We live in an attention economy. If you know how to capture enough attention, then fame and fortune are yours for the taking, as evidenced by the ever-growing number of so-called celebrities who seem to be famous just for being famous. Businesses are increasingly dependent on eyeballs and clicks for their revenue, to the point that attention has become a commodity in its own right. Social media companies sell the promise of our attention to advertisers, who are prepared to part with cold hard cash for the chance to potentially widen their customer bases. If you type the word “cider” into any search engine or social media site, the chances are that most of the top search results will be paid advertising of this sort.
At times, the attention economy makes me feel like a fish out of water; an analogue man living in a digital age. I highly doubt that I could provide a coherent account of what the various Kardashians do for a living, and I’m also pretty hopeless at using social media to promote my writing. I’m sure that I could become more adept at it with a bit of practice, but I suspect that this would probably require me to spend more time on social media and less time actually thinking and writing, which rather defeats the object as far as I’m concerned. Thankfully, I’m not dependent on cider writing for my income, which means that I can get away with choosing how much I want to engage with social media. Those who make a living from cider don’t always have that luxury, and often feel the need to deploy some kind of digital marketing strategy in order to promote their products.
If you’re a small-scale winemaker who is producing exceptional wines while living up a mountain with no internet connection, the chances are that sooner or later, you will be discovered by an enterprising wine importer, who will set you up with a lucrative distribution deal. Before you know it, you will be fêted by the wine cognoscenti and have a long line of wine-obsessed visitors at your gate, whether you like it or not. The cider industry doesn’t work like that. Producers have to scratch and claw for every morsel of attention, and some are much better-placed to obtain it than others. Unlike the mass-market producers, artisanal cideries rarely have the resources to employ professional social media managers or pay for corporate marketing campaigns. But even if we disregard the industrial giants of cider and focus our attention on the craft end of the market, it quickly becomes apparent that some cideries are significantly more successful than others at expanding their social media reach and driving customer engagement.
In my corner of cider Twitter, there are a handful of cideries that seem to have really harnessed the power of social media to communicate with their customers. They provide frequent updates about new releases, post lots of pictures of their ciders and their orchards, retweet announcements from their stockists and repost reviews from satisfied customers. As a result, they receive a lot more attention than their competitors, and their ciders have become highly sought-after. Unsurprisingly, several of these cideries are among the very best in the UK. As a matter of general consensus, Tom Oliver, Ross on Wye and Little Pomona are bona fide Grand Cru producers, which have substantial social media reach and dedicated fanbases. Snapping at their heels is an ever-growing number of exciting and ambitious up-and-comers, including Ascension, Artistraw and Duckchicken, who all seem to have a talent for grabbing the attention of committed cider lovers.
There is no doubt that all of these producers make exceptional ciders. They have access to high-quality apples from carefully tended orchards, possess in-depth knowledge of production methods, and are clearly willing to work unreasonably hard to make the very best cider possible. No craft cider maker can prosper without deep reserves of knowledge, talent, grit and determination. But in today’s craft cider industry, these attributes aren’t in themselves sufficient to ensure commercial success. The likes of Tom Oliver, Albert Johnson and Susanna and James Forbes are not only great cider makers, but also skilled communicators, who understand the power of digital marketing and use social media to great effect. They maximise their potential customer bases by having highly differentiated product ranges, which contain various different ciders to suit different palates and budgets. They have secured nationwide distribution through popular retailers like The Cat in the Glass, Scrattings and The Fine Cider Company. They have attractive, distinctive and eye-catching branding, which stands out on an Instagram feed. And perhaps most importantly, they have a proven track record of generating customer engagement and playing leading roles in the UK’s craft cider scene, both online and offline. They act as advocates for craft cider, mentor aspiring producers, educate cider lovers, organise festivals and tasting events, and stand at the forefront of discussions about how we can #rethinkcider in the 21st century.
These producers deserve a lot of credit for their important contributions to the growth of craft cider and the renewed interest in cider among serious drinks enthusiasts. They are producing a virtuous feedback loop, which benefits the craft cider scene as a whole. The more engagement that they generate on social media, the more that distributors show an interest in stocking their ciders and introducing them to new customers. A proportion of those customers will go on to buy a wide range of different ciders from different producers and take an interest in discussing cider on social media, thus generating more buzz and more sales for craft cider makers. A rising tide, as they say, raises all ships.
