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Trekking the Wine Route: how cider can make friends and influence people

Cider is at a crossroads. In one direction lies a peaceful and prosperous place, where cider making is an esteemed profession. Tom Oliver and Ross on Wye are mentioned in the same hushed tones reserved for the very best winemakers, but even lesser-known cideries command respect. Up-and-coming producers are profiled in glossy magazines and soon attract a cult following among the cognoscenti. Traditional orchards have been lovingly restored to their former glory, and owning one has become decidedly desirable. Bars and restaurants serve a wide range of high-quality ciders and perries. There is a flourishing community of passionate cider enthusiasts, who spend their spare time tasting, collecting and discussing cider.

The other direction leads to a benighted ruin. The streets are littered with empty cans of foul-tasting industrial cider. The orchards have been bulldozed to make way for tower blocks, and ex-cider makers queue despondently outside the overcrowded job centres. Adolescent alcoholics get drunk on cheap apple-flavoured alcopops, which occupy the same shelves as super-strength lagers. Respectable citizens wouldn’t be seen dead drinking cider, any more than they would sip alcohol-based hand sanitiser. Politicians preach the evils of cider consumption and consider an outright ban, but ultimately bow to pressure from the powerful corporate alcohol lobby. Cider has hit rock bottom and society is all the worse for it.

Anyone who cares about cider wants it to reach the first destination, but the paths leading from the crossroads are winding, treacherous and beset with obstacles. It’s all too easy for us to lose our way. How, then, do we find our bearings and plot a course in the right direction?

An obvious answer is to follow those who have gone before us. Twenty years ago, craft beer was languishing at a similar crossroads to cider, but it has since been carried by a tidal wave of publicity to the promised land of financial security. Craft beer is big business now. Go to any trendy bar in any fashionable city and you won’t be able to move for mango milkshake IPAs, strawberry saisons and hibiscus Hefeweizens. Even the most bog-standard supermarket lagers proudly proclaim their craft credentials. Craft beer is such big business that BrewDog proves its punk ethos by offering its customers exciting private equity opportunities. Craft beer is a 21st Century gold rush, and everyone wants to get in on the action.

Cider makers are no exception. For years, they have been jealously eyeing the beer industry as craft brewer after craft brewer has made it big. Tiny Rebel? Not so tiny any more. Cloudwater? Flying high. Mikkeler? They haven’t become littler.

OK, so I’ll admit that the last pun was terrible, but you get the idea. Looking from the outside in, it can seem as if the tide of craft beer raises all ships, and struggling cider makers are understandably eager to ride that wave. Why bother trying to navigate winding paths if you can take a shortcut to success and be swept directly to your desired destination? The craft brewers made it big with their innovative marketing, psychedelic label designs and hipster appeal. Why not prove craft cider’s commitment to cutting-edge innovation by copying that formula to the letter?

Or so the thinking goes, and it has a certain lustre, especially if you’re an overworked and under-financed cider maker. But all that glistens is not gold, and trying to copy craft beer’s success is a fool’s errand. Sailing the craft beer seas will lead the cider industry to shipwreck and ruin, because cider making isn’t anything like brewing.

For one thing, beer is relatively cheap to produce and the retail price can be kept correspondingly low. There are a few double IPAs and barrel-aged imperial stouts that fetch the price of a moderately-priced bottle of wine, but most craft beer with national or international distribution retails for about £2 to £3 per can. Admittedly, profit margins are tight and competition is fierce, but beer largely consists of water, grain and yeast, none of which are prohibitively expensive. If a baker can turn a profit on a £1 loaf of bread, then the bigger ‘craft’ brewers shouldn’t find it too challenging. It’s also perfectly possible to churn out batch after batch of beer in no time at all. Trust me, I’m a very amateur home brewer and I’ve produced perfectly drinkable beer in less than two weeks from grain to glass. The commercial brewers can do it much faster with their high-tech equipment and their years of expertise.

Secondly, brewers don’t grow or malt their own barley and don’t tend to be particularly bothered about where it comes from, as long as it’s of a sufficient quality. If the barley harvest fails in one area, then brewers can easily buy it in from another. I honestly have no idea where the barley that I brew with was grown, and like the commercial brewers, I don’t much care. As long as the ingredients are fresh and the recipe is replicable, no-one can tell the difference. [Ed:*looks back at previous contributions on Malt and bites tongue with difficulty*] I’ll warrant that no zythophile has ever remarked that 2012 was a great vintage for Maris Otter in Leicestershire. And if they have, then they either deserve pride of place in Pseuds’ Corner next to bloggers who use the word zythophile, or summary execution.

