There was once a broad consensus among British cider makers that all of the best ciders are blends of different apple varieties, and that single-variety ciders are inevitably unbalanced. Even Ross on Wye’s Mike Johnson, who is rightly famed for his single-variety ciders, has said as much on record. I suspect that if I asked Mike if he still felt the same way today, he would probably stick to his guns, but might admit that he had overestimated the extent to which cider enthusiasts value balance and underestimated their appetite for quirkiness and individuality. These days, an ever-increasing range of single-variety ciders is exploding onto the market. There has never been a better time to taste your way through this bewildering array of varieties, each different to the last, and each with the potential to become someone’s firm favourite.
Having dutifully sung the praises of single varieties in all their multitudinous glory, I have to admit that I agree with Mike. I’m convinced that it’s easier to make a balanced blend than a balanced single-variety cider. There is no clearer statement of the purpose of blending than Albert Johnson’s dictum that “the point of a blend is to showcase qualities of varieties and hide their deficiencies”, and I think that most apple varieties are excessive or deficient in some respect. A particular variety might have a lot of tannin, a lot of acid or a lot of sugar, but not many varieties possess all of these properties in well-balanced proportions. However, I also recognise that the pursuit of balance through blending can sometimes overlook the fact that one person’s excesses or deficiencies are another’s lovable eccentricities.
I think that it’s important for cider writers to be upfront about their preferences. To lay my cards on the table, I really tend to struggle with the searing acidity of single-variety Foxwhelp ciders and Thorn perries, but I accept that other people love them precisely because they have a penchant for that unremitting intensity. These people aren’t necessarily seeking out subtlety or balance – they want tightly-coiled, pulsating energy that explodes into a lightning bolt of flavour. Drinking these ciders and perries is the extreme sport of the cider world. Not everyone wants to jump out of a plane, ride a mountain bike off a cliff or drink young Foxwhelp, but such high-octane pursuits make some people feel alive.
While I admire this fearless thrill-seeking attitude, I’m just not an extreme sports kind of guy. I was a wine enthusiast long before I developed an interest in cider, and my tastes in wine tend towards the classical rather than the boundary-pushing. My preference has always been for mature and well-integrated wines, in which the key structural components of flavour (acidity, tannin, sweetness and fruit) coexist in harmony, with no single component sticking out awkwardly or overwhelming the others. On an intellectual level, I can appreciate wines that occupy a more extreme position on the flavour spectrum, including some of the edgier ‘natural’ wines, zero-dosage Champagnes and wines that push the envelope in terms of ripeness, oakiness and extraction. But I rarely fall in love with them. My delicate little flower of a palate can’t cope with all that puckering and rasping, gloop and bitterness. I want to be gently seduced by a drink, not have my tongue belligerently bludgeoned by it.
You might well think that I’m therefore not the kind of person who would enjoy single-variety ciders and perries, with all their idiosyncrasies, but you would be mistaken. I can and do enjoy them, not least because I find it fascinating to get to know the individual personality of each variety and consider what it might bring to a blend. More importantly, however, I just don’t believe that single-variety ciders are always unbalanced. Some apple varieties are inherently better balanced than others. Kingston Black is renowned for its well-proportioned quantities of sugar, acidity and tannin. Michelin and Dabinett don’t usually produce particularly extreme-tasting ciders, even though they are relatively low in acidity. I typically gravitate towards the civilised pleasures of these single varieties, rather than the more pugnacious personalities of the extremely acidic and tannic varieties. However, I’m also aware that aging has a tendency to soften a cider’s rough edges and bring it into greater balance. Given enough time in the barrel or the bottle, even a cider made from a more ‘extreme’ variety can gradually mellow into something that I find approachable.
