I really wasn’t sure about writing this.
For starters, the title is, at face value, a nonsense. Firstly, there is obviously nothing “essential” about cider, perry or any other alcoholic drink. Secondly, this third iteration of my annual “essential case” has wandered some way from its initial brief.
The longest-term readers of my cider writing may remember that the original “essential case” was compiled as one (and then two) of several articles written by several contributors in a week of content on Malt designated “anything but whisky”. Already a dyed-in-the-wool cider twitterer at that point, I thought it represented my only chance of the year to bring a drink that I loved to a wider audience, and my solution to the problem of “where do you even start?” was to write about a baker’s dozen of ciders and perries in very different styles, which I thought might provide a liquid road map for someone new to the category.
Two years, 180-odd articles, a new website and the meatier part of half a million words later there is clearly no need to post, on Cider Review, a guide to “what to buy if you can only buy one case”. Our readers are such a well-versed, knowledgeable and auto-didactic bunch, and the list of ciders we have now written about is now so broad and rich that singling out just 13 of them as representative of the lot would be a woeful insufficiency and a redundant one at that.
What’s more, as I commented in the second iteration when it signed off 2020, the idea of a “top 10” (or, in my case, “top 13”) drinks of any sort is a complete non-starter. We have written time and time again about the importance of preference, and how the point of a modern critic is not to dictate the preferences of others, but to simply outline their own, and how and why they might have reached them. I doubt anyone in the world would have a list of favourites identical to mine, and that is a wonderful and very encouraging thing. Whilst there are several metrics by which we can objectively analyse a drink (this one has tannins, that one has been diluted, this third one has higher acidity than the fourth) there is no objective way to conclude that one or another drink is the sole, objective, “best”.
In any case, much like last year, when I look at the list of ciders and perries I am about to include, my mind jumps instantly to so many of the wonderful drinks and makers I could easily have listed instead. I have been phenomenally lucky in the ciders and perries I have been able to taste this year, and the most cheering thought of all in considering my favourite 13 is that the breadth and richness of cider and perry continues to increase at such pace that it is making decisions like these an ever-more agonising and arguably futile process.
But I have recently come to dwell more and more on the often-slippery notion of joy; the importance of seeking it and, even more, of recognising when you are lucky enough to encounter it. And that, above all, is what I believe this list of ciders and perries to be. Not a technically-assessed list underpinned by debatable metrics of analysed excellence (though all are excellent drinks), but a catalogue of liquid joy. Throughout 2021, that is what, at varying moments and in varying ways, the following ciders and perries have brought me. So perhaps, by that measure, they really have been “essential” after all.
A couple of reminders of the very-vague rules, before we dig in. Nothing that I’d tasted before 2021, no more than one drink from any single producer. I’ve not considered ciders that I only had a brief sip of either in judging a competition or at a tasting like The Cider Salon – everything below has been enjoyed, at leisure, over at least a glass. Finally, all are, or have been at some point this year, available on commercial sale. In the very few instances in which they haven’t been reviewed on this site already, I have included a link to where you can buy them. For the drinks we have covered previously I have just left a link to the relevant article which will also direct you to retailers.
Right then. A quick shuffle of the digital envelopes and, as usual, in no particular order, here we go.
1. Charnwood Dabinett 2019 Season
Every part of my experience with this cider courses with joy. Charnwood itself will always be linked to a memory of trying Rob’s creations for the first time with fellow cider lovers who have become two of my closest friends. The availability of Charnwood online, through Cat in the Glass, after I had waited so long to be able to buy them, was also joyful in and of itself.
Most of all though, my experience of tasting this cider was simply an unmitigated joy from first sip to last. In a flight of stunners its huge, generous, deep, ripe exuberance, its enormous marmaladey aromatics and sheer indulgence blew me away. What an advert for dry cider and for single variety Dabinett.