Anyway, the point that I’m trying to make is that most beer expresses the skill of the brewer and the soundness of the process, rather than a place of origin. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this rule. Trappist beers made according to centuries-old monastic traditions have a sense of place, as do wild-fermented sour beers.  But nobody seems to mind if a brewer in Basildon makes a Bohemian-style Pilsner, or if an NEIPA comes from North East Sussex. If the beer is well-made, then the punters will happily buy it. It doesn’t also have to reflect terroir.

Good cider isn’t like that. Many proper cider makers are also apple growers, and the ones who aren’t tend to buy apples directly from small farmers or accept donated apples from friendly neighbours. The apple harvest only happens once a year, some harvests are better than others and each harvest is different to the last. Agriculture is always at the mercy of the elements. Even if the apple crop doesn’t fall prey to storms, hail, drought, fungal diseases, plagues of locusts or the curse of the first-born, proper cider still takes months to ferment and mature. There’s no way to rush the process without compromising on quality. And the cider that starts fermenting in the autumn is the cider maker’s sole source of income until the next year’s harvest.

Of course, many larger cider producers do compromise on quality for the sake of profit. They use imported apple concentrate instead of freshly pressed juice, add artificial flavourings and colourings, chaptalise heavily and use turbo yeasts to ferment rapidly. These industrial processes allow them to produce cider all year round, to the same kind of timescale adopted by commercial brewers. While I’m always ready to join the chorus of disapproval for spurious ciders, I’m also aware that it’s easy for me to be a purist when it’s not my livelihood on the line. In fact, I consider it a minor miracle that any producer resists the temptation to cut corners, when the economics of £2.99 per bottle are so very marginal.

Yet some cider makers do hold fast against creeping industrialisation. They make cider in the time-honoured manner, in spite of diminishing returns. They scrimp and save and jostle for the scraps from the drinks industry’s table. They take a leaf out of the craft beer book and spend money that they don’t have on trendy marketing, in the hope of reaching a wider audience. But when push comes to shove, they will not be able to escape the fact that proper cider can never compete with beer on volume, price or turnaround.  For all their technical skill and their attempts to self-publicise, most small cider makers remain caught between the Scylla of industrialisation and the Charybdis of bankruptcy. Behind the rolling green orchards and the bucolic idyll lies a gaping financial hole. Copying craft beer won’t fill that chasm. 

If you get most of your cider news from the blogosphere, you might be forgiven for thinking that my outlook is unduly gloomy. After all, the ripples made by the most notable cider makers are starting to spread, even if they remain dwarfed by craft beer’s tsunami of advertising. For the first time in generations, the leading lights of the cider scene are garnering well-deserved critical attention. On the ciderweb, there is palpable excitement about the belated renaissance of cider as a drink that deserves to be taken seriously. Craft cider seems finally to be coming of age.

I understand this excitement better than most. The current fine cider market really is compelling. I become genuinely giddy for Ross on Wye’s singularly expressive single variety ciders, Brännland’s electrifying ice ciders and Eric Bordelet’s superlatively elegant perries. But I also understand that this acclaimed elite forms the tip of a very large iceberg. Only a few steps down from this lofty peak, there are countless unsung heroes of cider; the many talented, hardworking cider makers who struggle to make ends meet despite their unswerving commitment to their craft.  In Burgundy, the second and third-tier winemakers sell their best wines for hundreds rather than thousands of pounds per bottle. In Britain, all but the most fêted cider makers sell their carefully crafted libations for the price of a can of beer. This situation is about as sustainable as a cigar smoking convention at a petrol refinery.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that cider makers should sell their wares at Grand Cru Burgundy prices. I actually quite like the fact that cider is a democratic drink and that I can afford the best examples without having to contemplate selling a kidney. But if we look beyond the wine regions that charge a prestige tax, there’s a lot of good wine to be found in the £10 to £30 range. If we turn our attention to places like the Loire and the Mosel, we can even uncover some truly great wines at this kind of price point.

