The use of herbs, spices, and fruit other than apples or pears in cider and perry has a long history, usually with reasons that go beyond merely adding flavour or for novelty. And while today most of us often think of fruit ciders as being sugar-laden concoctions with very little to do with actual fresh fruit juice content (or sometimes having very little to do with apples at all), things weren’t always that way, and makers in the past made creative use of natural ingredients to enhance their ciders and bring even more delight to their drinkers.
Anyone who knows anything about German cider (as per historical precedence, the words cider, cyder, Most and Apfelwein being synonymous1) will have heard of Speierling Apfelwein. This is a variation of a local cider style, usually made in the region surrounding Frankfurt, to which the fruits of Sorbus Domestica, the True Service Tree (Speierling in German) have been added. Historically, cider with an addition of Speierling commanded premium prices, and were reputed to be clearer, of finer quality and with better keeping properties. But why?
Unlike the apple varieties typically used to make the majority of English and French ciders, German cidermakers have traditionally favoured what are generally termed dessert or culinary apple varieties with little to no tannin content. Think of the types of apples used in the Eastern Counties of England. Looking through German books on apple varieties, anything with elevated acid levels tends to be put under the Mostapfel category, deemed most suitable for making Most. And indeed, they do make very good cider, with well-made ciders showing a freshness and fruitiness that marks out this German variant of our favourite drink.
But sometime in the past, someone pressed the mature but unripe fruits of Sorbus Domestica, which are heavy in tannins and inedible until bletted, and included this in a cider. The result was a cider that cleared faster and which developed a reputation for a fineness of flavour. The addition of tannins to the mix clearly made a difference that was appreciated.
Today, Echter Speierling Apfelwein is seldom found, and the addition of sorbs tends to be in the region of 1 to 3%. But it used to be quite different. In 1903, a study by the United States Department of Agriculture into cidermaking in England, France and Germany2 was undertaken to help guide how the US might further develop the cider industry in that country. The use of Speierling was also discussed in the resulting report. Its clearing properties were noted, as was the apparent absence of their use in either England or France at the time. The Special Agent who authored the report mentioned that an addition of 5% of mature but not fully ripe sorbs made the finest ciders. However, going back to one of the earliest references to the use of Sorbs in German cider in 1797, Johann Ludwig Christ3, an 18th Century pomologist and naturalist whose works became standard texts at that time, provided instructions to use up to one third of the volume in sorb juice. A drink I am eager to replicate!
Of the majority of modern Speierling Apfelwein I’ve tried, there was no real noticeable contribution to flavour, so presumably this hard-to-harvest, rare fruit was being rationed to get the clearing effect (or the pricing effect) without the extravagance of changing the flavour much. However, there are rare examples where there’s a definite effect on the flavour, bringing a sumptuous earthy, marmalady tone and a wonderful structure.
Apart from the obvious merits as a flavour addition, historically Sorbus Domestica was usually considered a technical addition, and has been specifically mentioned as a cure (or preventative measure) for clearing ciders and wines that had turned ropey or “slimey”, possibly from pediococcus infections that can turn a liquid quite viscous. In 1845, Frederick Duttenhofer4 describes a process of stirring roughly crushed, unripe sorbs to a so-afflicted cider so that:
“The tannins in these berries beats the slime down. Also perry pear juice, sloe juice and other bitter materials are effective in these cases”.
So here it was recognised that it was the tannins present that had the desired effect (something also described by Hogg and Bull in Herefeord in 18865), and other tannin-rich ingredients were also suggested as a cure. For example, in 1869, Eduard Lucas6 mentioned the use of the bark of the acacia tree to create catechu powder, or the use of crushed oak gall apples as a highly effective cure and to help clear a ropey cider:
“…you only need to add 25 grams of catechu to coagulate the ferment (the mucilage) of 100 litres of liquid. You can add 6 to 8 grammes of tannin or 25 grammes of coarsely crushed gall apples to the catechu, or finally 1/2 litre of alcohol. To use the first two substances, they must be dissolved in a little water; the gall apples can be soaked in a barrel”.
