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Cider nouveau: language, discourse and the evolution of community

We take all of this so seriously sometimes.

That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t take cider seriously, or that cider doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. There are so many stories of makers experiencing someone or other at some point or other smarming “zoiderrr” at them in a bad west country accent. Cider, it has been rightly said, long had – and, more often than not outside our bubble of enthusiasm, still has – an image problem. But it has been an image problem embraced and stoked not only by those with no real interest in it, but by often-patronising articles in mainstream media whose tone has only recently, and only in some instances, begun to change. To those of us, and it is a rapidly-growing number, who care deeply about cider; who have tasted how good it can be and seen the care with which it is made; the disrespect and open condescension, the jokes and remarks which cider is expected not only to accept but, more often than not, to be complicit in, can be hard to stomach.

So much of what the national rethink cider movement, and the many years of local campaigning that preceded it, have stood for is the collective desire for cider to be taken more seriously; to be seen in a light which its potential – and, more and more often, realised – quality deserves. I have remarked on it before, but this site’s very existence is a testament to that. Cider writing, like any sort of drinks writing, is inherently parasitic – without a serious, thought-provoking and demonstrably high-quality subject, the sort of in-depth commentary that we attempt here on Cider Review would be holed beneath the water before we had begun. The fact that a jobbing copywriter in Reading can pen 400,000 spare-time words in two years on a subject as esoteric as “craft” cider and perry demonstrates, I hope, that there is something here that is worth investigating.

But yes. Sometimes all of us – myself more than most – can be guilty of taking things too seriously. Of taking things to heart such that our reactions, and our interactions, become more barbed than we would perhaps wish, and affect others in ways that, intended or not, are meaningful and keenly felt. Anyone, I think, who can be bothered to take to social media in the cause of cider and perry, does so because cider and perry carry personal resonance and, often, varying degrees of professional weight. We come to twitter, to facebook, to Instagram to talk about cider because we love it. And were we all to meet in person at a festival, a tasting, a wassail, an apple day, we would probably, for the most part, share a few drinks, talk with much enthusiasm and navigate, through the alchemy of direct personal interaction, the many differences that have been woven from our own individual experiences but which ultimately come together to make cider and perry all the richer and more compelling.

But social media, it need hardly be said, is not personal interaction. It exists, often almost explicitly, to segregate and divide. It is a petri-dish for argument and toxic misunderstanding. You can’t convey nuance or tone of voice in 280 characters, and without a human face to look into, our own interactions, and the way we interpret the interactions of others, become distorted, warped and subject to our own anxieties, projections and neuroses.

So it is no surprise that when people gather virtually to talk about something for which they feel such a depth of emotion, and in which they hold such a personal stake, the character of seriousness which social media inculcates drives wedges into what, viewed in person, would be minor and trivial fissures of disagreement. We have all lived different lives and we all approach cider with our own long-forged and many-threaded perspectives. We all want cider to do well and we have all reached conclusions – in some cases after years, even decades of experiences, experiments, deliberations, triumphs, disasters and glassfuls – which we believe may be of some use and, ultimately, benefit to cider. That which seems, through the single-frame view of social media, to be a quick soundbite – a ‘hot take’ – derives from the whole, wider, nuanced film of a perspective uniquely reached.

Cider is not one single entity and there is not one single way to approach it or to interact with and immerse yourself in it. You may, like me, have varying opinions on varying aspects of ‘big cider’, for instance, but it is no-one’s place to say that the person ordering their usual pint of Dark Fruits at the local derives any less pleasure from it or, crucially, is any less of a cider drinker, than the person drinking an Oliver’s Bottle Conditioned or Find and Foster Méthode Traditionnelle at home from a wine glass, or the person at the other end of the bar ordering a half of still, dry Crispin’s from bag-in-box. My first ever cider was the Strongbow my best friend gave me, knowing I didn’t like beer. If I hadn’t drunk that you wouldn’t be reading this. There is so much about big cider that is cynical and frustrating and which draws on the dirtiest excesses of capitalism, but its existence does not (in my opinion) prevent the existence of a healthy and growing fuller-juice category alongside it. Even solely within fuller-juice cider itself, whilst there is an important role to be played (opinion again) by such things as a taxonomy and a guide to the flavours of apples, there is space for diversity of experience, understanding, expression and enjoyment. There is enough cider made in enough ways and by enough people for us all to drink what we want, when we want and the way we want. And the way we discuss it, and the tone in which we conduct our discussion, ought to reflect that.

