Professor Barker of the Long Ashton Cider Institute grouped apples for cider making into four classes and I have now written about an apple in each. A bittersharp, a bittersweet, a sweet and a sharp. Now it’s time to turn attention to what happens when you mix those apples together in the hope of creating something more. Blending cider is an art and a skill and not everyone can do it well. There are many elements that need to align to make a good blend. I’m going to explore them with the background of a mammoth vertical tasting of four years’ worth of Tom Oliver and Ryan Burke’s Gold Rush, both of whom were kind enough to speak to Malt about their annual blend and share some thoughts on the art of blending.
There’s no doubt in my mind that single variety ciders are key to craft ciders’ growth. Getting consumers talking about different varieties and experiencing the variations they offer in taste will only benefit in supporting the growth of cider’s lexicon, which in turn will encourage more to seek out new drinking experiences. Single variety ciders can allow terroir and vintage to manifest themselves in their truest unadulterated form. But therein also lies a problem; some single varieties can shine as a drink on their own as I’ve highlighted in the past four articles but some can be a little harsh or unrefined, just as a consequence of the vintage, as well as acid, sugar and tannin levels.
As Adam has explored in the past with his article on Rich’s, there can be a temptation to try and fix or polish those characteristics to make a single variety cider more balanced. This is a bit of a travesty as you are hiding the true elements of that fruit and in many cases the result isn’t as balanced as probably intended. But what is balance? Is it all elements in harmony? The definition of the word talks about equal or correct proportions and that’s the word that makes it fairly subjective; “correct”. I am sure many of our readers will have a rightly honed idea of what the correct proportions are to make an exceptional blended whisky but with cider I think the ideal is still a youthful and personal perspective.
The notion of cider coming in three options; sweet, medium and dry suggest that the only difference between all ciders are the sugar levels. We all know that those phrases are a weighted anchor holding back progress of the good ship HMS Fermented Apple. But on a serious note, they belittle the art of cider making and in particular blending. After all a dry blend from a Kentish maker is going to be completely different to a Herefordian (is that a word?) one. Transparency, labelling and pump clips are due much further spotlight, but for now let’s focus on the subject in hand. While I had the attention of Tom I took the opportunity to ask him for his thoughts on blending after a recent visit to the Cider Neutral Hotel where he was fairly vocal on his thoughts. Ryan was also kind enough to share his views.
Malt: On Neutral Cider Hotel a couple of weeks ago you were fairly bold with your thoughts on SVs versus blending. Could you summarise your beliefs on why blending is the real art of cider making? And what it means to you?
Tom: Blending does not minimise terroir or vintage, it maximises it. I find it hard to summarise but here is some illustration of why I think like I do.
Much of how I feel is based on love of drinking good cider and my frustration with having to accept so much poorly made cider. I am hard on myself as regards what we make and release. De-bottling etc. because we are not happy. If is meant to be fizzy and it is not fizzy, don’t sell it. It mells of poo, don’t put it out. So it is with apples, if they really did taste great on their own, there would be ciders out there already.
We may in time breed the perfect SV apple or chance upon it on a mountain top but at present there are only a few recognised varieties. The vast majority of apples grown on the planet would as single varietals be ghastly.
There are very very few true single varietal ciders that are great balanced, drinkable ciders that will appeal to anyone outside of the cider bubble. Of course you could argue that balance is not everything and I would agree but here is the thing. For cider to progress, we are not competing against other ciders, we are competing against beer, wine, spirits and all manner of other drinks for the palates and pockets of folk. The only metric that really works for me is the consumer choosing cider over those other drinks. For most this will mean presenting a well-made, faultless drink. I think this only comes home to you when you are in the “private” dining room of a restaurant you really rate and you are tasting with the head chef, the sommelier and the owner, a selection of drinks to pair with a dish or as an aperitif. Only then do you realise that the aroma, the look, the conditioning, the balance, the mouthfeel must be A1 otherwise you will have lost before they have even considered the pairing or drinking opportunity. The same applies when tasting cider with a mixed bunch of friends.
So my concern is that if single varietals are going to be bought to a larger market, they will need some manipulation thus inviting adulteration by sugar, acid, water etc. to make it a more drinkable cider and that renders the single varietal aspect meaning less. There are many of course already on the market that bear scant relation to the apple. Thus defeating the object of the exercise.
Single varietals made more drinkable by the impact of the barrel whether by adding sweetness or extra alcohol from the previous occupant or wood/spice/char notes of the oak barrel “are only telling you that the varietal does not work on its own”.
I applaud single varietals that display the character of the apple with no influence of yeast, oak, sugar, acid, etc. Doesn’t mean that I want to sit down and drink one every night or share with friends on a regular basis etc. though. Certainly as a cider maker and someone exploring the qualities of certain apples, they can be educational and useful but for the most part a stepping stone.
