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On Strongbow

Trigger warning: this article contains themes of mental health breakdown, bereavement and grief. Please don’t read it if you don’t feel in the right place to.

This is an article I have tried to write for a long time. And every time I have failed. Even two sentences in I can feel that familiar nag; that little mosquito whine behind my ear telling me that I won’t finish it; that I can’t; that whatever I write will be too imperfect, too insufficient and flimsy and thwarted and mawkish. That the right words cannot possibly come, and that I’m not sure I’d want to share them if they did. 

But the story of my relationship with today’s cider is an important one. In fact, so far as my relationship with any cider goes, it is the important one. So, like last September and the September before that, I am sitting at my laptop, trying to tell it. And perhaps, this year, I finally will.

I don’t know what I’ll drink for Christmas. I don’t have a clue what I’ll drink come my next birthday, though in fairness I’ve nearly a year to work that one out. I don’t know what, or if, I’ll drink this weekend or tomorrow, but I’ve known what I’ll drink today for eight years. The same thing I’ve drunk every 26th September since 2014. I’ll drink a Strongbow.

Strongbow is an irrefutably remarkable drink. The biggest-selling cider in the UK; indeed the biggest anywhere in the world. Made in the single largest container of any alcoholic liquid on the planet, the Strongbow vat at the Bulmer’s plant able to hold an almighty 6.8 million litres at a time. It has influenced, more than any other cider, not only the way in which the drink is generally perceived in the country that drinks more of it than anywhere else in the world, but the very way and places in which cider is consumed.

In his excellent book, Modern British Cider, Gabe Cook sets the dawn of cider’s current era as 1961, with the acquisition of Taunton Cider by a consortium of breweries, “largely at the instigation of Bass and Courage”. This acquisition heralded an era in which cider became increasingly positioned as a sort of ‘lager but apples’. The drinkers these breweries were aiming for; far more significant in number and wider in geographical spread than the customers of smaller cideries; were not imagined to be interested in the rich, tannic, bittersweet ciders of the southwest. Light, fresh, crisp, refreshing and fizzy, were the orders of the day along with, critically, a strength close to that of lager, something achieved most easily through dilution.

No cider embodies that beerification more completely than Strongbow. First produced by Bulmer’s in 1960, a year before Cook pitches the dawn of cider’s age of cynicism, within ten years it was second in the UK market only to its stablemate, Woodpecker. (It is remarkable, now, to remember that at the same time Bulmer’s were also making Pomagne, through the champagne method, by the tens of thousands of bottles per year).

Strongbow’s early marketing set a distinctly unsubtle tone; “strong cider for men” ran the initial tagline. As mainstream cider’s positioning marched further and further from its agricultural, orchard-based origins, Strongbow remained in the vanguard. Adverts I remember from my own youth featured smoking cities, armies of men — always men — smeared in the grime of a day’s work, arrows thumping into wooden benches, more men in a pub ordering “two pints of lager and a Strongbow” surrounded by yet more men watching the football. You get the drift. It is interesting, and probably telling, to note that none of those latter-day adverts mentioned the word ‘cider’.

As a result, Strongbow became the ubiquitous offering in pubs which probably wouldn’t otherwise have considered cider at all. For years the reliably-findable option on tap in areas, particularly urban areas, outside of cider’s heartland regions. Places like Scotland, north east England and Merseyside, which was where I grew up and where I drank it.

But not where I drank it first.

I first tasted Strongbow in the dim, breathy, disco-lit hall of a girls school leaver’s do in North Wales. For reasons which escape me to this day an open invitation had floated across the Dee, and five of us — an odd group, I remember — had decided we had nothing better to do that Friday night.

I was not a beer drinker. A handful of clandestine pub trips had left me in no doubt of my view of lager, and I wasn’t invited to enough parties in those days to have done much further experimentation. I had dabbled, with mitigated success, with my father’s whisky, but I was socially aware enough to realise that ordering one here would stand out as odd. 

