Champagne method cider from bittersweet apples. A Cornish answer to French Pommeau. Ice cider aged seven years in cask and single variety cider from a tannic Lombardy apple. Triple fermented dry Norman cider and Seattle perry from French pear varieties. Bittersweet blends from Welsh hills and Devonian coasts. Keeves from a Scottish walled garden. Pét nat Stoke Reds from opposite sides of the world.
“What makes the Cider Salon special?” A question rolling around my head on the Reading to Bristol train in the morning, the return journey later that night and again today as I sit down to write this piece.
By the measure of all drinks shows across all categories, the objective answer is “not all that much”. You have the option to taste far more and from a far wider range of countries and producers at many a wine, beer or spirits show. Most of them last longer than the Salon’s three-or-so hours, and occupy bigger spaces. Even within cider there are events offering more individual expressions to taste. Reading Festival (once it returns), Bath & West. Various other beer shows have upped their cider offering admirably and significantly too.
And yet The Cider Salon is special. Indeed among the countless drinks shows I am lucky enough to have attended, it stands out as almost unique. But why?
The buzz in Bristol’s Trinity Centre this year felt somehow different to the slightly awkward fusion of masked-up trepidation and released-again exuberance that characterised the 2021 iteration. Although, as ever, the space in the venue felt a little pinched for the numbers that descended upon it, there was a more relaxed and settled atmosphere. A sense, perhaps, that the organisers – and indeed most of the exhibitors – were fully comfortable with the format and the rhythm. Or perhaps that was just me.
There was a freshness too. Without comparing sheets I can’t say for certain, but instinctively there seemed to be a greater swelling of new names on the bill than in the last two or three years. Ivor’s, Welsh Mountain, Wild West, Bauman’s, Seattle Cider Company, Tallship, Ripe. Each one, tellingly, fitting into the Salon as though they had been there through all four editions.
The highest compliment I can pay the show is that I had brought a notebook for the sole purpose of recording the real highlights, yet there was barely a single table that didn’t leave me reaching for the biro. Although, for timing reasons, drinkers and producers are asked not to engage too deeply in individual conversations, almost everyone was happy to chat and keen to delve into the details of fruit, method and place. The international representation, whilst understandably small, showed magnificently; Domaine Dupont as excellent as ever, Oregon’s Bauman’s and Lombardy’s Eranomele a revelation, whilst Eden’s Falstaff 2013 and Seattle’s 2018 perry jostled for my pick of the day.
Shows aren’t designed for deep appreciations of individual expressions. Rather their format suits broad overviews, explorations and discoveries; quick first impressions. General senses rather than detailed tasting notes. So what were mine?
Firstly, my long-held suspicion that 2020 was a very good quality vintage for UK cider seems to be bearing out. After a relatively indifferent 2019, in which outstanding ciders were certainly made, but in which the overall level was perhaps not quite in the same league as some previous years, the 2020s I’ve made my way through and which I tasted at the Salon spoke of excellence more or less across the board. Not as big and ripe and boozy as 2018, sure, but aromatic and textural, with marvellous clarity of flavour. They reminded me of 2017, perhaps my previous favourite overall cider vintage. A year to go long on, if your tastes align with mine.
The quality of 2020 was present everywhere, evinced by the likes of Wilding and by the superb as-yet-unreleased Borders Bittersweet from Welsh Mountain, but to my mind was perhaps best exemplified by the always-reliable Smith Hayne, whose red-dot Special Reserve has seen a triumphant return and whose yellow-dot Méthode Traditionelle was another of my picks of the day. A reminder that I really ought to cover their 2020s here properly sometime imminently, and that I must get myself over to Devon sooner rather than later.
Other impressions? Cider – or rather the sorts of cider offered at the Salon – seems, at least to me, to be slowly tacking in a gradually-drier direction. A few years ago keeves seemed to dominate the available 750s, and whilst they were still very much in evidence this year, drier, often fully-dry pét nats, traditional methods and even, saints preserve us, still ciders seemed to match them at least bottle for bottle. (Find & Foster’s Root was a showstopper in that latter category). Again, no hard evidence for this; merely an impression. But certainly there were very few bottles on show which hadn’t crossed that nebulous line in the fermentation process when apple juice stops tasting of juice and starts tasting of cider.
