Three years, ninety-nine articles, two hundred and fifty thousand words and a pandemic ago I went to Burrow Hill in Somerset and found an apple-scented wonder of the world. I climbed the old, sycamore-topped hill, wandered the Kingston Black orchards and the dim, sleepy barrel halls, tasted flashes of gold-flecked brilliance and when I got home four hours later the words tumbled out like water from cleft rock and I wrote my first piece about cider.
It was a conscious rebellion. Against what I saw as the industrial, against the old, tired, incomplete image, against the sneers and misunderstandings and in praise of what I had been shown that cider could be; this thing of fascination and splendour and bottled liquid joy. It was supposed to be a one-off; a lone deviation from my whisky writing gig. But today, somehow, if you include our taxonomy and the glossary of apples by flavour (and they certainly felt like articles when I was writing them) I am writing my hundredth cider piece in these digital pages.
So very, very much has changed in the last three years and particularly in the last year and a half, during which I have written the subsequent ninety-eight articles. Cider, full-juice cider made from the confluence of land and trees and apples and vintage has begun to rise like the glimpsed spire-tops of a city that had been buried in sand. Has begun to rediscover and show to new audiences what it once was and what it can be again.
If you had asked me in January 2020 what I would have liked to see from cider in five years’ time I would have talked about apple varieties being discussed not just by makers but by auto-didactic drinkers who could cite favourites like Dabinett or Foxwhelp or Stoke Red as wine lovers might grapes or beer lovers might hops and malts. I would have talked about bottles labelled not just by how sweet their contents were, but by what they were made from and how. I would have talked about a general push forward in presentation, about a broader chorus of advocates and about an increased consideration of flavours beyond the structural components of tannin and acidity. And somehow, in the bleak and stifling grip of fifteen months locked indoors, all that has begun to come to pass, three years ahead of time.
There can be no doubt whatsoever that cider is rising. Brick by brick and tower by shining tower, that hidden city is emerging from the shifting sands and the clutching desert, and as we gradually spill from our homes again and blink in the light of a returning world, cider is in ruder health than it has been in decades. The very existence of this site, of Cider Voice, Burum Collective and the Neutral Cider Hotel is proof of that; advocates are never causes, we are symptoms – parasites on the back of a strong-enough host, baubles hanging from a standard that was raised by people like Jean Nowell and Mike Johnson and James Marsden and Kevin Minchew and Barny Butterfield and Tom Oliver, and has been burnished to new, dazzling brightness in the last decade by the Martin Berkleys, the Susanna and James Forbeses, the Polly Hiltons and Lydia Crimps and Ryan Sealeys.
So where do we go from here? How does aspirational cider build on this great, remarked-upon revival and become more than a clutch of producers much-fêted by a passionate, increasing but still-small bubble; become a strong and vibrant and generally-admired industry?
I have been thinking on this for a little while now, and I think that the answer is confidence. Dick Withecombe and Cath Potter said it when they appeared on the Neutral Cider Hotel; you don’t win new devotees by presenting them with something that is just fine, you win them by pouring them a glass of something that takes their breath away. If craft cider generally has a shortcoming, it is an occasional lack of apparent belief in itself. A conviction that it has to compromise to appeal to a broader audience. How many ciders – even made by excellent producers – are diluted or artificially sweetened or in some other way reduced through this feeling that customers won’t accept them in their fullest form? How many taprooms boast rank by rank imperial stouts and saisons and Double IPAs and witbiers beside a single cider with nothing more to say for itself than that it is 5% abv and medium sweet?
Confidence means bottling (or boxing, or kegging) a cider in which the fruit has been allowed to reach its fullest expression and then has been left there. It means not carbonating cider by default, but by whether or not a particular liquid is best suited to that particular treatment. It means showing your working – all of your working, from orchard to glass – because time and skill and patience and passion have been poured into it and because the cider has a story worth telling and which will blazon the drinking for whoever comes across it. It means thinking less in terms of sweet and medium and dry and more in terms of what something has been made from and where and how, and it means talking about the flavours that spring from the drink as a result. Fundamentally, it means making the cider that most excites you and backing it entirely to excite someone else as well. It means cider measuring itself not by what industrial companies are making, but by the very highest, most uncompromising standards that can possibly be achieved; by the ciders that blow our hair back and let us believe in magic. Ciders that compel people to write blogs and talk on podcasts and tell everyone we know about them, because how could something so dazzling and compelling possibly be kept a secret?
About a year ago, someone suggested on twitter that it was up to me and people like me to make noise for cider and cidermakers, and I responded more shirtily than I should have, because it has never been my job, it is something I do for love. I’m not a cheerleader, I’m not public relations, I’m a hobbyist amateur blogger-critic, and if I write about something in glowing terms it is because that something has moved me. Because it stands out as being something exceptional and worth writing about; because my world is the richer for it and because I think yours might be too. In modern cider my world is now rich indeed and it is my conviction that in the next two, three, five years it will become richer and richer still.
I need to take a breath. Ninety-nine articles in the last eighteen months, 265 ciders reviewed and God alone knows how many evenings spent writing and wrestling with ideas and reading right-of-response messages has been too much. This sort of writing – long form writing that questions and challenges where appropriate, that tries to pair reviews with bigger ideas and pictures and contexts – inevitably comes with tiredness and rebuttals and a certain degree of counter-sniping and backlash, and although I can more or less accept that as part of the gig, it doesn’t go unnoticed and it takes an inevitable toll. Forcing out as much of that sort of content as I thought I needed to in the last year has been stupid, has wrung me out completely and was unnecessary in any case. Cider has so many voices now, most of them more powerful than mine and with greater reach. It has earned those voices by lifting itself up. By bravery and confidence and belief that it can change people’s minds by being better than they believed it was. If it keeps that momentum, builds that confidence, keeps showing the world those little miracles, those voices will only continue to grow. As for mine, it’ll still be here; I’ll still keep going, more or less. But not, I hope, at quite so furious a rate, because cider doesn’t need me to. Cider is so much bigger and more full of energy and wonder than two or three articles a week could begin to convey, so far beyond the need of support from any individual voice. Gradually, but inexorably, this hidden city is rising from the sand. In five years’ time, perhaps, with a bit of that confidence and belief, I hope that many, many more people might walk its uncovered streets and see how marvellous it is.
For today though, a small, solipsistic wave of the century bat. I’m good at remembering little milestones, though not very good at celebrating them, having a rather unfortunate tendency to be a seldom-satisfied, next-hill, destination-over-journey sort of person. But maybe I’ll set that habit aside for tonight, pop a cork of something suitable and persuade myself not to think about the next hundred articles. And if they do then all bubble out in an overenthusiastic, florid rush, isn’t that always the way? And aren’t I lucky to have a subject which still inspires that; an apple-scented wonder of the world.