As a cider writer with no other role in the cider industry besides that of customer, I tend to have a rather rose-tinted view of cider production. I am seduced by the romantic allure of artisanal cider; by dreamlike images of gnarled tree trunks in ancient orchards, rosy apples gleaming in the autumn sunlight and golden elixir slumbering in old oak barrels. My writing is often an attempt to paint pictures of cider making as an intimate relationship between humans and nature, rooted in enduring tradition and the shifting of the seasons.
Sometimes, it’s worth taking a step back from our idealisations to better take stock of the reality of things. When I adopt a more detached and objective standpoint, I realise that although the pictures that my words paint aren’t entirely false, they are certainly one-sided. Artisanal cider production is tiring, laborious work. Having dabbled with making my own cider, with varying degrees of success, I am at least somewhat aware of the difficulties involved. But I also know that accurate accounts of producers sweating over their cider presses, swatting away hyperactive wasps and getting covered in sticky juice are rather less enchanting than lyrical odes to an Arcadian bliss. I am, after all, in the storytelling business, and I try to write stories that my readers will actually enjoy. I may acknowledge in passing that cider makers are a diligent and hardworking bunch, but for the sake of my readers, I tend to skirt the nitty-gritty details of what the work actually involves. Let’s face it, when you’re thinking about delicious cider, you don’t want to read about piles of rotting pomace or fingers getting sliced open by the scratter. Trying to reflect reality in my cider writing is all very well, but some things are probably best left unsaid.
On occasion, I present the realities of cider making as the honest toil of industrious producers, who sacrifice themselves for the sake of our pleasure. I expect that my readers have a certain respect for skilled manual work. But I try to stick to the rule that if I want people who aren’t in the industry to read my articles, then I should generally avoid discussing cider making as a business. That’s partly due to the fact that I have very little experience of marketing and sales, so I doubt my ability to write well about them, and partly because I have a sneaking suspicion that very few of my readers become dewy-eyed over spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. As I see it, there are two types of readers in this world: those who have to deal with such mundane matters in their professional lives and who therefore don’t want to think about them in their spare time, and those who aren’t in the business world and who probably have very little interest in them to begin with. I therefore feel on much safer ground penning paeans to blossom-laden apple trees and going into reveries over mouth-watering libations than discussing anything that sounds too much like an average day at the office.
Today, I’m going to briefly leave my comfort zone, break my own rule and discuss three commercial factors that all cider producers are obliged to consider at some point in their careers, namely branding, expansion and diversification. I may be a hopeless romantic, but it is an inescapable fact that cider production is a business. While it’s undoubtedly admirable for producers to put their hearts and souls into making the very best ciders possible, the fact of the matter is that their ambitions will be regrettably short-lived if they can’t turn a profit. They therefore have no choice but to think about how they can brand and package their ciders to best appeal to customers, whether they need to hire new staff and plant new orchards, and if they should be offering new product lines to expand their customer base.
A great example of an artisanal producer that has rebranded, expanded and diversified in recent years is Dorset’s Purbeck Cider Company. Founded in 2006, Purbeck has grown from a one-man experiment to a medium-sized cider producer, with several employees, large swathes of orchards and national distribution. By 2015, the company was producing six different ciders, ranging from traditional West Country cider made from bittersweet apple varieties to a modern berry-infused cider. In 2018, Joe Harrison and his team planted 6000 new trees and launched a new website. Their entire product range was rebranded in 2019, and the new packaging, which features eye-catching labels featuring dapperly-dressed animal characters, has proved remarkably popular with customers. In a fiercely competitive market in which many small producers are struggling financially, Purbeck is something of a success story.
So let’s turn our attention to those colourful cans. I sometimes like to think that attractive branding has no effect on me, because I only care about what’s in the can or bottle. I’m probably fooling myself about this. Despite my occasional protestations to the contrary, I can’t honestly claim that I’d rather pour my cider from a plain bottle than from Little Pomona’s or Artistraw’s beautifully designed creations. Besides, those who share my obsessive infatuation with the contents of cider bottles probably form quite a small target market, and cider makers need to appeal to a broader customer base if they are to have any chance of commercial success. With unimaginative branding, they are only preaching to the already converted. Effective branding allows companies to stand out from the competition and attract the interest of new customers.