My choice, as I saw it, was a diet coke with which I would have felt self-conscious or a lager I didn’t like, and when my friend asked for a Strongbow and I instinctively said “I’ll have one too”, the latter was what I believed I had ordered. The adverts, you remember, didn’t say ‘cider’, and had done their marketing so thoroughly that I genuinely believed I had ordered a beer. Until I tasted it and discovered that I hadn’t, and that what I had in my hand instead was a socially-acceptable alcoholic drink which I actually liked.

It seems, I know, such a trivial thing, but it is difficult to explain just how seismic my relief was at this discovery. I was sixteen years old, emerging from five painful school years of ostracism, mockery and near-permanent anxiety, and my aversion to beer, as pathetic as it sounds, had felt like yet another way that I didn’t quite fit in. As unhealthy as it may be, finding a drink that I liked, that I could order without thought or complication felt, and still feels with hindsight, like a turning point. Like one of those great, meaningful forks in a life that immediately and irrevocably changes one’s direction of travel. The night that I first tasted Strongbow was the first party of my teenage years at which I felt wholly comfortable. We drank and laughed in the soft blue-blackness, amidst the fug of teenage pheromone and clichéd music, we walked wobbly lines to vainly insist sobriety, we danced like careless idiots on the booze-sticky tabletops and life, I felt with certainty, would never be the same again. Would be better than it had been before.

When I talk about how I found cider, I often recall that night. It was the snowball at the top of the mountain that led, via university, to wine, to my career, to blogging and ultimately to a different sort of cider, and Cider Review. An all-important moment that enshrined cider as my go-to drink. But the more I have come to look back on that evening, the more I have come to realise that the crucial moment — the impetus — was not my choice of drink. Because it wasn’t my choice, really. It was my friend Greg’s.  

***

I can’t tell you when I met Greg, because there’s no way I could possibly remember, and you wouldn’t really have called it ‘meeting’. We were largely just moved into each others’ orbit. In the earliest photos of us together we are in buggies; he was there at my first birthday and at every birthday after that.

At school he was irrefutably better than me in almost every respect. But then he was better than virtually everyone; the best grades in the year, captain of the hockey team we played in, universally popular, an exceptional person marked for greatness. For fifteen years of education he was my lodestar. I have a strong and unattractive competitive streak, but it was never applied to him. I simply accepted him as ‘better’, and was comfortable with that.

Greg was there in the year three classrooms when, as seven year olds, a few of us would talk animatedly about history and literature and ask our teachers questions to which they didn’t have an answer. It was these conversations, along with the influence of my parents, which first crystallised an interest in books, in writing, in the use of words to convey and understand emotion. I remember we wrote one together in an exercise book about a guinea pig and a shrew, and I haven’t really wanted to be anything but a writer since. 

I can’t overstate the importance, in my early years, of having a friend who took interest in the same esoteric subjects as me. As a teenage boy, failing to fit in at secondary school, acutely aware that the earnestness of my interests fell outside the parameters of irreverent teen conversation, it would have been all too easy to have let most of my hobbies slide away and to do what I could to slip into the social mainstream. That I didn’t owes mainly to the unflinching support and encouragement of parents who loved me without condition, but it is impossible to think that I would have continued to enjoy them as I did, had my best friend not either taken the same interest or been open to talking about that which I loved.

Where I wore the mantle of hobbyism as an integral and awkward identity, Greg held his interests with a far lighter touch. He wrote far more eloquently and imaginatively than I did, knew more history, played sport at a higher level, was a superb actor and drew beautifully to boot, but never let any of that define him. Perhaps as a result he had an ability to transcend social groups within our school; in the feudal system of common room popularity his was a tier out of sight of mine. Yet throughout those years he neither left me on my own, nor attempted to hide our closeness from anyone else. When secondary school came to an end and I counted the minutes until I left for university and a fresh start, the sole check to my enthusiasm was that for the first time in my life I would be somewhere without him. On my leaving day I posted a letter through his door; a rambling thank you, as far as I can remember, the sort of thing I could never have said in person. I’d hoped to be away before he read it, but he caught me as we were packing the car. 

