I’ve only ever written passingly on the subject of so-called fruit cider. It is, of course, a huge topic – and indeed a huge category, commanding well over a third of the UK’s cider market, and showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.
I suppose that my primary reasons for not lending my pen to it with any vengeance (yet) are firstly, that there is so much to write about on the subject of cider made simply from apples and secondly, that discussing fruit cider in an educatedly-opinionated way (as my colleague James bravely did here, and the Neutral Cider Hotel recently did in a specific episode here) probably deserves about a week of dedicated content and more thousand words than I’ve yet had time to offer it. It is not, I think, a subject into which we career lightly.
So no sizzling takes or bold, controversial pronouncements today. (They’ll come eventually, don’t you worry, we’re building to them). My in-a-nutshell stance remains that I’m absolutely a fan of well-made such things – look at the praise I lavished on these and some of these and the Goldener Reiter in this – but that the term “cider” perhaps rests uneasily upon them.
Fundamentally, there is no doubt that blends or co-fermentations of various fruits make a bigger world of flavour for the drinker to explore, just as there is no doubt that the category is exploited by folk who just want to add a bit of flavouring to a small amount of apple concentrate and a large amount of sugar and water. As in all things drinks-based, transparency and clarity need to be the watchwords to distinguish good practice from corner-cutting laziness and the more cynical race-to-the-bottom proclivities of capitalism.
A point that has stuck in my mind since hearing it was made by WildCraft Cider’s Sean Kelly during a discussion on co-fermentations at CiderCon this year. I can’t recall his precise words, but the thrust was that he felt them to be the best way of expressing through a drink the totality of the place in which that drink was made. Apples were not, he pointed out, the only fruits that grew near his cidery, so why should they be the only fruit he fermented? If blackberries line the orchard hedge, if apple and pear trees grow side by side, if groves of citrus (our imagination is expanding beyond the UK here) are interwoven with pome fruits, and if herbs spring up among the roots of apple trees, why should they not all be brought together in the same glass? Having fairly prominently waxed nauseatingly lyrical about my interest in drinks of their place, I can hardly argue with that sentiment.
If co-fermentations, fruit blends, country wines, “fruit ciders” or whatever your moniker of preference may be have a real shortcoming it is that they are so infrequently presented in the UK as their fullest possible expression. Duty laws bear much responsibility for this; add anything besides apples or pears to your cider or perry, bottle it at a strength over 4% abv and the government asks for something in the region of four times as much. So it’s hardly surprising that dilution is not so much common as near-ubiquitous, but difficult to argue that this isn’t to the detriment of the drink’s character. I suspect, were this not the case, that the dividing line between our Strongbow Dark Fruits and our carefully-made co-fermentations or fruit blends from small producers would become a little less blurry in the eyes of the casual consumer. At present, whilst there are plenty of reasonably tasty examples available, there are precious few in the UK that you could describe as truly excellent, and the proliferation of over-sweet, over-diluted and under-strength bottles across shelves and pub fridges are hardly going to quieten the demands for such things to be disassociated with cider, nor to persuade the most interested drinkers that this is a category deserving of serious attention.
Sweden, home to both Kopparberg and Rekorderlig, seems an odd place to look for more compelling cases for co-fermentation, but bear with me. As we’ve seen in our investigations of Pomologik and Brännland, there are rich cidery pickings to be found here when you look in the right places, and another producer which has attracted increasing column inches in the last year or so has been Brutes.
We’ve met one of their creations before when Rachel Hendry and I tasted their Toot Your Own Horn as part of our general consideration of sparkling cider. Pomologik’s Johan also name-checked them in our interview as “a bunch of expats who are aiming more towards the funky pet-nat side of things”. Brutes’ own website corroborates this assessment, describing their products as “fruit pét-nats and ciders out of Stockholm”. The company was founded by a group of natural wine loving friends, and their approach to cider (and fruit pét-nat) making follows natural wine accordingly. Fruit from orchards on the islands of Lake Mälaren is wild fermented with no additional sulphites and bottled “nothing in, nothing out”.
On the subject of their co-fermentations they write: “[apples] can produce something thoughtful on [their] own or provide a solid base to be seasoned with wild fruits (sloe, blueberry, crabapple) and other garden fruits (pear, cherries, quince, aronia). Each vintage brings refinement and new exploration with this vast palette of fruit with the hopes of creating something true to the terroir, but also fun and unique”.
I’ll be running the full spectrum of cider to co-fermentation, beginning with the apples-only Northern Tropics 2019 and, via the apple-pear co-fermentation Group Hug 2019, concluding with something completely different in the form of Dr Rieslingstein’s Monster 2019 which is *sucks in breath* Gravenstein apple cider macerated with Riesling skins and Japanese flowering quince. As a stated lover of Gravenstein, Riesling and quince, I’m looking forward to it, though what they’ll taste like in combination I can’t begin to imagine. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
All three are fully-fermented and were bottled pet-nat. Having been introduced to the UK by the tireless re:stalk, Brutes can now be found in too many places for me to list them all. But at the time of writing The Cat in the Glass has all three of today’s expressions, as well as the previously-reviewed Toot Your Own Horn, for a routine £16.95 per 750ml here.
