It’s by no means a movement at the end of its journey, but one of the great, heartening things to see in the world of British cider over the last few years has been a movement away from discussing ciders purely in terms of sweet, medium and dry and towards discussing them in terms of flavours and varietal makeup.
It’s less than three years since I couldn’t find an online description of the actual flavours of apples and pears (there was plenty of stuff that focussed only on acid and tannin) yet today the shelves are bursting with ciders and perries talking about the characteristics their apples and pears bring to the table, and social media is increasingly awash with auto-didactic cider fans enthusing over the bright strawberry fruit of Discovery, the oranges of Dabinett and Major, the tropical tones of Kingston Black, the spice of Yarlington Mill and so very much more besides.
This broader discussion is, indisputably, A Good Thing. But whilst I would never bemoan the loss of labels stating only ‘sweet’, ‘medium’ or ‘dry’, I wouldn’t for a moment dispute the importance of those characteristics being noted.
The level of sweetness in a drink affects the drinking experience enormously. Besides the obvious impact on the levels of sugar we perceive, it has ramifications for a drink’s optimum serving temperature, the foods we might pair it with, the times we might drink it and far more besides.
In tandem with the increased conversation around cider I have noticed a distinct increase in the number of prominent fully dry ciders which seem to be available. Of course dry ciders have always existed, but more and more cideries – including those whose output was once predominantly medium and sweet – seem to be bottling fully-fermented ciders and perries. And I think it’s certainly fair to say that drinkers and writers (not least most of the contributors to this website) are vocal in their love of ciders presented this way. It’s probably no coincidence that the two cideries whose creations I have most frequently covered in these pages — Ross on Wye and Little Pomona — are two whose outputs are almost exclusively dry.
I drink, on the whole, far more dry cider than I do sweet. I can confidently say that I speak for James there too; indeed all of his own ciders are also fermented to dryness. I tend to find that I can drink rather more dry than I can sweet, and I would certainly admit to finding some sweeter ciders — especially those which have been artifically sweetened — a little unbalanced and occasionally cloying.
That said, and my fondness for dry ciders notwithstanding, I don’t feel it would be a fair representation of my palate to paint me as a dry-or-bust drinker. Reaching back a year or so, Chris commented in an article he wrote on the nature of palates and preferences that ‘Adam tends to particularly enjoy ciders that have been fermented to complete dryness, whereas I often have more of a penchant for some residual sweetness’. But I’d argue that casting an eye over my reviewed output paints a somewhat more complex picture. Many’s the keeve and cold-rack whose virtues I have extolled in these pages — to date there has been at least one in each of my annual ‘Essential Cases’. I’d cede to no one in my love of French perry generally and Domfront in particular, and it’s rare indeed to find dry examples there. Not to mention my long-standing coverage of ice cider and ice perry, whose ranks include the cider I still rate more highly than any other I have tried before or since.
Long before I got serious about cider I loved, and worked in, wine, and sweeter styles such as Tokaji, Sauternes, Port, Pedro Ximenez sherry and various levels of German Riesling were amongst the bottles which first stole my heart and continue to captivate me today. Do I drink them as often as I do dry wine? Certainly not. Do I rate them every bit as highly and love them every bit as much? Absolutely.
The traditional format for the drinking of sweet wines in particular was to accompany a dessert, or to follow a meal. Moments which call for the kind of mouthcoating body, high-impact flavours and general feelings of decadence which these drinks so deliciously provide. Usually served in small glasses and intended for small, slow sips. Such drinks became less fashionable — or rather, saw their sales dip — when the entirely appropriate tightening of drink driving laws made that last, small, high-impact glass a splash too far. Those only having one drink with their meal were more likely to choose something they could sip at from start to finish — hence the preference for something drier; something that would provide refreshment rather than unctuousness and would cleanse the mouth between bites rather than coat it alongside them.
