“Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course you can.” The Great Gatsby.
We will never know where or when the first cider was made, nor who brought it into being, but I’d bet you any money that it wasn’t an accident.
Apples aren’t like grapes. They don’t give up their juice as easily. Wine almost just happens. I remember being very entertained when I learned that animals eating fallen, split grapes would get a little drunk. Apples, meanwhile, take work. They take smashing up and grinding into little pieces and then they take pressing with considerable force. They necessitate human intervention; cider is a deliberate act of premeditated will. I imagine that someone somewhere in Asia or Eastern Europe, possibly having encountered wine but lacking vines of their own, looked at an apple tree and put two and two together.
Sticking to that hypothesis, I imagine that the invention of cider was swiftly followed by the discovery of oxidised and acetic cider. By the infuriating realisation that, without air-tight containers, this wonderful new libation would swiftly turn into cardboard and vinegar. At some point several hundred years thereafter, some new innovator hit upon the idea of putting cider into glass bottles sealed with corks and unlocked the potential for the right sort of ciders to keep, age and improve into something entirely more wonderful. The world turned and cider, as a whole, was never the same again. It was better.
“Tradition” is a seductive and insidious word. We see it everywhere; we look for it as a guarantor of authenticity and quality; of something done in the proper, time-honoured way. We all have our own little clung-to, habitual traditions, the cup of coffee before we start work, the way we cook brussels sprouts with Christmas dinner, the order we put our shoes on. They are a comfort blanket; a warm hug of security. They are how we understand the world and view our place within it.
Cider, or rather the cider that exists within the craft sphere, is particularly obsessed with tradition; with defining things by whether or not they are traditional. Traditional presses, traditional packaging, traditional apple varieties, traditional sizes of tree. It is a conscious rebellion against that which is industrial; diluted, concentrated, quickly and cheaply made, cider without much flavour and with even less soul. Marking something as “traditional” signposts it as precious. As something to be cherished and nurtured and protected from harm.
I was listening recently (as you should) to the excellent cider episode of the Pellicle podcast from Matthew Curtis. Amongst many other thought-provoking points he distinguished “traditional cider” – ciders that have been made for decades by long-standing makers – from “modern cider” – ciders made by producers who perhaps are part of the newer, #rethinkcider wave. The suggestion reflected an increasingly vocal distinction that I have sensed and encountered elsewhere for at least a couple of years now, both in public discourse on social media and in private conversations. There is a particular school of thought held in certain quarters that a sector of cider is becoming exclusive and highfalutin. Is breaking from “tradition” and, in doing so, losing its way.
Schools of thought are never entirely uniform, but to generalise a little, this particular school holds certain issues with what it sees as an unnecessary gentrification of cider. It variously voices misgivings around 750ml bottles, prices beyond £8 or so, terms (especially French terms) being borrowed from the wine industry and, of course, apples being fermented or blended with other sorts of fruit. In November I wrote an article about Halfpenny Green and Little Pomona’s introduction of a “Cider Noveau Day” and received such backlash in one facebook group that I left it and have been anxious about returning since. “Cider Nouveau” was wholly unnecessary, I was informed in no uncertain terms. New season cider was nothing original and had been around for centuries and didn’t need any fresh terminology or further reconsideration. More recently, under the banner of tradition, a writer whose broad-minded consideration constantly inspires me was lambasted for contemplating what cider might learn from wine (and vice versa).
Just to be clear, this piece is by no means to dismiss tradition out of hand. The implicit terms of traditional cider include many that meet with my most wholehearted support. I prefer my ciders to be full juice. I find much of industrial cider to be cynical and various degrees of misleading. And whilst there is a firm place in my heart and bottle rack for co-ferments and full-juice blends of different fruits, I agree with the assertion that the term “cider” rests uncomfortably upon them.
I am also far from immune to tradition’s allure, and I am certainly guilty of using it without thought to its meaning. Like “nostalgia”, “tradition” is inherently an air-brushed view of the past; of an idealised point in time when things, or so we tell ourselves, were perfect, and as we wish for them to be once more. The longer the pandemic has gone on, the more we have all thought and talked about that which we loved doing before it, and which we cannot wait to do again. Every year since 2014, despite my comments in the previous paragraph, the most important drinks in my life have been the Strongbows I drink in late September and early March and the Guinnesses I pour away, but as much as they have become traditions they are also the physical expression of futile wish for an irretrievable time. Longing and regret are part of what makes us human and they are two of the tenets of tradition.
