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Encountering the Sussex Hedgefox: seven ciders from Ascension Cider.

A small fragment of writing, which has been attributed to the Ancient Greek poet Archilocus, states that “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing”. This pronouncement is enigmatic, to say the least, and it is somewhat surprising that a distinguished 20th Century philosopher would take it seriously enough to write about it. But that’s exactly what Isaiah Berlin did when he decided to use it as the basis of an oddly influential article called ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’. According to Berlin, great thinkers can be divided into two groups: Hedgehogs view the world through the lens of a single defining idea, whereas foxes prefer to draw on a wide variety of different concepts and experiences. While hedgehogs value the consistency achieved in conceiving and implementing one idea extremely well, foxes crave the excitement of novelty and experimentation. Incidentally, Berlin never took much trouble to explain what any of this has to do with actual foxes and hedgehogs, because renowned philosophers are given to armchair theorising and don’t have to be particularly practical about things! I guess that foxes have a reputation for being cunning, curious and quick, whereas hedgehogs are creatures of habit, which curl up at the sight of anything unfamiliar and use their prickly spines to repel unwelcome intruders. 

It is, I think, often possible to divide thinkers into hedgehogs and foxes, although I suspect that this exercise is just a bit of intellectual fun, rather than the basis of any serious system of classification. But what if we viewed the cider world in these terms? Off the top of my head, I can think of several cider companies that are archetypal hedgehogs or quintessential foxes. To my mind, maybe no cidery is a better example of a hedgehog than Devon’s Sprywood Cross. This company produces a single, Champagne Method cider from a blend of bittersweet and bittersharp apple varieties, which is patiently aged for five years before being released for sale. It is one of my very favourite Champagne Method ciders, and I must remember to review it one of these days. Needless to say, Sprywood Cross is a cidery that has a single defining idea – making the best possible Champagne Method cider, and it puts that idea into practice with an admirably single-minded devotion. 

At the opposite side of the hedgehog-fox spectrum lies Pilton, which is driven by such an irrepressible urge to innovate that it is perhaps the ultimate fox of the British cider scene. The word ‘innovative’ gets thrown around a lot these days. It often finds its way into corporate PowerPoint slides as a synonym for “I can’t think of another adjective”. But Pilton’s seemingly endless string of experiments are worthy of the epithet, because they push against the boundaries of what cider can be, and in some cases, entirely break them. I have no idea whether barrel-aged keeved cider blended with blackcurrant wine and dry-hopped with two kinds of hops really counts as cider. Some purists certainly wouldn’t think so. Yet I’m pretty sure that few other producers are making this unconventional drink, and that’s what makes it exciting. Cherry wine mixed with keeved cider and meadowsweet? Check. Co-fermented apple and quince juice? Check. Keeved cider blended with wood oven roasted bitter oranges and matured in Jamaican rum casks? Check. It’s all delightfully bonkers and nearly always delicious. 

There are advantages and disadvantages to both of these approaches to cider making. The hedgehogs’ unswerving devotion to doing one thing extremely well allows them to achieve high levels of consistency and makes it easier for them to secure customer loyalty. After all, someone who has fallen in love with a particular Champagne Method cider will probably want to buy more of that cider, and may not be too happy if it is discontinued in favour of a still cider or an ice cider, let alone an unusual blend of various fruits and spices. However, hedgehogs may find it difficult to generate buzz around their products and break into new markets. They sometimes risk being left behind by a cider market with an insatiable appetite for novelty. Foxes, by contrast, are temperamentally suited to setting new trends and generating excitement, as well as exploring new territory for cider. But they may sometimes struggle to establish a clear brand identity if they release a very wide range of different ciders in quick succession. As a general rule, companies should avoid trying to be everything to everyone. McDonald’s probably wouldn’t maintain its status as the leading fast food multinational for very long if it adopted the policy of becoming a sushi restaurant on Mondays, a French bistro on Tuesdays and an Italian trattoria on Wednesdays, since most McDonald’s customers just want burgers and fries. From a commercial standpoint, it’s always better to do one thing well (or even to a consistently mediocre level) than attempt to do too many things at once. 

