“One of the things that certainly has come out of the horrors of this COVID-19 is the 750ml has found its place, without a shadow of a doubt.”
That was Tom Oliver’s comment when I interviewed him back in July, and it’s one that I’ve heard echoed by other cidermakers and seen evidenced across social media accounts since. There’s no doubt about it; cider served in 750ml bottles is becoming a normalised thing.
Curiously, the UK is the one traditional cider power in which this was not already very much a – if not the -norm. You can’t visit Normandy without encountering fat-bottomed, cork-and-caged champagne type affairs, or Basque’s Astigarraga without finding long, elegant fluted bottles in the style of Alsatian wines. The straight-sided Bordeaux-style bottle is long-established as the preference in Germany and Austria but in Britain (tellingly the only country on that list which isn’t a major wine producer) the can and the stubby 500ml have held seemingly immoveable sway, with 750s really just an eccentric niche of a niche.
The upshot of this is that it is still possible – easy – to find negative opinions of the 750 and, to my mind that’s a slightly narrow-sighted shame.
Much of the objection seems to boil down to a contention that the 750 is inherently hifalutin, is emblematic of the generally increasing costs of aspirational cider and is just a big marketing ploy wrapped up in a garish costume designed to persuade punters to part with more money irrespective of liquid quality.
As someone who tastes several peoples’ fair share of cider and perry I have, of course, come across faulty and just-plain-average cider served in a 750ml suit of clothes. But the notion that 750ml presentation should be reserved only for the best of the best, as some sort of earned badge of honour, seems deeply flawed. Producers can serve their creations in whatever the hell they like; they can serve them in a brown paper bag if that’s their choice, though I’d personally advise against it. Why on earth would you not want to put your cider in the best-looking package available to you? (In any case, there are plenty of naff-looking 750s out there). Putting something in a larger bottle is hardly the brash end of marketeering – it’s just common sense.
A more reasonable gripe that I’ve seen is that 750ml can be a good old skinful, and what do you do if there’s only one of you and you don’t want to drink all that at once? This is slightly more difficult, as most 750s aren’t also available in other formats (currently) and “drink something else” is hardly a helpful response. My highest recommendation in this instance would be to avail yourself of a wine vacuum pump and a rubber stopper, which are easily available well under a tenner, and will keep your big bottle fresh and your doctor happy for a good three to four days, should you need it.
As to the suspicion that the 750 is inherently intertwined with ‘fine cider’, if that’s genuinely your contention then surely the more 750s the better? ‘Ubiquitous’ and ‘fine’ are inherently ill-suited bedfellows; if everyone’s doing something then it loses its power as a determiner of quality. Nobody judges a Basque or Normandy cider’s quality based on the volume of its bottle. But those ciders, as whole categories, looks smarter on the shelves than do English. They inherently command more base-level respect from the casual punter. Which, if you’re looking to sell product, is always going to be important, however much we might wish that everyone judged everything purely on liquid quality.
My own view is that 750s are here, they’re here to stay and in any case they’re, in most instances, my favourite format anyway. They look nice, I enjoy the feel of them, they feel more special than a stubby bottle (and critically they make me, the drinker, feel more special than a stubby bottle) and – most importantly – they hold more booze. In any case, they still make up a very small minority of the bottles on offer; it’s hardly as though the other formats won’t remain dominant for the forseeable future. But personally, I’m thrilled they’re on the up, and I hope their rise isn’t stalled when we all leave our homes and go back to the pubs. Why shouldn’t cider try to look as smart as it can? Why shouldn’t it look to command respect and admiration as opposed to sneers and condescension? Why shouldn’t a full-juice, sensitively made, interesting labour of love be something that anyone would be proud to plonk in the centre of their dinner table?
Anyway. The point of this rather grouchy preamble is that the ranks of the 750s were recently bolstered with three new creations from Kentish Pip. I’m guilty of not covering Kentish cider much on Malt yet, and since it’s a major British apple and cider power, I thought this would be a good opportunity to kill several birds with one stone. So I reached out to Sam Mount, Kentish Pip’s Managing Director, and asked a few questions. His answers are submitted below.
Malt: Can you give me a potted history of your background in cider generally and Kentish Pip in particular?
Sam: I grew up on our family apple farm in East Kent surrounded by orchards. My dad made cider in the garage using a hand mill and press until I was about 12 so I never got to taste it. He then stopped making cider all together for 12 or more years.
I didn’t really drink cider in my late teens and early 20s, certainly not deliberately as it rarely appealed. I was more of a real ale and wine fan in those days.
I came to cider later (aged 27 onwards) when my dad started making it again and he started Kentish Pip. My discovery of cider came from tasting new batches and products he was trying from raw un processed ciders through to the finished products. By tasting and learning in this way I developed an appreciation for the key characteristics, both positive and negative.