Anyway, today I plan to step outside of my fairly conservative comfort zone and taste some youngish ciders made from an apple variety that has a fearsome reputation. If Foxwhelp is the archetypal extremely acidic variety, then Tremlett’s Bitter is perhaps the prime example of an exceptionally tannic apple. The so-called “Beast of Devon” is a bittersweet variety with the emphasis very firmly on bitter, which has tannins so robust that they are often described as brutal. As you can imagine, the prospect of tasting my way through a lineup of Tremlett’s Bitters causes me no little trepidation. Thankfully, I won’t have to run this gauntlet of tannin alone. I have James with me to hold my hand, and he is such a veteran cider critic that no amount of tannin or acid can faze him. Legend has it that he eats raw Tremlett’s Bitter apples for breakfast and washes them down with a pint of freshly pressed Bramley juice. With him by my side, I feel like I can stoically face the oncoming onslaught of astringency. Admittedly, I may need a large glass of water and a lie down after this tannic test of endurance, but I’m sure that James will keep an eye on me while he nonchalantly tastes another ten ciders for his next review.
Between us, we will be tasting four single-variety Tremlett’s Bitter ciders. James will kick off proceedings with Perry’s Tremlett, which is available for £2.90 direct from the producer. He will then taste Ross on Wye’s 2015 vintage Tremlett’s Bitter S.V.C, a 750ml bottle of which can be yours for £10 from The Cat In The Glass.
I’ll pick up the baton with my reviews of Bushel & Peck’s 2019 vintage ‘Fourfer’, which I bought from Orchard Explorers Club for £3.35, and Barley Wood’s Tremlett’s Bitter, which I acquired for £3.75 from The Cat In The Glass. Adam has already reviewed the Barley Wood expression here, and he was so effusive in his praise for it that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to taste and review it myself.
Perry’s Cider – Tremlett (5.9%)
How I served: In the fridge for 1 hour or so before serving in a chalice glass.
On the nose: Green apples, with cured meat and smoke (which are both very typical of Tremlett’s; see our Apple and Pear Varieties by taste). There is a hint of H2S, but it dissipates very quickly. There’s a bit of a seaside character with saltwater and seaweed. It has a youthful greenness to it as well, like mown grass or overgrown gardens.
In the mouth: At first it feels tart, edgy and almost acidic; those tannins are very young and harsh. Then you get a boat load of green apple skins and dried apples. This is followed by some bitter citrus pith. The finish is chalky in texture and fairly dry, actually. It’s got a freshness to it where those green vegetation notes translate to the palate. I’ve loved Perry’s from the first time I tried it, but this vintage has lost some of the smoothness that the previous one had. I’m going to keep a bottle for a year and see if perhaps a little more time can bring that back.
In a nutshell: It’s good, but it needs a little more time, preferably in tank before being bottled.
Ross on Wye Cider and Perry – Tremletts Bitter S.V.C. 2015 (6%)
How I served it: In the fridge for 1 hour or so, before serving in a sommelier glass.
On the nose: Very different to the Perry’s, much more of the smokehouse, cured meat and dried apples. Again there’s a whiff of H2S, but it dissipates, perhaps a quirk of this variety as these two are produced with totally different methods. That seaside essence of salty air is there, but then there’s lots of green wood, like freshly snapped branches.
In the mouth: Smooth, smokey and slatey (all the S’s) and actually a bit salty/brine like. Definitely getting that cured meat vibe. Whereas the Perry’s is youthful and a bit edgy, this has matured into a rounded punch of ripe tannins. A lot more body and complexity here. The apple is grown up and the finish is chalky, chewy and dry as a bone.
In a nutshell: Age has smoothed this rugged beast into a handsome devil.
A word of caution with the Ross: I’m aware that not all bottles have fully conditioned yet, so if you buy it, give it a month or two. It’ll take the edge off the H2S as well.
I think this pair perfectly illustrates the effects of time on tannins. Tremlett’s Bitter is a punchy apple and while the common threads of the flavour are woven into both of these drinks, those chalky bitter tannins definitely work better given the time to soften. Cider making is an art, no doubt about it, but there are a couple of key decisions that have to be made that have the most fundamental effects on the final cider. One of those is time, and those in a rush sometimes create something a bit edgy, unpolished, a little rough around the edges, but also probably fresher, leaner and more youthful. Leave the right variety long enough, however, and you can create something softer and more complex. The real skill lies in knowing which varieties it works for and how long to leave it. I have to say though, I remember hearing a lot in my early cider exploring days that cider doesn’t age well and shouldn’t be left in tank or bottle for too long. Au contraire, is what I say to that.
