It’s ‘T’ time again, readers; today I want to talk about transparency.
We’ve banged on about transparency a good few times in our digital annals, perhaps most vociferously in this piece from August last year. It’s a subject dear to the hearts of both halves of our editorial team and which informs almost everything we write – indeed James has been penning wisdom on the subject since before I ever started writing about cider and perry; this, published on Crafty Nectar over three years ago, is as relevant today as it was then.
Transparency matters. For a start, given how many websites of craft/real/aspirational cider dedicate inches to railing against the low juice content of the macro producers, it is incumbent on them to show their own better practice by clearly listing the ingredients they are using themselves. Not least because, in the time since James wrote his piece, the biggest brands have begun displaying ingredients on cans and bottles.
Consumers, more openly than ever before, care about the contents of the food and drink they are consuming. Perhaps not all consumers, but a significant enough proportion that producers should be endeavouring to furnish as much information as possible, and in as clear a way as possible. In his recent Herefordshire book launch at Ross on Wye, Gabe Cook pointed out that there is still a grim tendency to use deliberately misleading language in cider. “Made from 100% Herefordshire apples”, for instance, to imply that apples are the only constituents of the drink. Flip the “from” and the “100%” and we’ll talk.
As I said last year, if craft cider has aspirations to be considered across the board as a higher quality category than it currently is, the absolute minimum requirement is absolute clarity as to what has gone into the drink. It’s all very well to point out that wines generally don’t state “made from 100% grapes” on the label – wine, at this point, doesn’t need to. It has achieved what Gabe calls high value perception, and there is sufficient consumer confidence in the contents of any given bottle, even if behind the vinous scenes, certain things are added to certain wines that would absolutely give the average customer at least a moment’s pause for thought.
So much for transparency at the most fundamental level. But cidermakers, increasingly, are aiming commendably higher than that. “Fine cider” has entered, if not common parlance, then at least more widespread conversation than it was once a feature of. It may still be a somewhat nebulous concept, one that raises pulses in certain quarters and on which I doubt there will ever be even close to complete consensus. But it is a description that has now been picked up by national broadsheets, and as I’ve argued here a few times before, as a basic concept – the idea that some ciders are made to a higher level, with more time and care and resultant quality than others – it is all but irrefutable.
But with the acceptance of the concept of “fineness” and its attachment to particular bottles and producers comes an associated responsibility for those producers to show their working. Partly for the reasons stated in the opening paragraphs (though most of these producers are already more or less entirely transparent about their juice content), partially because these bottles are asking the customer to spend more of their own money and partially because there is an increasing body of interested cider lovers who, quite simply, would like to know.
This last point comes, admittedly, with a judicious squeeze of self-entitlement. There’s no moral onus on the producer to go into more than the most basic details; in asking them to do so I am acting entirely out of shameless self-interest. “Tell me as much as you can, not because I personally need the information, but because I would quite like it, please and thank you.”
But the world of cider conversation has changed. Autodidacticism from the sofa is now open to the internet-literate drinker to a degree that was all but impossible even a few years ago. When I started learning about cider (and I was at least a couple of years behind James) a significant amount of legwork was a requisite. There weren’t the same online mixed case retailers that have changed the landscape so brilliantly today. More often than not you had to visit cideries, or at least their immediate region, to be able to buy particular bottles. Establishing what a Dabinett or a Foxwhelp or an Egremont Russet might taste like required you to hunt down several and try them for yourselves – with no guarantee that any given one would be to your taste. Although some excellent consumer-facing blogs existed (I’m thinking particularly of Along Came a Cider, The Cider Blog and Cider Pages here, and especially of Andy May’s superlative and much-missed Cider Sleuth) the majority of information online was practical advice for makers and orchardists, rather than gustatory guidance for the curious drinker.
The lively and growing discussion that has grown from the increased online presence of makers and drinkers has cultivated an environment wherein anyone taking their first steps into cider has the opportunity to quickly roadmap their preferences based on easily-available information and to avail themselves of an array of bottles from a nationally broad range of producers made in different styles and from different fruit. The sort of interested conversations that have long been features of beer and wine are happening more and more often. Again, this isn’t to say that they didn’t happen at all previously – cider has been championed for decades by hard-working and passionate advocates and makers – but they have never been as public or between as many people as they are today.