Now I drink cider (outside of work) mainly with food. It’s a great drink to pair with food.
Kentish Pip was started by my dad Mark in 2012 when he sold his first bottles of Kentish Pip – Medium Dry Cider (later to be known as Craftsman) to our local pub and won first prize at the Brogdale cider festival.
Craftsman boldly claimed to vary with every batch with the final decision coming down to taste and enjoyment. Although we have become more consistent with our production we still follow this mantra. Taste and enjoyment always wins the day.
In 2014 I worked with my dad for the first time on cider and we undertook a lengthy rebranding process launching a range of 5 seasonal still ciders at the start of 2015:
Craftsman, Vintage, Forager, Firespice and Wild Summer
In 2016 I left my job and started working full time on Kentish Pip launching our first Sparkling Cider and developing the business you see today.
Malt: What inspired the move towards doing ‘fine ciders’?
Sam: We have been experimenting with small batches of bottle fermented, 750ml ciders since the very first days in 2012. We have had successes and a few failures also. Civil Disobediance our first ever bottle conditioned Perry won Bronze at the British Cider and Perry Championships in 2019 and a single orchard bottle conditioned cider that we took to the Cider Salon also received amazing feedback.
This however is our first launch of any significant scale where previous batches have mainly been sampled, given away or drunk by us. I think now there is a good demand now for these kind of products which has given us the confidence to produce a bigger amount.
The other factor is that these products take time. 2 – 3 years in the case of the traditional method products.
Malt: How are these three distinct as ‘fine’ vs the other Kentish Pip range?
Sam: ‘Fine cider’ rightly highlighted in inverted comments is as precise a term as ‘craft beer’. Essentially it is in the eye of the beholder, for some it is packaging, others techniques, batch size and many other reasons, ultimately the customer will make their own mind up.
One difference between these products and our core range is that they are bottle conditioned or bottle fermented. Therefore unfiltered, unpasteurised and naturally carbonated. But I wouldn’t say that is what makes them a ‘Fine Cider’ in their own right. You could have two ciders both dry, unfiltered, unpasteurised and still, one could be fine and the other not so much.
For me ‘Fine Cider’ means a single production and a certain level of quality. Our core range of ciders Skylark, High Diver etc are produced to high standards and use high quality fruit but the main difference is that they are always available. If we run out, we produce more, following a recipe and a specification. I don’t think you can do this with a fine cider. You can produce different vintages under a similar label but there should be no attempt at consistency from one year to the next and all the differences should be celebrated.
These three products were originally two traditional methods, planned in and produced over a long period of time. The Pet-Nat came about because we had such good quality discovery this year and the aromatics during fermentation were sublime so we decided to bottle it there and then.
Malt: It’s rare to see Foxwhelp outside of Herefordshire and the West Country. Why that one in a range of Eastern Counties fine ciders?
Sam: Woolton farm has always grown dessert and culinary apples and we love to play with the vivid fruit characteristics of these varieties. But why limit yourself to certain varieties because of where you are situated? Our original medium dry cider (now Craftsman) contains 25% apples people would classify as bittersweet cider apples and this is something we have always done.
We now have five orchards which are exclusively for cider production containing here containing 12 bittersweet and bittersharp varieties. 9 heritage varieties, including the Broxwood Foxwhelp and three modern varieties developed at Long Ashton.
Broxwood Foxwhelp is a very fine apple with a lot more than just tannin going on. We have always separated it out since our first ever crop to experiment with ways to temper the acidity and bring forward some of the other characteristics.
Malt: Can you talk me through the making of each creation in as much detail as you can? Particularly with regards to the distinctions between all three.
Discovery Pet-Nat 2020
Pick the fruit ripe off the tree by hand. But not over ripe and press straight away.
Most Discovery is picked too early because it is the first apple of the English season so everyone wants to be first to market. Discovery will spoil with days of picking unlike most apple varieties.
The juice was fermented with an aromatic white wine yeast with a little temperature control as it was September.
As it neared the end of fermentation temperature was reduced to slow fermentation to a slow tick without stalling or straining the yeast.
Bottled at around 1.0045 specific gravity. You have to find the right balance between remaining sugar and CO2 already dissolved in the liquid to attain the right level of fizz in the end product.
The bottles were then stored on their side between 10 and 14degC to complete their fermentation and settle out. The cider has fermented to dryness
It was labelled and boxed end of November and will now settle properly in an upright bottle
Three apple varieties all hand-picked in 2018: Zari, Discovery, Bramley (Ripe and coloured red). Zari and Bramley were fermented with Champagne yeast. The Discovery was split in two with half fermented with a champagne yeast and half with an aromatic white wine yeast before recombining after racking. All three cider were fermented and matured as single varieties. They were all racked once between 4 and 6 months after fermentation.