Of course there were options to use other tannic fruit for the fining and structure-bringing effects. This is certainly a regional thing in Germany as while the use of Sorbus Domestica in Hessen was once common, in the second-biggest traditional cider producing region, the state of Baden-Württemberg where we live, the addition of perry pears was, and indeed still is, common practice. When I first started pressing apples in our yard with our restored basket presses, older villagers would often stop in passing and ask if I’d also included a couple buckets of perry pears, something every farmer of their generation did when making Most. In the 1806 Oeconomische Encyclopädie (Economic Encyclopaedia for Agriculture, House and State Economy), it was recommended to always include perry pears in ciders, and conversely, to add a proportion of acidic apples to most perries.
And while the clearing properties of adding sorbs or perry pears to a wine were well documented in Germany, and still practiced to a limited degree, reading through old literature from the past couple of centuries also leads to the use of other fruits that were added to enhance cider. As mentioned above, Duttenhofer had included the use of sloe juice in 1845, but the Economic Encyclopaedia from 1806 had the following to say on the matter7:
“We know from experience that cyder can be improved by other kinds of fruit, and that it really is improved by them. And why should one not be able to improve and increase a less pleasant wine by means of a pleasant wine, and a less spirited one by means of a very spirited one? In any case, the fruits of the trees which are to be used for this purpose must not be bad, but perfectly ripe and good. The most excellent fruits, which one is accustomed to mix with apples, are: Sorbs, Medlars, Sloes, Blueberries and Blackberries”.
Presumably the author was channelling J. L. Christ, as the proportions he suggested for sorbs mirrored Christ’s recommendations from nine years earlier, to use anything from a quarter up to a third part sorbs. As for medlars, the dog’s arse of fruit, it was recommended to use them in the same way as sorbs.
The use of Schlehen (sloes) are mentioned in several other German texts as an ingredient for adding tannins. Usually fresh and before bletting, to maintain the astringency that is otherwise somewhat reduced after the first frosts. This was an experiment we undertook in 2020, placing full sloes into a test barrel with fresh-pressed juice. The result was a remarkably coloured cider with a wonderful aroma and flavour, and a definite drying tannic edge that the apples we used would otherwise not have been able to deliver on their own. It mellowed somewhat with age, but the sloes definitely leave their mark. The rest I have yet to try, but will do so.
It is no secret that perry makers in 17th Century England were more or less tasked with creating an English wine to compete with or replace wines that were imported from abroad in great quantity. There are enough references regarding the role Herefordshire was envisaged to play in such a task, with cider or perry intended to fulfil the role of an English wine. So it was without surprise that I discovered that although most of the examples mentioned above were generally what one might describe as technical additions, albeit with the additional benefit of increasing flavour, cidermakers in the past were not above making additions with the purpose of directly mimicking other drinks, particularly those wines which, I suppose in times of war, may have been hard to come by. In 1895, in a German book about the processing of fruit, Heinrich Semler8 wrote of the English tendency to make “imitation wines” based on cider:
“Cider is often used as a “raw material” for making wine, which is especially true of England, where one is often served “real” Burgundy, sherry or port made from cider with other suitable substances. If these drinks were only sold under their true name, there would be no objection to their existence, for they consist of harmless ingredients, whereas this cannot always be said of the genuine wines mentioned. They are all too often adulterated with substances that are dangerous to health. Since these imitations, if well prepared, taste excellently and are only slightly inferior to the genuine articles, the German fruit growers should at least produce their own wines for their domestic use. The considerable sums which now flow out to France, Spain and Portugal for Burgundy, Sherry and Port could then be reduced a little”.
So it wasn’t just the Germans that were fiddling with their ciders, and it seems that economic drivers were also a consideration in Germany, where such wines were also popular with certain classes. Semler went on to list detailed recipes that were used in England at the time for using cider as a base for approximating Burgundy, Malaga, Bordeaux, Claret, Port and Sherry, among others. Some are quite convoluted, but I may attempt to recreate the simpler ones some day.
However, in a different German handbook on agricultural trade from 1806 I found an interesting recipe for a spiced perry that was said to result in a “Malvasier ähnlicher Wein” which I recreated in 2020. Today we might translate this as meaning a Malmsey-like wine, suggesting a fortified Madeira, but I suspect that back then it was a general reference to Malvasia varietal-based wines, perhaps particularly those from the Canary Islands, as Canary wine is mentioned frequently in old references. For example, in John Evelyn’s Pomona from 1664, none other than Hereford’s own John Beale wrote9:
“Yet the choice of the graft fruit [referring to selected varieties grafted] hath so much of prevalency, that the Redstreak Cider will everywhere excel common Cider, as the Grape of Frontignac, Canary, or Baccharach, excels the common French Grape; at least, till by time and tradition it degenerateth”.