However, we shouldn’t get sidetracked by narrowly focusing on the inevitably small number of great wines to be found in less fashionable or exalted regions. Great wines are always rare. The real charm of these regions lies in their status as fertile hunting grounds for wines that may not reach the very highest pinnacles of vinous achievement, but which are nonetheless honestly made and full of character. Like proper cider makers, the people who make these wines have a connection to the land. They care about tradition, terroir and sustainability, and their wines have nothing much in common with the instantly forgettable, industrially-made plonk that stocks the supermarket shelves. These artisanal wines are not aimed at the mass market. You just won’t find them unless you search them out. On the other hand, they clearly lack the cultural cachet of a Lafite or a Romanée-Conti. If neither Joe Average nor the plutocrats are buying them, then what kind of market do they serve?

The answer is that these wines attract a small but devoted following of educated consumers, who take pleasure in learning about wine and discovering new regions. Anyone with a sufficiently inflated bank balance can buy prestige cuvee Champagne or first growth Bordeaux, but it takes someone with a genuine interest in wine to penetrate Etna, the Pfalz or the Jura. These regions appeal to people who are more intellectually curious and passionate about wine than your average consumer. They care about the history and culture of wine. They like thinking and talking about soil types, grape varieties, fermentation methods and food pairings. They are, in short, wine geeks, and I proudly count myself as one of them. If cider is to get itself out of its financial rut, it needs to appeal to the geek market.

You might well object that wine geeks inhabit an elitist echo chamber, which excludes those without the economic or cultural capital to penetrate its inner sanctum of opulent tastings and obscure phraseology. Surely the last thing that cider needs is to become the preserve of insufferable bores, who think that pontificating about expensive wine is a good substitute for a personality? You might have a point. The rarefied realm of ‘investment grade’ wine really can be like that. But these days, the conservative and often pretentious world of ‘fine wine’ is no longer the only game in town as far as wine geeks are concerned. Today’s geek is more likely to be found knocking back glasses of orange and slightly murky liquid at a natural wine bar in Shoreditch than in an oak-panelled drawing room droning on about how the 1955 Petrus needs another ten years. Whatever one might think of so-called ‘natural’ wine (I happen to think that it describes an attitude to wine better than the wine itself), it has, as a scene, been relatively successful at attracting a younger and more diverse audience. Admittedly, this audience is still whiter, wealthier and more male than the average member of society, but it’s a lot less so than the average reader of The Wine Advocate and Vinous. The world of wine appreciation is slowly but surely unlocking its doors to new demographics. The cider industry should take advantage of this opening, not least because some very trendy ‘natural’ wines taste surprisingly cider-like!

Those with a more business-minded approach might well think that wine geeks are too few in number to constitute a viable market for cider makers. They would have a point too. Relying solely on their custom is unlikely to be a sound commercial strategy. But no geek is an island. Most of us have friends and relatives, with whom we are eager to share our latest finds. Many geeks work in the drinks industry and are hence uniquely placed to influence customer choices and shape wider opinion. It’s the geeks who pushed the likes of Jean Foillard in Beaujolais, Envinate in the Canary Islands and Eva Fricke in the Rheingau. It’s the geeks who push back against the horrors of industrial wine, and it’s the geeks who form the final line of defence against the demise of such treasures as sherry and sweet Riesling. Most importantly, geeks tend to know quality when they taste it, and they are prepared to pay a reasonable price for it. If cider makers can get the geeks on board, then the heady heights of £10 to £30 per bottle begin to come into reach.  

So how does a cider maker appeal to the wine geek market? Firstly, don’t only rely on colourful cans, focus-grouped buzz-words and heavy-handed marketing. I understand that an eye-catching label can get the punters’ attention and that gaudy designs are de rigueur in the ‘natural’ wine scene, but the real geeks pride themselves on being able to smell marketing bullshit from a mile off. What geeks really love is technical data. The average consumer may completely ignore it, but we geeks lap that stuff up like cats at a milk bar. The key difference between geeks and ‘civilians’ is that geeks like to talk at great length about what they drink, whereas civilians prefer just to drink it. Every cider maker has a story to tell, so give the geeks something to talk about. Tell us about the history of your cidery and the terroir of your orchards. Teach us about your apple varieties, your fermentation process, the casks that you use and the style that you aim for. Take a leaf out of Little Pomona’s book and combine striking and artistic label design with detailed information and tasting notes. When describing your product to wine lovers, use Cider Review’s Taxonomy of Cider, which adapts the wine terminology of terroir, varietal, production method and élevage to allow cider to be more clearly categorised. Crucially, tell us what drives you to do what you do, because human interest stories take hold of the imagination in a way that no other kind of story can.