Sweetness in drinks has since come to be associated less with these traditional, high-quality styles and more with rather artificial drinks of the kind often intended to attract younger drinkers. You don’t have to look far along the bar to see the sort of thing I’m talking about here; the likes of Kopparbergs, Babychams, alcopops and many more besides have done much to collectively scrub away at the respectability of any drink marketed as ‘sweet’. There’s an interesting paradox that many drinkers in the UK and the USA have a tendency to talk a lot drier than they actually drink. ‘Dry’ has come to be seen as ‘proper’, ‘discerning’, ‘grown-up’; ‘sweet’ often suffers reputationally by comparison.
One producer who has noticed this, with a certain sense of frustration, is Herefordshire’s Artistraw. In a recent post on social media they wrote: “I sometimes feel that sweet cider gets a bit of a bad rap; a feeling that these drinks are somehow deemed less ‘grown up’ than dry cider, are not worthy of the dinner table and as such are less talked about in the cider sphere … I love dry cider but think that naturally sweet cider also deserves its place’.
The post having stirred both guilty feelings that I might be part of dry cider getting most of the column inches alongside happy thoughts of dessert wines and ice ciders, I thought I ought to get in touch with Tom and Lydia at Artistraw and give them a chance to make their case for sweet. Our conversation is reproduced below.
CR: So usual easy one to start off with — can you introduce yourselves and tell us about what you do.
Tom: So my name’s Tom Tibbits, I’m a cidermaker at Artistraw with a previous career in physics.
Lydia: We’re based just outside Hay on Wye and concentrate primarily on natural ciders — so we’re only making cider with hand-picked fruit from old orchard that are unsprayed. Everything’s hand-picked by the two of us, we’re not adding any sugar, water, sulphites; the only ingredient’s apples. And we make a variety of different styles within that — everything from bone dry to naturally sweet. We’re very environmentally focussed as well: we’re the first UK cidery to publish our carbon footprint — the emissions associated with each bottle — which Tom has done. He’s a scientist and I am not!
Tom: Lydia has other, much better, talents in the fields of marketing and design!
CR: You posted on social media recently that you felt that sweet ciders, compared to dry ciders, maybe didn’t get the praise they deserve. Can you expand on that?
Lydia: So I’d sort of noticed that, certainly among the reviewing community [Ed: uh oh!] on instagram and those sorts of places, it almost seemed that ‘sweet cider’ was kind of like a byline for ‘bad cider’. And certainly some of the comments on that post were like: ‘this is really interesting, I always assumed if it had sugar in it it was like the mark of a less well-made cider’, which was something I’d picked up in conversations previously. So I was like ‘let’s tackle this head on’. Because actually in some instances I think that is correct, and I’ve certainly tasted ciders where people have added sugar in to sort of mask something else hideous that’s going on. But actually the way we’re making it — and it’s really hard to talk about this without sounding like we’re doing down dry cider, which we also love and make — but making naturally sweet cider is a really difficult process and you have to be very aware of cleanliness and there’s a lot more time and process involved in it. And it just sort of felt that people didn’t quite understand fully what was involved in making a truly sweet cider. I’m not talking about backsweetening here at all; it’s the stuff we cold rack, and you’re working with nature and on cold days to remove the yeast and you’re doing it very carefully to create something that I think is quite delicious. And Tom certainly has a sweet tooth!
Tom: Yeah, I do like sweet cider. That’s not to say I don’t like dry cider — we’ve made much more dry cider recently, I drink much more of it these days as well. But echoing what Lydia said, the first time I made cider it naturally went dry because I didn’t know what I was doing so I just put it in a barrel and then after a few months it was dry and I put it in a bottle. But what I realised I wanted was: ‘how can I make a sweet cider with the residual sugar, à la what I’d tasted on holiday in France aged sixteen or seventeen with my then girlfriend, which was delightful?’ We were travelling around the Breton coast which meant there were lots of exciting Breton ciders to try. I was mainly in those days interested in price rather than anything else! But it was still well-made, decent French cider. I started making cider before the internet really had much information about cidermaking as far as I could tell. It was just word of mouth, talking to people and thinking about how I might achieve stuff. And eventually I discovered keeving, ie the French method. But actually that’s an awful hassle and you have to add enzymes.