Some companies in the drinks industry seem to believe that when it comes to branding, all publicity is good publicity. I can certainly think of big names in the natural wine and craft beer worlds that deliberately exploit shock value in their branding. I have no doubt that Jean-François Ganevat is a great winemaker, but I also find that some of his labels cross the line between provocative and plain creepy. Flying Dog’s ‘Raging Bitch’ isn’t a beer that I’d choose to buy, let alone take to a dinner party. From a narrowly commercial perspective, the problem with this kind of branding is that it’s just as likely to alienate as to attract buyers. Inclusive marketing isn’t just morally better than causing unnecessary offence, it also makes more commercial sense. There is, after all, not much point in putting off potential customers. I think that Purbeck’s new branding is instructive in this regard, because it manages to both attract attention and avoid alienating anyone. The designs are bright and attractive without being excessively lurid, and who doesn’t like clever but inoffensive puns and cute animals? Incidentally, I also appreciate the tasting notes and food pairing suggestions provided on the cans and wish that more cider producers would follow this example.
Expansion is a word that strikes fear into the hearts of idealists and romantics. We tend to cleave to the view that small is beautiful, which is unsurprising given that the largest cider producers all seem to make cider from concentrate using industrial methods. However, there is no good reason why craft cider makers who are successfully selling their ciders shouldn’t seek to expand their businesses, and expansion doesn’t always entail industrialisation. Purbeck is one rapidly expanding producer that has maintained its craft ethos, and all of its ciders are full-juice, contain no artificial additives, and are made from apples grown in Dorset orchards. The company is committed to planting new orchards and regenerating old ones, and it has been rewarded for its efforts with several awards. As I see it, this kind of expansion deserves to be celebrated, and serves as proof that artisanal production and commercial success are not necessarily antithetical to one another.
Diversification allows cider companies to gain market share and attract new customers by launching new products. At its most cynical and marketing-led, diversification can involve nothing more than flavouring the same base cider with different artificial flavourings and then selling it as several different flavoured ciders. However, this isn’t the only way in which cider companies can diversify, and having a diverse range of products doesn’t necessarily entail any cynicism or lack of care on the part of the producer. I have no idea exactly how many ciders Ross on Wye currently offers, but I do know that the number is very high. However, I can’t think of another cider company that is more committed to caring for its orchards and using artisanal production methods. Producing so many unique and high-quality ciders has undoubtedly helped Ross on Wye to become one of the UK’s most important and respected cideries. While some cider makers are able to build a successful business by producing a single cider, it is generally true that cideries can maximise their chances of commercial success by producing a variety of ciders that appeal to different customers with different tastes. Many companies have been selling sweet, medium and dry versions of their ciders for quite some time, but these days, forward-thinking cider makers are increasingly producing various single-variety expressions and experimenting with different styles. As a consequence, cider drinkers have never had more choice than they do today.
Purbeck is no exception to the trend towards increasing diversification. Since 2011, it has gradually diversified its cider production and currently has three distinct product lines; the ‘Dorset’ range, the ‘Forgotten Orchard’ range and the ‘Characters’ range, each of which contains several different ciders. A few of these ciders are infused with natural ingredients such as summer berries, mint and mulling spices, but the majority are made solely from apples. Today, I’ll be focusing my attention on ciders in the new ‘Characters’ range, which are not flavoured with any fruit, herbs, or spices and which are intended to appeal to traditional cider enthusiasts.
Disclaimer: The ciders that I’ll be reviewing were kindly provided by Purbeck’s Joe Harrison. As always, this won’t affect my tasting notes and opinions, which remain entirely my own.
Purbeck Cider Company Muddy Scamp 6.8% ABV – review
The first of Purbeck’s products that I’ll be tasting is Muddy Scamp, which is described as a medium-dry and lightly sparkling cider made from a blend of bittersweet apple varieties.
Like all of the ciders and perries that I’ll be reviewing today, this cider is full-juice and was fermented using Champagne yeast. Purbeck’s ‘Characters’ range costs a very reasonable £12 for six 330 ml cans, direct from the producer.
How I served: Very lightly chilled.
Appearance: Golden straw, with moderate carbonation and no sediment.
On the nose: There are inviting wafts of rich baked apple, wet earth and forest floor, with a drizzle of caramel and the merest suggestion of rain on hot asphalt. The aromas are beautifully balanced, deftly combining sweetness with savouriness and fruitiness with minerality.
In the mouth: The luscious tarte tatin, toasty oak and firm, tea-like tannins are all very pleasing, but I find the sweetness rather obtrusive and discordant. For my tastes, this is at the sweeter end of medium rather than the advertised medium-dry, and the sugar doesn’t quite marry with the high tannin and low acidity of the bittersweet fruit. Without sufficient acidity to counterbalance it, the sweetness makes the cider feel a bit heavy and listless. That being said, the base cider itself is undoubtedly well-made and if you have a sweet tooth, then this may well be for you.
In a nutshell: A lovely nose and a fundamentally well-made bittersweet cider, but there’s just too much added sugar for my tastes.
Purbeck Cider Company Dandy Dab 5% ABV – review
Next up, we have Purbeck’s single variety Dabinett cider, which is described as medium.
How I served: Very lightly chilled.