However, far from the online buzz and the flurry of Twitter announcements about new releases, the tide is going out for some lesser-known producers, leaving them fatally stranded on the shore. I think that it’s important to remember that the skills needed to secure distribution channels, create effective branding and drive customer engagement are entirely distinct from the skills needed to make excellent cider. While the producers that I have so far discussed possess both of these skill sets, there are other, talented cider makers who lack the skills or resources to market effectively. Some of these cider makers only sell their products direct from the cidery, supply the pub trade or have limited distribution through a network of local farm shops and off-licences. Companies that operate with these kinds of business models are largely dependent on word of mouth and footfall for their revenue.
In the past couple of years, cider companies with wide social media reach and national distribution have benefited from the burgeoning interest in cider on social media and the surge in people drinking at home during the COVID lockdowns. Conversely, the cideries that are primarily reliant on footfall and the pub trade have experienced a dramatic dwindling of sales. The future does not look bright for these companies. Some of them have already gone out of business, while others are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. For them, another lockdown, further rises in energy costs or an increase in cider duty could be the final nail in the coffin. In cider’s attention economy, the disparity between social media-savvy companies and those who lack the digital marketing skills to attract an online following leaves some producers out of the loop.
Some people might claim that these producers need to get with the times and adapt to survive: We live in the social media age, and businesses that fail to embrace the realities of the attention economy are simply destined to fail. I think that this view overlooks the fact that some cider makers come from rural communities and have worked their whole lives in the agricultural sector. A way of life that is devoted to cultivating trees and picking and pressing apples does not tend to equip people with the skills needed to succeed in the brave new world of digital marketing. Of course, it is always possible for those who don’t possess these skills to develop them, but people who have always worked in agriculture start at a disadvantage compared to those who have experience in other industries. There are a number of reasons for this: There is a rural-urban divide in internet access and connection speeds, with some parts of the countryside lacking broadband infrastructure. Moreover, social media hasn’t played as significant a role in the agricultural economy as in other fields, and agricultural workers are statistically less likely to be university-educated than those working in most other industries. There is consequently a digital skills gap between rural and urban areas. In light of this disparity, I think that it’s unreasonable to expect every cider producer to be proficient in digital marketing.
Besides, while the industry needs its flagship producers to push craft cider forward as a category by creating social media buzz and reaching out to new markets, it also needs local producers to quietly and diligently supply pubs and small businesses, tend to traditional orchards and preserve cider’s cultural heritage. When these producers go out of business, livelihoods are lost, orchards go into a state of decline and time-honoured ways of life become a thing of the past. The demise of a few small cideries would be a misfortune for the craft cider scene, but the loss of many would be downright disastrous. I often worry that in the wake of Brexit, COVID, the Ukraine war and the climate emergency, we are standing on the precipice of such a catastrophe.
In these economically precarious times, our reliance on social media is therefore a mixed blessing for the craft cider industry. On the one hand, Twitter and Instagram keep us up-to-date about new releases from some of our favourite cideries and provide us with opportunities to connect with like-minded enthusiasts. On the other hand, they sometimes give us quite a distorted and one-sided perspective on the cider scene, which excludes good producers who lack a digital marketing strategy or operate with a purely local business model. Like many of you, I get much of my information about cider through social media, but one of my resolutions for 2022 is to step out of my echo chamber and pay more attention to producers who aren’t featured on my feeds. To be absolutely clear, my complaint isn’t that the leading lights of the UK’s cider scene are overrated or overexposed. In my view, they wholly deserve all of the success and recognition that comes their way. The problem is rather that other good producers remain underrated and overlooked. Over the course of this summer, I therefore plan to visit more small cideries in person and review ciders from little-known cider makers.
Today, I’ll make a start on keeping my resolution by tasting two ciders made by producers in Devon who fly under the social media radar. The first cider that I’ll be reviewing is Crispin’s Crocus; a still, blended cider made using age-old methods. Crispin’s Cider produces a range of natural ciders from rare apple varieties hand-picked in traditional organic orchards. Its owner, Crispin Adams, has long been involved in community orchard projects and has a passion for preserving and making use of neglected orchards and apple varieties. His website has a fascinating page on some of the apples associated with Exeter and the surrounding areas, many of which I have never encountered before. Crispin extracts the juice for his ciders with a rack and cloth press, before fermenting it to dryness using the wild yeasts naturally present on the fruit. His ciders are never microfiltered, force carbonated or pasteurised, and they contain no sulphites, artificial additives or sweeteners.