***

Looking back, my four-year stretch at university was the best of my life. On my first day I was placed in a halls room next to someone who became like a brother almost overnight. Hobbies that had been muttered about quietly, viewed as something unfashionable, were allowed to flourish in the company of people to whom they mattered every bit as much. Cider — macro cider — remained my pub staple, but I discovered the joy of wine, and my already-significant interest in single malt whisky bloomed (when we could get it) into fascination. I learned to shape my tone of voice, to think critically and to debate with people who were as passionate as I was. I could do what I loved without fear or shame with friends and groups who valued me for it and for four years life seemed to blaze with a white hot intensity I have only felt fleetingly since.

I was phenomenally lucky. But luck is not meritocratic, and Greg’s experience was not mine. Like so many people of our age he had found himself the victim of circumstances which devilled the chemistry of his brain. I don’t, and will never know exactly the the insidious, gnawing thoughts that tore ragged pieces from his sense of worth and being, but by the middle of our second year of university he was in the talons of a depression that, bravely as he fought against it, would never truly leave him.

Mental health breakdown, by its very terms, cannot be rationalised. It doesn’t care how brave or talented or popular or clever you are. Invariably a struggle with mental health is characterised as a ‘battle’, but it is a battle with something that cannot be accounted for, pre-judged, reasoned with or fully understood. It has come, in the last few years, to lose some of the stigma long-attached to it; to be discussed openly and candidly and without so much fear of judgement, but in the environment of our noughties boys-school upbringing, where toxic masculinity was currency and where so much of the implicit code was in emotional repression; in ‘toughing it out’ and under no circumstances letting anyone see you bleed, the very notion of opening up to a peer on the subject of mental health — of saying, even to a close friend, that things were not ok — would have felt alien, weighted, and a measure of personal weakness.

When I left university it was with complete uncertainty as to what would come next. Vague, unenthusiastic notions of advertising led to a few unsuccessful applications to agencies, but in the absence of something immediate and concrete, I moved back in with my parents and found myself teaching extra-curricular drama at my old school.

Home had an entirely different character by this point. I was an adult, I no longer had to mingle with people who didn’t want me around, and although I lived in my family’s house, it was with a greater freedom to come and go. Most of my old school friends had moved on; I only really saw them at Christmas. But Greg, who was trying to re-establish his own plans for the future, was still there. And so until I moved up to Scotland to start a job in the wine industry we had a year in which we saw each other at least three or four times every week. We played tennis almost constantly — the only sport I ever really beat him at. We put a play on; I even twisted his arm to take a role in it. We had a hogmanay with another friend in Edinburgh; we climbed Scafell Pike on a whim. 

Mostly though, we went to the pub. Something we’d never done just by ourselves before university; a pub that wasn’t the old school sixth formers haunt. Just a Greene King pub around the corner from me, where we played darts badly and pool worse and talked about Terry Pratchett and film and the rivalry between Federer and Nadal and everything else we could think of except, perhaps, that which we ought to have talked about most. And more often than not he would drink Guinness, and invariably I would drink Strongbow.

I saw him a few times the year afterwards. He visited me in Inverness, we drove through Speyside and went to Glenfiddich (it was free in those days). We drank a flight of whisky and talked about the differences between each one. His favourites were Lagavulin and Woodford Reserve. For a weekend we stayed with a couple of others in a lodge on Loch Lynne, and drank 1990 Balblair, fizzy wine with chips and Rioja chilled by the highland March evening. Greg had a natural feel for flavours and a predilection for the unusual and striking, and as I fumbled my way into wine and whisky, and began to shape a career, he would talk with me about Vouvray and Tokaji and Gewürtztraminer just as we had once talked about Greek myths and Tolkien novels as primary school seven year olds. Not in a wonkish, competitive, hard-opinionated way, but simply with a wonder and fascination in what they were, and what they had to say. I found my interest in wine through my friend’s father and through Sideways, but it was with Greg that I learned to talk about it with something close to love.

I saw him last in the place we grew up, in mid-September 2014. I can’t remember why I was back, but possibly I was on my way through after looking for accommodation for the job I was about to start in Bristol. He was about to begin a degree at Newcastle, and was nervous but excited about the course in Dentistry he was going to pursue. We went, as always, to the same old pub, and talked about something or other which memory hasn’t preserved, and he drank Guinness and I drank Strongbow and I think I gave him a hug when we parted ways at the end of the night, but I wasn’t paying very much attention. 