My standard answers, asked about favourite varieties, have always been Foxwhelp and Yarlington Mill, and that still holds true. But something in my brain always rebelled against the idea of adding Dabinett to that trio – it felt too ubiquitous, somehow; an uninteresting answer, perhaps. But the fact is that it is singly responsible for, or the beating heart of, so many of the best ciders I have been lucky enough to taste. And what a wonderful thing that the country’s most common cider apple is such a characterful and compelling one. I have always admired Dabinett, but 2021 was the year I learned to stop worrying and love it. And Charnwood’s 2019 played no little part in that.
2. Genuss-Bauernhoff Distelberger Pyrus Glacialis Eis Birne No.1
If I had known, in the pre-Brexit era, how good this ice perry was going to be, I would have ordered as many bottles as my fragile bank balance could stand. As it was I only bought one, finally opened it during our Perry month in September and experienced one of the best drinks to have ever crossed my glass.
For a pure dovetail of luxury and elegance, I struggle to think of any cider or perry that comes close to Pyrus Glacialis Eis Birne No.1. In its whorls of honey and exotic fruit are the flutterings of so many of the world’s great dessert wines – Tokaji, Sauternes, Coteaux du Layon – but at its heart this drink is entirely its own beautiful thing.
“More Austrian perry” has long been in the top two or three on my mental wish list for UK availability. This drink not only solidified that, but added “and more ice perry too”. It is a remarkable creation. It is a glass full of dreams.
3. Nightingale Satakieli No.1
One of the greatest joys in the last year of cider has been seeing the increased confidence and enthusiasm with which Sam Nightingale has championed his wonderful Kentish drinks. The cans, reviewed here, with their ebullient branding, were a tremendous rallying cry for Kentish varieties, Kentish ciders and the accessibility of ciders in general (and who doesn’t want a Wild Disco constantly on hand in their fridge?)
But, as I wrote at the time, what I really wanted, and knew that Sam could deliver, was a full-juice, full-throttle expression of those apples, and in September he came up with a trio of instant classics.
Fledgeling No.1 is an aperitif drink with few equals, and the pulsating Fledgling No.2 – pure Red Love, all strawberry laces and electricity – could easily have been my entrant on this list. But the Satakieli, blended sensitively across varieties and vintages, the deepest and most complex of the trio, was the one that lingered with me most. It is a gorgeous piece of thoughtfulness; a beautifully compiled and utterly delicious expression of apples and place and love. I could spend, and have spent, hours pouring over the shifting nuances and clevernesses of this cider. It is everything I hoped for from Nightingale and I hope Sam is as proud of it as he deserves to be.
4. Wilding Dabinett & Foxwhelp 2019 (sparkling)
This was one of those ciders that proved tastings at festivals or big events really aren’t sufficient for a proper picture of how good something is (which should be fairly obvious). I tasted this first at the Cider Salon, thought “yep, pretty good”, and sort of mentally parked it. Maybe a month or so later I opened a full bottle, gave it time and air and a bit more limelight and found one of my favourite ciders of the year.
Looking back I’ve actually reviewed a fair few Wildings on these pages – perhaps unfairly mainly alongside ciders from other cideries rather than in an article of their own. Whilst their methods and approach are fascinating, deeply admirable and have my utmost respect, perhaps inevitably the results have been ciders which rather segue in and out of my personal tastes (as they should – making only ciders that hit my personal tastes would likely be the road to commercial ruin).
But this one, showing two of the world’s greatest apples at their most vivid and compelling, yet shifting into something wholly new and unique, was simply sensational. Lingering, textural, complex and alive with citrus, berries and seams of spice. Not cheap, but worth every single penny. Very much the Wilding I was looking for.
5. Cwm Maddoc Foxwhelp and Pig’s Face 2019
I’m not sure the actual makers of this drink think that much of it. Certainly Jeremy, when he sold it to me, advised that it probably wasn’t ready, and that it was likely a bit too sharp in any case.
But this cider, from a cidery I have come to admire more and more as one of the great Herefordshire producers when it comes to sheer definition and precision of fruit character, has been an ever-present in my jumble of bottles since I opened the first.
