A mini-milestone today, if you’ll excuse a dollop of self-indulgence: the 150th article I’ve written on Cider Review and the cider column on Malt that spawned it. Which seems an awful lot, especially given all but one of them have been written since December 2019. (The first was penned in September 2018 – my strike rate has improved a bit since then…)
Along the way I’ve reviewed 436 ciders and perries from 106 producers, published 29 full-length interviews, met any number of fascinating people, gawped at a good few orchards, indulged my taste for purple prose, been lucky enough to contribute to a few other publications, made more mistakes than I’d care to admit and worn out the ‘c’ key on my laptop.
I’d like to think that I’ve learned a few things along the way too so, inspired by James’ ‘Back to the Future’ piece of last year, here follows a handful of accumulated pennyworths and observations I’d pass on to my past self, or to any other aspiring cider and perry scribbler.
There is no substitute for visiting a cidery and meeting the makers.
Almost every word I’ve written on cider has been from a kitchen table in Reading, glass and spittoon to hand. The subject is fascinating enough, and the product delicious enough, that my imagination can be caught despite those somewhat quotidian surroundings. But it is when I have gone to the orchards, talked to the makers, tasted in situ and allowed myself to be swept up by the beauty and drama and passion and romance and industriousness of it all that my understanding is truly furthered, my conviction strengthened and my soul filled. Orchards, cider and cidermaking are tactile, visual, sensual subjects driven by people whose stories are compelling, engrossing and rich. The first article I ever wrote on cider would not have been possible had I not visited the cidery in person, and every visit since has come with a fresh dosage of wonder and joy. There is simply no more fertile source of inspiration.
Learning from other drinks is only a benefit.
I have been fascinated by whisky for well over fifteen years, worked in the wine industry for eight, am now employed partially by a rum distillery and am increasingly interested in coffee, beer and a handful of other drinks besides. Interesting potations are my work, my play and my joy, and although that comes with its own obvious hazards, I wouldn’t change the course of my career or my hobbyism for the world. And everything I have read, learned, seen and tasted in any of those drinks has fed back in some way to my understanding of cider.
The best conversations about cider that I have had have all come via a group of friends comprising, in addition to cider makers, wine, beer, coffee and spirits professionals. Omnibibularity, or Compound Drinking, as it has come to be fondly known, is an inestimable blessing to cider. It opens so many gateways to other drinks, new drinkers and fresh ways of thinking. It doesn’t weaken cider’s identity, it helps more people to understand it better. Parochialism achieves nothing.
You can’t please all readers all the time.
Some people don’t read tasting notes. Some people hate preamble. Other folk think tasting notes are pointless, or complain when there isn’t enough preamble. There are those who want criticism, those who want facts, facts, facts, those who want producer profiles and those who just want the feels. And there is absolutely a place for all of the above, but honestly, thinking about all the different things that all the different readers might want is exhausting and stifling. You are only one writer. Write what you want to, and don’t worry about anyone else. (I am awful at bearing this point in mind).
A writer’s voice is the product of their life’s terroir; you cannot have someone else’s.
All you have at the end of the day are your own words and your own experiences. Yes, they may draw on those you’ve read and those you’ve heard, but you can’t make an exact copy of those voices any more than an actor can physically be the character they’re portraying. At best you’ll produce a reasonable facsimile that still doesn’t have the identity and power of the real thing. Finding your own voice, developing it and deriving confidence from it is the single best thing a writer can do. Try not to worry about what anyone else is saying, or how they are saying it. Even the people you most admire likely have their own insecurities in this respect. And no one is as good at sounding like you as you are.
Know your place…
You’re just a cider blogger and, by definition in terms, a parasite on the industry. You require it for validation – the reverse is not the case. Your word isn’t gospel, you’re not a teacher. You have opinions and a domain name. There will always be things you don’t know; there will always be people who know more about something than you do. In fact the best thing you can do is accept that everyone knows at least one thing that you don’t, and that your job is to uncover what that thing is. Two ears, one mouth as they say.
…but back yourself.
Your opinions and experience are valid and hard won. The comments section and the rights of response are important (you may get a lot of these; brace yourself). And yes, you should always admit if you get something wrong (you will). But if you’ve done the research, the tasting, the work, you have as much right as anyone to put it forward. Cider needs more voices, not fewer. Yours is vital. Others do not necessarily know more about everything than you do, however vaunted and experienced they may be.
Preference is vital to effective criticism.