Lydia: As natural cidermakers, though we drink a lot of keeved cider we don’t want to add any enzymes to our cider, because it feels like an addition which is what we’re trying not to do. We have messed around with keeving in the past, but we’ve never released a keeved cider. It’s not something we really plan on doing.
Tom: And then it was really a conversation with Dave Matthews of Bartestree about cold racking that led me down that path.
CR: I was slightly worried when you mentioned ‘the reviewing community’ just then! In recent history there’s this funny paradox within UK drinkers, which other makers have remarked on to me, wherein people talk ‘dry’ but then drink much sweeter than they talk. Have you found that to be the case?
Lydia: Oh my God, all the time, yeah.
Tom: Yes, on the market stall I refer to ‘supermarket dry’.
Tom: Where they think they’re drinking dry cider but actually it’s got some sugar in it. And then I say ‘well try this one’.
Lydia: Perception of dryness is interesting. I think a lot of mislabelling has happened with bigger brands, and exactly as you said, peoples’ perception of dryness is inaccurate.
Tom: And also I think astringency is involved in that as well: some people will taste astringent cider and say ‘oh, that’s dry’ when there’s quite a lot of sugar in some of them.
Lydia: It all comes down to what you guys are doing at Cider Review — it’s all about education, isn’t it? And trying to talk about it more and explain that sugar isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And I think for us as well, a sweet Dabinett compared to a dry Dabinett is a completely different flavour profile, and there’s something quite interesting about being able to harness new flavours just by retaining the apple’s sugar. You happen upon something completely different, which is quite exciting. Also, there’s lots of conversation about cider and food. The Kingston Black you bought, we’ve paired it with lots of apple turnovers and desserts and cheese and things like that and actually as a dessert cider it works really well. I think being able to pair cider with every course of a meal, with sweeter cider for afters — it just means there’s going to be more cider in the world!
CR: That leads perfectly to my next question, which was going to be ‘when does sweet cider really come into its own?’ Reasons and occasions for it?
Lydia: I think after dinner is a good time in a way. Typically what I like about dry ciders is that you drink it much slower and kind of treat it like a dry wine. Sweet ciders you sometimes end up boshing back a bit because they’re so easy to drink, aren’t they? Which is probably terrible! But if you have it with something else that’s sweet it kind of tempers that slightly. One of our ciders last year, Duffryn, was a medium cider technically, but it still had some sugar in, and that with a bit of fizz in it was really nice as an aperitif as well.
Tom: I’d say late at night round a campfire at a festival!
Lydia: We’ve tried and tested that!
Tom: Little nightcaps of cider with friends, everyone goos: ‘oooh, that’s nice!’ As a cidermaker that’s very gratifying.
Lydia: We also had people staying with us who said that our ciders are ‘perfect gateway ciders’. Which I thought was brilliant.
CR: That sort of thing sounds almost as if it’s damning with faint praise, doesn’t it? It’s odd — like the word ‘crowdpleasing’ — it should mean something that’s amazing but so often it’s taken a different way, as though you should only be pleasing a really niche section of drinkers! Something you touched on earlier that I want to scrutinise a bit — that idea of ‘natural’ vs ‘artificial’ sweetness. Do you feel that’s sometimes all lumped together by the ‘cider bubble’ and is that perhaps a bone of frustration?
Lydia: Maybe not ‘frustration’ so much. So that post on social media was something I’d been mulling over a while. Basically I took some of our cider down to one of our retailers, Chester’s Wine Merchants in Abergavenny, and I found myself almost apologising for it. And I thought ‘hang on a minute, let’s unpack this — why am I apologising for having made a sweet cider?’ Because he was saying ‘this is like a Gewürtztraminer or a Sauternes — it’s like a really lovely dessert wine’, and that made me readjust and question why I was saying ‘oh sorry, you probably won’t want this because it’s sweet. He said ‘we know you make amazing cider, and also I have a massive sweet tooth and I love those kinds of wines, so why would I not like this?’ So that made me wonder why I was apologising for something I was really proud of having made and which is actually quite technically difficult to do.
CR: Talk me through those methods for achieving naturally sweet ciders.
