Cider is inherently rural. It is a product of fermented fruit; it springs from that which grows from the land. And rather a lot of land; apple trees, even high-density, high-yielding trees on dwarf rootstock take up considerable water and space. If we’re talking fully-grown trees in traditional orchards, that space increases several orders of magnitude. Beyond a tree or two in a back garden somewhere, the cultivating of high-quality cider apples on a large scale in an urban area is, generally speaking, simply impractical.
Humans, on the other hand (cider’s traditional consumer-base) are increasingly gravitating by necessity away from the green and toward the grey. At present 55% of the world’s population lives in cities; by 2050 some projections estimate that figure will be around 68%. In the United Kingdom it is already considerably higher, with urban population listed at 83.65% in 2019. Urban areas, to an accelerating degree, are where the overwhelming majority of jobs, houses and concentrations of schools and hospitals are. The British countryside, generally speaking, offers fewer employment opportunities, more thinly-spread resources and very limited low-cost transport. It is, for most people, a lifestyle choice – one made from a position of privileged affluence.
If cider wishes to increase its audience, it is towards the cities that it must look. Not to remove existing rural customers, but to bring in additional urban-dwelling ones. Cities are where the majority of potential buyers live, and they are the places that offer the broadest demographic. The Three Counties Cider and Perry Association has recently taken the encouraging step of publishing their Cider Is For Everyone statement of intent: equality, diversity and inclusion, which I’d encourage you to read if you haven’t already. For this promise to be fulfilled, taking Three Counties cider into urban environments is imperative since, as Helen Anne Smith pointed out when they interviewed me for Burum Collective’s Behind The Bar, the Three Counties themselves are not especially diverse places; all, for instance, registering a white population of over 95% in a 2011 census.
The movements that have already happened and are already happening to increase the cider audiences in Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Brighton must be built upon if cider is to realise its potential and fulfil its pledge to be a drink for – and available to – everyone. It is not enough to simply remain tucked into a rural nook, claiming that the door is open should anyone come and look for it. And it’s very exciting to see makers and advocates begin to make definitive movements in addressing just that.
An enormous part of increasing cider’s visibility in urban areas is the development of urban cideries. The ability to easily make their product in towns and cities has long been a huge advantage for the brewing industry, both in terms of routes to market, availability of customers and ability to open their doors to drinkers who are interested in seeing how and where the magic happens. Cideries, in part because of their inherently rural nature, don’t have nearly the same toe-hold. But the urban cidery is an increasing phenomenon in the American cider scene, and Britain now has a handful of its own. I have followed Dour Cider’s first vintage with great interest as they start to bring fermented apple juice into Edinburgh, for instance, and I hear tremendously positive things about Manchester’s Temperance Street. It is so exciting to think that, as cider grows, anyone around the country with access to public transport might eventually be able to go and learn and taste and discover at their own local cidery, or at least to find ciders from a nearby postcode at their local pubs. Either way, it’s hard to think of the possibility having anything but a positive and lasting impact for aspirational cider.
With all this in mind, I thought it was about time we tasted a few urban ciders.
Given it is owned by Brewdog and available in supermarkets, London’s Hawkes is undoubtedly the UK’s most prominent urban cidery. (Even if they needed a gentle reminder recently that they aren’t the only one.) They’ve been operating on the Bermondsey Beer Mile for a few years now, even if for some time most of the production was in Ellon, Aberdeenshire, which is famously without a stop on the tube. In the before times I led the Ciderologist’s London tours, always including a stop at Hawkes, and the bustle, energy and diversity of their Saturday customer base was always a significant departure from what might be considered cider’s norm. As I said in this piece last year, if a few more towns and cities had a Hawkes equivalent, British cider would undoubtedly be in ruder health. (Even if Hawkes themselves may not, in my opinion, get their marketing right all the time.)
Two Hawkes’ to taste today, the first of which is This Is London, made entirely from apples donated from London gardens, making it as urban as urban ciders get, with all profits donated to Social Orchards and urban planting organisations. It’s an homage to Hawkes’ London origins and, in the context of their return of production to the capital, feels a bit of a homecoming celebration. James has beaten me to the punch in reviewing it, having written his impressions in this article on orchard-focussed ciders. Second we have the follow-up to the Barrel Series reviewed in last year’s aforementioned piece. This time they’ve picked a Ruby Port cask as their maturation vessel of choice, and again, for an alternative hot take, James reviewed it alongside the Bourbon Barrel edition for a Fine Cider Friday video here. But since Hawkes kindly sent samples I thought it was only fair to write them up myself too. (They also sent a small bag-in-box of their “Elephants on Ice”, but unfortunately it met its end when The Kitten popped the bag open one night. She didn’t even bother to record her opinion of it, so apologies from both of us.)
