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Cider rethought: on the broad tent and sectors within it

About five years ago, around January 2018, Jane Peyton and Susanna Forbes coined a phrase. 

The landscape of cider, at the time of their coining it, was very different to the one which many readers of Cider Review now inhabit. From a communications perspective The Cider Blog and Cider Pages, both hugely important to my own personal journey of discovery, had more or less wound down — the latter some years previously. It had been a while since the publication of Pete Brown and Bill Bradshaw’s seminal ‘World’s Best Ciders’; Gabe Cook and Susanna Forbes herself would both publish books towards the end of the year. An enigmatic figure named The Cider Critic was a couple of months away from posting his first article; a whisky website called Malt was a few months more from posting theirs. There was no Cider Review, no Burum Collective, no Neutral Cider Hotel; at that stage there wasn’t even a Pellicle. The shape and tone of cider discourse on social media was very different to that which it takes today.

Producers and their bottlings were similarly far-removed from the scene as it is in 2023. I remember on rare visits to the Cider Shop in Bristol, then a bricks-and-mortar affair, that I would mainly come away with 500ml bottles, because that was, for the most part, what they sold. 750s were a comparatively rare and exciting curiosity, and could generally only (or at least most reliably) be found by visiting producers themselves. Branding was different; simpler, often more home-printed in style. Much as the old Ross on Wye packaging still makes me smile and stirs fond memories, its modern attire is unquestionably a slicker, more eye-catching, attractive and professional suit of clothes.

Many makers now much beloved by cider social media in general and contributors to this website in particular were in their infancy, or had yet to release anything full stop. It’s odd to imagine a cider scene without Little Pomona, yet I could probably count the ciders they’d bottled by 2018 without running out of fingers. Names like Wilding, Find & Foster, Artistraw, Smith Hayne — these were little-known, where they were known at all. As far as shows went, there was no Cider Salon, no French equivalent in CidrExpo, no CraftCon. There was no Manchester Cider Club, nor Cardiff, Birmingham, London.

It was an age in which online choice for the consumer offered a fraction of what it does today. Buying much cider and perry predominantly meant ordering directly from the producer (if they even had a website, which more often than not they didn’t). I remember Beers of Europe was one of my main online ports of call for mixed case orders, and in honesty the pickings there were mixed in more sense than one. The Fine Cider Company cultivated a small-but-perfectly-formed range, though at that time catered mainly to restaurants. Scrattings, when it opened for business in 2018, was a true revelation — and a revolution. An unprecedented range of makers to mix your own cases from and a dedicated selection of 750ml bottlings from different producers to boot, albeit their superb 500ml offering was significantly larger. I immediately became a regular customer; not a month went by without my then-colleagues watching me haul a box with that iconic green and white branded cellotape up to my desk from reception, usually ripping into it then and there to admire new finds and potential exciting discoveries. It’s funny to think, now, that you could make your way through their entire ‘fine cider’ selection in far less than half a year’s-worth of once-a-month case purchases. It wasn’t until The Cat in the Glass started trading in November 2020, bringing the likes of Bartestree, Artistraw, Cwm Maddoc and others online for the first time that the birth of what you might call ‘the modern scene’ could really be said to be complete.

Forbes and Peyton’s vision, then, was prescient and, in the context of the time, almost audacious. Their phrase – #rethinkcider – a bold rallying cry. Here, they felt, was a drink (or, rather, ‘drinks’, since perry came under the same umbrella) that deserved more of a shake than they got. Were worthy of more attention; had more to offer than the ubiquitous kegs on pub taps from macro producers; diluted, sweetened and from concentrate. Here was a drink with varieties which could be shouted about, offering unique flavours, textures, characters — either singly or as a blend. Here was a drink with a range of styles, perfect for pairing with a range of foods and for drinking in a vast array of manners and scenarios and at any time of year. 

2018 became perhaps the most seminal year in transforming modern perceptions of what British cider could be, and influencing the rough shape of discourse around it. (At least within the vanishingly tiny bubble that is the online cider community). With the publications of Ciderology and The Cider Insider, the rise of Scrattings and Manchester Cider Club, the beginnings of James Finch’s writing and Pellicle’s features, not to mention a raft of ambitious (and ambitiously packaged) bottlings typified by the inaugural vintage of Ross on Wye’s Raison d’Être, there was the beginning of a definitive shift in the way a particular sector of cider was commonly discussed, portrayed, considered and packaged; a shift that continues to be felt today.

But if 2018 laid the foundations for a revolution it was unquestionably 2020 that gave it impetus. Deprived of pubs, with limited access to kegs and bag-in-boxes, with home drinking the new normal and with countless newly-spare hours to take to social media, cider was simultaneously drunk in a way that had never really been a norm before, whilst discussed online more than had ever previously been the case.

Including the dozen or so articles James had previously written for Crafty Nectar in addition to work on his own blog, prior to 2020 the two of us had written a perhaps a combined 25 pieces on cider and perry, of which only three were mine. By the end of 2020 that figure stood around 100, to say nothing of James’ Fine Cider Friday videos and instagram conversations with smaller makers and on the international scene. Burum Collective had become central to the cider conversation, buoyed at the time by the articles of Ben Thompson, whose writing I miss tremendously, but subsequently by the huge and varied contributions of Helen Anne Smith and Rachel Hendry, who I have become lucky enough to count as friends, and who I learn from every week. CAMRA’s Learn & Discover was flourishing, Neutral Cider Hotel was a weekly riot and twitter had never felt a livelier or more explorative centre of cider and perry conversation.