Tom: Well the main thing that we do is pay attention to the fruit and where it comes from, and I think that is very critical for the sort of attenuated fermentations we want to achieve. And we’re very fortunate — we’ve discovered some little backwaters in Herefordshire with some absolutely stunning fruit on old trees, and we’ve more or less negotiated a reasonable way of keeping the grazers, growers, landowners and ourselves and everybody else happy. But never mind orchard management — the fruit itself is coming from old trees with deep root systems and they have not been fertilised actively ever except for a bit of grazing. And the result is juice that really doesn’t want to go fast unless you rev it up with some DAP or whatever.
Lydia: Which we don’t do.
Tom: And I think our particular house yeast does throw a bit of sulphur, but by the time it’s sat in bottle and blown off a bit and continued down the path to becoming cider a lot of the sulphur disappears. So combine that with racking, cold racking, which we’ve found is the least wasteful method. With keeving you lose 20%-odd of your juice right at the beginning, having got rid of the pectin.
Lydia: It’s a different flavour profile as well, isn’t it? Personally I prefer the flavours that you get with a cold-racked cider as opposed to a keeved cider, but that’s just personal preference.
CR: That’s an interesting point that people ask from time to time — how would you describe that difference in flavour profile?
Lydia: I always find keeved ciders a little more buttery somehow. That’s probably completely the wrong way of describing it, just what I find!
Tom: I don’t know whether MLF happens more easily in keeved ciders or not, but yes, certainly the act of the defecation, as the French so beautifully put it, you take all that pectin out and with it there’s other stuff happening. You taste that pectin and it’s not a neutral flavour; there’s a sort of apple sherbet, it’s an interesting thing in its own right. So there’s got to be flavour alteration through that. Whereas I sort of think with cold racking, save for leaving behind the lees, we’re not actually deliberately taking anything from the juice itself. So there is fantastic flavour carry-over. We also don’t filter; we think it would remove aspects of the drink.
Lydia: It strips too much away, doesn’t it? I think keeving sort of throws its own particular flavour over cider. For me personally I think it alters each variety in a similar way, so you can always tell its been keeved but the actual truth of the variety is behind that. I drink plenty of keeved cider as well, but I always prefer a cold racked one.
CR: Challenges-wise, I guess with dry cider, especially the more intense bittersweet varieties, I guess the risk is it being a little bit astringent in its youth. Is the tightrope that you walk with sweet ciders making sure that it doesn’t express as cloying? And how do you go about avoiding that as a maker?
Tom: I would say acid is an important consideration. I make Foxwhelp in quite an aggressive way — I always try to leave some sugar in it, because I think this is stuff that’s always going to be drunk within two to three years at most.
Lydia: You haven’t read that article, have you? [Ed: Top marks, Lydia.]
Tom: I think with a dry Foxwhelp you’d need to put it in wood for a long time to let it turn into something else, and the trouble is I’m no expert at wood. We’ve only this season got our first wooden casks, and I’ve no idea what the first two experiments are going to be like when I get them out! To make a single variety Foxwhelp that I can drink it needs to have some sugar in it, so that’s what we try and achieve.
Lydia: I think also, with the cloying thing, there’s definitely a difference between refined sugar and natural sugar. The sugar that’s in the apple that’s supposed to be there I think is a more gentle sweetness in a way. I can pick out refined sugar a mile off — you can always taste it in a cider and I think it’s a completely different kind of thing to a sugar where you’ve retained what the apple’s already given you. But it’s all down to personal palate as well, to a certain extent, isn’t it? That Kingston Black has 53g/l residual sugar in it, and for some people we meet it isn’t sweet enough, and it’s like ‘God, how much more do you want?’! That’s pretty sugary!
CR: I think what you’re saying about the acidity is really key. When there’s enough of it it balances out the sweetness really nicely and you don’t notice that level of sugar because it’s so well cut-through. So talk me through the two that I have today — the Kingston Black and the Dabinett (Red Shrews)?