Comparing single varietal wines and ciders is also very dangerous. They are completely different beasts not least because the alcohols are so different and the fruit character especially the tannic/acid/fruit complex so different that they are very different beasts. Plus of course there is much manipulation in wine making too.
Making genuine single varietal cider that exhibits the apple rather than fermentation characteristics (good or bad) or barrel character (again good or bad) or faults bought on by lack of required nutrients/minerals from that varietal for clean fermentation, are really not very common.
Blending is not really about making your mark, it is getting the best from the apples. It is about making ciders that people want to drink, again and again and pay a sustainable price for. Poorly made single varietals are in the words of one of my mentors “a piece of piss” and will not further the cause one iota but then neither do piss poor blends!
So single varietals, unless manipulated in some way, may only impress by their freakish nature not their drinkability. Of course single varietals are academically fascinating and interesting provided the apple input is recognisable amidst all the other possible attributes from many other quarters and yes I would love it if every cider maker released say a single varietal Dabinett every year to celebrate the previous vintage and show off local terroir etc. what fun that would be.
Ryan: For me, blending is just one of the arts of cider making. Making a vintage/terrior driven single variety cider requires a great understanding of your fruit and the year. Being able to pull the characteristics you want to show out of the fermenting juice takes time and patience. The key, for me, is selecting the right fruit to accomplish the goal – which should always be making a great, balanced cider that is enjoyable on its own and at the table. Some apples just don’t have what it takes, and being able to admit that and move on is important. When you find an apple really shows well as an SVC – I think it makes sense to spend a few seasons with it and get a familiar as possible. To make SVCs, I focus on the acid/mineral driven apples of the US – like Newtown Pippin or Baldwin. With these apples, it’s the acid and the aroma I’m really focused on, because I’ve switched gears from blending with bitter sweets/sharps, I’m not missing the tannin – I create body and mouthfeel through my fermentation and aging practices.
I’ve spent quite some time thinking on both Tom and Ryan’s perspectives. Blending for me as a new cider maker is a daunting and scary prospect, mainly governed by self-doubt about my own palate and ability, only time and feedback will cure that. In some ways it does feel a lot safer to me to create a dry single variety, hiding behind the fruit characteristics, but as Ryan points out, fermentation and aging practices are as important as the choice of fruit. Tom’s observation that “genuine” (faultless and free of any fermentation or barrel influence) single variety ciders are rare is fair, even wild, unadulterated fermentations will have influence on the finished cider. Take Ross on Wye Cider and Perry, who make tens of single variety ciders. Their perfected techniques and native yeast strains definitely result in a flavour profile that permeates their entire range to various degrees. The small Dabinett experiment I did with Albert in 2018 illustrated how fermentation location and vessel size influenced the resulting cider. Which was the “genuine” true expression of that fruit? I’m not sure. Perhaps only brand new stainless steel tanks in a brand new facility could allow that to happen? The Newt springs immediately to mind as an opportunity to test this theory, but do their methods of arrested fermentation mean their ciders fully exhibit the apple? Without a comparator again I am left unsure?
So are blends better? Is that even the right question to be asking? Probably not. However, I reflect on my first visit to Ross on Wye Cider & Perry where Mike happily asserted that blends are better. Despite this they still produce more single variety ciders than any other maker I know. Let’s face it, not every maker has the variety of fruit on hand to do what they do. They recognise that some varieties can be “freakish” in nature, as Tom put it, and some of them they don’t really drink themselves (hello Foxwhelp) but they also understand the value in showing off those apples on their own to help further the education of their customers and preserving some extremely rare fruit that would be lost in a blend.
Clearly, I’ve raised more questions than answers today, but being generous with myself, sometimes it’s as much about asking the question as the answer. Out of all of Tom’s thinking the comment that in order to progress cider has to compete with other drinks for consumer choice really resonates. It’s always been the battle when I start talking to people about cider as they have their own preconceptions, which are usually based on poorly crafted experiences. They also, as is human nature, compare to their usual other drinks. There’s way too much to unpack on that and whether using the language of other drinks helps or hinders and how cider can reach the point of equal footing, because let’s face it in the general domain cider is seen as a cheaper, lower alcohol, starting beverage. Something to explore another day.
Moving on to focus on Goldrush, before I share my thoughts on the vintages, I spoke with Tom and Ryan about how it came about. So for all you Steps fans out there, I couldn’t resist: “it’s time to begin – now count it in… 5- 6-7-8”
Malt: How did this collaboration come about? And is there anything particular you and Ryan are trying to convey with it?
Tom: Some 10 years ago Greg Hall (having recently sold Goose Island Brewery to AB) and Ryan visited to talk about cider and cidermaking. Our combined love of food and drink immediately created a bond and we enjoyed, in particular, an evening drinking in Ledbury.