Natural ciders and rare apple varieties have become all the rage in the craft cider scene, so I find it somewhat astonishing that Crispin’s ciders aren’t more widely known and that they sell for such ridiculously low prices. At the time of writing, 750ml bottles of Crocus are available from Scrattings for an absurdly cheap £4.95. Unfortunately, the attention that I’ll be devoting to his cider today is a case of too little, too late. This will probably be your last chance to get your hands on any of Crispin’s ciders, because he recently announced that he will cease trading at the end of this financial year, citing the impact of lockdowns on small businesses as the reason for his decision. I’ll be sad to see him go and I wish him all the best in his future endeavours.
Crispin’s ‘Crocus’, 7%, NV – review
How I served: Cellar temperature (about 13℃).
Colour: Luminous amber, verging on bronze. There isn’t a bubble in sight, but there is a lot of yeast sediment at the bottom of the bottle, which calls for some careful pouring.
On the nose: An expansive but precise nose, replete with ripe red apple, tangerine peels, sweet tarte tatin, forest floor and aromatic pipe tobacco. Perfumed, musky and autumnal, evoking long walks amongst the fallen leaves and cosy evenings in front of a roaring fire.
In the mouth: Compared to the voluminous nose, the palate is dark, brooding and unapologetically pre-modern. The cider is bone dry, with very firm yet integrated tannins and well-judged acidity forming a tense, almost unyielding structure that initially borders on the austere. It takes a few moments for my palate to adjust to the severity, but I soon come to realise that this structure provides the frame in which a multitude of shifting flavours gradually reveal themselves. Waxy apple skins are accompanied by bitter Seville oranges, before giving way to deeper and meatier bass tones of autumn leaves, old books, polished oak and umami-packed bone broth. This might all sound quite heavy and uncompromising, but the sappy acidity and lip-smackingly saline finish keep it light on its feet. At the very edge of my perception, I get hints of well-aged Cognac and an evanescent but unmistakable suggestion of wild strawberries.
For me, this cider feels authentic with a capital A; the Platonic ideal of still Devon cider in its purest and most primordial form. It is an atavism, which whispers fables of enchanted orchards, gnarled apple trees, straw-lined cider presses and a way of life that feels altogether remote from our 21st Century existence. It is as immovable as a monolith, immune to fads and fashion; the unchanging face of rural Devon standing fast against the sweeping tides of modernity. It is also extremely well made, with no trace of the volatility that can sometimes characterise the ‘farmhouse’ style and enough cerebral complexity to satisfy even the most exacting of cider snobs. Beneath its stern exterior lies a plethora of fascinating flavours and textures, which reward the patient and contemplative drinker.
In a nutshell: Nowhere but the West Country can produce cider like this. It is as much a part of our cultural heritage as any monument or listed building, and it deserves to be protected and celebrated. Crispin is clearly a talented producer and his retirement from the cider industry is a loss to us all. Buy this cider while you still can, and take your time to appreciate it as a window onto a world that is all but extinct.
The second cider that I’ll be reviewing today is one of my firm favourites, which I recently realised that I’ve never written about. Sprywood Cross is a family-owned cidery located in the Torridge Valley. Its owners, Russell and Jo Homan, produce a single, Traditional Method cider from a blend of West Country cider apples picked from their own orchards. They grow and use a wide range of different varieties in their cider, including well-known stalwarts such as Yarlington Mill and Kingston Black, alongside rarer Devon varieties such as Payhembury, Paignton Marigold, Halstow Natural and Billy Down Pippin. However, perhaps the most remarkable thing about their cider is that it undergoes at least five years of bottle ageing on the lees before being disgorged and released for sale. Now that’s what I call a labour of love.
In spite of its laborious and time-consuming production method, the awards that it has won and its smart, Champagne-style packaging, Sprywood Cross receives precious little social media attention and no longer has national distribution. Until quite recently, it could be purchased from Scrattings, which ships nationwide, but it is currently only available from the local retailers listed on this webpage.
Sprywood Cross, 7.5%, NV – review
How I served: Slightly chilled.