Lydia: They were actually made in a similar way but what we’re learning is that apples have very different rates of fermentation, so racking has very different effects on different apples, without revealing too many secrets! Each ferment is different every year but you really need to get a feel for an understand the fruit you’re working with and how it’s going to react. So yeah, both single variety ciders, both 2020, both had quite a similar treatment; racked a couple of times. But the Kingston Black has retained a heck of a lot more sugar than that Dabinett. I think that the astringency of the Dabinett has balanced it a bit more; the perceived dryness is probably more pronounced. The Kingston Black was just all richness; it’s got some acidity as well, but there’s much more sugar and sweetness. The trees for the Dabinett are much younger — probably between 20-30 years old, and then the Kingston Black is made from three different orchards, but all those orchards are really old. So I wonder if that’s had an impact, going back to that conversation. Tom’s got a real thing about Dabinett and doesn’t like it!
Tom: It is more palatable with a bit of sugar in it!
Lydia: So we always try to put all our Dabinett into one blend so it doesn’t contaminate all our stuff! So I thought: right, single variety Dabinett. And then the name ‘Red Shrews’ is based on a Kate Bush song — Tom also hates Kate Bush, so I thought ‘right, I’m ok with it, so I’m going completely to town with it: it’s Kate Bush and it’s Dabinett!’
CR: Going back to popular perception, do you think there’s any sort of stigma attached to sweet ciders? To sweet anything I suppose?
Lydia: Yeah definitely. I mean it’s always perceived as less healthy, and I suppose that’s probably correct, isn’t it? But then on the flip side of that, the more sugar you have the less alcohol, so these things kind of balance themselves out. And alcohol isn’t a health drink anyway.
Tom: There’s broader societal trends at work as well, I think. It must have been at least five years ago, I had dinner with a retired professor at Cambridge and he happened to be the wine steward for Trinity College, I think it was. So we had a very interesting chat about wine and he was saying that back in his early days at Cambridge, every time there was a vintage declared in Port the college would buy a pipe of Port and put it in their cellars. But they don’t do that any more he said because no one buys Port any more — or not ‘nobody’, but it’s much less drunk.
CR: That actually raises an interesting question. Thinking of your Kingston Black, you mentioned 53 or so g/l, which definitely sounds like a lot, but then you think dessert wine, Sauternes, ice cider — that’s 150-odd g/l. So do you think there’s a distinction to be drawn between sweet and dessert ciders?
Lydia: Hmm. That is a good question. I hadn’t even thought about that before? Had you thought about that?
Tom: I mean the Kingston Black we’ve just made, I suppose I would swap it out with Port — I wouldn’t mind swapping it with Port — but actually I’d just as happily drink it at the beginning of a meal, or on a summer’s afternoon in the garden at 4 o’clock myself!
Lydia: Interestingly though, when I’ve been selling it at the market I’ve always described it as a dessert cider, because I thought that was a more acceptable way of selling it, subconsciously, rather than calling it ‘sweet’. And you’re right, it probably is more ‘sweet’ than ‘dessert’, because you’re right — it isn’t 150 g/l of sugar! That’s really interesting.
Tom: I don’t know what the typical sugar content of Sauternes would be.
CR: Well I only know this because Eleanor at Eden puts the g/l on her ice ciders and so I was curious to compare it to Sauternes, because I’d never really looked that up. And it ranges from somewhere around 120 g/l to over 200. But around 120-150 normally. And I wonder whether there’s an additional element of perception— because most ice ciders have very much gone down the road of half bottles, slightly dessert-wine bottle shaped, and I wonder if there’s something in that, whereby a full sized 750ml bottle or 500ml bottle of cider labelled ‘sweet’ is treated differently to a Sauternes-esque bottle? So you could have something that’s actually far, far sweeter, but it’s in a particular shape of bottle and suddenly people think ‘sophistication’ and ‘dessert wine’ as opposed to ‘oh, sweet cider? No that’s for teenagers or whoever’?