Some months later I visited Ryan and Greg in Fennville, MI where we blended a tannic heavy cider made from fruit from Steve Wood in NH and local varietals incl. Northern Spy which I particularly liked for this purpose. This was released as “the Ledbury” a tannic, 750ml sharing bottle of cider that was pretty ground breaking for US cider back in 2011/12.
This cemented a real bond with Ryan, our enjoyment of drinking tannic cider, the ease of communicating what we were experiencing, each comfortable with the criticism and input of the other and both forward thinking and imaginative in where cider could be taken but all based on the fundamental appreciation of apple varietals and what spontaneous fermentation and oak bought to the party.
Initially, we discussed a cider made in Herefordshire that would appeal to Belgian Lambic and Gueuze drinkers that featured tannic cider, wild yeasts and barrels but all wrapped up as a cider that would attract drinkers rather than repel them. What this has become over time and after 8 iterations is an indulgence by two fan boys of what they feel is the best drink they can make from characterful and challenging barrel fermented cider, spontaneously fermented and showing the drinkability that oak and tank fermented cider brings to the table and all given a backbone from Foxwhelp.
Ryan: Each year we’re trying to push things as far as we think they can go – we always start by tasting and then asking ourselves – how robust is the tannin? How much oak will complement that? How are we going to balance all of that with acid? How will we make the aromatics pop? What about sweetness?
The goal is to really show off all the dials we have to play with as cider makers and then put them all up to 11 while still blending a well-balanced and drinkable cider that enjoyable with the right cheese.
Malt: Is there anything in the name? Is the Gold Rush variety in it? Or is it a nod to the potential opportunities for craft cider like the gold rushes of the Midwest? I’m probably way off base with both of those thoughts.
Tom: It is a nod to the potential opportunities , that blind faith that cider demands from those who commit to it, because back in 2011 we were way ahead of the curve, especially in the USA and certainly with cidermakers collaborating (especially across the seas). Gold Rush as a variety does not appear in Gold Rush the cider, Foxwhelp is the incumbent varietal for acid.
Malt: How do you work out the mechanics of doing a blend across the world? Is there cider addition from both of you or is it just the blending from your bases that’s the collaboration?
Tom: It is always a cider made entirely in Herefordshire. It, until C19, was an excuse for Ryan to visit at least twice a year, once when the barrels were coming out of the spring and again at the final blend time. Although once I did have to take a number of plastic bottles of various samples to the Frankfurt World Cider Show so that we could complete a blend in the delightful confines of a hotel room. Edu Coto was there and it was brilliant to see a Spanish Cider expert be blown away by the bracing acidity of Foxwhelp. “We have no apples quite like this in Spain” was his quote!
Ryan: The mechanics are the best part for us, they ensure that we’ll be hanging out, somewhere in the world, blending cider together each year. While we have made colabs with cider from our respective ciderhouses blended together, for instance our Understood In Motion 03 that was bottled in New York and contained 25% dab and fox grown in Hereford, GoldRush is expressly from Tom’s cellar. Generally we meet up in Ocyle to blend – however when that proved impossible a few years back, Tom met me at CiderWorld in Frankfurt, GR with samples of all the available cider components, a hydrometer and a graduated cylinder and we blended in a hotel room. That was GoldRush 6. In our view, the collaboration is deeply personal and requires the other to taste and blend to get it right. The key for us is tasting together within the frame work we’ve created for the cider.
Malt: The abv is the same for each edition. Are you trying to achieve any kind of consistency or is there an attempt to also represent the vintage of the fruit and age of the barrel?
Tom: I like to keep the abv within a margin and the target is between 6-6.8%. The aim is to make a cider that will challenge an American palate, satisfy a UK palate and yet be very drinkable and show off tannins and barrels. It is an impossible task but fun all the same. I use 6.5% as a nominal alcohol and hope that I can blend to within .2 either way. Legally I can go between 6-7% with 6.5% on the label.
We have now realised 8 iterations of Gold Rush in bottle plus some extras like draught, RAW etc. Some will push the barrel a bit, some the apple, some the smoke and early on the phenolics as Dick Dunn who lives in Colorado said in an email 4 weeks ago “Tom – I found Gold Rush #4 in one of my local shops so I bought one and tried it tonight. I quite enjoyed it, but I’m wondering if you have “toned down” the phenols a fair bit? Compared to what I remember about early Gold Rush, this seemed far less aggressive with the MLF (or Brett) by-products, and also sweeter. The carbonation was on the high side but that’s always a risk at my altitude here.”