I love Foxwhelp, Yarlington Mill, Kingston Black, Dabinett, Discovery, most Russetts, Thorn, Red Pear, the Huffcaps, Butt Pear and Plant de Blanc and though I’m open to exceptions which prove the rule I’m not generally too fond of Jonagold, Katja, Gilly or Conference. I have pretty high tolerance for both acid and tannin, and I think that sweet ciders lacking in either are generally unbalanced. My mileage for oak is pretty high (I’m a whisky and rum writer by trade after all) but, whilst I might find them tasty, ciders dominated by a fruit or flavouring which isn’t apple leave me a little intellectually unstimulated. The more a maker tells me about their fruit and orchard the more positively disposed I am likely to be towards their creations. If I know a cider or perry to be chaptalised or artificially sweetened (and you can usually tell from the taste) I tend to switch off. I’m not a big fan of volatile acidity in cider at almost any level, and TCA is a significant bugbear, though I seem to be more forgiving of a (tiny) touch of the right strain of brettanomyces in the right cider and at the right level.
Tasting is intensely personal and heavily subjective, and it’s very embarrassing when critics set themselves up as voices of objective reason in this regard. There’s only one way in which I can be any use to you as a taster, and that’s by being transparent in what I’m tasting, open about and consistent in my preferences and clear in how I’ve reached my conclusions, so that you can gauge where your own preferences and tastes might lie by comparison. There’s actually a huge amount of consensus in cider and perry – show me the cider lover who is uninterested in the latest release from Oliver’s, Little Pomona, Ross on Wye – but it’s stupid to pretend that we don’t have our own little idiosyncrasies of preference, and as a critic it’s important to wear those on our sleeves. They don’t make you “wrong”. They make you normal. On a similar note…
Tasting notes are personal, but be aware that people use them.
Some people buy bottles off the back of what’s written about them, some people just want to read something evocative. There’s probably a happy medium to be found here, and in any case your own tasting notes are so intensely personal that you shouldn’t write them in any way but the one that makes you feel most comfortable. Bear in mind though that words like “funk” and “twang”, as euphemisms for faults, may provoke someone to spend money on something they won’t enjoy. Of course, to a certain extent, that’s their lookout, but there’s a lot to be said for clarity amidst the inherent self-indulgence of a good tasting note. On which subject …
There’s still a lot of faulty liquid around, and it does need discussing…
The simple truth is that there’s a lot of cider being sold – at every price tier – that contains high levels of acetic acid (vinegar), ethyl acetate (nail varnish remover), mouse, TCA, oxidation, H2S, Brettanomyces (the bad, stinky sort) or general microbial spoilage. It’s very annoying when you spend your own money and find something to contain these characteristics, especially given they are not (for obvious reasons) generally advertised on labels. I also find that the majority of pubs, not being familiar with these characteristics, won’t accept them as faults and refund your purchase. And it’s even more concerning when cider retailers actively promote bottles, including expensive bottles, which are affected in any of the ways above.
This site began and exists first and foremost as a guide written for and by consumers. We exist to serve the drinker, not the industry, and the cider drinker is more at risk of buying faulty products than the consumer of any other drink I can think of offhand. In my opinion that constitutes a barrier to entry for potential drinkers and a serious problem for the category. So yes, it needs to be discussed openly and frankly. We’ve tried to do that from the start, and will continue to where we believe it to be necessary.
…but it mustn’t dominate the conversation.
We write about cider because it’s something we love. We’ve tasted it at its best and we want to share and celebrate it. At the end of the day, faulty cider is a blot on the copybook, not a reflection of the copybook itself. If we want the category to thrive and grow (and we do) our foremost purpose should be to enthuse, to champion, to show people just why there’s something here worth getting excited about. Writing about cider and perry is different to writing about wine or whisky, because we are building a world almost from the ground up. There is a very real chance, when you write about cider, that it will be the first thing on the subject that someone else reads. As much as it’s important to be cogniscent of the category’s challenges, we do need to be sure that we’re building on the firmest of foundations. There’s so much to marvel at and take joy in, and so much to be lost by focussing only on where cider might do better. I’ve not always remembered that, and will try to in the future.
I doubt whether any other drink has cider’s ease of access to the best makers.
In my years of writing about cider and perry there hasn’t been a single instance in which I have reached out to a maker asking whether I might visit and ask questions, and not received a reply in the affirmative. Long before I wrote anything on the subject, before they knew me whatsoever, the likes of the Johnsons at Ross on Wye, the Forbeses of Little Pomona and Tom of the eponymous Oliver’s took the time and patience to chat to me in unlimited detail, to talk me through what they were making and how they were making it and to answer every question I had with absolute transparency. I can’t imagine the same thing happening with the best makers in any other sector of the drinks industry, and I hope that all the producers who have been kind enough to host me since know how special their generosity is and how grateful I am for it.
Transparency is fundamental.