Similarly, my inclination is that more and more 750 ml bottles are upping their acidic components. Acidity, of course, has always been a key element to many, many ciders – both in the east and west of the country – but my feeling, and as with everything above, a feeling is all it really is, is that the number of bottlings in which the component of acidity was more notable than the component of tannin was far higher than vice versa. The increasing influence of wine and winemaking on cider? Adam’s individual confirmation bias? Who can say?
I’d have liked to have seen more perry, but on the one hand that may just be a personal thing – what even is my marker for ‘enough perry’? – and on the other hand I didn’t make it to the likes of Oliver’s or Butford Organics, where perry was more in evidence. So quite possibly my fault. All the same, I think there might be a lot to be said for a fringe perry event next year, and consider my hat thrown into the ring if the Salon organisers want someone to put one on…
My predominant impression though, mulled over in the Salon’s aftermath, was of the confidence the event projected. And the more I think about it, the more I realise that this, above all, is what makes the Cider Salon special.
For so long, cider – or at least full-juice cider – has been shy; retiring. Has eschewed the limelight; been the drink of the in-the-know, of those who lived in or travelled to the rural nooks of its conception. Its shows, on the whole, have been local, regional, have been taped on to beer-centric events, have been mainly from the bag-in-box format with limited opportunity for direct discussion with makers on matters of method and fruit and orchard.
Someone suggested at the aftershow drinks that the Salon was only a showcase for one form of cider, but to my mind nothing could be further from the case. There was such astonishing diversity on show; such an array of apples and techniques, united only by a bottling format and a desire to produce and present the best cider of which each maker was capable.
Visit the orchards of a producer like Artistraw, like Welsh Mountain, like Burrow Hill, and the Cider Salon seems like something from another world. From these rugged, remote, rural crannies of woodland and stream and hedge and crag to a high-end, smartly-bottled show in the urban heart of Bristol. A place where cider isn’t the side-act to wine or beer; where it is not only offered, but is put on a pedestal as something to awe and dazzle and be coveted. A format to show new drinkers that here is something special; extraordinary. A drink they thought they knew, yet made and presented as they might never have imagined. Not shrinking from the limelight but swaggering into it, confident of its place; its belonging. Not severing the link between bottle and orchard, but strengthening it; taking newcomers by the hand and leading them virtually through the apple trees, one glass – one revelation – at a time.
Indeed the most extraordinary thing, when considering the Cider Salon, is to think of some of the world class producers – from Britain alone – who weren’t there this year. Ross on Wye. Nightingale. Skyborry. Cwm Maddoc. Bartestree. Caledonian. Chalkdown. Thornborough. The list could go on and on and on – to say nothing of the hundreds upon increasing hundreds of ciders from around the world that would effortlessly light up the Salon through their presence. The absence of Caledonian owed to the fact that on the same day, hundreds of miles to the north, they were busily joining other Scottish producers in the business of showing that country just how exciting its own cider scene currently is.
Make no mistake – we are living globally in the best time to be a cider and perry drinker that there has ever been. Think about that. Think about how special that is. If we want this era, this golden cider era, to continue; for more producers to step up, for existing producers to grow in size and in ambition; then cider needs to swagger. It needs to step into places of which it has previously been shy. It needs to meet people who have not experienced it – or experienced its best – and it needs to meet them in their places, not expect those people to come and find it. It needs to step into the limelight and say “here I am. This is what I can be. I think you’ll like me”.
So perhaps it was fitting that so many of us – makers and drinkers alike – later sat down together drinking cider at Burum Collective’s informal afterparty at the Left Handed Giant Brewery and Taproom. Cider stepping confidently into new places again. Meeting new people. Filling fresh glasses. Feeling as though it naturally belonged.
The Cider Salon may not be perfect. It may, in several respects, be a work in progress. But more than any other British event it has given a broad swathe of aspirational cider that elevated platform. That presence. That swagger. It has created something which didn’t previously exist and which has the power to change minds forever. That, I think, makes it very special indeed.
Many thanks to Ian (@cidersleuth on instagram) and James Forbes of Little Pomona for the images in this article.