Lydia: I completely agree and actually I said to Tom when we opened one of those bottles ‘oh my God, I wish this was in a different shape’. In a dessert wine bottle, basically. Which would be completely impractical for us, because we only made 150 bottles of that, and we can’t afford a whole pallet! But yeah, in a perfect world and if we’d realised just how sweet it was and how much it would lend itself to that, yeah I’d really like to have done it in a dessert wine bottle. I think that would have a big impact. As does the glassware, thinking about what we’re serving it in. We’ve drunk that out of smaller dessert wine glasses, because it feels like the right thing to do! I think it all comes down to the descriptions of ‘sweet, medium and dry’ and I think there need to be more intermediate descriptors. Because ‘medium’ feels very broad.
CR: Very broad. And so much of that seems to come down to perception, and even within that there’s not a great deal of nuance. Because I was just thinking earlier when we were talking about dessert wines being 150 g/l — at 53 g/l you’re in the territory of quite a lot of very, very high-end German Rieslings or Alsatian white wines, for instance. And there’s a lot of nuance and understanding within those categories, where they’re not necessarily thinking of something as ‘sweet’ per se, they’re thinking of it as within some particular band; Kabinett, Spâtlese and so on. And it’s not a disparagement — if anything it’s a badge. And when I was in Austria recently tasting perry, we had a dinner in which a fortified perry was paired with a main course of venison. And you sort of think there’s an evolution of thinking there; an understanding of what the food and drink is, and how it all comes together, and a comfort with playing around with different sweetnesses rather than labelling one ‘right’ and one ‘wrong’ or whatever. A question I did want to ask was: you’ve done this Kingston Black and Dabinett still, but you’ve done some sweeter drinks naturally carbonated in the past. How do you find that sweetness works with fizz versus being still?
Tom: Yes, so for me the Holy Grail of my style what I like to think of as my ciders…
Lydia: [Stage whisper] Our ciders.
Tom: Our ciders, is to create a bottle of fizzy cider, which doesn’t gush, which has a level of natural residual sugar — not necessarily a lot of residual sugar, maybe as little as 15 g/l — but that little bit of sugar there just to add a third leg to the tannin and the acid of the cider. And it’s very satisfying when you get that right. I think the still sweet ciders are basically where the fermentations stuck quicker than we’d hoped.
Lydia: No that’s not true! I really like still cider — I think it lets the fruit speak a bit more. But some ciders just lend themselves to a bit of fizz. I think it also tempers the sweetness slightly, when you’ve got some fizz.
Tom: I find particularly if you have a blend of bittersweets that are fairly low acid then having a bit of fizz in there does brighten the cider and add more acidic structure to it, and I appreciate that, personally.
CR: So one last slightly two-part question. Firstly, aside from what we’ve just discussed, what ciders and anything else are on the horizon for Artistraw, and secondly: rallying cry for sweet ciders and those who haven’t necessarily considered them as on the same level as dry?
Lydia: So for people who already love cider the possibilities of well-made sweet cider are utterly joyous because it just means you’ve got something to pair with every single course of your dinner. And there’s a whole world of possibility there. You might not think it’s to your palate, but as we’ve said there’s such a broad scale of how many grams per litre of residual sugar there are in cider that I think by doing away with sweet, anything above 0.3 g/l of sugar you’re missing out on. So give it a go — you might like it! We’ve started putting the residual sugar in g/l on our bottles, so everything has got that information now and yeah, I think people should just be a bit more bold! That’s not so much a rallying cry as a bit of a bully actually!
What I would add to that is that I recognise it’s a bit of a minefield at the moment, and identifying naturally sweet ciders amongst ciders that are backsweetened is really hard. So I guess it’s linked to what you guys have always been calling for in terms of more transparency on labelling. People being really upfront with their methods could definitely change that for the better.
And then sorry, I’ve got a third postscript! Which is that we’re absolutely not against anyone making cider the way they want to make it — we just choose to make naturally sweet cider, but we’re not trying to say anyone’s doing it wrong, or anything like that!
Tom: Sweet cider’s good for you — it brings you closer to the fruit experience in my view. I’m not saying dry cider is not nice; I drink a lot of dry cider.
Lydia: We drink more dry cider than we do sweet, just for the record!