Colour: Antique brass, with excellent clarity and a persistent, finely-beaded mousse. A perfect level of carbonation for the style.
On the nose: Higher-toned and more springlike than Crispin’s Crocus, with strong aromas of apple juice fresh from the press, sweated yellow apples, meadow flowers and new-mown hay. Its bouquet is significantly more fragrant and, well, appley, than most Traditional Method ciders made from dessert and culinary fruit, and it definitely couldn’t be mistaken for a sparkling wine. In the background, I sense a bready, leesy character and hints of iron ore. A very clean, fresh and inviting nose.
In the mouth: It would be hard to find a more complex and complete Traditional Method cider than this. It starts off fresh and zingy, with a green malic character and steely acidity underpinning the broader bittersweet fruit. A deep, mineral undercurrent of iron and chalk begins to emerge, and the fruit becomes riper and more rounded as the glass warms in my hand. The sleek and supple tannins are always present but never obtrusive, having been softened by the long years that the cider spent on the lees. If this were Champagne, it would be categorised as Brut, but the fruit is so rich that it almost seems sweet, and there’s a biscuity, autolytic character that reminds me of Bollinger.
One fascinating thing about this cider is that it is unusually temperature-sensitive, yet equally delicious served chilled or a few degrees warmer. Serve it straight from the fridge and it’s all about the sharps; a riot of green apple skins and vivacious, mouth-watering acidity, which make for a perfect apéritif. But as it approaches room temperature, it reaches a crescendo of bittersweet fruit, wrapped up in velvety and perfectly integrated tannins that have just about enough grip to stand up to a hunk of steak. Either way, it never loses its impeccable balance, creamy effervescence or crisp and thirst-quenching finish.
In a nutshell: A refined, elegant and powerful Traditional Method cider, which deserves pride of place at any celebration. A masterclass in blending, which also makes a strong case for the benefits of long bottle maturation.
So there we have it; two entirely different but equally outstanding ciders from two highly accomplished producers, which inexplicably seem to have less of a combined social media following than the average cat. They both make exemplary use of rare apple varieties, masterfully employ time-honoured production methods and express a real sense of place. They are also both undervalued in today’s market, which is definitely a godsend in this time of rapidly rising prices.
Crispin’s Crocus is an imposing edifice of a cider. Although I have fallen for its rustic charms, I shouldn’t neglect to mention that its resolutely non-commercial style is likely to be divisive. It’s probably best to avoid serving it to your Magners-swigging mates, unless you really want to put them off craft cider for good. However, if you’re enough of a purist to enjoy still, dry, tannic ciders with flavour profiles that aren’t straightforwardly ‘fruity’, then this is a compelling example of the style. I hope that when you taste it, you’ll be transported, as I was, to another time and place, far removed from the hustle and bustle of your day-to-day life. I also hope that Crispin continues to make cider in some capacity, because his Crocus is both unique and endlessly engrossing.
For my tastes, Sprywood Cross is a world-class Traditional Method cider and a perfect marriage of apples, method and time. It saddens me to think that I won’t be able to acquire any more of it once my small stock has run out, and that many other cider lovers will never have the opportunity to taste it at all. When ciders as good as Crispin’s Crocus and Sprywood Cross stop being produced or lose their stockists, we can only conclude that there’s something badly amiss in the cider industry. In order to fix the problem, I suspect that we need to get offline, start visiting small craft cideries and buy directly from them as much as we can. Admittedly, not every cider that you’ll encounter in the course of your explorations will be as noteworthy as Crispin’s Crocus or Sprywood Cross, but I’m firmly convinced that there are plenty of exciting ciders to be discovered by those of us who are prepared to travel off the beaten track. When you come across an overlooked producer who is making excellent cider and who would benefit from more exposure, please shout about them from the rooftops. And don’t forget to also reach out and let me know about them. If I can get hold of their ciders, I’ll use my platform on Cider Review to taste and review them. I’d be especially interested in hearing about companies that are struggling financially in the current economic climate, or which are owned by people from minority groups that are underrepresented in the cider industry. In the meantime, I will conclude this article by wishing Crispin’s Crocus and Sprywood Cross a fond farewell. Whatever the future of craft cider may hold, I know that I’ll always be able to treasure my memories of the time that I spent with them. In the end, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.