It is very much for those, like me, who relish the needle-bright intensity of Foxwhelp – there’s no getting away from the fact that many folk might find it too sharp for their tastes. But that, for those of us who love it, is part of the drink’s charm. That laser-like intensity, that electric vibrancy, allied at its best – and Cwm Maddoc do tend to show Foxwhelp at its very best – with a swathe of broad yet jewel bright red fruit and red apple skin aromatics buoyed, in this instance, by a beautiful, delicate seam of pét nat bubbles.
Make no mistake, this is an absolute gem of a cider, installed as my ‘house sharp’ for 2021 – but so much more than that – and if you share my preferences you should buy as much as you can. A worthy heir to the excellent 2017 blend that I reviewed early last year, and a showcase of clear, bright fruit that I will keep buying and drinking for as long as it remains available. Fellow Foxwhelpians, and we are an ever-growing number, should lose no time in heading straight to the Cat in the Glass and snapping it up for a ludicrous £3.60 per 500ml bottle.
6. Oliver’s Keeved Perry #6 2019
“Why on earth have I not been drinking more of this?” That was what I thought when I tasted this perry for the first article of our perry month in September. When I first got seriously into perry, Oliver’s was the better part of what I drank, and Oliver’s keeved in particular.
But, as I suppose often happens when you develop a serious interest in something, I gradually drifted away from what brought me there, searching out pastures new and unexplored. Though I wouldn’t say Oliver’s perry was ever off my radar, per se (how could it be?) it wasn’t what I was primarily buying or primarily drinking. There was something almost ubiquitous, obvious about it, perhaps. I felt that I knew what it was already.
Tasting it again was one of those lightening bolt “oh for God’s sake, that’s brilliant” moments. It was like a chance encounter with a childhood friend that is so invigoratingly wonderful you wonder how or why you ever fell out of touch. Make no mistake, these are some of the very best perries available from anyone anywhere in the world. I have drunk a good number of bottles since that first reunion, and somehow I can’t see myself slipping away again any time soon.
7. Welsh Mountain Prospect Orchard ‘19
We can argue back and forth about terroir as much as you want, but I do believe that great ciders are a product not only of the people who made them, and the mindsets behind them, but of the place in which they grew. And few ciders evoke such a special orchard, and with such compelling immediacy as this one.
An orchard blend of goodness knows how many varieties, grown out of nothing on a mountain slope in mid Wales, this was not only my favourite of the Welsh Mountains I tried but one of my favourite drinks of the year full stop.
Everything that makes Welsh Mountain special is poured into this bottle – their obsession with different varieties, their fundamentalist attitude to what they consider to be the natural approach to cidermaking and the belligerence with which they have created their little Eden in the middle of mountainous sheep desert. It is vivid, it is bright, it is layered and its textures and flavours are astounding. I can see this becoming a cider I stock up on vintage after vintage. I can’t wait to taste the different stories it has to tell; the vintage riffs on Prospect Orchard’s very special theme.
8. Halfpenny Green Apple Wine ‘C’
This has to go down as one of the ultimate Agincourt salutes to the notion that minimum intervention is the only way to make great cider.
Honestly, it is almost ludicrous. Let me count the ways in which this has been intervened-with: keeved, cryo-concentrated into ice cider, fermented to dryness and then given its fizz through the traditional (champagne) method.
And all that intervention, all that human input, has resulted in a cider so far removed from any I have ever tried before, which occupies a wholly new space on the spectrum of flavour, and was one of the most memorable drinks I have ever come across in my life. Tony made three batches – A being a tannic bruiser, B a little less so, and C, my favourite, the most complex, indulgent and – to my palate – balanced and complete.
Huge, rich, just off-dry yet booming with tarte tatin, werther’s originals, fruitcake, pain au chocolate and the glaze on top of a sticky bun, with all the weight of a dark, full-bodied keeve yet the elegance and structure of a traditional method. This is cider’s answer to a sparkling red wine (and my God I love sparkling red wine). Both an epic winter warmer and a food-pairer for rich food with few equals in the cider world.