Brutes Northern Tropics 2019 – review
(A blend of Ribston, Husmor, Holsteiner and wild seedling apples macerated on pulp)
How I served: Lightly chilled
On the nose: Tropics indeed. There’s something very unusual here – passion fruit, tangerine and star fruit sitting alongside a cool greenness. Kiwi? Almost cucumber skin. A little melon too. Very fresh and fruity – balances zesty with rounded nicely. There’s something also really reminiscent of the inside of a new plastic container. Sounds offputting, I know, and it’s certainly very unusual, but to my nose it works with the tropical fruit rather well.
In the mouth: More of the same – that ripe, rounded, hard-to-place tropicality offset by a green, not-quite-citrusy freshness. The well-judged mousse really lifts and energises the fruit. There’s less of that plastic-container aspect from the nose, but something’s still here. It isn’t quite smokiness, but it’s nodding in that direction. This is beach cider – you could add a little umbrella!
In a nutshell: Fresh, fruity, full of life and tropical flavour. Some unusual aspects, but they work for me. Recommended.
Brutes Group Hug 2019 – review
(60:40 blend of co-fermented apples and pears.)
How I served: Chilled
Colour: Pale straw
On the nose: Green and fresh, the apples and pears both expressing very much as themselves (sounds daft, I realise, but not all fully-fermented ciders and perries actually smell of apples or pears!) Cut grass and a little plumper ripe peach. Not quite up to tropical. There’s a lightness to the fruit – delicate varieties, perhaps? There’s also an element of acetic volatility and peardrop acetate though, which that gentle fruit struggles to mask. And the warmer the drink gets, the more prominent those latter characteristics become.
In the mouth: Again, follows the nose, though is perhaps a little fuller, the fruit a little riper, the flavours a touch more intense, and starting to tread more towards that peachy-tropical point. The apples and pears have melded well, and there’s a lot of freshness. No tannin. My personal issue is that the components of acetic acid and particularly ethyl acetate have gone a fair bit further than is my personal preference, and I’m struggling a little with the characters of sourness and nail varnish, which rather overwhelm the fruit to my taste.
In a nutshell: Not for me, this one, but its force of character will (and does!) certainly appeal to others.
Brutes – Dr Rieslingstein’s Monster 2019 – review
(Gravenstein apples fermented on Riesling skins and Japanese flowering quince)
How I served: Chilled
Colour: Pale gold
On the nose: Zoinks. Well, you’ve never smelled anything like this, I can tell you. Truly this glass contains multitudes. One moment I’m thinking that there is something of the lime-honey-kerosene Riesling thing going on, the next there seems to be a sort of orange juice and roasted herbs quality. It’s extremely aromatically intense, and I doubt you’d ever get a matching pair of tasting notes from two different reviewers. It’s high-toned, zingy and straight-up wild. There’s also a little volatility piping up at the back, but happily it’s largely deafened by the volume of everything else going on.
In the mouth: The uniqueness continues. Quinces, limes, big green apples a little salty cheese and slateyness. Aniseed? Something along those lines. The fizz, once again, is perfectly judged (as an aside it’s very refreshing to taste a flight of pet nats, none of which open with an explosion). Big, mouthwatering acidity, but the longer I taste it the more that acetic character creeps in and swells. It’s fairly well covered by the huge flavours going on elsewhere, and there’s lots to like about the sheer bombastic intensity of personality, but eventually that sour acetic acid commands too much focus for me to reach for a second glass.
In a nutshell: A riotous glassful of idiosyncratic mayhem, but not one for those sensitive to acetic acid.
I wrote recently about preferences, excesses and perceived faults in cider, and that article sprang to mind when I was reviewing this trio. In the past I have certainly gushed over drinks whose particular characteristics, be it the effect of maturation in peated whisky casks, the intensity of their acidity, a combination of the two or something else entirely would turn off many another drinker. In the case of today’s bottlings, two out of three sit outside the radius of my own personal preference, yet I have seen both lavished with praise by people who certainly know their stuff.
What’s more, the uniform precision of their pét-nat sparkle (something, annoyingly, far from par for the course in cider, as any number of splashed ceilings will attest) evinces control and understanding from the makers, which to my mind suggests that the flavours and characters which put me off, and which I would consider to be faults, may even be entirely intentional; and simply aimed at people whose preferences differ from mine. I suppose my only caveat would be, as expressed in my preferences piece, that these are intense and polarising flavours and in such instances I’d like to be forewarned on the label.
Whatever the case, this conundrum, of course, is the thorny but inherent nature of reviewing; that I am but one palate and one set of opinions with no definitive answers on matters of taste besides my own notions of what is and isn’t delicious and what does and doesn’t constitute a ‘fault’. Group Hug and Dr Rieslingstein’s Monster aren’t for me, nor could I recommend them to those whose predilections align with mine (especially at £17 each) but with due caveat emptor given, those who enjoy the more untamed and wild end of, for instance, natural wine’s spectrum may find them just their cup of flowering quince. Folk with similar preferences to me can cheerfully tuck into a bottle of Northern Tropics.
On net, Brutes remain a cidery which piques my interest. Even if some of their creations aren’t my bag, there is an obvious creativity to their thoughts and processes, and a keenness to create memorable, high-intensity (if sometimes, perhaps, high-risk) ciders and fruit pét-nats which I find admirable and which holds my attention. I hope that ethos continues, and I will be intrigued to see the direction it takes them in next.