Since foxes and hedgehogs both have their strengths and weaknesses, and neither approach is straightforwardly superior to the other, it’s likely that cideries will benefit from integrating elements of both approaches into their overall philosophy or ethos. In my view, the success of Ross on Wye is instructive in this respect. Ross on Wye’s core bottling, Raison D’être, is intended to be the purest expression of cider making at Broome Farm. It is notable for its high level of consistency, both in terms of its flavour profile and its invariable excellence. While each year’s bottling undoubtedly expresses the characteristics of the vintage, it is always unmistakably Raison D’être. Its many fans have a very good idea of what to expect when they buy it, and they are never disappointed. It is, in short, the creation of a committed and masterful hedgehog. But Ross on Wye also produces an exceptionally wide range of single-variety ciders and perries as well as numerous blends, many of which are not made every year. Some are aged in oak whereas others aren’t, some are bottled as Pét Nats whereas others are bottle conditioned, and some showcase distinctive rare varieties, whereas others are expressions of the blender’s skill. 

The genius of Ross on Wye therefore lies in the fact that it is simultaneously a fox and a hedgehog. Its spirit animal is the elusive hedgefox, which is so rare that it probably only exists in the darker recesses of my fevered imagination! Anyway, what I find really interesting is that as a hedgefox, Ross’s hedgehog tendencies and foxiness are totally inseparable. Its diverse array of ciders and perries share a distinctive Ross character and thus achieve a certain unity, because they are all determined by the sovereign principle of producing fully-fermented, dry ciders and perries that express varietal typicity and reflect their unique terroir. You won’t come across a Ross keeved cider or ice cider, because these methods just don’t reflect the Ross on Wye cider-making philosophy. You also won’t find a Ross cider that tastes like it was made anywhere but in Ross on Wye. In the final analysis, this company has the body of a fox, but is ruled by the head of a self-assured and strong-willed hedgehog, which expresses itself through an overarching consistency of method and an enduring sense of place. 

To my mind, no cidery on the east coast of the UK has yet reached the pre-eminent position of Ross on Wye, or achieved the remarkable unity in diversity that characterises its output. But I reckon that Sussex’s Ascension Cider stands as good a chance as any cider company of becoming the east coast’s answer to Ross on Wye. In the ten years or so in which Matt Billing has been making cider, Ascension has become one of the most exciting cider producers in the UK, with one foot firmly in the hedgehog camp and the other in the foxes’ den. 

Like Ross On Wye, Ascension is committed to producing natural ciders, fermented using wild yeasts and avoiding sugar and acid additions, although its session ciders are sweetened with apple juice. The twin principles of producing ‘natural’ cider and skilful blending provide the basic framework for all of Ascension’s cider making. Matt grows over 20 varieties of apples in his orchard in the village of Herstmonceux, and many of his ciders are single-variety bottlings made using minimal intervention methods. Ascension’s principal product lines include the Eclosion series of full-strength, single-variety ciders and the Wildwood series of blended ciders aged in Bourbon and Laphroaig  barrels, but Matt also produces a wide array of ciders that have been blended with other fruit juices, including redcurrant, pineapple, lemon, red grape and cranberry. These fruit ciders showcase his more experimental side, while staying true to his goal of producing wild-fermented cider that avoids artificial additives. 

Ascension’s ciders are available from their webshop and cost between £16.80 and £19.20 per pack of six 330ml cans (equivalent to between £2.80 and £3.20 per can). They can also be purchased individually from The Cat in the GlassCider Insider and a number of other online retailers. Today, I’ll be tasting my way through seven of Ascension’s canned ciders, including session ciders and several single-variety offerings. I’ll conclude by considering how Ascension is achieving a clear and well-regarded brand identity, while also pursuing originality and experimentation. 

Ascension – Pilot Sparkling Session Cider NV, 4.8%

Pilot is Ascension’s sparkling session cider, made using a blend of apples that were rejected by the supermarkets. It was fermented with wild yeasts and then sweetened with apple juice. 

How I served: Lightly chilled.

Colour: Slightly hazy rose gold, with fairly low carbonation. There’s a little fine sediment at the bottom of the can. 

On the nose: Freshly pressed dessert apple juice, accompanied by malolactic butteriness, a sprinkle of brown sugar and the gentle astringency of apple cores. It’s very fresh, fruity and clean, if a bit one-note in character.

In the mouth: Medium-plus in sweetness and creamy in texture, but counterbalanced by plenty of mouth-watering acidity. I get a little caramel and a hint of straw in the background, but this cider is dominated by the straightforward flavour of dessert apples. It slips down the throat with the greatest of ease and really reminds me of apple juice straight from the press, which always seems to taste infinitely better than any bottled juice. I’m generally quite resistant to the concept of session cider, because it all too often involves excessive dilution, artificial sweeteners and other such malevolent jiggery-pokery, but this cider meets the brief very well, and manages to be crowd-pleasing without tasting too commercial. 

