Cider and perry are more than just summer drinks. This is important.
I’m not, of course, suggesting that they don’t make absolutely brilliant summer drinks – of course they do. There’s not much that can beat a cold glass of something like Discovery or Red Love or – well, pretty much any perry you like – when the sun is shining and you’re sitting on the grass somewhere smelling faintly of suncream and pumped to bursting with vitamin D. Glorious stuff.
But when the clouds start gathering, as indeed, at the time of writing, they have – when the sky is dark before the 9-5 has even finished and when you can put on a thick jumper confident in the knowledge that you won’t be peeling it off again before you’re halfway up a quite small hill, cider seems to slip a bit in the national consciousness. The token broadsheet articles die back and folk start reaching for the drinks they feel are more redolent of cold nights and flickering hearthsides (or, in our flat’s case, sputtering radiatorsides). Dark beers, richer red wines, oak-aged spirits.
Most of cider’s advertising, being dominated by the biggest brands, is around cold, fizzy and sunshine, most famously in Magner’s ‘over ice’ campaign of circa 2006. But that overlooks the huge breadth of ciders which are beautifully suited to warming the cockles on a colder night and to heartening the soul against the lengthening shadows.
So I thought I’d write a few articles over the late autumn and winter looking at ciders that call my name with particular insistency at this chillier and darker time of year. Starting today with keeves.
We’ve gulped our way through any number of keeves on Cider Review, and back in our older days as a Saturday column on Malt. Our most recent spotlight was of this Somersetian quartet, but they’ve popped up in dozens of articles before and since.
Keeves, being primarily (though not exclusively) made of late-season bittersweet varieties, many of them the deep and rich and juicy likes of Dabinett and Yarlington Mill, are perfect fare for wintertime. With their rumbling tannins, full-bodied texture and, yes, touch of sweetness, they’re just the tonic when you’ve come in from a blast of wind and weather. And since the majority of keeves are bottled pét nat, they bring a little spirit-lift of cheerful mousse as well. They’re often tremendously crowd-pleasing, so you can share them with confidence, but since the nutrient-depleting nature of the keeving process tends to result in a lower alcohol cider (generally somewhere around 4-5%) you can also just treat yourself to slowly sipping though a bottle of your own through a long evening, without feeling the worse for it thereafter.
Flavours, obviously, are varietally-dictated, but they generally tend in a deeper, darker, apple juice and Christmassy spice direction, abetted by various shades of deep citrus and tropical fruit depending on maker, age and apples. The burlier bittersweets take oak superlatively, and I’ve had glorious barrel-aged keeves from the likes of Oliver’s, Caledonian and many more besides.
And of course we can’t talk about keeving without talking about the wonderful ciders across the Channel in Normandy and Brittany, where the practice is virtually ubiquitous. So for today’s celebration of the keeve I’m lining up some cross channel rivals (or cousins, depending on how competitive or otherwise your perspective might be).
In the English corner, I’m kicking off with Cornwall’s Gould, who have been one of my favourite new discoveries of this year, first encountered (by me) back in early August here. I enjoyed their keeved blend of Harry Masters’ Jersey, Michelin and Yarlington Mill tremendously at the time – but what I didn’t realise was that it was one of two batches of that blend from the same vintage, the second of which I tasted at the Cider Salon, bought on the spot, and have in my glass today. Compared to the previous batch it looks a much darker liquid (the previous batch was mid-gold) which leads me to suspect that it might be more Yarlington-driven, as opposed to the Harry Masters’-led flavours of the one I tasted in August. We’ll soon find out.
Alongside the Gould I’ve two from Warwickshire’s Halfpenny Green, now a semi-regular in these pages and a cidery both James and I enjoy tremendously. Tony Lovering, as is quickly apparent from our interview with him here is a maker particularly interested in the various processes through which he can coax new flavours from his apples. A former engineer, who has built most of the various machines at his cidery himself – including a tank in which to induce the Charmat method, his own filtration system and (my favourite) a machine for de-stoning damsons! Tony makes various ciders unlike anything else available in the UK – alongside his champagne methods, Charmat methods and bottle conditioneds are various combinations of all of the above plus keeves and ice ciders and goodness knows what else besides. Talking to him about cider is markedly different to talking to any other maker I can think of, and I can’t think of any conversation I’ve had that was anything less than fascinating.