The three varieties were blended together and inoculated with a champagne yeast and sugar for bottle conditioning. These were stored on their side between 10 and 14 deg for 6 months to complete their secondary fermentation and mature further on the lees.
The bottles were then riddled and disgorged in the last days of November to produce a clear bottle conditioned cider. This process is known as the traditional method.
Three ciders were used in this product: Broxwood Foxwhelp 2019, plus Zari from above plus a blend of traditional bittersweet and sharp cider apples from Woolton Farm 2017.
The Broxwood Foxwhelp is a bittersharp variety with medium high acid compared to other Foxwhelps but this is still very sharp. The fruit was machine harvested before sorting and washing. The fruit was milled directly into a separate container and sealed off from oxygen to avoid oxidisation of the tannins. This was left out in the cold for 36 hours, a process know as maceration. After this the pulp was pressed into juice and inoculated with yeast. After a day or two allowing the culture to establish the juice was kept just over 7 DegC for three months to allow it to ferment very slowly.
The result of this was very pleasing, dried fruit aromas, lively coloured juice, soft tannin. The further maturation allowed a softening of the acidity.
The Woolton cider apples were fermented as a blend due to low yields in 2017 (an off year, common with biannual heritage varieties). These were fermented with a specific cider yeast strain, racked after 6 months and matured for 2.5 years before blending with the others for tirage.
The Foxwhelp+ then followed the same process as the Brut in terms of tirage, second fermentation in bottle, aging on the lees, disgorging and labelling.
Malt: Are 750ml bottled ciders going to become more regular for Kentish Pip? Do you have any more in the pipeline?
Sam: There are no complete finished products currently but plenty in the pipe line. We have actually retained a percentage of Brut and Foxwhelp to continue aging on the lees to help us understand how this works after 12 months, 18months and possibly longer. We’ll be tasting these and making a call when to release based how they develop.
We also have some great products from 2019 and 2018 that have been smuggled away waiting for the right moment.
Malt: Talk to me about Kentish cider generally? With yourself, Turner’s, Nightingale and BEARDSpoon there are some hugely respected names in the county. How has Kentish cider developed and what does the landscape look like at the moment.
Sam: Some great producers you have mentioned there all with their own unique styles and there are many more around as well as new people starting out.
I think Kent would do well to do a lot more to promote itself as a cider county, it has the producers, it’s own style or styles, it certainly has the orchards and the apples. Being so well connected to the rest of the country and Europe it should really make the most of this. A bit more collective action from likeminded producers could make the difference.
Malt: Obviously your range features ciders made from both culinary and cider varieties. I’ve heard at least one cidermaker call for us to stop using those big-group terms and to just discuss the varieties themselves. What would your take be?
Sam: Being able to talk about individual varieties would be ideal but this takes a lot of knowledge especially from a customer point of view. I would say varietal naming and discussion is 100% more common than it was when I started in cider but that is still a very minute amount of people.
The terms themselves culinary, dessert and cider varieties are not very helpful and can be very misleading to people learning about cider. There is an immediate bias instilled which is unhelpful for consumers who at the end of the day are the ones that matter. Terminology such as tannin lead varieties and acid lead varieties I find equally unhelpful, if that is all we deduce from the variety of the cider we are missing the point.
Malt: Are the terms “Eastern Counties” and “West Country” becoming increasingly redundant as stylistic guides? If so, how would you prefer to talk about ciders, stylistically?
Sam: I think you can talk about an Eastern Counties style and a West Country Style in loose terms, it’s comparable to the wine regions of different countries. But these are generalisations rather than terminology and they aren’t suitable to describe modern ciders and the multitude of products available.
In my view, Cider could benefit hugely from a more structured quality scheme as we see in English Wine. Possibly less complicated. The ultimate aim should be to inform the end customer. Where did the fruit come from, what varieties make up at least 85% of the drink etc. This way the customer gets consistent info and can learn and become informed.
Malt: How has Kentish Pip been affected by the pandemic, how have you dealt with it and what are your plans and hopes for the near future?
Sam: We have managed to adapt with the ever-changing landscape and we have certainly learnt a lot in the last 9 months. Previous to March 70% of our sales were to pubs and restaurants which disappeared over night and we now find ourselves in tier 3 for December.
We are lucky to be fairly small and nimble focussing quickly into online sales, we also opened a giant cider garden at the farm in July and then a campsite for August and September. It’s been a very long slog but as I said we’ve learnt a lot and have some exciting new plans for 2021 so watch this space.