In a nutshell: With its high level of drinkability and juicy flavour profile, I can’t imagine this displeasing anyone but the most obstinate of dry cider purists. One to be drunk by the pint in a pub garden, with a group of raucous friends.  

Ascension – ‘Per’ Sparkling Apple and Pear Cider NV, 4.8%

Per is a sparkling session ‘pear cider’ made using wild-fermented cider that was sweetened with pear juice. This juice was pressed from pears that were rejected by the supermarkets for being too small. 

How I served: Lightly chilled

Colour: Golden straw, with a very slight chill haze. Almost completely still, with just a hint of a sparkle.

On the nose: Very delicate, bordering on neutral. With some diligent sniffing, I get tinned pears in syrup, Appletiser and the suggestion of something floral. There is a distinct impression of sweetness, but overall this is one of the least expressive noses that I’ve encountered in a cider or perry. 

In the mouth: Extremely sweet, with insufficient acidity to prevent it from becoming cloying. The texture is viscous and almost grainy, which reinforces the impression of sipping the syrup from a tin of pears. To be brutally honest, the sweetness gives this more than a passing resemblance to commercial pear ciders, although it’s evident that it has a much higher juice content than Kopparberg and the like. I find the overbearing sweetness a bit disappointing, because I suspect that there’s a decent cider hiding beneath all that sugar. With its low acidity and fairly neutral, Pinot Grigio-like flavour profile, an unsweetened version would probably be a very versatile pairing for food. As it stands, however, the sweetness of the pear juice overwhelms the cider and the drink fails to achieve much in the way of balance. 

In a nutshell: The base cider is well made, but the sweetness is totally over the top for my tastes and on a par with many heavily sweetened supermarket ciders. Distinctly gloopy and definitely not for me. 

Ascension – Eclosion Series SV Rosette 2020, 7.1%

Eclosion Rosette is a single-variety cider made from the Rosette variety, which has marbled pink flesh and is descended from Discovery. Like all of the ciders in the Eclosion series, this cider was fermented using wild yeasts and bottled without dilution or artificial additives. 

How I served: Lightly chilled.

Colour: Rusty amber. Totally still, with no visible sediment. 

On the nose: Intensely red-fruited with astringent redcurrant, juicy red grapes and a hint of sun-kissed strawberry, complemented by tangy rosehips and the miscellaneous floral scents of hedgerows. On a bleak winter’s day, with the wind howling outside my window, this perfectly captures the olfactory essence of an English summer. It makes me long for the sun caressing my skin and the heady aromas of freshly-mown grass and roses in bloom.

In the mouth: A plethora of small red fruits unfolds on the palate and almost gives an impression of sweetness, but this cider is pretty much bone-dry, with relatively high acidity and some fine tea-like tannins. I get hints of dry leaves and barnyard, with mineral undertones of petrichor and a touch of something steely. The thing that I love the most about this cider is its irreducible duality; its juxtaposition of summer pudding flavours with a structure that borders on the austere. It draws you in with the languorous aromas of midsummer, then abruptly teleports you to early autumn, when a cold snap punctuates the warm, sunny days and the hedgerows are loaded with nature’s bounty. It’s the very definition of an iron fist in a velvet glove and I can’t get enough of it. 

In a nutshell: There aren’t many single-variety Rosette ciders on the market, but if this cider is anything to go by, then there should definitely be more! Although it’s completely still, it reminds me of good rosé Champagne, in the sense that it combines a pink fruitiness with a nonfrivolous and grown-up structure. I strongly recommend buying it by the case.  

Ascension – Eclosion Series SV Scrumptious, 7.3%

This single-variety cider was made using the popular Scrumptious dessert apple variety. Scrumptious is an early-ripening variety, which was developed in Kent in the 1980s and which counts Discovery and Golden Delicious as its parents. 

How I served: Lightly chilled

Colour: Still Sauvignon Blanc. Almost completely clear, with no sediment. 

On the nose: Very clean, crisp and aromatic, like a hypothetical blend of Loire Sauvignon Blanc and dry Vouvray. I get plenty of herbaceous honey and heady elderflower, accompanied by freshly-mown grass and sharp green apples. In the background, I detect a light but lingering hint of gunflint, which is reminiscent of a good Pouilly-Fumé. 