There aren’t many makers – if any – who think like Tony Lovering, and his creations have brought me so much joy. Almost without fail the creativity and thinking behind them make me smile, and the flavours of this one made me gasp as well. It’s not advertised online or sold elsewhere as it’s so small-production, so you’ll have to contact him directly if you want a bottle (you can do so here) but if you nip in quickly I can’t think of a better bottle to enjoy with your Christmas turkey.
9. Barley Wood Orchard Vintage 2018
Another cider that perfectly encapsulates a place, a producer and a very special year. There isn’t much 2018 cider left anywhere from anyone now; that huge, ripe, once-in-a-decade vintage slowly disappearing in the rear view mirror. So if you do happen upon any 2018s from a good producer, you should snap them up on the spot. Particularly if it happens to be this one.
This Barley Wood is the essence of what made 2018 great. Ripe, rich, deep, comforting, loaded with sun-filled, full-bodied flavour. And that, to me, is also the essence of what makes Somerset cider, at its best, great too. There is such generosity here, and such versatility – as good to gulp through a lazy summer afternoon in the shade as it is to sip slowly through the crackling dark of winter. As good to pair with indulgent food as it is to pair with nothing but good company and the laughter of easy conversation.
It is by some measure the best keeved cider I’ve had this year, and just edges their superlative Kingston Black out as my favourite Barley Wood Orchard cider too. It transports me to that magical log roundhouse cidery in Somerset, to the beautiful walled gardens and the orchards that nestle inside them every time I taste it. It is, quite simply, a cider that makes me happy.
10. Little Pomona On the Beech 2020
Just over a year ago I visited the Little Pomona cidery and taproom and found James Forbes almost twittering with excitement about some juice they had just pressed. It was a blend of a little Major and Browns and a lot of a rare Herefordshire variety called White Beech. It was tremendously tasty juice. I couldn’t wait to see what they did with it.
In September this year we had our answer, and in another year of standouts from this remarkable cidery, On the Beech is my favourite. I hovered over Old Man & the Bee (2018 or 2019), Egremont En Barrique and particularly over Orange Cider in making my choice for this list, but there is something about On the Beech – some special infectiousness of exuberance, that nudged it into my personal top spot.
It is the most outrageous riot of wine gums, tropical fruit, peaches, honey and waxy apple skins, seamlessly intertwined with the spicing from a variety of outstanding casks. Little Pomona make ciders that capture my imagination, carry me along with their enthusiasm and constantly show me new flavours, textures and experiences. And this year none has done that more than On the Beech.
11. Kertelreiter *insert chef’s kiss emoji* 2020
Barry Masterson’s enthusiasm for pear trees, perry and the history of both has been one of my greatest sources of personal inspiration as I continue to explore this remarkable drink. I’m so grateful to him for having donated three outstanding articles on the subject to Cider Review; his account of his personal journey, his quest to find the fabled Turgovian pear and his seminal article on perry, pomonas and pomology. I’m also exceedingly grateful that he gave up so much time to talk to me when I reviewed a selection of his perries during our international month in June, as well as offering constant support and insight since.
Perry needs more advocates, and in Barry it has a champion. Not only of his own, or even of those made by the country in which he lives, but of international perry full stop. The perry scene is so much the richer for his being a part of it.
Just as importantly, the perries he makes himself are uniformly brilliant, frequently exceptional, and, in the instance of *insert chef’s kiss emoji* 2020, as good as anything I’ve had this year. (I promise I’m not just saying that because I was partially culpable for the name). An enormous yet beautifully-balanced fruit cocktail of a drink, all citrus, pear fruit, quince jelly and tropical tones. Probably the bottle I’ve most lamented not having a second of, though I’m immensely grateful to Barry for having sent the one I was lucky enough to try.
One of these days Kertelreiter will be available in the UK, and there will be much rejoicing. In the meantime, to our continental audience, and particularly our growing readership in Germany: fill your boots, and think about how lucky you all are.