Cider Review is, first and foremost, a first-person opinion column and a repository for tasting notes which are, again, intensely personal. There is an author’s name at the top and a bio at the bottom of each post; James and I and probably, by this point, Chris, have individually written enough now that our preferences, our ways of thinking, our opinions on cider and the personal backgrounds and experiences that have bred them are, hopefully, fairly clear to long-term readers. My entire professional life, for instance, has been spent in the wine industry. Wine is a drink which I love and its language is one in which I am steeped and, I would hope, reasonably fluent. It is a long, long way from a perfect drink or industry, but its history, experiences, mistakes, successes and ways of talking about itself are broad, rich, tested and have come to carry meaning for comparatively large groups of people. And whilst I have reiterated several times that I do not believe cider to be wine, either in its flavours, its culture or in the way in which it is drunk, I have always felt strongly that there is a huge amount of wine’s intellectual property and experience from which cider can draw both to improve its quality and to enhance its own individual identity.

Last year a couple of cideries launched what they called “nouveaus”. Drinks made from the first pressing of the new season, bottled to celebrate the fruits of a long, hard harvest. As someone with pan-category interest I recognised – and embraced – the term as having been stolen from the immensely famous (if possibly notorious in certain circles) tradition of Beaujolais Nouveau – the festival held every year in the Beaujolais wine region of France. Armed with that context, I was able to approach the ciders with a fair idea of what to expect – something young, fresh, frivolous and possibly a bit fun and even silly. Not so much a representation of how that cidery’s whole vintage would emerge – that isn’t really the point – more a one-off bottling to celebrate that the vintage has happened at all. A well-earned party. A liquid expression of endeavour and of joy at the culmination of the long growing year.

When I wrote my article on the subject at the time, it was met with a significant degree of resistance, even indignance, from people who feel equally strongly on the subject of cider, but whose experiences and opinions, inevitably, differ from mine. (Which is absolutely fine, and part of the reason we have a comments section at the bottom of the page). It was pointed out, fairly, that “new season” cider wasn’t an invented concept, indeed that it had been made and drunk for centuries. It was suggested that cider ought to speak in its own parlance, rather than cutting and pasting from that of another drink. It was even put forward that the use of a term like “nouveau” was exclusionary, was pure marketeering and was stripping cider of a part of its own identity. Had it been held in person, I dare say this could all have formed the basis of a fascinating, engaged and opinion-broadening discussion. Being held on social media it instead devolved into rancorous and personal argument and the apparent building of personal trenches.

I might as well lay my cards entirely on the table at this point and say that I loved the concept of cider nouveau at the time, that I still love it now, that I have been eagerly awaiting this year’s nouveaus and that I am delighted to see other cideries having embraced not only the concept but the language. It is my personal opinion that the deliberate use of the word ‘nouveau’, whilst perhaps unfamiliar to a large number of established cider drinkers, provides a potential point of entry to vintage-based cider to a vast corps of drinkers who might otherwise not consider cider at all. There are still, I am often reminded, a huge number of people in this country – the country that makes more cider than any other – who have no idea that cider can be a vintage product; something that takes a year to grow and that can only be made at one point every twelve months. “Nouveau” communicates all of that in one word – a word that carries instant recognition and resonance for many interested drinkers.

Of course there is nothing compulsory around the use of the term “nouveau”. As was pointed out, “new season” means exactly the same thing, and may indeed carry greater resonance for many more long-term cider drinkers. But this, I feel, misses the point that those cider drinkers are likely to see, understand and form their own conclusions around the cider whatever is written on the bottle. They don’t need conversion or explaining to because they are already so well-versed in cider’s lore and learning. “Cider nouveau” is a term designed as a knee-jerk and a waymarker for drinkers nouveau. It is the placing of a sign on a shut door that reads “come in. There is something here for you”. You don’t need to worry about what’s written on the sign when you are already inside the room.

A couple of months ago I went to a mini cider festival held by my local pub, Reading’s wonderful Castle Tap. I drank Raison d’Être from keg, a sumptuous Barley Wood Orchard cold-rack from bag-in-box and a beautiful, fruity perry from a producer completely new to me whose name I idiotically forgot to make a note of. And then I came home and the day afterwards I drank Strongbow from a can, because it was the 26th of September and on the 26th of September Strongbow is what I drink. Four utterly, utterly different creations, collectively not even a fraction of the mind-blowing diversity of flavour in our growing world of cider and perry.