Hawkes This Is London – review
Colour: Hazy light gold
How I served: Chilled
On the nose: Honeydew melon. White flowers in a warm greenhouse. Pink lady apples. Very soft and floral but I agree with James that there’s some volatility creeping in here which jars slightly with the delicate fruit.
In the mouth: Quite big carbonation. Very ripe for this category of cider. Full bodied, fruity. Vanilla, melon, passion fruit. A touch of banana. Some gooseberryish acidity but then that thread of acetic acid at the back coarsens things a little. To be fair I suspect many might not notice it, and there’s plenty here that I like, but it’s a bit of a distraction to my taste from what would otherwise be a fruity, expressive and rather elegant cider.
In a nutshell: Some nice moments, but the slight volatility moves it out of my personal preference zone.
Hawkes Bermondsey Barrel Ruby Port Cider – review
How I served: Chilled, then half an hour out of the fridge.
Colour: Hazy, reddish-tinged Amontillado. Very dark for a non-ice cider.
On the nose: Blimey. Where to start? There’s certainly no small amount of port influence – and oak influence. Stewed blackcurrants, the guts of a mince pie. Some fig. If I’m really straining there’s apple and blackberry jam, but there’s no particular apple characteristic here, it is massively barrel-dominant. Werther’s originals and a bit of nutty sweet-sherry oxidation. Intense this is. Balanced and harmonious it is not.
In the mouth: I reckon I might have guessed this was a Pedro Ximenez, tasted blind, but for the reddish tinge. Thick, viscous figgy pudding and oak and raisin and redcurrant jam. Definitely oxidised a bit – acidity just turning from tangy to acetic and some of those sherried, nutty notes arriving too, which the lower alcohol is less able than real sherry to balance and contain.
In a nutshell: A roughty-toughty, super full-on cider. Some people will adore it but to me it’s a bit too heavily about the casks, and the fruit underneath has been bludgeoned a bit.
Sticking in London we now move down a scale in size, but up a scale in #hype as we check in for the first time with Duckchicken. This Pellicle article by Lily Waite contains everything you need to know about James and Colleen’s cidermaking adventures in their London maisonette, and for months after that they were high on my “to taste” list, so I was tremendously pleased when their range appeared on Fram Ferment and The Cat in the Glass. I’ve bumped into James and Colleen at Ross on Wye a couple of times now, and their tastes run in the same dry direction as the purists of Peterstow, which is never a bad thing.
Their apples come from orchards in Kent and include several of the classic varieties of that region including Bramley’s Seedling, Egremont Russet and Cox’s Orange Pippin. As an aside, in addition to their eye-catching labels I’m impressed at the level and clarity of detail available on the bottle, with apples, method, vintage and origin all listed. It doesn’t feel like a great deal to ask for, but it’s not always made available and I’m grateful to Duckchicken (and indeed both other cideries featured today) for providing it.
The ciders I’m tasting today were meant to be their flagship, Gigglejuice 2020 and their single variety pet nat Cox, Easter Hill 2020. But then I went camping for a weekend and in a scarcely-believable twist The Geophysicist Drank The Gigglejuice. She reports “it was nice”, but has failed to otherwise provide a CR-format tasting note, so I’m afraid to say that you only get Easter Hill this time, which is available for about £12 from the aforementioned websites. Note to self to find somewhere better to hide bottles …
Duckchicken Easter Hill 2020 – review
How I served: Chilled
Colour: Similar to This Is London but a semitone deeper
On the nose: Really aromatic. Vivid lemon’n’lime and soft green apple with a touch of savoury yeastiness on top. Very floral too – very ‘hedgerow walk in springtime’. Nice.
In the mouth: Bright, fresh, dry. Carbonation is weighted perfectly – not intrusive at all (which I have to say is not always the case with pet nats). Zesty, clean, lemony tangfastic acidity, white grapefruit and sharp, crisp green apple. The lime you suck after a shot of tequila. Cut grass, but less floral than the nose.
In a nutshell: Fresh, thrilling and coursing with exuberant life. One for fans of dry Riesling or more intense Sauvignons.
