It’s funny how often drinking is cyclical. You start off in one place, gradually become slightly bored of it, start meandering, over time, in a different direction, until one day you find yourself, however long later, in exactly the place you started.
It’s happened to me with both wine and whisky. Rioja, as I’ve mentioned in the past, specifically barrel-aged Rioja Reserva, was the “bottle that did it” as far as getting me hooked went. For a year or two afterwards it was always to the Rioja section that my limited wallet turned first until at some fuzzy point I found that I was more or less tired of it, found it less exciting and more predictable than I once had, and barely touched it for years after that. Then, naturally, further down the line, impulse buy or someone else’s pick brought Rioja back into my glass and it was like a happy reunion with an old friend I’d forgotten how much I’d missed. And it wasn’t boring any more, but wonderful and invigorating.
The same thing has happened, or is happening, to me at the moment with keeved ciders. A few years back, in the early throes of cider wonkery, keeved ciders were my go-to. I’d fallen for the likes of Pilton and Oliver’s and Gregg’s Pit; their ripe, full, joyful dollopings of juicy, bittersweet, sun-blushed fruit and they were the ciders I wanted to drink most. Then, as time went on, as – and I can be honest, I know exactly who the culprits were here – I got to know Messrs Johnson and Forbes a bit better, my tastes got drier and I began to see keeves as a bit samey, a bit “just boozy apple juice” in the expression of their flavours. A bit been-there-drunk-that.
I suppose, in part, it was because many – most – keeved ciders cleave to fairly similar themes. The keeving process, whereby juice is deprived of nutrients before fermentation has properly begun (in which respect it differs from cold-racked ciders, which gradually siphon off nutrients and yeasts as the fermentation progresses) necessarily involves a few common denominators. By and large keeving demands low-acid, late-harvested bittersweet fruit, and removal of nutrients means that the fermentation is likely to die off before the cider is entirely dry. So it’s inevitable that keeved ciders will fit within a narrower spectrum of potential flavour than, say, “dry cider”, for which any apple variety may be used and for which the yeasts will be able to convert a greater percentage of sugars into alcohol, thereby unlocking a broader spectrum of potential new flavours from the juice.
But as demonstration of the diversity achievable through keeved ciders alone, we have only to look across the channel. In France, keeved ciders are virtually ubiquitous, and having made my way through over 180 of them in just three days in February last year, I can attest to the differences being as compelling as the similarities. Like any other category of cider, the flavours of keeves are subject to the particular varieties with which the producer is working, their choices of container and the effects of the particular ambient yeasts in that producer’s cidery (the keeving process necessitates wild yeasts rather than pitched). In any case, sometimes there’s just as much joy in picking out subtler differences within a category of cider as there is in seeing the most extreme and pronounced flavour differences that exist within cider as a whole.
Perhaps I’m thinking too deeply. In reality I got back into keeves for the exact reason I got into them in the first instance – namely that I tasted one and thought “God, what a gorgeous and happy bottle of cider”. There is something inherently cheerful about a keeve in the same way that there is about Beaujolais. Not in flavour, but in the way they don’t take themselves too seriously. They are both a tremendous gateway to their respective drinks, and a blissful reminder to the jaded enthusiast that sometimes you should just drink whatever puts a smile on your face. In the expression of their soft, ripe, juiciness and, yes, in their virtually-inherent dab of natural sweetness, there is something comforting about keeved ciders. And goodness knows we’ve needed some of that in the last year and a half.
On which note, let’s drink a few. In the aforementioned name of picking out the differences between ciders that run to an ostensibly similar theme, I’ve gone with not only keeved ciders, but keeved ciders specifically from Somerset. Somerset is full of native varieties whose characteristics seem tailor-made for keeving. In the likes of Dabinett, Yarlington Mill and Major (shared with Devon) they have a cast of juicy, rich, fulsome bittersweets that cry out to be made into something full-bodied, ripe, deep and packed with sunshine. What’s more, Somerset is home to arguably the most prominent practitioner of keeving in the UK – Martin Berkeley’s Pilton. In the second article I wrote for these pages I picked his whisky barrel-aged Tamoshanta 2016 as my textbook example of a classic keeve, and it’s since been similarly praised by the excellent Ben Thompson, then of Burum Collective, now of Cider Voice (and whose articles I miss tremendously – please write more Ben!)
