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How low can you go?

“It’s a lovely, modern madness,” says Tom Oliver of low and no alcohol cider. “There’s absolutely zero need for it; you either drink alcohol or you don’t.” Yet YouGov research reveals some two-thirds of UK adults have tried ‘NOLO’ alcohol, with a quarter classed as ‘semi-regular’ consumers. When choosing NOLO drinks they’re seeking out taste and quality, but crucially 70% expect to pay less for them than the full alcohol equivalent. Some get caught up in the annual marketing buzz of ‘Dry January’ or cut down for health reasons; others want ‘something like alcohol’ to drink with their peers if they’re driving. So what gives and why now? Are our habits changing and will the cider world tap into this trend or go its own way? And is it really possible to achieve the nirvana of low alcohol and full flavour?

For cider merchant Felix Nash, of the Fine Cider Company, it’s a question of people drinking less of better things, and he sees this as a selling point for fine, craft cider itself, with much of the quality and provenance of wine, but half the alcohol, “so it’s massively conducive already”. Tom agrees: “If you’re whisky drinker and have a glass of wine you’re having less alcohol, if you’re a wine drinker and have a glass of cider you’re having less alcohol. If you’re a cider drinker and don’t want to drink alcohol, but genuinely buy into the whole process of cidermaking and the glorification of apples, you should be drinking apple juice. The idea that you go through these ridiculous things to create something that is the antithesis of what you actually do, which is make alcohol, is for me a madness.”

Having lobbied the Treasury for several years across emails, letters and even a group zoom call, Felix was buoyed up by the alcohol review and (teetotal) Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s 2021 Budget. The aim was to disincentivise big producers who make cheap, high-strength ‘white cider’ – and the tax on these has gone up by around 2p per unit. It should meanwhile encourage smaller, traditional producers making naturally high quality, good for the category, higher alcohol cider and perry. Big players in the cider market want to focus more on low alcohol and lower duty, Felix says, “so maybe you could make a load more cider from less juice.”

David Sheppy, Master of Cider and Sheppy’s MD, believes the Chancellor’s aim is to bring alcohol units down, particularly for cider. “He’s saying, lower your alcohol – the tipping point is 4.5, 4.6% – get them down to that level. That’s a struggle for traditional cidermakers at the higher end where high quality, high juice content ciders are 6.0% plus. You don’t want to re-formulate them; a lot of the character and quality is in the high juice content.” Having studied ABV closely, David says there are now three different categories above zero alcohol: normal strength at 4.5% plus, low alcohol below 1.2%, then the ‘lower’ 3.0% to 4.0% mark where the government is encouraging alcohol producers, not just cider. So alongside the existing low alcohol and alcoholic cider markets, this new category is the ‘sweet spot’ they are trying to develop, and where Sheppy’s Redstreak 4.0% cider sits. “If you look at the whole cider industry,” says David, “the largest commercial brands tend to be around about 4.5, 4.0% for draught, that’s predominantly what pubs are looking for.”

Herefordshire’s Little Pomona, aka Susanna and James Forbes, constantly think outside the box, and Susanna believes the cider world handicaps itself if it limits the definition of low alcohol in the same way as beer. “We should think of low alcohol cider in the context of cider itself. You should feel free to define low alcohol how you see it, not necessarily by the bands. You don’t have to think with terroir-based cider that people have to drink volumes. If you’re talking about lower alcohol in the context of health, fine, have a slightly smaller glass!”

James says their philosophy is that cider and perry is made from pressing apples or pears and fermenting them, full stop. “I don’t believe that using water as an agent of lowering alcohol is a legitimate process and can still be called cider.” Tom knows many people will add water or remove alcohol to make something if it attracts less duty and sells loads. “But it’s got bugger all to do with cidermaking. It’s a particular bugbear with me; I will never produce low alcohol cider through any industrial type process. Drink something natural, because the benefit of not drinking won’t come from drinking these horribly messed-around-with drinks. That’s not the solution: it’s a modern solution to problem that doesn’t exist.”

You can trace the idea of lower alcohol back to French cidermakers, says David. “They do a lot of arrested fermentation, so their ciders are naturally lower alcohol. A lot of Normandy and Brittany ciders are 2.5% to 3.5% and naturally sweet.” Felix also notes that huge numbers of big volume, keeved cider makers in Northern France make tonnes of 1.8% to 2.5% alcohol, but hasn’t really seen big British makers follow suit. “They are all trying to get it to 0.5%, remove this, remove that. They’re not saying how do we do a more refined, lower alcohol drink. It seems very internet-age and buzzy, and you have to get on it very quickly.”