Where tradition becomes problematic is when it is used selectively as a clamp and a cudgel. When it is used to suggest that anything new is suspicious, dangerous and wrong and to attack or dismiss that which is different or which offers a fresh direction. And that’s the real issue with the way tradition is so often discussed. It is always, always selective. If somebody mentions “traditional cider” I can guess what they’re talking about. They’re talking about small, about farmhouse, about draught, about pints. About the sort of cider you see in old photographs, in posters of Devon and on the flagons they sell at Cheddar Gorge. All of which is wonderful, and a vital part of cider’s tradition and allure – but none of which amounts to that tradition’s sum-total.
Because at what point is the line of tradition drawn? Hereford’s Museum of Cider boasts a display cabinet stuffed with 18th century stemware that long-predates the 20th century introduction of the pint glass, never mind the 1955 invention of the bag-in-box. The prototypes for what we would now describe as champagne bottles were filled with Gloucestershire cider. Comparisons between cider and wine have been publicly made for hundreds of years without threat to either’s identity. As Elizabeth Pimblett pointed out in our January conversation there is almost no point throughout cider’s history in which it has not had an aspirational edge; in which people have not sought to improve the way in which it is made, presented and enjoyed. Nor has there been a point at which it has not also been a simple, refreshing drink for general consumption. There is a reason that, in the Museum’s display cabinet, horn cups sit next to the crystal.
What’s more, the implicit division between “traditional” and “modern (or rethink)” feels something of a red herring. In both cases there is virtually nothing which cideries in either suggested camp do or make that doesn’t hearken back to cider’s most ancient practices. Fruit grown over the course of a vintage, sorted, milled, pressed, fermented and packaged. What isn’t traditional about that? What aspect of it shows anything but reverence for what cider has always been? Why does there need to be a dividing line, and how would you possibly explain the division in satisfactory terms to someone outside of cider’s bubble?
We cannot have things both ways. We cannot complain that more people don’t take notice of season-based cider and then complain again when a season-based cidery finds a way to make them do so. We cannot wish for cider to be treated with the same respect as other drinks and then prohibit people from making relevant comparisons with wine. We cannot want cider to be sold as cheaply as possible and then lament that orchards are being ripped out and abandoned directly as a result of lack of financial incentive for their growers. Fundamentally, the drawing up of camps within cider is restrictive to general growth, to public availability and visibility and, ultimately, to diversity of both drink and drinker.
Twenty years ago, getting hold of really good cider could be a minefield for the uninformed. Those aren’t my words – I was ten at the time, and my consumption was much lower. They’re what Andrew Lea said when I interviewed him last year. You could not hope to find a more influential and respected champion of traditional cider, and his take was that we are now at a place where more exciting ciders are being bottled, that fewer faults are to be found and that Australian ciders are wonderful because they are made to “a wine-based model”.
The tradition of cider isn’t straightforward or one-dimensional. It didn’t just appear, complete, in a blinding flash of temporal serendipity. It has been disparately built from a long-assembled string of historical innovations, changes of course and disparities of mindset, gradually tinkered with as they jangled through the centuries to land at the doorstep of 2021. It is a wonderful, vital, complex asset, as ugly as it is beautiful and its children are every cider in existence, from 750ml bottles to 330ml cans to milk cartons filled from the cask. From Artistraw’s Across the Shrewniverse to Wilkins’ Sweet to Strongbow Dark Fruits. The notion of tradition for tradition’s sake is restrictive and incongruous; the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The past simply cannot be repeated like-for-like and if there’s no chance that tomorrow will be better than yesterday then what’s the point of today?
Cider is big enough, diverse enough, complex and messy and rich and international enough to successfully be so many different things and reach so many different audiences without losing the identity that binds it at its core. It belongs to no individual and its tent is pitched broadly enough for all of our different groups to nestle snugly, together, beneath its canvas. There is more than enough cider that I love for me not to have to drink that which I feel to be under-par or cynical. There is more than enough, in every format, for everyone to find something that can fill them with joy of their own.
What cider is not – what it has never been – is static. It has been built on innovation, on improvement, on those deliberate acts of premeditated will. On people talking to each other, playing around, asking why, figuring out what works and trying to push it forward. You can’t dictate it or shackle it to a set of rules and values, you can only make space for it and gently steer it through open conversations. Every tradition began life as someone’s brilliant idea. Traditionally we were all bacteria in undersea volcanoes. Tomorrow can be bright and wonderful and filled with promise. So embrace the unfinishable business. The excitement of building on cider’s past to make its future better. The fresh coat of paint that we give our tradition before passing it on to whoever comes next so that they can improve it again.