So for a return to keeving, I’m pitching the 2019 vintage of the same cider against three Somersetian rivals from Worley’s, Hecks and Barley Wood Orchard. We’ll let Tamoshanta bat first though – like the 2016 it’s an orchard blend of multiple unnamed varieties, fermented in plastic and then transferred on Burn’s Night into ex-whisky casks. A bottle costs £8.49 directly from the cidery or you can find it on Scrattings, The Cat in the Glass and The Fine Cider Company (and probably a good few places besides, but these links take ages and we don’t get paid for them!)
Pilton Tamoshanta 2019 – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Appearance: Bright bronze. Light fizz.
On the nose: A spotless keeve nose. Unsurprisingly a touch lighter and brighter than the 2016, though I think that’s the vintage itself as much as it is the comparative youth. Pure apple juice, honey, vanilla oak and gingerbread. Not insanely complex but deeply satisfying. “Yum” was the geophysicist’s comment within about two seconds of being given the glass”.
In the mouth: Rich, deep juiciness and a pronounced whack of sweetness are very well balanced by ripe tannins which give grip without being at all astringent or excessive. Sweet spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla – with polished wood and ginger ale balance the big apple juice deliciously. Scarily easy to drink. Utterly without fault.
In a nutshell: Yardstick oak-aged keeve, if on the sweeter end. So reliably tasty, consistent, full-flavoured, clean and supremely accessible. Everyone should have at least one to hand.
Worley’s is a cidery yet to feature on Cider Review somehow. They’ve been going for a good few years now and have seen particular success with the object of today’s review – the Special Reserve Vintage Brut, which has formerly picked up three stars at the Great Taste Awards and won Champion Cider at the Taste of the West. Today I’m tasting the 2019 which, like the Pilton, is an unspecified orchard blend of multiple varieties. The website doesn’t specify whether it’s been oak aged or not – my guess is that it hasn’t, at least certainly not in active oak. But if you have different information then give us a shout in the comments below. Bottles are £44 for six from Worley’s themselves or you can grab it individually from Scrattings or as part of a hamper from Crafty Nectar.
Worley’s Special Reserve Vintage Brut 2019 – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Appearance: Gold. Light fizz
On the nose: Brighter and higher-toned of fruit than the Pilton. Orange and yellow wine gums. Passion fruit. Warm lemons. There’s a slightly unusual note of almost rubber gloves. An ever-so-slightly-volatile note too, but it’s so trace in its nature that it manifests more as tropical than as acetic. Certainly not enough to be a party-spoiler.
In the mouth: Definitely the tropical face of keeves. Um Bongo, pineapple, green and yellow apples skins. A little straw and honeysuckle too. Some nice touches of vanilla and hard caramels. Medium sweetness, balanced by tannins that are slightly less ripe than the Pilton’s. There’s still that teeny, teeny whisper of oxidation, but it’s certainly not at a level that stopped me finishing the glass.
In a nutshell: A keeve for the beach! Full of tropical fruit, if not quite as precise as the Pilton.
We’ve met Heck’s before, though not for a long while, last reviewing four of their single variety ciders and perries back in April last year. Their keeved offering today is another single variety – perhaps the most “keeve me” variety of the lot – Yarlington Mill. I’ve commented several times on the inherent depth of rich apple and Christmassy spice to this variety, perhaps my favourite apple of all along with Foxwhelp. Those characteristics fall so precisely in line with the qualities I’ve come to think of as typical of great keeves that it’s almost surprising there aren’t more keeved SV Yarlingtons about. You can buy a 750ml bottle of the 2020 vintage of this cider from Orchard Explorer’s Club for £8.30. The vintage isn’t stated on my bottle, but unfortunately I can be sure that it’s not the 2020, since I bought it at the same time as the pouches I’ve previously reviewed. I’d guess this was 2019, but there’s no way to be absolutely certain.
Hecks Yarlington Mill Keeved – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Appearance: Midway between the Pilton and the Worley’s. Similar fizz.