Drinkers deserve to know what’s in their glass and the clearer a producer can make it, the happier I will generally be. I sit at the nerdier end of the scale, so I’m interested in the nitty gritty for interest’s sake, but as we’ve covered fairly frequently here there’s a lot of cider that contains high quantities of added sugar, artificial flavouring, dilution and so on, and the consumer ought to be informed of this, as they can’t be expected to just know.
But transparency works both ways, and must also be provided by writers. I’ve touched on it slightly above in term of disclosing preferences, but it also applies to freebies, samples, relationships with producers and so on. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with accepting samples (in my opinion) so long as you make it clear to your reader and don’t cede editorial control or compromise on your honest opinion. It’s really just a case of providing clarity.
There’s a lot of schadenfreude about.
People love a hatchet job. A bit of what gets bandied about as “refreshing honesty”. (Although glowing praise, however merited, is never seen as “refreshingly honest”. Only withering criticism). The fact is that if I wrote an article entitled “ten ciders that are riddled with acetic acid” or “here’s what’s wrong with Strongbow Dark Fruits”, I’d get infinitely more hits than I would for writing, say, a piece on the culture of perrymaking in Mostviertel, which would take far more effort to put together. This isn’t to delegitimise criticism, which is, after all, a huge part of this site’s raison d’être. But it’s easy to become dispirited – and dangerously tempting to play to the gantry – when your sense is that people would prefer to boo than to cheer.
Labels and personalities matter.
People say it’s only the cider itself that matters, and to a large extent it is, but we live in an increasingly visual world and it’s small wonder that many of the most hyped producers are those who put the most thought and effort into their designs. Customers buy with their eyes, and they also buy from people they like, which is why producers who use social media effectively also do well.
Online cider merchants are the single biggest factor in cider’s rise.
Imagine if there hadn’t been a Scrattings when we all found ourselves indoors back in March 2020 with nothing much else to do. We could (and we did) buy direct from producers, but if you’re anything like me you want a mixture of different drinks, not just (or not always) twelve of the same thing from the same person. Until Scrattings, multi-producer mixed cases simply weren’t much of a thing. The Fine Cider Company had some brilliant options, but they’ve always maintained a deliberately slim range of makers, and in any case they mainly sold to restaurants pre-pandemic. Scrattings were the great enablers of my early cider reviews, and of the swell of interest in interesting cider generally. They’ve since been joined by the likes of Aeble, Fram Ferment and especially The Cat in the Glass, and the concurrent boom in choice for the drinker has been a joy to witness and experience. Right now, the most important person in the world of aspirational British cider isn’t a maker and certainly isn’t a communicator. It is probably Nicky Kong.
People care about, in this order: Producer, process, apple, orchard, place.
Some ‘celebrity’ apples (really just Foxwhelp and Kingston Black, possibly Yarlington Mill, maybe Dabinett and, increasingly, Discovery as well) might nip ahead of process, but on the whole that order holds pretty solid. I list ‘orchard’ as separate to ‘place’, even though somebody on twitter pointed out that they are the same thing, simply because ‘orchard’ accounts for relevant factors which place does not – age of tree, blend of varieties and so forth. As to ‘place’, I’m really talking about what wine folk call terroir; the 3D effect of soil, land and microclimate upon a plant. Intellectually, I know it matters. I have seen it ad infinitum in wine, and I am lucky enough to be involved with the project that has proven it to be of potential importance in whisky as well.
But most cider producers, like most whisky producers, are not especially interested in terroir, and are not interested in reflecting it through their drinks. Which is perfectly fine – you can make a perfectly delicious drink with no focus on terroir whatsoever – but has given rise to suggestions that terroir makes no difference, that it is irrelevant, and similar dismissals besides. I find this a little depressing. I happen to think that terroir – that the place in which a plant grows can directly affect the flavours of the drink that plant produces – is the most fascinating and remarkable thing in drinks. It places emphasis on environment and ingredient, which can only be a positive, and I think it offers infinite avenues of exploration. Indeed I believe it is the one true inimitable, besides the hand of a specific maker, that a cider can possess.
Whilst producer and process are unquestionably fascinating, fundamental and far simpler to explain and grasp, I would love terroir to be discussed more; to be of more interest to drinkers, and I hope that those commentators who dismiss it out of hand will ultimately rethink their position. It is striking, when considering the cideries who do take an overt interest in terroir – the likes of Eve’s, Little Pomona, Wilding, Bordelet, increasingly Ross on Wye to name but five – that they almost uniformly sit in what many would feel to be cider’s top tier. I don’t think this is a coincidence and I am greatly encouraged by it. Don’t expect me to shut up about the t-word any time soon.
Cider is still too insular.