Tom: But well-made, well-curated sweet cider is a joy, and is incredibly skilful to make. And actually also is lower in alcohol. By leaving natural sugar in the drink you’re automatically reducing the alcoholic content of it. Our sweeter ciders are typically 4-4.5%, and that’s no bad thing if you’re worried about alcohol consumption.
Lydia: And then for Artistraw, we’re basically at the moment just carrying on, the two of us, at the scale we’re making it. We’re going for quality rather than quantity; there’s no massive expansion plan or anything like that! The way we work is that we’re always choosing the absolute ripest fruit, so our blends will change every year. Our biggest focus is really to seek out old varieties, to continue to prune the orchards that we’ve got and carry on doing that whilst trying to reduce our carbon footprint. As I said before we’re the first eco-cidery to publish our carbon report, so we know the amount of carbon per bottle, and a big goal of ours is to try and improve that every year. Just trying to make really good drinks that we know that we can manage in a sustainable way, focussing on that and not trying to conquer the world I suppose!
We’ve only released one 2021 cider so far, so there’s a whole lot of stuff waiting in the wings, including some 2020 stuff still to come. There’s all kinds of stuff knocking around — I think every single room apart from the bathroom is now filled with cider! We’re just clambering through boxes of stuff! So all sorts, from absolutely ridiculously teeny-tiny batches to, though we never go bigger than about 600-litre batches, there are a couple of those knocking around as well.
Tom: We have a very exciting collaboration that’s underway.
Lydia: So it’s a wine-cider-perry co-ferment using grapes for that came from our friend Mark at Black Mountain Vineyard about 16 miles away, so we’re using his grape skins.
Tom: The first one we did was using Rondo grapes that had been not only pressed but also piquetted. So they were short on sugar but long on colour because Rondo has this wonderful rich, ruby-looking colour. And that co-fermented effectively in some Foxwhelp juice for about 8 days and then was pressed out and topped up with some perry pear juice we had hanging around and then bottled pét nat to go dry. And it turned out to be quite tasty actually! It was a bit woody — I think 8 days was a bit long on the grape skins; it had a bit of grape pip flavour. But this year we’ve gone a step up: we’ve used pressed grape skins and we’ve done a variety of different things, we’ve macerated them directly with the apple pulp, which has produced explosive pomace!
Lydia: That was quite an interesting day. We’d macerated all this stuff and it was sat in some barrels and I suddenly went out and I could hear the corks hissing away so I thought ‘I’ll put some bubblers in that’, so I eased the cork out gently and the whole thing sprayed out literally through the hole, hit me right in the eyes. It looked like I’d been in a massacre! I was absolutely dripping. I was about to go out and I had to have a shower and get changed! It tasted really nice but we learned quite a lot about how fast grapes ferment! That was quite fun.
Tom: Then we’ve done another one where we’ve pressed out the apple juice and then put in the grape skins for a few days and pressed that out. And then we’ve done some ciderkins and what we call some ‘skin contact ciderkins’, so all sorts of weird stuff!
Many thanks to Tom and Lydia for presenting such a compelling case for a sweeter style of cider. Gauntlet thus thrown down, it’s time we took an organoleptic peek at the bottled evidence.
The single variety Kingston Black and Dabinett have been pretty thoroughly covered above, so I’ll add only that the former costs £80 per six 750ml bottles directly from Artistraw or £13.95 individually from The Cat in the Glass whilst the latter is £72 per twelve 375ml bottles directly from Artistraw or £5.50 apiece from CITG.
As a foil to all this still single variety sweetness, how about something sparkling, blended and dry? Harvest Shrew 2021 combines Major, Kingston Black, Bisquet, Yarlington Mill and Ellis Bitter from trees approaching 80 years old in Jury and Duffryn Orchards. Bottled just before fermentation was complete to achieve a natural sparkle, it’s £78 for six from Artistraw or £13.50 a bottle from Cat in the Glass. But let’s start in the sweet corner, shall we?
Artistraw Kingston Black 2020 – review
How I served: Medium chilled
Appearance: Peach juice. Still
On the nose: I’ve not had Kingston Black in a few months now, and my goodness I’ve missed those aromatics. Ripe, fleshy, voluptuous, tropical. Apricots, peaches, tangerines and even lychee and passion fruit. A burst of deep citrus. Even flutterings of ginger. Ginger beer. A twist of vanilla and spice. So inviting.