On the nose: The most austere yet. Barnyard, old oak, a touch of amontillado sherry and bruised apples. Not sulphur, I wouldn’t say, but there’s certainly a meatiness here. Has the burliness of Yarlington, but seems less opulent and generous and overtly fruity than I’d typically expect that variety, especially when keeved, to be.
In the mouth: Driest so far, though there’s still a good dab of sweetness here. Coarse, grippy tannins. Dark apple juiciness alongside the old oak mustiness of the nose, forest floor and clovey spice. Some copper penny tang and astringency on the finish. More Yarlingtony here than it was in aroma, by my mileage. I’m slightly on the fence over this one overall though.
In a nutshell: The brusquest face of Yarlington. Lots of curiosities but a few rough edges. Not my favourite from this frequently-excellent producer.
Rounding out our quartet is Barley Wood Orchard’s Vintage 2018. Somehow or other I’ve only previously featured one cider from Barley Wood here before – their fantastic Barrel Fermented Tremlett’s Bitter. That was a slightly atypical Barley Wood, too, being completely dry. Keeves and cold-racked ciders are much more their bread and butter, made in their stupidly beautiful setting of a log round house amidst walled gardens and orchards.
2018 was a famously hot vintage – perfect for huge, ripe, sugar-filled bittersweets. This cider was a blend of Barley Wood’s best fruit – Dabinett, Chisel Jersey, Vilberie, Porter’s Perfection, Brown’s and King’s Favourite. The eagle eyed will notice that not all of those are bittersweets, with Brown’s and Porter’s Perfection particularly standing out. (King’s Favourite is new to me, and proved a toughie to google). Keeved ciders can often struggle for acidity, and as Andrew Lea’s superb article on the subject points out, finding a well-balanced ph that allows the keeve to take place whilst protecting it against the microbial infection that can be more prevalent in low-acid fermentations is one of the challenges this style of cider presents. Let’s see how well Barley Wood have risen to it. 750ml costs £8.50 from Scrattings or £9.50 from Cat in the Glass.
Barley Wood Orchard Vintage 2018 – review
How I served: Very lightly chilled. 45 minutes in the fridge.
Appearance: Bright copper. And again, well-behaved fizz. (That’s four pet nat ciders from four without any gushing today – how refreshing!)
On the nose: Sumptuous. Loads of orange, in both fresh and marmalade form. Stem ginger, apricot, peach and vanilla sponge. A lovely balance of fresh and gradually-maturing fruit. Some almost whisky-esque spicing here – any barrel ageing, or is that just varieties plus keeving plus time? I’d wager the latter. Super marriage of freshness, depth, juiciness and spice. The most complex nose yet for sure.
In the mouth: We have tannin. Big, broad-shouldered, firm tannins (presumably Chisel Jersey’s contribution) that the body and enormous fruit are just about able to balance. I can see why they let this age a bit before release – there’s no astringency here, but you could continue ageing it confidently for a good while yet. Again the fruit trends in an orange and peach direction, with vanilla and a light, buttery malolactic element alongside more woody spice. A tremendous freshness balances and adds some zip. It’s incredibly fruity – not heavy-going at all. The apple balance is just right. Super structure, length, complexity and intensity. And whistle clean.
In a nutshell: A must-have. Drink now with food, or age for the next few years at least. Best keeve I’ve had since the Smith Hayne Special Reserve 2018. Maybe even better than that.
Loved tasting this flight. Not completely perfect, but four ciders that show off keeving’s range of flavours, drynesses and textures tremendously. A tonic against generalisation, which was just what I was after.
Pilton Tamoshanta is one of those ciders that effortlessly pulls off the tricky double act of being both supremely approachable yet interesting enough for the enthusiast. There’s no one I couldn’t pour it for, and for just filling a glass with whenever and drinking on its own, it’s still right at the top of the tree.
The Barley Wood, though, is my pick of the quartet. It has hit that unknowable point, always difficult for keeves, at which the flavours of juice transform into the flavours of cider, and it is so much more complex for it. Its structure, body and complexity, given the age, are outstanding. This is a cider you can keep for a while yet, or treat with the respect of something like steak or a roast in the meantime. Easily one of the best ciders I’ve had this year and, at £8.50, absurdly good value. Confirms this cidery in my head as one of the best in the country. I really must get over there again and cover them in greater depth.