The modern cider drinker has favourite makers, varieties, styles and flavours. They might discuss differences between vintages; the structural elegance of 2017 (and, I increasingly suspect, 2020), or the full-hearted richness of 2018, perhaps. They know their Dabinetts from their Discoveries and drink each one depending on the occasion, the time of year and the food with which they are accompanying it. They have opinions on their preferred sorts of apples for traditional method ciders and they are keen to compare French keeves with English counterparts. They are interested in the varieties with long ageing potential as well as those which demand to be drunk young and fresh and coursing with joyful life. They have the utmost respect for blending, especially when they can see the role various different parts have played. They cherish immediacy and intensity as much as balance and composure and look for each one at different times and for different reasons. Their recycling bin might feature dry Foxwhelp clanking beside a Norman Méthode Ancestrale, an Ice Cider and a co-fermentation.They can see, in short, just how remarkably wide and wonderful the world of cider is (not to mention perry) and they are keen to keep on filling the blank space in their own personal map.
If you are a producer who is interested in making cider as aspirationally as possible, who is putting so much time and care and blood and sweat and tears into your product, this development should be a thing to fill your heart with gladness. Here, for the first time, is a visibly-broadening group of people with whom immediate contact is possible and who are desperate to hear anything you have to tell them about all the steps, ingredients and effort that have gone into your labours of love. And the more you tell them, the more of their admiration you will win, the more of your cider they will buy and the more they will be able to (and probably want to) tell all their friends as well. There are very few downsides to this approach, and I suspect that the small amount of additional time it takes out of your day will be repaid many times over both financially and in reputation.
Just under a year ago I reviewed a pair of ciders from a Devon producer called Smith Hayne. And I liked them a great deal. In fact I liked them so much that I included one of them in my year-end ‘Essential Case’, and went back and forth for considerable time before picking it over the other. In the composing of that initial piece I was able to glean a reasonable amount about those two ciders. I could see that the ‘red spot’ Special Reserve was a keeve and the ‘yellow spot’ Méthode Traditionnelle a … well … méthode traditionnelle. By peeking on the website I further discovered the apple varieties each had been made from, and eye-catchingly ascertained that both came from precisely the same varieties. I was coloured most intrigued, and wrote the entirety of the preamble on that premise: the idea that different methods could produce entirely different ciders from exactly the same juice. (Which, incidentally, is very much the case).
After I had published the piece, William Chambers, who is one half of the Smith Hayne team, alongside Anna, got in touch to clarify some details. Accompanied by an extraordinarily in-depth technical break-down he explained that, despite what was written online, the ciders were actually made from very different blends of apples, and not the same base juice at all. The Special Reserve was not just a keeve, but was a keeve blended with some dry cider to induce a little more structure and complexity. The Méthode Traditionnelle was made with a higher proportion of sharper fruit, to compliment the drier, fizzier style that the method induces. To an obsessive like me, those details added additional layers of interest to the ciders. But without those details I had gone into my review, and my tasting of the ciders, without their full context.
In the last year, William and Anna have increased the detail available on their bottles and website to a degree that has been frankly astonishing. The descriptions of the ciders I reviewed last year now include full breakdowns of varieties, methods and the various components that make up the blends. What’s more, all of the labels on bottles they have released since have carried this degree of transparency too. William and Anna have become a bigger part of the online conversation, were present at the recent Cider Salon in August and deservedly featured in Gabe’s Modern British Cider. And guess what? More cider fans I know are talking enthusiastically about them and are openly drinking their creations. The increased awareness of this excellent cidery has been a delight to see, and so much of it comes down to the openness with which they have presented their products, and the concomitant interest that openness has instilled. The marker that William and Anna have laid down and the distance they have gone above and beyond the minimum requirement is, in my opinion, truly inspirational.
The net result, in addition to the quality of those 2018s, is that Smith Hayne are one of the handful of cideries whose new releases will instantly generate “look, look” texts between James and myself. So I am very excited (and James is very jealous) that I have no fewer than six new (and new-ish) Smith Haynes to try today.
The first trio are the 2019 iterations of their core range, two of which I reviewed last year. At this point I should draw your attention to the Smith Hayne website, where you will find all three discussed with the aforementioned minutiae of detail. First up is the ‘Green Spot’ Vintage 2019, made with a blend of 75% keeved and 25% non-keeved cider from nine varieties, of which 50% were Dabinett and Yarlington Mill. If you can’t make it directly to the cidery, you can buy this from Cat in the Glass for £8.95 per 750ml bottle, from Pullo or from Fram Ferment. At the time of writing it’s listed as out of stock on Scrattings, but they may well get more in.
The Reserve – note, not ‘Special Reserve’, as William wants to save that title for the truly epic vintages, a touch that I absolutely love – has both a higher proportion of keeved cider (83%) as well as a higher percentage of the burliest bittersweets, Dabinett, Yarlington Mill and Tremletts, which are bolstered only by Browns. Cat in the Glass has this one for £11, or it’s a tenner from Pullo and Scrattings.
