Are there any counties in the UK without a cidermaker now? I wouldn’t have thought so – and certainly not in England. As Gabe Cook’s upcoming Modern British Cider will no doubt reaffirm, more or less anywhere there are apple trees there’s someone with a few buckets, a press and an empty vat or two looking to do the Lord’s work.
Naturally, the bulk that we’ve reviewed in these digital annals have come from the most prominent cider counties, Herefordshire, Somerset and Devon. (We’re probably a little way behind where we ought to be in our Kent coverage, but our new man on the ground, Chris, should be putting that right in short order). But looking through my records I’ve reviewed ciders and perries from some fifteen counties now, not including those in Scotland and Wales, and I think that’s testimony to the increasing interconnectedness of the UK’s cider community and (tellingly) increased presence of ciders from lower-production counties on the websites of educated online cider retailers.
It has never been easier (indeed previously it has barely been possible) to just stick a bottle or two from, say, Lancashire, into one mixed case along with something from Berkshire, Cornwall, Sussex, Yorkshire and Gloucestershire and in so doing taste your way orchard by orchard though the output of the whole country. Practical broad cider education is so far ahead of where it once was, and that’s a truly marvellous thing.
One county whose ciders have thus far slipped through Cider Review’s net is Nottinghamshire, a place for which I have the highest affection, having spent four years at University in Nottingham. Indeed it was almost certainly in Nottingham – at the annual Robin Hood Beer and Cider Festival – that I would have had my first taste of full-juice cider, though what it was (or indeed how much I liked it) is something lost in the nebula of time. It didn’t, I’m afraid to say, turn me from my then-more-regular poisons c/o Bulmer’s and Magner’s.
Blue Barrel have, for several years, been pressing apples and making cider just a stone’s throw away from where my liver did much of its formative conditioning. (I can’t find a specific date on which they started, so whether I could have stumbled across them in my Nottingham days I couldn’t tell you.) The cidery was born out of the Summerwood Community Garden and like many urban cideries gets much of its fruit from overlooked orchards and gardens in the local area.
Their website puts conservation firmly in the foreground, outlining the hundreds of trees they’ve planted in and around Nottingham, and even kindly providing a link to James’ wonderful article on this site on the worth of orchards. (Like James, Blue Barrel’s Emma Jordan is a winner of the Jean Nowell Bursary, an incentive set up by the Three Counties Cider and Perry Association to support small cidermakers). The name Blue Barrel is a nod to the plastic fermentation and maturation vessel beloved of makers the length and breadth of the country and their ciders are full juice, fermented with wild yeast and bottled without artificial colouring or flavouring.
I’ve three in front of me today, all packaged in 500ml bottles which I bought from The Cat in the Glass for £3.60 apiece. First up is Clifton Beauty, a still, medium blend of Dabinett, Blenheim Orange and “scrumped desserts”. (Blending bittersweet apples with sweets and sharps is going to prove a theme through this tasting). It’s a 2019 vintage, charmingly expressed on the label through “born on” followed by what I assume to be the date of pressing.
Blue Barrel Clifton Beauty Medium Still – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Appearance: Brass. Still.
On the nose: The blend of Dabinett and scrumped sharps is in good evidence here. A tight nose individually, that relaxes significantly as it warms. Nettles, grasses and dandelion stalk tones give way and some of the Dabinett richness unfurls in peach yoghurt and tangerine skin. A gentle nose but certainly a pleasant one.
In the mouth: Juicy! Sweetness is not excessive at all and is balanced by some supple, gently-drying tannins which get pithier the longer they last in your mouth. Fleshy Dabinett fruit is more dominant here than on the nose, but the meadowy, floral touches of the eaters add a high-toned freshness. Totally clean. Very nice.
In a nutshell: Juicy and fresh enough for approachability with enough tannin to make you take your time. For some reason I feel I’d especially love this in a sunny pub beer garden!
Next up is Sherwood Blend, another marriage of bittersweets and sharps, this time in the form of mighty Ashton Bitter with Devon’s tangy Tom Putt and, again, “scrumped desserts”. Like the Clifton Beauty it’s medium and still and from the 2019 vintage.
Blue Barrel Sherwood Blend Medium Still – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Appearance: Deeper bronze. Still.
On the nose: Those nettley, dandelion-stem eating-apple high notes are still there, but the aromas beneath are darker, deeper, more overtly ‘apple-juicey’ than Clifton Beauty’s. Husky, leather, forest floor. An autumnal cider. Just the right side of having seen a touch too much oxygen for my taste, I think.
In the mouth: Same story as the nose. Deep, juicy. Toffee apple, dried leaves. Again a good level of supple tannin – very well managed given the Ashton Bitter component – balances the trace sweetness well. Medium bodied. It’s all quite mellow and harmonised – nice marriage of freshness and depth. A whisper of mustiness, but no more than that.
In a nutshell: Easy-going cider for an Autumn evening.
Last up is Smoking Barrels, which unlike its predecessors has been aged not only in plastic but in oak – in this instance former Speyside Whisky casks. (‘Brown Barrel Cider’, if you like.) Intriguingly, the apples selected sit at a lighter end of the spectrum from the bittersweets chosen for the other two – Michelin and Black Dabinett lining up beside, you guessed it, more “scrumped desserts”. We’ve moved into Medium Dry for this one, but again it’s a still 2019.
Blue Barrel Smoking Barrels Medium Dry Still – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Appearance: Deep Gold. Still.
On the nose: The barrel is certainly there, but by no means to excess – a brush of honey and vanilla and whisky atop the fruit. Real freshness and energy. Soft apple, yellow skins and a lot of those meadowy florals. In fact despite the oak I’d say this is the highest-toned yet.
In the mouth: Super floral. Gorse, heather. Juicy, though the step up in dryness is noticeable. Yellow apple skins. Beeswax. More honey from the barrel. A little woodiness. Well contained, lightly grippy tannins at a lighter level than the other two. Slightly leaner-bodied but the tension and brightness and energy are great, despite acidity being low.
In a nutshell: Like this a lot. A great “walk outdoors” sort of cider.
So nice to finally make my way through the Blue Barrel range. Looking at my handwritten notes (somehow even more chaotic than what gets typed up) the words I find myself repeating are things like “nice”, “clean”, “easy-going”. All of which sounds a bit faint-praise, but the truth is that these are just very pleasant ciders which I would happily pour for anyone and would want to sip over a long afternoon at a very good pub.
They are an excellent, classic showcase for the marriage of bittersweets and eaters, and I can see myself buying them again on sight. You don’t want all your ciders to be huge, or shock-and-awe. You don’t want to put everything you drink under a microscope and dissect it to the nth degree. Sometimes you want to just sit back with a glass of something really straightforwardly tasty and just feel the weight slip off your shoulders a bit. And these Blue Barrels are perfect for that. I like Clifton Beauty and Smoking Barrels particularly.
One final postscript – after all their years making cider in Nottinghamshire, Emma and Leo are upping sticks and making for Cambridgeshire. I gather they’ll be pressing apples from both counties in the future, which will make for an absolutely fascinating comparison. But I’m glad I got to try their Blue Barrel Notts stuff (just) before they headed south. Just wish I’d come across it ten years ago!