Bushel & Peck – ‘Fourfer’ (Tremlett’s Bitter) 2019 (6.7%)
How I served: Cellar temperature (roughly 13℃) in a Teku-style glass.
Appearance: Deep, dark amber. Low to moderate carbonation. Almost perfectly clear, with hardly any sediment.
On the nose: An absolute fruit bomb. You would struggle to find a more generous or opulent nose than this. The fruit isn’t particularly complex or multifaceted – there are no lychees or dragon fruits here, but the depth and intensity of the juicy, ripe red apple are really quite astounding. The aromas billow from the glass, carrying an impression of caramelised sweetness that reminds me of tarte tatin. There are hints of fresh tobacco, autumn leaves and moist earth, along with the tiniest whiff of wood smoke.
In the mouth: Compared to the voluptuous nose, the palate initially seems quite lean and muscular. This cider performs a fascinating bait and switch, in which the dominance of thunderous fruit on the nose is overturned in favour of wet earth and dry leaves, strong black tea and a touch of farmyard in the mouth. The woody tannins are assertive, but stop short of being aggressive. Rather than punching me in the mouth, they gradually creep up on me, developing a palate-numbing, anaesthetic quality, much like chewing on a clove. I find the sensation quite enjoyable, although I imagine that some others might not. Objectively speaking, there is a little sugar here, but the autumnal flavours and drying tannins cause me to perceive the cider as savoury and almost bone-dry. This effect is enhanced by a slight salinity, which reminds me of Vichy mineral water.
At first, the sumptuous fruit lies trapped beneath the surface, struggling to fully reveal itself. It feels somewhat buried under the fallen leaves and dulled by torpefying tannin. This cider is not so much a steel fist in a velvet glove as a joyfully exuberant puppy trapped in a steel cage. But as the cider slowly warms in my glass, the fruit becomes more expressive, offering short bursts of the richness and ripeness promised by the nose. The puppy bounds forth and briefly frolics, but remains a bit ungainly and uncoordinated in its movements.
In a nutshell: This is a powerful and flavour-packed expression of Tremlett’s Bitter, but I think that the fruit and tannin need some time to integrate fully.
Barley Wood Orchard – Tremlett’s Bitter Non-Vintage (6.5%)
How I served: Cellar temperature (roughly 13℃) in a Teku-style glass.
Appearance: Bright gold, with moderate to high carbonation. Completely clear, with the merest trace of sediment at the bottom of the bottle.
On the nose: Much lighter, brighter, and less caramelised than the Bushel & Peck. The aromas occupy a higher octave, singing tenor to the Fourfer’s basso profundo. The apple is yellow and crisp rather than red and mellow, and it’s lifted by zesty citrus and complemented by a touch of barley sugar. The cask influence is noticeable, but by no means overpowering. I get vanillins and lactones from the oak, alongside the light grassiness and fresh-fruitedness of Speyside single malt.
In the mouth: Compared to the Bushel & Peck, this is surprisingly delicate. There is some of the mouth-tingling tannin that seems characteristic of Tremlett’s Bitter, but it feels softer, rounder and better integrated. It merges with the slight heat from the whisky to produce a mild numbing sensation on the tongue, which somehow doesn’t detract from the cider’s overall elegance and finesse. Apple, lemon and new-mown hay sing in harmony with oaky whisky and perfumed vanilla, while supple acidity brightens the bone-dry finish. But the most distinctive and intriguing thing about this cider is the array of savoury and mineral flavours that gradually unfold. With its earth and wet stones, graphite and iron ore, I honestly wouldn’t bat an eyelid if I was told that it had been aged in a mineshaft. I know that this sounds rather odd, yet the overall effect isn’t jarring or discordant. The oak and minerals never threaten to overwhelm the fruit, but rather serve as seasonings that contribute complexity and enhance the apple and citrus.
This cider is the best of all worlds. It has the tannic structure of a well-aged Nebbiolo, the intricate minerality of a dry Mosel Riesling and the vanillin-suffused, yellow-fruited warmth of a good Glenfiddich or Glenmorangie. It miraculously manages to be fresh and dry, sweet and savoury all at once. It makes the strongest possible case for the marriage of cider and cask, technique and time.
