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Back to the Future

I’ve been writing and video blogging about cider and perry for many years now. It started as a hobby (and still is) but has now led into my own cider making business. Along the way I’ve met hundreds of people, visited many cideries and tasted thousands of drinks. There have been ups and downs, high points and low ones, as well as nice welcoming groups and not so friendly individuals. I’ve made some lifelong friends and also met people I don’t care to again. So it occurred to me, at the beginning of this new chapter in my cider writing journey, if I was starting out now, if I’d just discovered cider as I did all those years ago, what do I wish I’d known was in store? If I could go back in time, what would I warn my younger self to be wary of? I moved junior school when I was a kid and remember vividly my new teacher telling me to “beware of sharks” in my new class. It took me many years and learning the hard way to work out what he meant by that, but it still holds true today. So what follows is as much a sharing of my experiences, as it is a compilation of advice for any newer arrivals to the cider scene.

Dear James,

Hi, this is your future self here, I know that sounds crazy and like something out of an 80s movie, but don’t forget in that movie the future was 2015, and I’m writing from 2021 so anything is possible. Anyway, that trip you took a few weeks ago to Somerset, the one where you tasted cider for the first time, well that’s going to lead you on a crazy cider journey. I’m writing to give you a heads up on some things, to try and make that journey a bit smoother for both of us. So here goes:

1.     Your opinion counts

At numerous times you are going to feel self-doubt and imposter syndrome, which are completely normal to feel and don’t always go away with time, experience or validation. Your friend Adam (who you’ll meet in a few years) will write a great article about these feelings and communication in cider in late 2020, clink This Link when the time arrives. At the end of the day, you need to keep asking yourself, who or what am I doing this for? If it’s in search of fortune and fame, then maybe you need to manage those expectations old chap. If it’s for therapy to get your thoughts into print or because you enjoy writing (yes it’s those), then remind yourself of that. Don’t chase the ‘likes’, you don’t need someone else to say you’re great, own it.

You’re also going to find intolerance and sadly everyone will experience it in some form or another. Everyone is different and we all have different opinions, some people will give you the time and really want to hear what you have to say, others like only to listen to themselves. Whether it’s your first sip or your thousandth your view will continue to matter. Taste is very subjective, you will always find someone that loves something whilst another does not, both opinions are valid. For a long time I (and you) became lost along the path of “fear of getting it wrong”, by using the wrong language or words to describe a taste. In the end though, even if I didn’t describe it in the ‘agreed’ terminology, my opinion on whether I liked it or not and the flavours I found were and still are completely valid. So fear not, it will come with time, experience and the many supportive people in the cider community. There’s a wealth of information out there so go and explore it because I know you want to know more, but likewise if you want to just drink and give your view occasionally, you can do that too.

2.     Cider is for everyone – whatever anyone says

Nobody’s parents get everything right, but we were raised with certain morals and values and a respect for others. Unfortunately bigotry, prejudice, intolerance and hatred exist in all walks of life and the cider world is not immune, you will find that out. The scales are different but words can be just as harmful as punches. Remember when Grandad used to recite the phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” which is a phrase of the ‘Keep Calm and Carry on’ generation. I’m not sure people were more mentally resilient during those times, it just wasn’t understood or talked about, which is a great shame as I’m sure many suffered in silence. Remember when we actually recited that sticks and stones phrase to a bully once, note to even younger self – do not do that. The point is ignore the haters and the bullies, they will always be there, they may tell you you’re wrong or inexperienced, but experience does not equal wisdom or give someone a right over another. Innovation and growth come from diversity of thought, personality and background. There should be no place for any form of bullying or harassment and if you witness it, call it out. Think of how different your school life would have been if you’d had someone stand up as a support in those challenging times.

3.     There’s nothing wrong with comparing to other drinks

Cider, wine and beer, etc. are all drinks in their own right. I think that’s a universally accepted fact and something I always considered to be the case even when I was your age. However, over the years, you’ll come to appreciate the similarities, differences and nuances. Lately I’ve heard agreement with the phrase “Cider: made like wine but drunk like beer” which the Australian Cider Makers Association will coin. I like it, it’s factual; cider is fermented like wine (but beer is fermented too, it uses some of the same yeast as wine), but in recent years has been mainly served and drunk like beer, although not always. Sometimes it’s served and drunk like wine is too, sometimes it’s used in cocktails as a mixer. Variety shows versatility, which is a thing to be celebrated and shows how widely cider can appeal. Some cider fans can become quite passionate about comparisons, perhaps out of fear that their beloved drink is being belittled or overshadowed, which is understandable, but it’s how you demonstrate that passion that counts. Not that you would, but don’t let enthusiasm translate into bigotry or passion to become anger, everyone is entitled to their views being respected, they don’t have to be agreed with, but constructive conversations are the way forward. Be kind.