Sheppy’s targeted this market with their Low Alcohol Classic Cider 0.5%, a very drinkable, lower fermented cider blended with apple juice. Prompted by his sales and marketing team, who spotted an opportunity, David was initially sceptical. But as chief blender, he loves experimenting and developing a product, and after launching it at 1.0%, and finding the market wanted it lower still, they went further and got to a 0.5% product they were happy with. “The blending process is more complicated than an alcoholic cider, so there is more work involved. The saving is, dare I say, there is no duty to be paid on it; it’s out of the duty range.” They looked at several apple juices, seeking something with a slightly cidery taste, and settling on specific varieties of dessert apples, to avoid too much bitterness in the lower alcohol. Then they blend back bittersweet cider. “Sheppy’s isn’t about chemicals,” says David. “Combining cider and apple juice has been done for centuries. And the feedback we’ve had is: is that really only 0.5%?”

James, however, fervently believes that cider is fermented apple, not apple juice. “That’s where the lexicon comes in, any cider that is under 6.0% or 7.0%, however they got there, apple juice may be added. It’s not uncommon, but it’s not something we do.” Tom knows the theory is that you get the twin benefits of an appley flavour and lower alcohol, “but for my two penn’orth, it is no longer cider. It’s an apple juice cider.”

Little Pomona plunged into the lower alcohol world with their back-to-the-future creation, ciderkin, an historical West Country drink typically consumed by field workers, and now showcased in their impressive Hard Rain series. Ciderkin is made by re-pressing apples and rehydrating the pomace – a technique also known as ‘piquette’ – after the first pressing removes most of sugars. James says this was the only way they could make an interesting low ABV apple or pear-based drink and still fit with their ethos and principles. No-one else in mainland England is doing it (yet), even though James says it’s a “lovely upcycling from what is actually a waste product.” Not that it’s easy, adds Susanna, but because they have a winepress they can leave the pomace in to macerate for as much as 24 hours, to get more depth. “It’s been a revelation to us, not just the low ABV (3.0% to 5.0%) or that they taste fantastic and have zero sugar because they’re fully fermented. A lot of the low alcohol stuff we’ve tasted has sugar or artificial sweetener in there – to give mouth feel.” It would be hard for Little Pomona to enter the close-to-zero market with their production methods though. “We don’t use sugar,” says James, “so if you get a ciderkin too low in ABV, you basically have water, and that’s not that interesting.”

Keeving is Tom Oliver’s method, although he says this isn’t to achieve lower alcohol, but taste. “I’m trying to recreate that wonderful big flavour that you get, the miracle of really good keeving. If you’ve got that acidity-tannin-sweetness balance, you can have an incredibly sweet, low alcohol drink that isn’t cloying or lacking in taste and it’s an absolute wonder. People don’t believe it’s so low in alcohol.”

At tastings, Felix says people always comment on Oliver’s keeved perry and cider, and are genuinely surprised it’s that low in alcohol (typically 2.8% to 3.9%) for the taste and complexity. Similarly, he wouldn’t be surprised if ciderkin becomes a big thing again, but for now Fine Cider won’t be looking at 0.5% ABV, “unless someone comes up with something incredible”.

Although it feels like the NOLO and lower alcohol cider market is expanding and ushering in some potentially interesting offerings, Felix wonders whether people drinking less will lead to lower alcohol offerings rather than zero alcohol becoming the end game. Or could it mean the premiumisation of having better quality things less frequently, and better options for people who aren’t drinking. “Will the market spread out? Does it bring the average ABV per mass-market pint down?”

Last word, however, goes to Tom Oliver, who says: “I’m not denying that I may be in a commercial sense missing out on opportunities. I totally agree. But, as I always say, if I was concerned about that I wouldn’t be making cider and perry.”

Many thanks to James and Susanna for providing the images, which were taken by Bill Bradshaw.

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Helen M Jerome is a freelance journalist who loves meeting people, drinking cider and perry, eating goat and sheep cheese, consuming music, books, film, theatre and sport - then writing about all of them. She also develops TV and Film projects.

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: How Low is No? | Cider Review

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