Ryan: We have created a frame work for some consistency, however, each year is quite different. It has to have that “GoldRush thing,” and we discover that first by tasting through Tom’s aging cellar. Often the cider is many years old that goes into a blend, sometimes it’s the most recent vintage. We don’t let those things influence the work, it’s all about taste, aroma and finding a common ground for the blend.
Malt: The barrel ageing obviously adds a lot to this particular cider. Are the same barrels used each year? Was/is the choice a joint part of the collaboration?
Tom: No, every vintage is chosen on its own merits. When we taste the barrels and the cider we do not know the constituent apples, it is only the taste that elevates a barrel or tank to be considered.
Ryan: We roll the dice each time, there have been repeat barrels, and there have been new barrels. You can taste that across the years we’ve done it. For instance GR 7 has more scotch barrel than in previous years – that’s just a result of the cider that was in the barrel having that thing we were looking for to balance the profile. We really like to let the cider speak to us and don’t go into a new year “making” GR, it comes to us in the spring while we’re in the cellar tasting the new season ferments and the previous vintages.
Malt: This year you’ve released a “RAW”, unfiltered (so it’s described) version in a larger bottle. What was the thinking behind doing that this time?
Tom: When the cider went off to be bottled and sterile filtered, we had some cider left. Jarek, my assistant said, let’s bottle this, it tastes great. I thought what can we call it and RAW seemed appropriate. So an unfiltered version of #8 was bottled at our place.
Gold Rush #5 – review
On the nose: Dried apple, leather, black pepper and a faint hint of oxidation. A nice whisper of peat smoke on the end that sort of evolves into a charred note.
In the mouth: There’s a slow steady stream of light bubbles in the glass, but it’s almost still in the mouth. The taste is mild, but with enough dryness to coat the sides of your mouth with fur. There’s hardly any acidity and all the impact is on the nose, just slight hint of that whisky barrel before an abrupt finish. No lingering about with this one.
Gold Rush #6 – review
Colour: Rusty amber.
On the nose: certainly fresher than #5, but with a bit more oxidation, the smoke element is fainter and there’s some herbaceous character, maybe thyme? Followed by orange rind.
In the mouth: Definitely a sweet acetic note to this one, perhaps time or the crown cap has not been as kind. Slight acidity in a tangy sort of way and not as dry as #5. It’s more juicy and fruity, with an orange citrus edge to it. I can’t find any of the smoke from the barrel, but the flavour lingers much longer than #5.
Gold Rush #7 – review
Colour: see #5 but a tad brighter and faster bubbles.
On the nose: peat reek; buckets of it along with leather and tobacco. Also an underlying tropical fruit aroma, maybe guava or perhaps nectarine.
In the mouth: smoking! Really juicy and yet really savoury at the same time with whisky and bacon rind. There’s more acidity than #6 but it’s clean. It feels a bit more citrus fruit forward too, but the smoke dominates to the point I can’t tell what type of citrus fruit.
Gold Rush #8 – review
Colour: shade lighter than #6 but we’re back in rusty territory.
On the nose: slightly soapy with elements of pepper, orange rind and charred wood.
In the mouth: zero acidity to my palate but very juicy with lots of apple fruit at the front and a perception of sweetness at the end. There is a slight soapiness to it and the smoke only comes after a few seconds of swallowing. Lighter than #7.
Gold Rush #8 RAW – review
Colour: hazy orange/cloudy rusty amber and so much more fizz than any of the others.
On the nose: Orange skins, leather and whiskey barrels but fainter than #8. That soapiness is there again but it’s a smidge.
In the mouth: drier than #8 for sure, really coats the mouth. The extra carbonation really seems to lift it. Orange and spice, with hints of vanilla and a great dry finish. That whisky smoke arrives at the end along with smoked bacon rind giving a flourish of savoury character.
For me the #8 RAW is the standout bottle, if you can still find one anywhere, buy it. I’m currently searching and am yet to find one. The home bottling has really lifted it well above the standard #8 I think. The variation across the four vintages was fascinating, made more so by knowing the story and mechanics behind the blend. Although my tasting is vertical across vintages, time is actually the one factor that I cannot fully assess. Sadly I can’t recall what #5 tasted like when it was first released, was it closer to how #8 is now? Will #8 be similar to #5 in 4 years’ time? I’ll never be in a position to know fully as they’ll all be affected by the passage of time. To concern oneself with that though misses the point. As Tom & Ryan describe, this an annual indulgence of two “fan boys”, to blend an enjoyable and well-balanced drink from the year’s ciders, which an ocean and other commitments cannot thwart. The difference and variation are the reason I look forward to the annual release and race to grab some before the bottles run out. I cannot help but find myself again wishing labels and websites had more information though, Tom and Ryan’s passion and friendship add another dimension to this blend which I feel all Gold Rush drinkers would appreciate.
Huge thanks to Tom and Ryan for their time and for indulging and responding to my many questions.