In the mouth: Bone dry and acid-driven, but refreshing and well-balanced. This is definitely a cider for fans of Loire Sauvignon Blanc – it even has the tell-tale notes of gooseberry, grass clippings and zingy lime zest. The texture is soft and creamy with no perceptible tannins, and I get a hint of meadow flowers as the glass warms in my hand.

While this cider has a lot to recommend it to Loire lovers, I don’t get the impression that it is trying to masquerade as white wine: Its undoubted vinous characteristics are complemented by mouth-puckering apple cores and a hint of barnyard, which serve as a reminder that we’re still in cider country here. There is a tingly, almost spirit-like note on the finish, which is accurately compared to Calvados in the tasting notes on the side of the can. 

In a nutshell: This isn’t a highly complex cider, but it is so perfectly well-balanced and thirst-quenching that it would make for ideal summer fare. Another dangerously drinkable cider from Ascension, which lives up to its varietal namesake. 

Ascension – Sonic Titan Heavy Cider, 8.2%

Sonic Titan is a strong, medium-dry cider made from a blend of apples, which is slightly sweetened with a small proportion of apple juice. 

How I served: Lightly chilled.

Colour: Pale gold, with moderate fizz. No sediment and a very slight chill haze. 

On the nose: High-quality honey, straw and dandelion flowers, with a tiny hint of elderflower. Very clean, fresh and inviting. Initially, there is a distinct impression of sorbitol sweetness that is strongly reminiscent of perry, but fresh yellow apples soon begin to emerge, alongside intriguing notes of iron ore. The minerality becomes more prominent with time, adding complexity and interest. I can’t wait to take my first sip. 

In the mouth: Given the apparent sweetness on the nose, this is surprisingly bone-dry and acid-driven, but with a smattering of mouth-puckering tannins on the finish. I get under ripe apples, fresh hay, wet slate and iron. A buttery malolactic character and delicate floral hints briefly become apparent, but soon recede in the face of acid, tannin and salinity. In one sense, this cider is pretty uncompromising: it is dominated by savoury, mineral flavours rather than by fruit. Amazingly,  it never becomes too austere or exacting, but rather remains eminently clean, crisp and thirst-quenching. It also hides its elevated ABV extremely well. This cider feels like it should be drunk by the pint, which is an odd thing to say about an 8.2% bruiser, and means that it has the potential to be extremely dangerous! 

In a nutshell: The technical faultlessness, dryness, firm structure and slatey minerality of this cider call to mind an Eastern Counties version of a Ross on Wye cider. That’s a very great compliment in my book! 

Ascension – Eclosion Series SV Russet 2020, 8.3%

Eclosion Russet is a single-variety cider made exclusively from wild-fermented Russet apples. 

How I served: Lightly chilled. 

Colour: With its rich amber hue, this is unusually dark for a single variety Russet cider. It has low carbonation and is almost completely clear. 

On the nose: At first sniff, this is reminiscent of a keeved bittersweet cider, with strong notes of tarte tatin, but they soon give way to rather more sombre aromas of dry leaves, toasted hazelnuts and polished oak furniture. I sense some prickly acidity and a whisper of oxidation. Could there be a touch of volatile acidity in there? 

In the mouth: Absolutely bone dry, but full-bodied and almost viscous, with a little tannin and higher than average acidity for a Russet cider. I get lots of nuts, varnished wood and a little barnyard, but none of the creaminess or butteriness that I often associate with Egremont Russet. The alcohol is quite prominent, causing this cider to feel a little disjointed. There are hints of the slightly astringent, mealy flesh of fresh Russet apples hovering in the background, but they are somewhat overwhelmed by a rather sherry-like oxidised note. I still can’t make my mind up about the acetic – if it’s there, then it’s definitely not at an uncomfortably high level, but I do get the sense that this cider has been exposed to rather too much air at some point in its life. 

In a nutshell: A strangely dark, oddly oxidative expression of Russet, with a flavour profile that is much further removed from white wine than any Russet cider that I’ve ever tasted. Definitely unique, but it doesn’t quite work for me. 

Ascension – Wrath Red Grape Cider Blend NV, 4%

Wrath is wild fermented cider blended with fresh apple and red grape juices. 

How I served: Lightly chilled

Colour: Pale copper, with mild to moderate carbonation. Fairly clear, with a little dark sediment at the bottom of the can. 