A couple of weeks later, on the 26th September 2014, I was in Dundee, seeing out the end of my time there and talking to my father on Skype, when the phone rang at his end and I watched him hear from Greg’s mother that my best and oldest friend was dead. She had rung to ask for my number.

***

No two griefs are the same. Perhaps you have lost someone who was close to you and who passed far earlier than they deserved, and there is no way I could possibly know how you felt, or what your experience was thereafter. The way we grieve, I think, is as much a manifestation of who we are ourselves as it is a measure of how deeply we feel any given loss.

I lost my friend when I was still finding my way in the world; attempting to establish who I was and what it was I was going to do with my life. All of a sudden I found myself gazing into that vast, unknowable future without the person I had assumed would be my whole life’s constant presence. So perhaps inevitably, for much of the last eight years, I have struggled, often without success, not to allow grief to define my sense of self.

I have found that grief is not linear; that long after the initial paralysing sharpness has dulled to a throb, it can suddenly and without warning rekindle into something destructive and all-pervading. I have discovered how smoothly grief slips into all other aspects of your life; that even moments of the fiercest joy are tinted with wishes that he was sharing them with me, or that I could tell him about them. For months afterwards I lost count of the times I picked up my phone on impulse to text him about something funny I had just seen, or to ask his opinion on a game of tennis or a film I was watching. I have felt it impose itself on the way I interact with old friends and new people; my fear of grief’s spectre hanging over time I spend with those who knew him well; my sadness that those I have met and loved since will never know who he was or quite what he meant. Then there are the unanticipated holes; those parts of your life perhaps that you shared with someone, which almost leave you with them. I haven’t really played tennis in the last eight years, or followed the sport as I once did. I’ve picked up a racquet a few times this summer, and each one has come with a pang.

Occasionally I will go for days without him entering my mind, until all of a sudden he appears again, with an ache of guilt that I let him drift away. As much as the rational part of my brain absolves myself, I will never not be haunted by the unexpected phone call three days before he passed, which I cut short because I was busy with other people, and because we had plans to speak later in the week. Then there are the moments of ludicrous delusion that sneak in, every so often, when I see someone with his eyes, or hear a voice that sounds like his. The brief moments, impossible to shut out, of fleeting imagination that he isn’t gone after all, but is somewhere out in some faraway corner of the world, and that one day quite out of the blue I’ll bump into him again. And there is nothing I would not do or sacrifice for another day; for a little more time and conversation and another pint.

These last eight years have been a long, long road of glueing back together the shattered fragments of life, and searching for something to fill it with again. I have made it harder than I should have. At times I have wilfully hidden within grief; out of fear and that same latent, boys-school-bred culture of emotional repression. I have eschewed any form of therapy, and more often than not I have shrugged off any help or sympathy where it was offered. Instead I have overfilled my time with anything that might give me something else to dwell on; a marathon initially, endless amateur theatre. Less than a year after he passed, in lieu of conversations I might once have had, I started writing a blog about whisky. Seven and a half years later the subject might have changed, but I’m still blogging. Still looking for piecemeal surrogates to lost conversation. 

***

Cider is a drink defined by transience. It is a living drink; from the moment the apples are pressed; indeed from the moment they bud, blossom and burst on their branch, it begins an unfixed journey of change; a journey not stopped or suspended until the moment it is drunk. Through every day of fermentation its nature and flavour shifts a little further from the juice it began life as. And every day that it waits in bottle thereafter it is undergoing that glacial metamorphosis; that slow, slow unclenching as it gradually rises to the steepest, broadest point of its potential flavour before beginning the gentle deterioration of decay. The irony of reviewing cider is that the bottle I write a tasting note for today will not be quite as it is if you open the same bottle tomorrow; to record the flavours of a given cider is simply to be a sentry post marking a single point on that cider’s long and unpredictable march.

This elusive and unknowable journey is the fulcrum for so much of the wonder and joy of the type of cider this website exists almost exclusively to cover. The endless curiosity of a wilfully inconsistent drink; of vintages differing markedly from year to year; orchards whose trees and terroirs inflect themselves in so many subtly distinct ways through the fruit they nurture. An infinity of next hills, fresh views and implicit change. No two ciders ever quite the same; no one cider ever the same twice.

