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Fault of Nature

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. 

8 Comments

  1. ChrisM says

    Agree with most of what you say James, as a fellow hater of acetic acid and mouse! As a retailer, of course we can check the draught products, but we can’t possibly open a bottle of everything we get, especially when we’re only getting a case of 6 to sell! The business and our livers wouldn’t last long if we did…

    The buck should start and stop with the producer. Sadly in our experience a significant majority wash their hands of responsibility entirely, including some well-known ‘hype’ brands who compare their products to natural wine and don’t seem to care if it’s faulty or not. The industry really needs to try harder!

    Cheers,
    Chris

    PS – disappointed you didn’t write it in iambic pentameter tbh!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Chris. I really do think we can do better especially in terms of transparency and language. At the end of the day of maker wants to producing something with those flavours then that is entirely up to them, but to help consumers make an informed decision then they have to be open about it.

      Cheers

      James (PS – Adam is definitely the bard in this parynership)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dan says

    Out of interest how would you suggest a cider maker is to be transparent about “faults” like acetic acid? You mention “scrumpy” as a product that often contains Acetic and potentially is acceptable to a degree. Would development of styles in a similar sense to beer? Could it be that “scrumpy” has a titratable acidity higher than that of a “Devon Dry” of a “Suffolk Cyder”? This way when the consumer picks up a bottle they know to expect a higher acid profile? I’ve had many ciders where the tannins, astringency and low FG are out of balance, but to many it’s not considered an off flavour as it’s derived from the apple. I often find natural ciders can be just as dry but more full bodied thanks to acetic or lactic production.

    At what point do you draw the line with “real” cider? Isn’t true traditional cider fermented with natural yeasts and therefore going to pick up faults? Some faults like “mousy” otherwise known as THP can take a while to form in a similar manner to ropiness caused by pedio. Although yes both of these are a fault it is in the hands of the microbes which don’t always play ball. These symptoms can develop months down the line.

    Big commercial producers will sulphite/filter to create shelf stability but at the cost of flavour. But where does “real” cider fit alongside this. Is it just one step down from Westons because you use high juice proportions rather than concentrate?

    To rule out or take a hard line on the byproducts of spontaneous fermentation to me feels like killing off part of the history of cider making. But even with pasteurisation/filtering/sulphites while being spontaneously fermented it’s still worlds apart. A non-cider example would be comparing lambic of cantillon to the pasteurised lambic of Lindemanns.

    I do feel the line between “real” producers and those not “real” is constantly getting thinner. If this new ideal is too strict I feel consumers will be pushed away from more traditional cider makers due to the perceived “faults” and can see it failing due to it isolating producers and not receiving their support. There’s definitely several producers that I and industry folk hold in high regard that would potentially fall foul of these ideals. I think the notion that natural drink producers use certain terms to “con” consumers into accepting faults is just wrong.

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    • Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Dan. I certainly wasn’t suggesting that all natural drink producers are trying to “con” consumers. The point I’m trying to make is that industry wide, cider needs to be more open and transparent about faults and their flavours.

      As you mention, beer has agreed styles where those flavours are a known element, but you wouldn’t expect them in another beer style. Cider on the other hand does not have that and so consumers have no idea what they’re buying when they pick a new cider, mainly because makers are not providing the information.

      As a cider maker myself, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that we are all open about our creations, whether that be on the label or a website. If someone whats to create a cider with an acetic element as part of their desire to create depth or complexity, then they are welcome to do that but why not explain that? Then those consumers who like those flavours know what they’re buying and those who don’t can avoid it. I know makers who have and I applaud that. I’m also friends with many who don’t and we talk about these issues regularly.

      I’m not trying to “kill of part of the history of cider making”, quite the opposite given the hundreds of articles, interviews and work I’ve done. This is just a thought piece containing my opinion on the risks to ciders growth and innovation if we don’t talk about these flavours openly.

      Thanks

      James

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  3. When each o persons palate is different and develops over time it’s very hard to be too nuanced on the label. Once upon a time I considered most Spanish ciders undrinkable as I was unfamiliar with them and thought them far too acetic (for my palate). Now it’s very different as through being more familiar (drinking more of them!) I find myself appreciating the subtleties which I recognise – but didn’t before.

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  4. A great article James. As a rule I never comment on social media because I’m retired and cider is only peripheral to my life now, but since you have cited me specifically, I will.

    I’m glad you have had the courage to call out the Emperor’s New Clothes. It saddens me greatly that after 30 years of technical cider education by the likes of myself and Peter Mitchell, we now seem to be back in a situation where faults are not only tolerated, but bizarrely welcomed by their creators. Whether this be through ignorance or deliberate design is unclear to me.

    It is hard enough fighting the mainstream chaptalised “35% juice” and “fruit flavour” merchants without having to take on a second front of people who should know better. It’s quite possible to make fault free ciders using wild yeasts with careful attention to pH, air exclusion and sulphite usage, and this has been known for many years. I really cannot believe there is a significant market anywhere in the UK for mousy, acetic and oxidised ciders, no matter how “natural” they are.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for reading and commenting Andrew. I obviously share your concerns and only time will tell what the market will tolerate. Hopefully with continued education we will achieve greater understanding of faults and informed customers will make different choices. Ultimately though we need a more accountable craft industry that is willing to accept constructive feedback and want to improve, judging by some of the feedback I’ve received to this article we have some that don’t. Cheers, James

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  5. Pingback: On methods and mindsets: ten ciders from The Newt and Wilding | Cider Review

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