“Yet if any man have a desire to try conclusions, and by an harmless art to convert Cider into rich Canary-wine let the Cider be of the former year, masculine and in full body, yet pleasant, and well tasted of the Apple : into such Cider put a spoonful or so of the spirit of Clary, it will make the Liquor so perfectly to resemble the very best Canary, that few good and exercis’d Palates will be able to distinguish it”.
So a style of wine that certainly seems to have been popular in Europe at the time, hence attempts to recreate the flavour locally. The German process described in 1806 involved heating a portion of the perry pear juice with honey, spices, and elderflower, then ageing the complete mass with a different blend of these spices. In 2020 I recreated this recipe, and the results were considerably better than I’d even hoped. Adam certainly seemed to like it!
To return to English creativity with cider, and specifically clary (salvia sclarea) as mentioned above by Beale in 1664. Hugh Stafford, in his 1753 book A Treatise on Cyder-Making, also mentions the use of clary as an addition to make rougher cider taste more in the direction of a wine from the Rhineland:10
“In Devonshire, in rough Cyder for summer’s drinking, it is usual to put either the Leaves or Flowers of Clary, which makes it very nearly imitate Rhenish Wine”.
It is known that in the Rhineland in the 16th Century, the use of this very same herb was also used as an additive to wine, closing the loop on Stafford’s mention of Rhenish wine. The Rhein wines with such an addition were referred to as Muscatel, giving clary sage its German name Muskatellersalbei, or literally translated, Muscatel Sage. Fresh clary sage is extremely pungent, so it was with a little trepidation that I decided to infuse some 2020 barrel-aged cider with dried clary to test out what it would bring to a cider. As Mr. Stafford gave no clue as to the dosing levels it was very much in “making it up as I go along” territory, but I think I found a dosage that makes itself known without dominating, though it transformed the cider, making it a completely different beast from the base cider use. This was released as Muskateller 2020 and will be repeated with a 2021 vintage.
This is just a sprinkling of the many historical resources that describe the use of herbs, spices and other fruits in ciders and perries throughout the centuries, highlighting some of my favourite quotes that show how fluid the definition of cider has been over the years. Today, the cider-drinking public is often interested in trying new and exciting flavours, but many traditional makers might baulk at the idea of desecrating their ciders with adjuncts, perhaps feeling it is going too far in the direction of the modern, so-called fruit cider. At the same time, for more adventurous makers, it is often tempting to think that we are pioneering new flavours and trends, being modern and highly experimental. But I hope this small glimpse into the past shows that there is truly little that is new under the sun. By looking at historical sources we can be reassured that such additions can be beneficial, tasty, and rooted in a long tradition. The best of both worlds. Dare I say it, but spices, herbs and other fruit actually belong in traditional cider! But certainly, the creativity of our pomme-pressing forebears in using natural ingredients to tailor flavours to the tastes of their customers can give us the inspiration to rediscover lost flavours and experiences, and to bring them to a new generation of drinkers.
- There are many German texts from the 18th and 19th Century where the term cyder or cider is used in preference to, or interchangeably with the term Apfelwein. It is only after the mid-19th century that Apfelwein seems to take over as the main term for cider in Germany.
- Alwood, W. B. A study of cider making in France, Germany, and England. Washington, 1903, pp 38.
- Christ, J. L. Handbuch über die Obstbaumzucht und Obstlehre. Frankfurt am Main, 1797, pp 409.
- Duttenhofer, Frederick. Die gegohrenen Getränke Bier, Wein, Obstmost und Meth. Stuttgart, 1845, pp246.
- Hogg, Robert & Bull, Henry Graves. The Apple and Pear as Vintage Fruits. Hereford, 1886, pp 49.
- Lucas, Eduard. Der Cider oder Obstwein. Ravensburg, 1869, pp 15.
- Floerken, F. J. Oeconomische Encyclopädie. Berlin, 1806, pp 609.
- Semler, H. Die gesamte Obst Verwertung nach den Erfahrungen durch die nordamerikanische Konkurrenz. Wismar, 1895, pp 198.
- Beale, John. “Aphorisms Concerning Cider”. In Evelyn, John. Sylva, 1st ed., London, 1664. pp 21 & 28
- Stafford, Hugh. A Treatise on Cyder-Making. London, 1753, pp 53.