The Méthode Traditionnelle is a similar blend to last year, though its proportion of Tremlett’s Bitter is down, and the percentage of sweet and sharp fruit is up. It had seven months on its lees before disgorgement after secondary fermentation and was given a dosage of 12.5 g/l, which, for those interested, is 0.5% higher than the maximum allowed for the Brut designation in Champagne. Currently I can only see the 2019 on Cat in the Glass, where it’s £11.50 a bottle, but my experience is that updated vintage listings can be patchy among cider retailers, so it’s always worth asking around, should Cat in the Glass be sold out when you look. (Though I don’t imagine they will be).
The second trio – all from 2020 – are entirely new to the Smith Hayne range and, at the time of writing, not yet listed online, but due to appear in around a month. (Full disclosure, I was sent samples of these three, for which thank you William and Anna). First up is an addition to the Spot range, in this case a Purple Spot made specifically from late season varieties, predominantly Dabinett (41%) Harry Masters’ Jersey (18%) Chisel Jersey (12.5%) and Porter’s Perfection (16%). With 85% keeved cider in its makeup, this is at face value along similar lines to the 2019 Special Reserve, but with Yarlington Mill largely substituted for other varieties (I imagine biennialism played a part here). 1000 bottles have been made, and I suspect all of the aforementioned sites will get an allocation.
Varieties are simpler in the second of the new bottlings, a one-off 100% keeve that is a blend of 80% Harry Masters’ Jersey with 20% Porter’s Perfection. This one is, I’m told, on the niche side, with only 70 bottles in existence, destined for Pullo and Cat in the Glass. Again, at the time of writing they’ve not yet appeared on either, but keep your eye out and your finger on the buzzer.
Last of all is a still, dry blend, which again features Harry Masters’ as the dominant variety, buttressed by Tremlett’s Bitter, Dabinett, Yarlington Mill, Porter’s Perfection, Browns and Chisel Jersey in percentages featured on the label, pictured below. Like the other two in the new trio, it’ll be launching in a month or so, and is a run of 500 bottles which I dare say all the retailers above will want at least a few of. This represents both the first still cider I’ve had from Smith Hayne as well as the first with a completely dry specific gravity of 1.000 or below (in this case 0.998). And, since it’s a point that can’t be repeated often enough, look at that combination of gorgeous label and level of detail made immediately available. As a low-attention-span shelf-scanner, my eye is instantly caught and as a card-carrying drinks wonk in general and cider wonk in particular my interest is snared too. Even if I had never come across Smith Hayne ever before – indeed, even if I wasn’t a dedicated cider fan – I would be intrigued by this bottle. I would want to try this cider.
So let’s get on with it, shall we?
Smith Hayne Vintage 2019 – review
How I served: Medium-chilled
Appearance: Hazy copper. Big mousse.
On the nose: One of those juicy-earthy, early-autumn ciders, its aromas shifting, like leaves, through green to yellow. Waxy apple skins, forest floor. A little savoury brett. Yellow and green apple juice. Apricot skins. Aromatically I feel in last-couple-of-vintages Artistraw territory, which is usually a good thing in my book.
In the mouth: Has the classic Smith Hayne ‘iron cut’ – that light tang of new pennies or nails which adds a refreshing bitterness on the finish that I feel beer fans would enjoy. More green and yellow than orange in the expression of its fruit, which I feel reflects the vintage as much as it does the varieties in the makeup. (Though someone will tell me that’s confirmation bias, I’m sure). A nice lifting zip from the Browns. Medium-bodied, and the creamy fizz doesn’t intrude at all. We are in very classic Norman territory here – apple skins, earthiness, light sweetness balanced by structural grip.
In a nutshell: A good all-rounder with lots to chew over.
Smith Hayne Méthode Traditionnelle 2019 – review
How I served: As above.
Appearance: Bright mid-gold. Fine mousse.
On the nose: More overtly fruity than the vintage (and, I think than 2018, though I don’t have the latter to side-by-side). We’re into oranges and lemons here, with more emphasis on that second part, and on peels and oils more than juice and flesh. A coil of smoke and an unusual note almost of plasticine, which I don’t know that I’ve encountered on a cider before, but which in a rather odd way, somehow works. A touch of juniper.
In the mouth: Bright, sinewy, taut and with a lovely structural balance. Very reminiscent of its predecessor vintage. The orange spritzes and light tannin remind you there are some bulky bittersweets in the blend, but the yellow citrus, coil of garrigue herbs and rasp of green apple keep it elegant, fresh and bracing. A light touch of saline dough. Lovely mousse.
In a nutshell: Reminds me of what I loved about the 2018. One of the smartest traditional method buys in cider as well as one of the best and most versatile food pairers. Super job.
Smith Hayne Reserve 2019 – review
How I served: Lightly-chilled.