In a nutshell: I have yet to taste a better Tremlett’s Bitter: this is one of the best dry, bottle-conditioned ciders that I have drunk this year.
This tasting of Tremlett’s Bitters has come as a surprise to me. I was expecting an uphill struggle against a mountain of tannins, but neither of these ciders was unpalatably astringent. If anything, my lasting impression of Tremlett’s Bitter will be of autumnal phenolics, complex minerality and firm structure, rather than any sense of overly aggressive abrasiveness.
Bushel & Peck’s ‘Fourfer’ currently strikes me as a cider with split personalities.. While one wraps you in a warm, friendly bear hug, the other remains rather stern and tight-lipped. The effect is a little disconcerting, like hearing that the life and soul of the party has joined a monastery and taken a vow of silence.
However, many of the most impressive red wines begin their lives like this, and I therefore strongly suspect that this cider’s present awkwardness is merely a matter of age and potential. A great young Bordeaux or Barolo can come across as rather disjointed and austere, but it will gradually mellow into something quite magical. Over time, the tannins will integrate with the fruit to form a well-balanced and unified whole. Of course, some wines and ciders are terminally unbalanced, but I don’t think that this applies to Bushel & Peck’s ‘Fourfer’. For one thing, the fruit is so ripe and full that it is almost certain to come to the fore as the powerful tannins begin to recede with age. Secondly, the tannin itself is pronounced but well-managed and doesn’t feel harsh or coarse. In a couple of years, I have no doubt that this cider will be very impressive indeed. If you really can’t wait to open it, then I recommend that you fire up the barbecue and pair it with a great big steak. Red meat cries out for a drink with tannic grip, and the ‘Fourfer’ will answer that call as well as any red wine.
I think that the Barley Wood is ready to drink now and that you should buy as many bottles as you can find, because it’s an outstanding expression of Tremlett’s Bitter and a stupendous bargain to boot. It achieves an impeccable balance between fruit and cask and the only extreme thing about it is its level of complexity. Adam has already discussed the benefits of oak barrel aging at some length in his article on Ross on Wye’s 2019 releases, but I’d like to add a few remarks about the impact of oak on tannins. I find this a fascinating topic, because it’s so weirdly paradoxical.
The effects of barrel aging on tannins are determined by two opposing forces: On the one hand, oak barrels soften tannins through micro-oxygenation. Oak is slightly porous and allows minute amounts of air to enter the barrel. Once in the barrel, the oxygen gradually interacts with the tannins in the cider, making them softer and more supple. On the other hand, however, oak contains its own tannins, which gradually leach into the cider while it remains in contact with the wood. Barrel aging can hence make a cider seem both more and less tannic at one and the same time!
Striking a good balance between these opposing forces is no easy task. There are numerous factors to consider: Older barrels will have already leached some of their tannins into the liquids that they previously held, so they will contribute less tannin to cider than newer barrels, while nonetheless allowing micro-oxygenation to take place. Smaller barrels allow for greater surface contact between wood and cider, and therefore contribute more tannins than larger barrels. And French oak has a tighter grain pattern than American oak, meaning that air enters a Cognac barrel more slowly than a Bourbon barrel. Moreover, some apple varieties seem to be more suited to extended barrel aging than others. Acid-led aromatic or neutral varieties such as Discovery, Falstaff or Bramley can easily be overwhelmed by the tannins from an oak barrel, whereas more robust, tannic varieties like Tremlett’s Bitter can often withstand more oak influence.
Given the complexity of these interacting variables, I consider it a minor miracle that some cider makers are able to successfully use barrel aging to soften tannins and enhance fruit. Last autumn, I pressed and fermented my first ever batch of cider. I was tempted to age some of it in a small oak barrel, but I am sufficiently aware of my limitations as a very inexperienced and amateur cider maker to conclude that I would probably mess it up. The fact that some cider makers get the balance right is a testament to their skill and their devotion to their craft. Ultimately, the best barrel-aged ciders show us how nature and nurture can come together to form a harmonious whole that exceeds the sum of its parts. Barley Wood’s Tremlett’s Bitter is one such cider, but I’m willing to wager that in a few years’ time, the ‘Fourfer’ might give it a run for its money.