12. Eden Queen Mab 2012
I said in January that this was probably the best cider I had ever tried in my life. At the start of December I opened another bottle with some very good friends just to see whether my original taste had been some sort of organoleptic mirage – a flash of perceived brilliance so dazzling that it blinded me to proportion.
Well it wasn’t. This drink, this utterly remarkable, near-outrageous thing is still the best cider that I can remember having, and easily in my top two or three drinks full stop – or at least the top two or three I can remember offhand, which amounts to much the same thing. The most luscious ice cider I’ve ever tasted, the most complex, the deepest, most vivid and the most enormous in its balance of intensities. I called it the malic answer to PX Sherry when I first tasted it, but really with that acidity it’s much more like the apple’s take on the most luxurious Madeira you can imagine.
Who would have thought that a single variety Ashmead’s Kernel was capable of making something like this? Who would have thought that a cider – even an ice cider – could go into barrel for eight years and emerge the other side not only not ruined, but as something so beautiful, beguiling and profound? Eden and Eleanor Leger, that’s who. What a cidery. What a drink.
13. Ross on Wye Dabinett 2018 Keg Conditioned
When I started jotting down my first version of this list I had a very different Ross on it. It was set to be one of their bottles, and the identity of that bottle was causing me no small amount of head scratching. Perhaps uppermost in my thoughts was the gorgeous collaboration between Ross and Fram Ferment/The Station House – a pure, barrel-aged Yarlington Mill booming with deep fruit, a crackle of spice and a seam of vanilla and oak. It took me back to the Yarlington that made me fall in love with Yarlington – the 2014 from the same cidery, as it happens. I love it and I have drunk it often.
But I could just as easily have named Dancing Required, the superb collaborative blend between Ross and the Queer Brewing Project – perhaps the most archetypally “Ross” Ross bottling of the year, and unquestionably a world class cider, even if I got in trouble with both makers for not “posting my jig”. The 500ml Oak Cask Major was on my list of potentials too – a cider that has elevated Major enormously in my thoughts and established it as one of my favourite apple varieties. Or perhaps the new Flakey Bark 2020, which you should buy if you haven’t already, or the 2019 vintage of Raison d’Être, which if you are reading this, you almost certainly have.
All of these would have been worthy choices and would happily have nestled in my top 13 of the year. But this list is about heart at least as much as it is about head, and the Ross ciders, this year, which have filled my heart the most have been their keg conditioneds.
Keg conditioned Ross on Wye cider has wreathed so many of my happiest cider moments in 2021. They were there at the Ross Festival, glasses I drank with my cousin, my fiancée, old friends who had never encountered cider before and new friends who I had only known previously through twitter. They were there on drop-ins to the Yew Tree when I’d escaped to Herefordshire for a weekend of much-needed respite. They were there when a small group of us, some of whom had never met in person before but who had bonded through lockdown, supported each other, explored and discovered cider together and celebrated each others’ accomplishments large or small within it, finally met over a sun-kissed April weekend for camping and steaks and pre-conditioned Raison and orchard cricket and the shared, warming, glow of joy.
Most unexpectedly, they were there at a pub just round a few corners from my flat, when I popped in one evening after a rehearsal. A pub I had barely visited before March 2020, but which had taken a chance on a keg before the pandemic began, still had some left, were interested to talk about it, and persuaded to keep buying them. Since then The Castle Tap has become one of my favourite places in the world. A wonderful, welcoming, marvellously progressive pub that has been the gathering group for friends to explore local IPA, Belgian Saisons, German Rauchbier and inky-dark stouts, or simply that same thing that it first was: a refuge I could tuck myself away in after a long evening of work and rehearsal and slowly sip two thirds of one of the best ciders in the world before a ten minute walk back to where I live.
The keg conditioneds, to me, are the most tangible reminder that cider, most of all, is a drink with the capacity to straddle the boundaries between the restaurant table, the home and the sticky pub bench. It can shine in so many settings and in each of those can be the glue that bonds people together or the glass of wonder that brings you an individual glow. There have been so many wonderful ciders this year – indeed so many wonderful keg conditioneds – but my favourite of all has been this one.