Appearance: Burnished gold, with a tiny touch of chill haze and moderate carbonation.
On the nose: Full, rich and ripe, this is archetypally Dabinett. I’m presented with a dessert trolley of warm apple pie, candied orange peel, vanilla custard and buttery pastry. In the background, there lurks a slightly spicy, almost spirit-like note, which is vaguely reminiscent of high-quality Bourbon.
In the mouth: The palate is significantly less ripe and broad than the nose. The apple pie and orange peel have mutated into green apple skins and bittersweet marmalade. There is noticeable sweetness, but the acidity is just about sufficient to provide refreshment. The texture is very smooth and creamy, gently caressing the tongue. I get a slight tingle of tannin on the finish, but barely any astringency – this is definitely the softer side of Dabinett. If I were being picky, I’d say that this cider could benefit from a bit more concentration, a little more tannin and a touch less sugar, but I find it pleasantly drinkable despite its slightly dilute character.
In a nutshell: A well-balanced, easy-drinking medium Dabinett. For me, it doesn’t quite hit the highest heights that Dabinett can reach, but I’d be eager to taste a drier, full-strength version of this cider.
Purbeck Cider Company Katy & Perry 5.5% ABV – review
The last one of the trio is Katy & Perry, a puntastically-named pider (perry / cider hybrid) made from Katy / Katja apples and a blend of Dorset perry pears.
How I served: Chilled.
Appearance: Pale straw, with moderate carbonation and no sediment.
On the nose: Clean, precise and aromatic. Elderflower and apple blossom unite harmoniously with sweet honeycomb, slight herbal notes and a vibrant hit of freshly grated lime zest. This is bright, inviting, summery fare, which reminds me of the English sparkling wines made from the Bacchus grape variety.
In the mouth: Very sweet, but the sugar is balanced by spritely, sherbert-like acidity, which is strongly reminiscent of Apple Sourz. I get lime cordial, a little gooseberry, crisp green apples and a paper bag full of those sugar-coated sour apple laces that I used to buy from sweet shops as a child. There is no perceptible tannin to interfere with the interplay of sugar and acid, and the overall effect is one of mouth-watering, sweet and sour tanginess.
In a nutshell: A tangfastic walk down the confectionery aisle. Pure, childlike fun for those of us with a sweet tooth.
The three drinks that I tasted today are a far cry from industrial ciders made from concentrate and artificial additives. They are high quality, full-juice ciders without the slightest trace of a fault. They are, however, a bit too heavily sweetened for my tastes. I found that the Katy & Perry and the Dapper Dab stood up to the sugar better than the Muddy Scamp, although that may have something to do with the fact I was nonplussed when the latter turned out to be quite sweet, even though it was described as ‘medium dry’. Of the three, the Katy & Perry was by far my favourite – it has fizzy energy and a sour candy flavour profile, which counterbalances the prominent sweetness very effectively. The Muddy Scamp fell a bit flat for me, while the Dapper Dab is a tasty, medium Dabinett that does what it says on the tin but lacks that intangible ‘wow factor’. I can’t help wondering just how good it would be if it had less added sugar, which tends to clash with the conspicuous tannins of bittersweet apple varieties.
This tasting has also reinforced my view that the terms dry, medium and sweet are too vague and subjective to be fit for purpose. In order for consumers to make informed choices, cider labelling really needs to include clear information about the actual quantities of added sugar or sweetener. James has very eloquently written about this issue in a recent article, so I won’t labour the point too much here, but I think that we are often disappointed when a cider turns out to be significantly sweeter or drier than we anticipated. Let’s face it, no sane person wants to drink bone-dry Foxwhelp with their chocolate mousse or sup some saccharine concoction with their sushi. I think that I may have enjoyed Purbeck’s ciders a little more if I had known in advance that they were all quite sweet and had the opportunity to prepare my palate accordingly.
Having said that, I should probably remind myself of what I wrote in a previous article, namely that “it’s easy to be a purist when it’s not your livelihood on the line”. Many cider writers often like to champion ‘natural’ cider as the purest expression of what cider can be, but we shouldn’t forget that there is a substantial market for sweetened ciders. Ultimately I’d much rather that this market was served by the likes of Purbeck than by the industrial giants. I also think that there’s a place in the world for ‘gateway ciders’ that provide an introduction to the world of craft cider and constitute a bridge between the mass market stuff and unsweetened artisanal products. Let’s face it, very few people move directly from Magners or Koppaberg to Ross on Wye’s Raison d’être. There are inevitable intermediate steps along the way towards that destination. Overall, I think that Purbeck does a very good job of making highly accessible craft cider, which I wouldn’t hesitate to serve to any supermarket cider drinker, and which might well open the eyes of newcomers to the obvious improvements in quality offered by less industrial products.