Given his particular interest in method and process, I’s no surprise that he’s turned his attention to keeves, and I tasted a couple of them in the article last year. Of all of his creations, Le Franc – his unfiltered keeve, inspired by the Normans – was the one I was least sold on at the time, but the new vintage did very well at the bath and West, so I thought I’ give it another go.
Tony being Tony, I also have something completely different and distinctly “out there” in the form of a keeve-ice cider hybrid. After keeving the juice, he cryo-concentrated it with forced cold (see ice cider methods in our taxonomy here) achieving a specific gravity of something enormous like 1.094. It then fermented a little way before being bottled whilst still a long way off “dry”, to achieve a natural sparkle. My mileage for something like this is absolutely nil, so I approach my glass with immense curiosity. Both of these ciders are limited editions, not displayed on the Halfpenny Green website or available anywhere else, but they can be ordered by contacting Tony directly here. In the usual spirit of disclosure, samples of each were sent to Cider Review Towers.
Moving across to France we keep the compare-and-contrasts going with one from Normandy and another from Brittany. Representing the Normans is Templar’s Choice Cider run by Gloucestershire fugitives Adam and Anne Bland. We’ve previously enjoyed their Dry, reviewed here by myself and Rachel Hendry of Burum Collective and J’Adore le Plonk, and I especially liked the perry of theirs that I reviewed in this continental lineup. Today I’m tasting their flagship, the Vintage Brut 2016. I can’t find out much more about it than “traditional cider apples from heritage orchards” that have been keeved, but given that this was a special edition from a particular vintage, I’m hoping there’s something extra tasty about this particular batch. Bottles cost £10 directly from the producer (they distribute from the UK – what a time to be alive!) and are also available through Scrattings and Cider Is Wine.
Last of all, representing the Bretons, is Le Cidrerie du Golfe, whose name refers to their position on the Atlantic coast, exposed to the gulf stream, and not (as – I admit, to my shame – I previously wondered) to do with anything pitch-and-putt related. We previously encountered these folk when I tasted their (excellent) hopped cider in this article from a few months ago but I’ve never tried any of their apples-only stuff before. Their website is, in the great tradition of artisanal cider makers, on the Spartan side, but I learn that today’s bottle, The Hors-Norme is, as google translate has it, “bitter and long in the mouth”. Further digging attests to five varieties of apples growing on five hectares of orchard, but beyond that you know as much as I do. (Unless you know more, in which case, as usual, comments section below please!) I bought my bottle from Beer Zoo, and it was also previously available via The Good Spirits Co, but both seem, at the time of writing, to be currently sold out.
Gould Harry Masters’ Jersey, Michelin & Yarlington Mill 2019 – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Appearance: Rich, deep bronze. Mid mousse
On the nose: As anticipated from the colour it’s the Yarlington that takes the tiller hand here – deep apple, clove, toffee syrup and luxurious chocolate ganache. It has that richly spiced, woody, lignin quality of good Yarlington too. We’re definitely past pure “juice bomb” and into more serious and cerebral territory.
In the mouth: Drier than most keeves, and again with that lovely interplay of spice and woody, savoury forest floor tones next to deep, rich, decadent notes of dried apple and dark toffee. Think Cadbury’s Chocolate Eclairs! The Harry Masters’ Jersey gives a little rasp of tannin, but medium (+) body and richness are equal to it. Well-judged fizz.
In a nutshell: The dark, deep, structured and serious face of keeves. Accomplished blending. Layered and complex. V. good.
Halfpenny Green Le Franc Batch No J1-03/2020 – review
How I served: Medium chilled
Appearance: Hazy copper
On the nose: Pure juice! Fresh-pressed apple juice, satsumas, apricots and dried mango skins. The lightest, lightest trace of reduction initially – just a vanishing brush of sulphur – but it soon dissipates and leaves you with that fruit-basket nose.