4.     Some people like problems, not solutions

I think some of it might be a British thing because as a nation we do like a moan, but as a nation we are also incredibly innovative at finding solutions, on the whole. In cider there are both camps; progressive, forward-thinking and adaptable groups/people, but also those that are closed-minded, immovable and resistant to change. The cider world is big enough for both to exist and we won’t pass judgment on which camp people sit in, but – and it is a big but – they can’t be angry at the other. If they’re all about the new and shiny and look for new ways to make cider or new ciders to drink, they shouldn’t point the finger at the traditionalists, they’re entitled to keep drinking and making what they like as much the others can. If they’re on the “old ways are the best” side of the fence then they shouldn’t laugh scornfully at the new ways, or lament the lack of attention or get angry for being left out. So look out for whinging, ignore it and just enjoy the social lubrication. As I said above, diversity is strength and personally we like to drink both a traditionally made pint-served cider, just as much as we do a co-fermented (you’ll find out soon) wine bottle’s worth.

5.     Not all cider is made equal

Now back in the flat lands of Lincolnshire, you’ve already started looking at what the supermarkets have to offer for cider and have been working your way through them. To save you some time, you are not going to find anything like that bottle of Perry’s you tasted a few weeks back, not yet anyway. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try whatever you can find, it will give you a well-rounded view of the whole cider category. You’re going to find out about ‘made wines’, concentrate, chaptalisation and syrup so I won’t bore you with that now, but bear in mind that mass produced, widely available cider is only as relatively cheap as it is and year round available, due to economies of scale and less freshly pressed fruit. You’re also going to find that “craft cider” isn’t all the same either and there are many opinions on what is and isn’t “ok”. Pasteurisation, added sugar and sweeteners, forced carbonation, bottle sizes and prices for a start all cause contention. As a sneak peek, there are some (makers and drinkers) that don’t feel cider is worth a higher price even if it’s in a larger serving or considered the best the producers has released. Beware of the term “fine,” it will be very divisive, but should be embraced as it highlights the value perception that needs to be recognised to help cider grow and attract new makers. So support it, maybe you could do some video blogging in a couple of years or so, perhaps every Friday???

6.     Transparency is a major issue

Following on from the above, you’re going to find there’s both a lack of information as well as a fair amount of misleading going on. For the mass produced stuff it’s going to be several years and a fair bit of your badgering before you see any progress but it will come and faster than some of the craft crew. Utopia is when all ciders have labels identifying ingredients, varieties and vintages, but even now it’s still a pipe dream. Bulmers label claiming 100% Herefordshire apples is technically correct, but a tad misleading given those apples are stored as concentrate. Look out for misleading descriptions too or words that don’t really have a place for that particular cider. Drinks described as “challenging” or “funky” sometimes hint at perceptible faults, bittersweet single variety ciders, like Dabinett described as having “bold acidity” are not tasting as they should. You’ll save a lot of time and money if you buy one bottle first from any new maker and read the description. Beware of FOMO, you don’t need to buy or try everything, there’s always another cider.

7.     On the whole the community is amazing

As much as there’s been a few negatives above (we are a pessimist after all – maybe work on that), you are going to visit some amazing spaces, meet some fabulous people and drink some wonderful drinks, so enjoy the ride. I’m a little jealous actually, there’s many drinks I wish now that I could try again for the first time. I also wish I could tell you who to seek out first and who will become great friends, so you could get to know them sooner, but I fear the butterfly effect of saying anything more than I already have. Just know the temptation to send you a Sports Almanac or some lottery numbers is very big but I watched Back to the Future 2…it’s not worth it.

Anyway, look after yourself please and plant those trees (you’ll know when it’s time).

James

P.S. look out for that mini (& too early I might add) midlife crisis in 2016-17. CrossFit will destroy your knees and shoulder and MkII MX-5s are rust buckets. You’re welcome.

2 Comments

  1. That’s an excellent article – or advice to your younger self!
    I quite often wish I could have done this.
    Nonetheless, I do now have a gorgeous and growing orchard and the opportunity to make real cider, not the watered down version peddled by c.90% of businesses. Plus to make some lovely apple juices.

    Liked by 1 person

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