Last of all I’m abandoning The Smoke and nipping across to Newbury which, though rather smaller than London, is still a town and thus, by definition, urban. Green Shed Cidery is exactly what it says on the tin, operating from the eponymous shed at the back end of Dave Bailey’s garden. I visited back in February 2020 as part of my tour of Berkshire cidermakers but, whilst very impressed with what I tasted onsite, didn’t write up a review on my old Malt column. So today I’m making amends with three of Dave’s creations, all of which are dry and still.
Two lesser-spotted single varieties to kick off with – Vilberie, an originally-French bittersweet so late-harvesting that the saying goes that you grow it one year, pick it the next and drink it the year after that. This particular example was harvested in 2019. Next up is Prince William, a mild bittersweet apple which, for obvious reasons, is not what pops up first when you google ‘Prince William’. (Though it was, indeed, named for the Duke of Cambridge – I wonder whether he’s tried this Green Shed, being a self-professed ‘cider man’?) It’s not an apple I’ve knowingly encountered in a cider before; some quick research suggests it was propagated by Bulmer’s around the turn of the millennium-ish. It also appears to have featured in Thatcher’s blends since. Probably not the best frame of reference for this Green Shed, but an interesting factoid nonetheless. Rounding out our trio is Dave’s “Just Dry” blend, made from local Newbury apples. The Vilberie and the Just Dry are both available from Scrattings for £2.95 a bottle. For the Prince William you may have to go hunting around the bottle shops of Berkshire. Give me a shout if you’re in the neighbourhood …
Green Shed Vilberie 2019 – review
How I served: Just slightly below room temperature
Colour: Hazy straw
On the nose: An earthy, meaty, burly, phenolic grunt of an aroma – appropriate for the May we’ve just had, really. Hay and sack cloth and dried mango slices and petrichor. Dunnage warehouse and slight medicinal germoline.
In the mouth: Bone dry. Very minerally arrival – there’s far more here than just simple fruit flavours, but then of course fully-fermented cider doesn’t just taste of fruit. Dried apple and apricot slices and stone fruit pits. A mountain stream minerally clarity. Then huge tannins crash in like a thunderclap. One of those ciders that is so redolent of the outdoors.
In a nutshell: A slow-sipping, contemplative cider. Wants protein or time to breathe, but will reward them.
Green Shed Prince William 2019 – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Colour: A burnished crown
On the nose: Simpler than the Vilberie. Bright. Satsuma. Pressed apple. Forest floor. There’s a little volatility coming through too which slightly overwhelms the other elements.
In the mouth: Same story here – a less complex and intense apple than the Vilberie. Not the same depth or structure. Some rounded citrus heading in a lightly tropical direction. No real tannin, but there’s a tang of acetic acid which is a little too much for me.
In a nutshell: A bright and fruity cider, but that acetic acid is fairly prominent.
Green Shed Just Dry 2019 – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Colour: Clear Gold
On the nose: Green and clear and again very mineral in a kind of pebbles-from-the-river sense. Green apple, lime leaf, hedgerow. Quite a delicate nose, but it’s clean and fresh.
In the mouth: Intensity steps up a notch here. A nibble of acidity, a squeeze of lemon and then those bright-green, grassy, stemmy flavours. Crisp green apple and pear. Wet rock. Treat as you might a Vinho Verde or similar – long afternoon in the sunshine, seafood or salad. Job’s a good one. Tasty.
In a nutshell: The crisp, fresh, easy-drinking face of dry cider.
A mixed bag, both in terms of diversity of flavours and where they sat amidst my personal preferences. Long-standing readers will know that, like James, I tend to struggle with the volatile aromas and flavours of acetic acid, so This Is London and Prince William weren’t hugely my thing. But I know that many readers feel differently, and they may find much to enjoy in either.
Easter Hill was my pick of the bunch by a little way, followed by the Vilberie and the Just Dry. It’s really nice to see a few more easily available dry ciders being bottled by different producers, and each of these three has different flavours and textures to offer that are well worth your time and exploration.
And talking of exploration, the most important take-home here is that interesting and tasty ciders are clearly being made by urban cideries, perhaps rather closer to you than you might expect. At the moment they’re fairly few, and often a little elusive, but do some googling, track them down and seek their creations out. They are an important part of cider’s potentially bright future; I hope to taste more, and from more producers, very soon.
Samples of the Hawkes and Green Shed ciders were provided, but this doesn’t affect the content of our reviews.