Almost whenever we write about ciders from outside the UK, digital crickets chirp. (Other than when we write about Kertelreiter and are besieged by Barry’s fan club, or if we write about someone globally renowned like Eric Bordelet). Generally though, set pieces on the likes of Normandy, Austria, the Finger Lakes and so on go down pretty poorly, and I think that’s a shame. Perhaps it’s simply that there’s so much cider in the UK that writing about the produce of the otherwheres of the world is a bit like writing about Chilean Merlot on a French wine blog. Nonetheless, I feel firmly that whilst so many incredible things are happening in this country’s cider scene, some of the most exciting things in cider are taking place beyond our borders, and it’s entirely to our benefit to be aware of them.
Direct interviews are invaluable and most people are happy to offer them.
My old Malt colleague, Taylor, taught me the value of letting people tell their own stories in their own voices, and I would urge anyone writing about anything to follow his lead. The couple of dozen interviews we’ve published on Cider Review contain the majority of the most informative and interesting information on the site; information to which I could not otherwise possibly have had access. I’m continually amazed at how free people are with their knowledge, experience and time, and to have had the likes of Andrew Lea, Elizabeth Pimblett, Albert Johnson, Jim Chapman, Camille Guilleminot, Tom Oliver (twice!), Eleanor Leger, Gabe Cook, Michelle McGrath and so many more besides all add their insights to our hobbyist website is little short of mind-blowing.
Taste, taste, taste.
There’s simply no experiential substitute for building up a mental encyclopaedia of flavour. Everything you taste has the potential to broaden your mind, your world and your palate. Try everything – not just cider or perry. Make notes. Figure out why you like it or why you don’t. Never miss an opportunity to taste something from a new place or producer. Never assume that something, however seemingly humble, isn’t worth your time.
Cider communication is richer when it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
When I started writing about cider I was phenomenally lucky in the support I was given by Susanna Forbes. Susanna has achieved more in drinks generally and cider in particular than I could ever dream of, yet was prepared to give the utmost support, advice and encouragement to a complete newcomer. During my first year of cider writing I benefited further from being a part of the Malt team, and from editors who were generous and supportive to a fault.
It isn’t always the case that drinks writers lift each other up (I’m probably guilty of not doing s as often as I should) and as I focussed more and more on cider I found my old support network eroding a little. It has often been a fairly lonely gig, and if I’m honest I’ve occasionally been given the impression that I’m imposing on other peoples’ turf. Whereas I never really felt imposter syndrome when I wrote about whisky, it has been a sometimes disturbingly-regular feature of my cider writing experience. When Malt looked as though it was coming to an end, I couldn’t face the prospect of setting up a website on my own, and I will always be grateful that James, whose writing so inspired me at the start of my own cider journey, was prepared to come on board as co-editor. I am lucky enough to be part of a WhatsApp group of miscellaneous cider bozos which for the best part of two years now has been an invaluable source of encouragement, inspiration and friendship. They know who they are and I hope they know that I wouldn’t have the courage to do any of this without them.
There is so much to be said and written about cider; there is space – and need – for so many more writers and advocates than there already are. The best thing we can do is to welcome them when they arrive and to give their work whatever platform we can offer. The category will be better for it. We’ll probably be better for it too.
Assume you will get nothing out of it but whatever joy you take in the first place.
I would dearly love to win an award. Of course I would – who wouldn’t? I would give a good chunk of my right arm for a book commission. And I’d be lying if I said that fanciful notions of both – either – weren’t fluttering round my head when I started blogging, well over seven years ago now, albeit kept at arm’s length lest they stray a little too close to hope.
At the end of the day though I am a hobbyist blogger, and for the most part I remind myself that there is no greater joy or reward that can be derived from cider writing than that which comes from the act itself. And therein lies the only real piece of wisdom I feel I can pass on with any meaningful conviction:
If you are lucky enough to fall in love with cider and perry to the point at which you feel compelled to write about them, you have fallen in love with a subject on which there is so, so, so much left to explore. We cider writers exist on a map which has barely begun to be filled in; the road not so much ‘less travelled’ as ‘barely trodden at all’. Two and a half years ago I couldn’t find a single thing online concerning the flavours of apple varieties, for goodness’ sake. And now we have Chris, himself a glowing advert for the quality of writer now turning their attention to cider, demanding to know why no one is citing Browns as their top pick. We have come so far in such a short, short while, and there is still so very much further that we can and will go.
This is a world in which almost every line of inquiry feels fresh, in which it feels as though questions can be asked and articles written genuinely for the first time. A young, exciting, awakening scene which, somehow, carries with it millennia of history and a dizzying, unimaginably rich world of flavours, cultures, people and stories.
I’ve written 150 articles on Cider Review. I’ve been to places I never imagined I would go, I’ve met people who now mean the world to me, I’ve tasted ciders and perries beyond what I would have believed, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. If that isn’t enough, I’m not sure what is. Here’s to the next 150 and whatever they bring along with them.