Secondly, proudly proclaim cider’s equality with wine, while nonetheless emphasising its uniqueness. If you make cider using the Méthode Traditionnelle, then it is entirely reasonable to make allusions to Champagne, but it is also worth mentioning that the method was employed in Herefordshire before it was widely used to make sparkling wines. Comparisons between ice wine and ice cider are also legitimate, but don’t forget to remind the geeks that nothing pairs better than ice cider with apple-based desserts. One of cider’s greatest strengths is its versatility with food, so organise cider tastings and cider-themed dinners. Get creative chefs involved in showcasing your cider as an ingredient and a food pairing. Demonstrate to the doubters that cider has a place at the table.

Thirdly, try to target sommeliers and wine writers. These über-geeks communicate in an arcane and esoteric language, but you must learn to speak at least a few words of it, for they are the ultimate influencers of the wine geek world. Sommeliers hold the keys to the restaurant trade, and wine writers reach readers with deep pockets and obsessive dispositions. Wine geeks are not without their prejudices and you’ll have to work hard to convince them that your cider deserves more than their disdain, but all good sommeliers and wine writers understand that stories sell bottles. If you pitch your story rather than your product, then you’re doing a big part of their job for them. When one is dealing with busy people who have many competing demands on their attention, there’s no better sales strategy than that.

If you follow these recommendations to the letter, are you certain to make a profit? No, and only a snake oil salesman would make you that kind of promise. Markets are unpredictable and the winds of fashion blow erratically. Cider’s heyday could be just around the corner, or its City of Gold could be a nothing more than a mirage, which is only ever sighted by those who have been lost for too long at sea. But like all worthwhile things in life, progress on our journey counts for more than our destination. In order to make some headway, the cider industry needs to change its direction of travel, away from the chimera of craft beer and towards the relatively solid ground of the wine market.

Thankfully, some passionate and knowledgeable people are already taking steps in that direction. Forward-thinking cider makers, retailers and writers have got the ball rolling: Starvecrow has broken new ground in its use of ancient winemaking techniques in cider production. Felix Nash has spearheaded the concept of fine cider with his eponymous Fine Cider Company. Brännland has made inroads into the high-end restaurant scene, and Cider Review’s own Adam Wells has brought a professional wine writer’s taste and sensibilities to the world of cider blogging. In our own small way, we can all play a part in this shared endeavour. There’s no guarantee of success and the industry has a long way to go before it can start to feel comfortable, but our combined efforts at least stand a chance of carving out a path towards a better future for cider. As far as I’m concerned, that’s itself a source of comfort in this time of uncertainty and crisis.

This entry was posted in: Features

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Chris Russell-Smith is an avid wine and cider enthusiast. When he isn’t busy writing his PhD in philosophy or tasting wine and cider, he likes to experiment with home brewing. None of his fermented beverages deserves to be reviewed, but he is nonetheless occasionally proud of them.

2 Comments

  1. Another very interesting piece Chris. I’ve certainly been a beer geek far longer than a cider one and I do tend to approach both in the same way. I found a lot of food for thought in your article as wine is something I have next to no experience of.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Chris Russell-Smith says

    Thanks for your support Andrew – it’s much appreciated. I’m probably just as much of a wine geek as a cider geek, and I also enjoy home brewing my own beer, in a very amateur kind of way! From my perspective, I’ve always found it a bit strange that cider has tended to be marketed alongside beer rather than wine. After all, cider and wine are both fermented fruit juice, whereas beer isn’t. It kind of makes sense to think of cider as apple wine, but describing it as apple beer is a bit of a stretch! That isn’t to say that cider shouldn’t try to appeal to beer drinkers – it absolutely should. As far as I’m concerned, the more people drinking good cider, the better. But I do think that it needs to do more to try to appeal to the wine scene, and that in the long term, that’s the more economically viable option for ambitious cider producers.

    Liked by 2 people

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