A large part of the reason that Strongbow and other bulk-produced ciders are held in such disdain is in their deliberate rebellion against those natural inconsistencies of terroir, variety and vintage. Strongbow’s defining feature is predictability; its capacity to be exactly the same whether you order it this year or next, in your local pub or somewhere far from home. The dilution, the force carbonation, the concentrate, filtration and additives are all in the name of creating something immune to change and the tyranny of seasons.

A small but not insignificant element of the grief I feel is that I was not able to share my blogging and my discovery of aspirational, vintage-affected cider and perry with my friend. I wonder, sometimes, what he would have thought of the roads my career and my hobbyism have taken; of my existence as a whisky and rum editor who writes in his spare time about cider and perry. I suspect he would have laughed, and said that it fit. Given the direction his tastes in wine leant, I imagine he would have loved perry. I know it would have been something else we would have added to the long, long conversational list. There is so, so much that we still had left to say, and reminding myself of the conversations we had is often harder than imagining those which we didn’t.

My friend Greg, more than anyone but my parents, empowered me to talk about that which I love. There were so many years of my childhood when I would not have had a voice but for him. This blog is mine, and of me, but it was born of the deep interest in the world that our conversations inspired me to take. Of the joy we shared in playing with the written word. Of those formative explorations of drinks worth talking about. Of pints of Strongbow at a Greene King local. Just as I can’t imagine the person I would be without his influence, so I can’t envisage the way my writing would manifest but for him. If you have ever read any one of my articles, a part of his life has also touched you.

There are so many ways that might be better and more appropriate as a means of commemorating the wise, brave, beautiful, brilliant man who was and remains my hero than with a macro from-concentrate cider brand owned by a cynical multinational. Alcohol is, in any case, not a tonic for grief, but a fuel to it. But for all the Lagavulins and Tokajis and Alsatian whites; all the drinks more worthy of tribute and memorial, it is through Strongbow that I feel closest to Greg. Not despite its bland, mass-produced consistency, but precisely because of it. For the direct line from the glass in my hand to the last pint in September 2014 and the drink I only first ordered because he did. Ironically, I don’t recall seeing him drink Strongbow on any occasion thereafter. But in yet another small way he had changed my life without knowing. 

So tonight, on my own, I’ll look back through old pictures, and I’ll think of the gentle, pub corner conversations and the wild, whirling youthful joy of North Wales. And I’ll drink that same Strongbow as always, that tastes as it always did, and through its anchoring consistency I’ll reach back across the crumpled, trembling years and try to touch glasses with my friend. I’ll drink it for the joy and the meaning he gave and still gives me, the person he was and the person I am because of him. For life is a constant journey and sometimes is cruel and painful and we’ll never quite know the shape of tomorrow morning. All we can do is grasp what we have whilst it’s with us, and cherish the people we love. Set our brightest moments in memory’s burnished aspic, and keep them with us always through whatever ways we can.

This entry was posted in: Features

by

In addition to my writing and editing with Cider Review I lead frequent talks and tastings and contribute to other drinks sites and magazines including jancisrobinson.com, Pellicle, Full Juice, Distilled and Burum Collective. @adamhwells on Instagram, @Adam_HWells on twitter.

7 Comments

  1. Gav Stuart says

    Beautiful and profoundly moving Adam. I’ve shed a couple of tears with my cup of tea this morning.

    I’m glad you managed to put this into words, I will be thinking about this all day.

    I’m off to the supermarket today to get a couple of cans of Strongbow and I will raise them to Greg this evening.

    Take care

    Like

  2. Adam, you’re the most prolific writer I know of on any subject and the words always seem to flow. But clearly these were difficult words to put on paper. Thanks for sharing it with all of us. You are also making people think about life a little differently than they did before.

    Like

  3. Mike+Shorland says

    That’s the fourth time I have tried to read this piece. Previously I got as far as picking up your phone to text him, and just been in bits.

    It’s an incredible bit of writing. Thankyou for sharing.

    Like

  4. Pingback: A tale of two brewers: perry-beer hybrids from Mills x Oliver’s and Kertelreiter | Cider Review

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