In the mouth: It’s certainly sweet, but that beautiful Kingston Black acidity — gentle and refreshing rather than sharp — cuts through the sugars. Broad, ripe, super-juicy flavours mirror the nose, with the accent firmly on mango, passion fruit and deep citrus. Certainly not in sticky-sweet dessert wine territory; this is for lovers of the likes of off-dry Gewurztraminer for sure, and I’d pair it with something like char siu or barbecue pork myself. Fabulous stuff.
In a nutshell: Another stellar KB from Artistraw. A study in balanced sweetness. I might even prefer it to their 2019.
Artistraw The Red Shrews (Dabinett) 2020 – review
How I served: Mid chilled initially, but this proved a sub-optimal temperature for this cider, so I let it get to cellar temperature before reviewing, which is what I would also recommend to you.
Appearance: Brass. Still.
On the nose: A deep, autumnal, earthy, leathery, savoury take on Dabinett, with the variety’s dried orange and marmalade and vanilla booming away beside dried leaf and a certain woodiness. The kind of bittersweet nose that calls for woodland walks and open fires.
In the mouth: Huge-bodied, medium sweet (by my mileage) and heaving with flavour. All about those orange citruses; blood orange, dried orange, orange rind, orange marmalade. Some pretty grippy tannins head in a slightly bitter direction on the finish — pear this with a roast or hearty stew. But a cracking SV Dabinett nonetheless.
In a nutshell: A super, rich, intense and seasonal take on this most classic of bittersweets. Again, sweetness doesn’t overwhelm.
Artistraw Harvest Shrew 2021 – review
How I served: Cellar temperature
Appearance: Rich amber with a merry, well-behaved froth.
On the nose: Some of my favourite varieties are in here, but it’s Major that jumps out at me most, with bright orange and pithy orange peel. A touch of pine and resin amidst the citrus too, initially. Much for fans of Orange Wine to enjoy, but something here for lovers of those pithy, juicy IPAs I fancy. Fruit is young and fresh and ripe and juicy and very much at the start of its life.
In the mouth: A wonderfully vibrant arrival, full of oranges and mandarins and lemons. Minerally briskness with an in-mouth perfume of apricot and new wood and black tea tanninsSome chewy phenolics offer a good bit of piney, pithy astringency — one for food or ageing unless you like that character, as I do. Though the juicy body wraps most of it up — again, be sure not to drink this any colder than cellar temperature. Major is still the star, but with some spicy Yarlington depth and exotic Kingston Black tones.
In a nutshell: A lovely, clean, characterful dry cider at the start of a long, full life. Orange Wine, US IPA and bittersweet fans alike — fill your boots.
A reminder of just how compelling well-made, well-balanced, sweeter ciders can be, especially when they have passed that intangible point of fermentation at which they stop tasting like juice and begin to taste like something else, as is the case with both of our sweeter protagonists here.
The Dabinett was very good, and the Kingston Black was probably my pick of the bunch — I’m not sure I’ve seen Caroline react more positively to a cider since the similarly-sweet Kingston Black from Cwm Maddoc I reviewed a couple of years ago. But then the bottle of Harvest Shrew was the first I went to for a glass to drink after my reviewing was completed. And then again the Kingston Black was the first bottle to be emptied. A tangle. A dead heat, perhaps. Make of it all what you will.
The bottom line is that neither ‘sweet’ nor ‘dry’ translate as inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’. When it comes to ciders at a high enough tier of quality — and that is certainly what these three are; you can confidently buy them all — it is simply a question of when to drink them and with what, and the direction in which your own personal preferences run. As for me, I’m just grateful that we live at a time of such increasing quality and variety of available flavours to the cider drinker. And I shall continue to do my best to sample and enjoy the lot of them, whether they be 0 g/l, 150 g/l or somewhere in the middle.
Thanks to Tom and Lydia for a brilliant conversation and providing images of the bottles. Photo credit to Billie Charity.