The most important cider apple, grown in a magical vintage, probably in my favourite orchard and certainly on my favourite cider farm. Drunk in a place that is so far removed from the setting it began life in, but fitting into its new home as if it had always been there. A drink – and more than a drink, a part of the world – that means so much to me and which for so long has been an undersung inside-tip is now available on keg a few streets away in Reading for anyone to discover. What could be more special – or more essential to cider – than that?
Just one last word really, other than to recognise that so many cideries have, once again, excelled themselves in creating ridiculously wonderful things.
I mentioned the subject of joy in my introduction and, as you will have read, joy has suffused my experience – not simply through the drinking – of every cider and perry on this list. There is so much to wonder at in the world of cider, and so many, many drinks, moments and people who have brought me so much joy within it – from my first nervous explorations of a few cideries I’d read about, to the establishment of a cider column on Malt, to the formation of this website.
Cider Review has brought me no small amount of the joy I have derived from cider this year. Setting up my own website terrified me no end and gave the cage of my imposter syndrome a thorough rattling, so a few thanks are in order, first of all. To those many people who have offered encouragement throughout the year. To the producers, retailers and cider advocates who have enriched our articles with their voices and insights. To the contributors: Barry, Chris, Ed, Megan, Mark, Jack and Rachel who have so generously donated time, tasting notes and fascinating articles. And especially to James, for his enthusiasm for cider and the passion he has brought to Cider Review, for the magnificent pieces he has written himself and for the huge amount of co-editing he has undertaken. Most of all for the support, belief and friendship he has offered unwaveringly throughout the year. Without James none of this would have been possible.
I announced a month or so back that I needed a break. That writing a few thousand words every week – on top of the research and tasting they engendered, and on top of such things as real life – had exhausted me, and that the batteries needed a recharge.
In fact, the break is going to be rather longer than I first anticipated. I have come to realise that the toll writing weekly, long-form, critical articles along with the associated social media work is taking on both my mental health and on the capacity I have to find time for the rest of my life is more than I feel prepared to continue bearing. Despite all the joy I derive from cider and from the community that grows around it, the anxieties, the self-imposed pressures, the sacrificed time both to myself and with others and the constant, gnawing spectre of imposter syndrome – that insidious mutter of “no one’s listening, no one cares, none of this is worth anything, what’s the point?” – no longer feel sustainable. I have written long-form hobbyist articles about drinks almost every week – often twice or more a week – for the last six years. Over three quarters of a million words. And from them I have derived immense pleasure. But if they’re no longer being done first and foremost for love; if the strain feels greater than the joy; there doesn’t seem much point in continuing, at least not as a hobbyist.
So as of next year, James will be the sole editor here on Cider Review. I am certain he will absolutely knock it out of the park and will take the site to new heights and, hopefully, with new voices. James is and has been, in my opinion, the UK’s most important independent voice for aspirational cider in the last few years, and I have no doubt that he will continue to be for a long time. Cider writing doesn’t really “do” awards, but James deserves a Hypothetical Golden Apple every day of the week. We are all very lucky to have him. The upshot is that the site will continue just as it has, and perhaps on very rare occasions I’ll even feel inspired enough to pen something myself. I’ve learned, eventually, that you can never say never.
But for the most part I won’t be here, and the more eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that I’m no longer on twitter or Instagram either. There are other things I need to pursue and, quite apart from anything else, a few hours less per day of staring at social media has already given me a chance to take a much-needed breath. But I am, as you’ll have gathered, a sentimental soul at heart, and leaving Cider Review – and regular drinks blogging – certainly isn’t a decision without regret. It has been a huge part of my life, and although riddled with the usual mistakes, failures, wrong turns and poor decisions that litter human existence, I wouldn’t have missed it – or changed it – for the world.
So, for the last time, and sincerely: to anyone who has ever read anything I’ve written, from those first tentative words on whisky in 2015 to this final Essential Case of Cider, thank you. You made it all something special.