a huge, ripe, high-sugars year: let’s see if that’s borne out in this lightly-sparkling, off-dry cider. The Fine Cider Co. seem to be sold out, but you can buy a 750ml bottle from Beer Zoo for £14.
Last up is a single variety Tremlett’s Bitter from Barley Wood Orchard. They’re another newish producer of five vintages standing (are you sensing a theme yet?) making cider in a wonderful little wooden roundhouse in the gorgeous Barley Wood Walled Garden. Amongst people who ought to know such things, Barley Wood are one of the most highly-rated small producers around at the moment, but we’ve yet to feature them on Malt. (Confession: I visited a month or two ago, and did write an article about it, but it was appalling so I didn’t publish. At some point I will attempt a rewrite.) Their ciders tend to be cold-racked or keeved in plastic and stainless steel for a medium-sweet, juice-forward style. But this Tremlett’s has been aged in a whisky cask and fermented to dryness. You don’t see much Tremlett’s bottled as a single variety – it’s a rather sabre-toothed bittersweet, not approached lightly. I have looked and looked to try and find it online, but without success. So for the time being you’ll have to drive over to Somerset to pick up a 568ml bottle.
Pulpt Ltd Edition 2 ‘Tropical & Delicate’ – review
Colour: Pale Gold.
On the nose: I’d say it does what it says on the tin: this is, indeed, both tropical and on the delicate side. Bananas, both fresh and foam, a green streak of guava and a dash of lychee. There’s a softer tone of pear too, and a lightly-floral soapiness, though not to the extent of, say, a single variety Katy.
In the mouth: Somerset you say? You’d never guess. Green apple, more guava and cucumber slices. Tinned pear, white melon and blossom. It’s rather like a lightly-sparkling Pinot Grigio really – very light. Pretty non-existent tannin – definitely a small-b bittersharp – and the acidity is actually rather mild, though it does add light zest. Off dry and on the simple side, though it’s very easy-drinking.
Wilding Yarlington Mill, Porter’s Perfection & Sweet Coppin 2018 – review
Colour: Hazy orange.
On the nose: Lots of fulsome, juicy, lignin-spiced Yarlington in there for sure. Orange juice and rind, clove, leather. Dabs of vanilla and caramel. Tree bark and a touch of must. There is a flutter of volatile acetic acid in there too, though. Just a smidge.
In the mouth: Follows through from the nose, though the woody spices turn up a notch with the light grip of tannin. More juicy orange fruit – blood orange and pink grapefruit – with chewy pith and twig and leather. I almost can’t make up my mind about the acetic – it really is the mildest dab and it’s fairly well subsumed into the fruit – I dare say many people wouldn’t notice or be bothered. But to me there is that slight roughness of edge that distracts, just a touch, from the voluptuous juiciness of the cider. Otherwise it’s a solid cider. Label says off-dry, but it’s very close to dryness, this one.
Barley Wood Orchard Tremlett’s Barrel Fermented Dry Cider – review
On the nose: That is lovely. The honey and vanilla of the whisky cask doesn’t overpower the apple, rather they dovetail beautifully with the ripe yellow fruit and light, mineral earthiness of the Tremlett’s. Impeccably clean. There’s lemon oil here too and even some delicate summer fruits.
In the mouth: Big, bone-dry, pithy-tannic arrival. Definitely some varietal astringency. Those sweeter whisky cask notes are still there, but this is a blast of ripe apple, pear, citrus peel and light banana. Totally arresting and whistle-clean, with a rock-solid, steely core. Lean and muscular, rather than voluptuous. North Rhône to the Wilding’s South Rhône, to use a wine analogy, perhaps. That pithiness grows at the death – green tea and a light, earthy-metallic tang. Super mineral. This is an epic cider in every sense. If you love the output of Ross on Wye, you need this in your life. But I recommend you approach it with a good bit of protein.
Somerset cider is rooted in an ancient tradition which, whilst often a wonderful thing, can sometimes be slow to tweak and develop and progress. This trio shows off a very modern face of Somerset, one I found fascinating in its diversity, whilst remaining full-juice and reverent to the apple. Exciting stuff.
I’m not sure the Gilly apple is entirely my cup of tea, I’m afraid. Fans of Pinot Grigio or Prosecco will likely adore it, but I found it just a touch too flowery-soapy. For a bittersharp it could have done with a little more acid or tannin – something to give it that structure and definition. As it was, there was just a little bit of soft flabbiness that left me wanting. As I say, I suspect that’s more my problem with the apple, rather than a reflection on how it has been made; it’s entirely clean, very fresh, sympathetically made and suggests that Pulpt are well worth further exploration. This one just isn’t particularly for me.
I just can’t make up my mind about the Wilding. Lots of flavour, plenty to like, but that background growl of acetic acid wouldn’t leave me alone. These are the risks you run with the natural wine approach – like the 2013 Blakeney Red perry I reviewed from Oliver’s I feel left with a drink that’s good, but which feels as though it could have been outstanding, and has left me wanting slightly more.
The Barley Wood was my pick of the bunch. It’s a tremendous advertisement for the fusion of barrel and apple, and a wonderful, faultless showcase of Tremlett’s Bitter, in which tannin has been beautifully managed and fruit has been allowed to shine. There are plenty of other producers who might have been tempted to tame Tremlett’s force of personality through the use of sweetener and I cannot tell you how impressed I am that Barley Wood have not only not gone down this route, but have made such a beautiful, complex and compelling cider from this challenging variety. I really hope that someone like Scrattings picks it up, or that it becomes available online elsewhere. I want to buy a case.