No one who loves cider doesn’t want to see it grow, succeed and gain new drinkers and supporters. But within that wish there has to be an acceptance that not everyone will enjoy the same ciders, not everyone will think of and discuss cider the same way and everyone will approach the drink with their own beliefs, opinions and vocabulary. It is precisely that broad church that has the potential to spread cider further than it has ever been spread before – and isn’t it exciting that within our drinking lifetimes, even those as comparatively short as mine, we have seen such energy and enthusiasm? I think sometimes it can be difficult in our ever-frenetic world to take a pause, to look back and to think “look at us – look how far we’ve come”, but it’s something I feel that the cider community deserves to do more often. The people who have spent years devoted to pushing and championing and campaigning for cider have taken a drink that teetered for decades on the brink of absolute anonymity into a place where we can argue about whether or not there’s a place for the word “nouveau”. I, for one, can’t wait to see what cider grows into next. And I really can’t wait for someone to tell me how wrong I am, and how different their opinion is, face to face, in person and cider in hand.

Ultimately, drinks change. Drinks communities change. It’s often human nature to resent and even fear change, particularly when it is to something that we care deeply about. Goodness knows I spent a good chunk of my whisky writing years getting probably far too angry about what I saw as damaging changes – which is one reason I don’t write about whisky any more.

But I do think that the changes to cider and to the language of cider are fundamentally evolutionary in nature. The baby is not being thrown out with the bathwater – in fact, to stretch a metaphor, the bathwater itself is not being thrown out, merely topped up with a few litres more ‘hot’. Cider itself is still made in much the same way that it ever was, even if quality control is rising significantly and even if aspirational makers are experimenting with the possibilities of different methods, approaches and varieties. More than anything, it is engagement that has really changed in the last few years. More eye-catching approaches to packaging, more conversations between makers and between makers and drinkers, more curiosity around varieties and blends and methods both from producers and, importantly, from consumers both well-versed and new.

“Rethink cider” was a compelling clarion because the phrase is an imperative. But it was an imperative more to drinkers than it was to makers. A call to change minds about what people believed cider to be; a suggestion that there was more here than previously met the eye. To bring more people into an existing fold an evolution of discourse had, to a certain degree, to take place and it is certainly true that certain terminology and ways of approaching and engaging are now being popularly used that barely appeared at all as recently as five or so years ago.

But this, to my mind, is not only a necessary part of life, but a fundamentally good and enrichening thing. All language is evolutionary and English in particular has arrived at 2021 via countless words stolen from countless other languages. The more cider learns to explain itself to people on their own, familiar, terms, the more chance there is that those people will stay, will fall in love with cider just as we all have done, and will come to learn and love the honeycomb of idiosyncrasy that lies below whatever first caught their attention. The world of cider is bigger and more full of fascination than it ever has been before, and there is room for us all to speak about it in whichever way feels most comfortable.

Look at us. Look at how far we’ve come.

2021 Nouveau ciders have been made by, and are available from, Rull Orchard, Ross on Wye, Nightingale and collaboratively by Little Pomona and Burum Collective to our knowledge. (NB. Thanks to Albert of Ross for providing the lead photo and Helen of Burum for providing the group photo for this piece) If anyone else has bottled a nouveau this year, please let us know and we will list it here and provide a link if available.

On the subject of communication, this will be my last post on Cider Review for a while. I’ve written a lot this year – more than last year, more than I expected and with far more other busyness taking up time in the background – so like a tree at the end of a long vintage, I reckon I’ve earned a bit of dormancy. I had a few pieces in mind, but I find myself feeling a bit fourth-use-teabag, and I probably ought to close the laptop and recharge. There are a couple of year-end-type posts in the frame for December, and a couple of articles I’ve promised to other publications, but the keyboard needs a break, the spittoon needs a break, I need a break and I dare say you could do with a break from me too. James, I’m sure, will keep things ticking along admirably, and we’ve a few pieces in the pipeline from other contributors that I’m very excited about. You won’t even notice I’m gone. But this is just a quick memo to say: stay tuned, don’t go anywhere, and thank you.

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In addition to my writing and editing on Cider Review I contribute to other drinks sites and magazines including Graftwood, JancisRobinson.com, Full Juice, Distilled and Burum Collective. I share my home with several hundred bottles, one geophysicist and a small fluffy belligerent called Nutmeg. @CiderReviewAdam on Twitter and Instagram.

4 Comments

  1. Gavin Stuart says

    Take care of yourself Adam. Your passion for cider is infectious and always great to read.

    Recharge those batteries!

    Like

  2. Pingback: A Discovery Duo | Cider Review

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