Appearance: Mid-copper. Big mousse. (A recurring theme)
On the nose: Deeper, richer and duskier in its aromatics than the Vintage, if not as booming and enormous as the 2018 Special Reserve was. Lots of orange juiciness with deep apple and a little of the classic, musky, Christmassy Yarlington Mill spice. Fruit is clear and juicy and, for a 2019 (that bias again…) expresses admirable ripeness. Great selection.
In the mouth: A real fruit-bomb. Big, juicy, fresh oranges, peaches and apple juice. Touches of cinnamon – even a blushing redness, though it feels more red apple skins than red berries. A little Victoria plum and ginger. Big, plush tannins which the hefty body and dab of sweetness wrap up. The Browns keeps everything fresh and light on its feet.
In a nutshell: It may not be the Special Reserve, but it’s a gorgeous juice-forward treat that’s a delight on its own merit.
Smith Hayne Late Season Blend 2020 – review
How I served: As above.
Appearance: Rich copper. Slightly less fizz, though still a good bit.
On the nose: Not as aromatic as the Reserve, or as overtly juicy, but sings from a similar hymn sheet. Orange skin. A wood-spice musk. Waxy apricots. A little of the Vintage’s dusky forest floor. A light smear of sulphur that perhaps needs a few more months to blow off. A burly, bittersweet nose.
In the mouth: Juicier on the palate. Loads of orange and stone fruit – both fresh and dried. Big, tannic grip with a seam of pithy bitterness on the finish and a good dab of sweetness. This is one to allow time to open up, and to serve with rich, hearty food.
In a nutshell: Concentrated, brooding, autumnal cider for cold nights and hearthside sipping.
Smith Hayne Harry Masters’ Jersey 2020 – review
How I served: Lightly-chilled, again.
Appearance: Burnished gold. Bright mousse.
On the nose: The most overtly apple-juicy yet, though in an incredibly clean, pure way and which has captured the character of its dominant variety perfectly. Waxy yellow fruit, honeysuckle, apricot – getting quite tropical – marzipan. A big, aromatic keeved HMJ nose.
In the mouth: The sweetest yet, but brightened and refreshed by the Porter’s and with a big, grippy Harry Masters’ tannic rasp underneath all that sweet, juicy, super-pure fruit. Massive apricot, yellow apple skins, honeysuckle, lemon rind and vanilla. Big, flavourful, exuberant and structured. Full of sunshine. The mineral, metallic finish urges another sip.
In a nutshell: One for the sweeter-toothed, but a smashing HMJ keeve that has showcased this apple’s best characters and kept tight rein on its more pugnacious ones.
Smith Hayne Dry Still 2020 – review
How I served: Room temperature.
Appearance: Burnished bronze.
On the nose: That’s a deep, dusky, phenolic bruiser of a bittersweet nose and no messing around. Blood orange, deep apple, forest floor, saddle leather. Lots of dried herbs. Dried pine needle too. Has juice and savouriness, depth and pith and woody, musky perfume. Cider’s answer to a rich Belgian beer (though only in its ‘energy’, if that makes sense – the actual notes are nothing alike).
In the mouth: BIG, broad-shouldered, pithy, no-prisoners tannins. A prop forward of a cider. There is a hefty orange-yellow juiciness too, but it’s super-concentrated. This liquid is keen to emphasise that over half of its makeup is HMJ and Tremlett’s Bitter. Woody spice, waxiness, orange oil, more leather and then in crash those pithy, pine-resinous tannins and the ‘iron cut’ across the finish.
In a nutshell: This is a brilliant, well-built and defined cider which will age tremendously BUT ought to either be given that ageing time or, if drunk young, decanted or served with high-protein food to soften its tannic intensity.
Six very different ciders, but running through all of them is a structural, textural theme that is a celebration of the bittersweets of South West England. These are ciders for food, for mulling over, for consideration and time. As much as they speak to their method, they speak more to their apples and to their place. (Note I’m talking region here, not terroir – another t-word for another article).
For my money, the Late Season Blend and the Dry Still could do with some more time in the bottle, if you can bear to afford them it, the latter particularly. Indeed all of these ciders (with the possible exception of the Vintage 2019) have at least a few years of ageing potential I think, though the Reserve 2019 and Harry Masters’ Jersey 2020 are fulsome and expressive already.
Whilst I wouldn’t be so reckless as to come up with a “best” ten cideries in the country, this tasting confirms that if I were to compile a list of my ten favourites, Smith Hayne would certainly feature. If they aren’t on your own radar already, I hope this article puts them there.
Many thanks to William and Anna for the samples of the 2020 vintage bottlings. As ever, our editorial control and tasting notes remain unaffected by such generosity.