If you let nature take its course without any intervention, whether that be a physical barrier or an ingredient addition, cider will naturally develop faults. I know that’s a pretty direct statement, but when you think about it, in the simplest way, sugar will naturally be turned to alcohol by wild yeasts present in the atmosphere or the juice and following that, acetobacter (again present in the environment) will eventually convert all that alcohol to acetic acid, which is a fault, especially above a certain level of perceptibility (which isn’t a huge amount actually). Cider only doesn’t become vinegar by the maker intervening through cleanliness and containing it to prevent oxygen ingress. Juice only stays as juice through processes like pasteurisation or sterile filtering to prevent those naturally present microorganisms from fermenting those sugars to alcohol.
I know that faults in cider have reduced considerably over the last few years, but they are still there to a certain degree. Recently I’ve noticed some changing of language around faults, that to me, appear to be condoning or accepting them as part of cider’s flavour profile. For example I’ve seen a bit of rhetoric appearing recently that suggests that the unusual flavours and unpredictability of “natural ciders” are rarely faults, if at all. I have tried many ciders regarded as “natural” and would have to disagree a little, they have their fair share of faults. Which is expected, as I’ve said above, it’s very easy for cider to develop faults and if you are avoiding any use of preservatives or additions then your risk is greater. The decision to sell that product by the maker and retailer and explain it away as part of the complex, challenging flavours developed from natural process is, I think, somewhat deceptive and very risky. As I mentioned last week, there is an issue with the value perception of cider in general, but as we try to improve that, we have to be mindful of the pitfalls that could completely undo our progress. I believe one of those is faults. We have a lot of makers that are trying very hard to align their image and products more with wine, not only to increase the monetary value but also better recognise the similarities, skills required and attract wine drinkers to the cider market. Whether you agree with that move or not, if we want to be more wine-like, then we need to live up to that, through creating comparably clean products.
As a cider maker and someone who has read a fair bit on the cider making process, there are certain by-products and flavours that are regarded as faults by academia. These are not exclusive to cider, and recognised across the alcoholic beverages market as so. People will all have different tolerance levels to different faults, so may like them or detest them, some might not be able to detect them (mouse is notorious for this). Regardless of that if we start to try and change the customer understanding to suggest that faults aren’t actually faults, but really just challenging flavours, it puts the onus onto the drinker to deal with it. It’s basically saying, if you don’t like it, then it’s on you, which I could understand to a certain degree, if the makers were being open and honest about the reason behind those flavours and how they were created. As they almost always aren’t explicit about it, then I can completely forgive a consumer being thoroughly annoyed after spending £10+ on a bottle of cider that has recognised faults. It’s about being transparent, rather than using smoke and mirrors to polish away off-flavours or aromas.
I think perhaps there are knowledge and understanding gaps across all layers of the cider industry, which is not surprising; talking about faults in cider isn’t really happening in the main, although you may have noticed that we have been trying to do so constructively on Cider Review for some time and most recently by Adam here. Our aim is to create a resource of faults that will join our Taxonomy and Apple and Pear Varieties by Taste, so look out for that coming soon. As we said at the beginning, it’s not our intention to go out of our way to lambast faulty ciders. In the main we won’t review them if we discover they are faulty, choosing to provide feedback by other means, however on occasion where we have committed to review a particular product or set of, then we will give our unbiased constructive opinion. So what else is part of the solution? And who’s responsible? Well I think the solution is more education/awareness, and the responsibility lies with the maker and the seller.
For the maker – sometimes these off flavours can be intended, but as I have said previously, it is important that the maker explains that on the label. I am someone who is not a big fan of acetic acid, but I recognise that others may actually like a certain element of that in the cider. As Andrew Lea points out in “Craft Cider Making”, there is a history of acetic cider in certain parts of the country through rough “scrumpy” and people have grown to accept and enjoy that. Wouldn’t it be useful for us all to know if a cider has that element to it though? That way those in favour can seek it out, whereas others can avoid it. If you intended it to be there then why not say that. If you didn’t, then either say that too, or perhaps reconsider whether you actually want to sell it.
For the sellers then I feel there’s an element of due diligence to check the products they sell and provide full disclosure if the maker has not. They also have the opportunity to provide constructive feedback to the maker which is something I have always found invaluable along my journey. I’m aware that some sellers are more selective, whereas others are content to take everything a specific maker has to offer regardless. Ultimately, cider is at a really crucial point right now and a lot of consumers are approaching it with new interest. We need to work together, be prepared to take feedback and learn and grow from it. Only then can we help elevate the standard of cider produced and accepted.
Of course you may disagree with me on some or even all of the above, in which case please comment, it would be great to have the conversation. Ultimately my thinking is that for cider to really reach it’s full potential then we need to talk about faults more, in the right way and we all have a part to play in raising the quality and profile of cider.