Many thanks indeed to Sam for taking so much time to answer my questions. Now: onto these three new Pips.
Sam’s given such a detailed breakdown of the trio above that I don’t feel the need to offer much more than the briefest précis. A Discovery from the new 2020 vintage (obviously I had to taste it next to the Little Pomona from a couple of weeks ago), a traditional method blend based on Foxwhelp (seven truly magnificent words) and a traditional method blend of other varieties. At the time of writing (concerningly close to the intended time of reading) the trio is still available for a total of £32.90 on the Kentish Pip website. Individually the BRUT SE and Foxwhelp are both at three bottles for £34.50 and three of the Discovery will set you back £29.70.
Kentish Pip Foxwhelp+ Traditional Method NV – review
Colour: Bright gold.
On the nose: Actually surprisingly quiet for Foxwhelp, though it’s very, very clean. Some of the tell-tale strawberries and lemon plus a little dandelion stalk and green apple. Some faint, bready leesiness. Delicate and bright all round. Nice.
In the mouth: Again, not the full Foxwhelp attack. The champagne method has influenced this well; there’s a good bit of apple and lemon and gentle brioche. Slightly sherbety. The acidity is certainly there, but nowhere near usual young Foxwhelp levels. There’s also not much of the classic Foxwhelp red fruit though. Nonetheless, clean, elegant and with easy broad appeal.
Kentish Pip Discovery Pét Nat 2020 – review
Colour: Milky lemon.
On the nose: That’s a really vivid, pure, fresh Disco nose, that is. More disco than whichever decade it was that famously held lots of discos. Leaner and more focussed than the Little Pomona, to my taste – more on the lemon and pink grapefruit and fresh apple and gooseberry – just a touch of red creeping in. Very nice aromatics.
In the mouth: As fresh and pure as it smells. Deliciously refreshing – lime juice, red apple, more pink grapefruit all brought to life by that joie de vivre of mousse and what the folk at Eve’s Cidery delightfully term ‘jangly acidity’. Wonderful, dazzling, full of vhim and verve. Disco in hi-def.
Kentish Pip Brut SE NV – review
Colour: Very clear pale gold.
On the nose: Delicate. Green apple, white flower, hay and light lees. It’s clean, but it’s also on the faint and simple side.
In the mouth: Really crisp, clean, taut delivery. Nice acidity without being too much. Very structurally balanced against the lovely creamy mousse. Flavours follow nose but with a little more intensity. Green apples, seashell, blossom, lemon zest. Not quite into biscuity breadiness with the lees yet, but then this remains comparatively young. It’s a nice, fresh aperitif cider which could certainly fill in for sparkling wine. Maybe one to leave for a year or two to see if it gains a little more depth and complexity.
A very lovely trio, and a real showcase for how varied the catch-all category of ‘acid-led fruit’ can actually be. All are totally clean, with an emphasis on elegance and freshness.
I’m slightly in two minds about Foxwhelp+. On the most basic level I absolutely like it, would absolutely recommend it and as I say in my note I think it has broad appeal. On the other hand, it is not particularly Foxwhelpy in the character of its aromas and flavours which, as I have said unto death, are the real stars of the apple and which are always focussed on less than is its acidity. When a bottle has FOXWHELP in large letters on its label, I suppose I sort of expect certain things, and in a sense I’m ever so slightly disappointed that they weren’t entirely here. But this is a very niche complaint. It carries my recommendation, but with a note of caveat to Foxwhelp purists (there are so many of us).
The Discovery’s my favourite. Again very different in character to the 2020 Little Pomona. That one was broader, riper and redder of fruit; this Kentish Pip is leaner and more citrusy. Both, however, are instantly Discovery from first sniff, both are packed with freshness and fruit. Definitely one to pick up.
The Traditional Method is nice, if perhaps a little on the delicate side. Which, of course, is what many drinkers are after and to those drinkers I say fill your boots. In common with its two stablemates it’s whistle-clean, pin-bright and very elegant indeed. I’d perhaps like a little more intensity and complexity, and there’s a lot of competition in this style and price point from the likes of Tinston’s Anatomy and Chalkdown. However, as I say, I’m quibbling. There’s not a cider in the trio that I wouldn’t pour for a friend.
And that, I think, is what I admire most about these three. All are good to excellent ciders, beautifully packaged and providing a commendable quantity of salient detail on their labels. Most importantly though, all are totally without fault and are accessible in style to the mainstream customer whilst being interesting enough for the more seasoned drinker. If ‘fine cider’ – or whatever your preferred term for the sector might be – is to build on its unquestionable rise in 2020 and bring in a new and wider audience, it will likely be in no small part on the backs of bottlings like these.