On the nose: Toffee apples and grape soda, with perhaps the merest whisper of acetic acid, although it’s barely noticeable. I get a handful of boiled sweets and forest fruit flavoured squash, with a stemmy juiciness that reminds me of wines made using carbonic maceration. The overall impression is pleasant, but maybe just a little dilute and confected for my tastes.

In the mouth: Medium in sweetness, but drier on the palate than on the nose, with a seam of zesty acidity that hovers at the threshold of volatility. Among wine critics, there is a school of thought that holds that as long as it doesn’t become prominent enough to be distracting, a little acetic acid can enhance the fruitiness of a wine. I’ve never really bought into this idea, but this cider-grape hybrid might just make a case for it, seeing as it’s both extremely fruity and a touch volatile. I get more of the boiled sweets and an interestingly pronounced flavour of rhubarb, alongside some crunch redcurrants and juicy raspberries. The sweetness feels slightly artificial to me and reminds me of those soft drinks made using Concord grapes, but the drink is ultimately redeemed by its crisp and thirst-quenching finish. 

In a nutshell: The sweet and sour red-fruited flavour profile, minimal perceptible tannin and nice zippy finish make this an easily crushable summer drink, although I do wonder whether I might like it even more if it wasn’t for that touch of volatile acidity, miniscule though it may be. 

Conclusion:

The seven ciders that I tasted today elicited an extraordinary range of emotions, from childlike glee, to admiration, to the occasional burst of frustration. To my mind, they are the creations of a talented and ingenious fox who is in touch with his inner hedgehog. As I see it, Ascension has two core strengths as a company: Firstly, Matt has an outstanding ability to produce full-strength, dry, unadulterated ciders that fully express the characteristics of the varieties that they are made from, as well as a genuine sense of place. The evocatively summery and whistle-clean Rosette is my pick of today’s bunch, but the Scrumptious and Heavy Cider aren’t far behind. All three are exceptional ciders that can compete on their own terms with the very best in the country. They make a strong case for the view that ciders produced from dessert apples can be just as exciting as those made from traditional West Country cider varieties. They also prove that cider doesn’t necessarily need to have come into contact with oak to be genuinely impressive. 

Secondly, Matt is capable of making session ciders that are accessible enough to attract a mainstream audience, yet interesting enough to appeal to cider enthusiasts, all while experimenting with a wide variety of different fruit combinations. This is a feat that not many cider makers can successfully pull off. As a ‘core’ cider, Pilot wouldn’t be out of place at a pub pump, but it could just as easily find a home in a cider geek’s fridge, and I’d personally quite like to see it gracing the supermarket shelves. It’s a rare example of a cider that could achieve almost universal popularity. Wrath does a good job of straddling the line between trendy co-ferments and commercial fruit ciders, and I’d be keen to try Matt’s other fruity creations, even if I think that his Eclosion and Wildwood series are more likely to be up my street.  

There were, admittedly, a couple of bumps along the road in today’s tasting session. I found the Eclosion Russet fascinating because it was so unlike any other Russet cider that I’ve tried, but the dark, broody, oxidative flavour profile wasn’t really to my taste. The Per’s flavour profile was disappointingly similar to a commercial ‘pear cider’, and I’m glad that it has recently been discontinued, because I don’t feel that it accurately reflects Ascension’s cider making philosophy or showcases Matt’s evident skill as a blender. When all’s said and done, however, these two ciders were just minor stumbling blocks in what turned out to be a pretty triumphant tasting. Most of the ciders that I tried today reinforce my belief that Ascension can successfully produce both terroir-based ciders and accessible session ciders, all under the broad umbrella of its ‘natural’  ethos. Matt is carving out a space in the market as one of the east coast’s rising stars, and Ascension is building a reputation as a brand that can make memorable single-variety ciders, harmonious blends and highly drinkable ‘fruit ciders’, without cutting corners or losing its sense of identity. As long as Matt’s foxy pursuit of new ideas and markets doesn’t outstrip his fundamental mission of producing honest ‘natural’ ciders, I therefore predict a very bright future for Ascension, in which this Sussex hedgefox becomes firmly established as a leading light of the British craft cider scene. 

This entry was posted in: Reviews

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Chris Russell-Smith is an avid wine and cider enthusiast. When he isn’t busy writing his PhD in philosophy or tasting wine and cider, he likes to experiment with home brewing. None of his fermented beverages deserves to be reviewed, but he is nonetheless occasionally proud of them.

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