In the mouth: On the sweet side but fizz and acidity give balance and if anything the extreme fruity juiciness of the nose has been heightened. This is a riot! Kia Ora! Um Bongo! A cider for an adult’s lunchbox. So ripe and fresh and pure in its expression of supremely juicy fruit.
In a nutshell: As juicy as keeves come. Highly recommended, especially to the sweet-toothed. Great stuff – well up on the 2019.
Halfpenny Green Keeved Ice Cider Pét Nat – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Appearance: Deep bronze/chestnut. Mid fizz
On the nose: Another very rich and indulgent nose though without the savoury spices of the Gould. Deep, deep apple juice, but also apple skins. Sticky toffee pudding. Glace cherries and dried orange. Cinnamon. Almost verging on Dundee Cake. This nose is a walk through a Christmas market. Decadent.
In the mouth: Huge body and big sweetness – balanced again by textural richness and dabs of acid and tannin – give this an astonishing voluptuousness. Again I say “decadent”. Apple syrup, cinder toffee, cinnamon, ginger, new oak furniture, clove and even aged apple brandy. Burnt orange. Christmas in a bottle.
In a nutshell: Ridiculous, hyper-indulgent, glorious stuff tailor-made for winter.
Templar’s Choice Vintage Brut 2016 – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Appearance: Hazy copper – bit deeper than Le Franc. Big mousse.
On the nose: Big aromatics. Orange and ginger and then a big helping of hay, dried leaves, old and weathered wood and some leathery, farmy, warm barn tones. Almost notes of certain Belgian beers in that deep, earthy way. But overall the fruit takes precedence.
In the mouth: Just off-dry with the maturity showing through fruit beginning to express as drier rather than fresh. Some distinct gamey, forest floor tertiary notes too. There’s a bit more emphasis on the leathery, animal/farmyard characters too. A healthy wrap of tannin and a touch of hazelnut on the finish.
In a nutshell: A complex, old-school French farmhouse cider. [Edit: Adam Bland kindly got in touch and tells me that those leathery, animal notes are the classic taste of the Domaine cider apple, the principle variety in the blend. Very interesting to learn about a French apple completely new to me – my thanks to Adam.] Won’t be for everyone – admittedly it’s a bit much for me personally – but those who love it will love it.
Cidrerie du Golfe Cidre Hors-Norme – review
How I served: Medium chilled
Appearance: Hazy orange. Big mousse.
On the nose: Really big, clean, bright orange fruit and apricot aromatics – pith and skins as much as juice. There’s a really clean note somewhere between pine and hope that has me almost in mind of certain NEIPAs. Some light, sappy wood. Really precise and beguiling and fresh nose.
In the mouth: Again a really bright, clean, fresh and intensely flavourful delivery. Fairly pronounced sweetness but the balance of fleshy orange acidity and that well-judged seam of pithy, pine-resiny, lightly herby bitterness cuts through it beautifully. A lovely, clean, pure expression of fruit and very, very good blending.
In a nutshell: On the more summery end of keeves, but I’d drink this any time of year. Superb cider.
Well, just as all ciders aren’t summery, so all keeved cider aren’t wintery! We had a few here that were – the Templar’s Choice, though not totally my thing, was a big, bruising autumnal creature to be sipped beside the heftier end of the Belgian beer spectrum, possibly on a wooden bench in a well-timbered pub for extra effect. The Gould (another cracker from this excellent Cornish producer) certainly had the chillier months in its deep, spicy veins, and the Halfpenny Green Keeve/Ice/Pét Nat was full-on Christmas, and gorgeous with it.
The Le Franc and Cidre Hors-Norme, though, whilst both utterly delicious and certainly showing a common DNA, were juicy, sun-filled drinks that, whilst they happily filled my glass in early November, would be every bit as glorious supped in colder glasses on a baking hot midsummer afternoon. Proof, were more needed, that a. generalisations by style don’t workand that b. we really are terribly lucky in the bewildering versatility of modern British – and French! – cider. Here’s to that!