It was within this environment that, as Tom Oliver put it, ‘without a shadow of a doubt, the 750ml bottle found its place’. Aided by Scrattings and The Fine Cider Company, by producers themselves, and later by the Cat in the Glass, drinkers bought more cider in this format than ever before — at least in the UK; the 750 having been largely the default setting for cider across the rest of Europe for decades, if not more. Daily pictures appeared on twitter and instagram, new drinkers were enticed by bottles that presented cider in a way they had not previously imagined, new retailers in sectors such as wine — natural and otherwise — found a drink they could understand and relate to and were prepared to sell, producers added new lines to their range, or introduced their first bottlings in the format — and yes, 750ml bottles comprised the overwhelming majority of ciders and perries reviewed in this space.

Three years later I find myself wondering whether the landscape is starting to shift once more. Though pubs in the UK have been dealt the shoddiest of hands by crippling energy prices and an insouciant government, they are once again where the majority of cider is being drunk, and once again the overwhelming majority of it is served either on keg or in bag-in-box. One prominent cidermaker told me that in 2021 their draught:bottle split was 57:43 – by 2022 it had moved to 70:30. ‘The 750ml market is saturated and not growing,’ they told me.

Released into the real world again, we have collectively dialled back the online cider discussion; some of those who started writing during the pandemic years have reduced their output, others have very sadly stopped altogether. Though there are many reviewers still plying a lively trade on instagram, discussion on twitter has dwindled to near-ghost-town status. I almost exclusively follow people associated with cider, yet perhaps 90% of what pops up on my twitter feed these days seems to primarily concern beer.

Whenever something undergoes significant change there is inevitable and understandable backlash from those who had inhabited that particular world beforehand, were happy with it as it was, fear its loss and have concerns over the new direction of travel. It’s something I have seen fuel often-heated discussions around wine and single malt whisky and, more recently, bourbon and rye throughout my drinking years and it is certainly something with which I can sympathise.

Given the scale of changes in the cider scene that the rethink movement and its successors have cultivated it is therefore unsurprising that there has always been a degree of critique — as there should be of all things, within reason, of course. Predominantly from those to whom real, high-juice-content, craft, insert-adjective-of-choice cider played a significant personal and social role for years beforehand; years in which it was a little-cared-for drink which their nurture, enthusiasm and advocacy for protected from otherwise possible near-extinction.

The nature of the critique offered towards the sort of cider begotten of the rethink movement is nuanced and varied, but some of the cruxes perhaps are these: that it is expensive (at least compared to other cider formats), that it is therefore exclusionary in nature, that it implies superiority to alternative formats, that it leaves producers who don’t choose to bottle 750mls behind, that it has disproportionately land-grabbed the general ‘conversation’ around cider and, critically, that it takes too many of its cues from wine, at the potential cost of some distinction of cider’s own identity.

Britain has, in my view, an indisputable claim to being the most many-faced cider culture in the world today. Uniquely among the large, old cider traditions of Europe ours is not dominated by the 750ml format; vast oceans more are drunk either from keg or bag-in-box. Not only pubs but festivals tend to lean more in this direction; through the Learn & Discover program and their social media accounts, CAMRA has become arguably the biggest champion of aspirationally made, priced and packaged cider in the country, yet (for a lot of good logistical reasons) bag-in-box remains far and away the most utilised format at their festivals, including the Great British Beer Festival. Arguably this also partially reflects that we are the only European cider culture in which drinkers, for the most part, mentally align cider more with beer than with wine. It’s perhaps not surprising that a (slight) erosion of cider’s historic insularity over the last few years has coincided with a rise in 750ml bottlings and greater interest from wine drinkers. The picture is complex, has become massively more so, and like so many things is never as black and white as discourse on ever-binarised social media might suggest.

And yet Cider Review in general and my writing in particular deals predominantly with 750ml-packaged, aspirationally-priced ciders and perries of the sort especially lauded by the rethink movement and which often overtly display an alignment with wine in terms not only of production but of ethos and intellectual inspiration. Though our writing team is a slowly-growing collective, and though we have covered the very biggest makers as well as the tiniest craft operations, to date there has been only one article published on this website reviewing ciders served in bag format, plus a handful more covering cans or smaller bottles.

There are a few practical reasons for this. Firstly, the likes of Strongbow, Thatchers Gold and Stowford Press may be fascinating on a social and historical level, but offer limited mileage from a reviewer’s perspective — and you know what they taste like anyway. As far as bag-in-box ciders go, there’s no way for me to police the conditions in which they’re kept at pubs (often distinctly sub-optimal) even if the pub was an ideal venue for writing tasting notes (which it isn’t). And I don’t tend to buy boxes or several-litre pouches for home consumption in part because I usually prefer to spread my drinking over a wider number of smaller-packaged expressions.

But I might as well be honest at this point and say that my personal feeling is that the majority of the most interesting, thought-provoking and delicious ciders currently available, and the ciders which offer the most scope for long-form written explorations of the sort we attempt here, are being packaged in the 750ml format.

It is this format that allows for the largest number of production methods; from still to traditional method, from pét nat to charmat, all find a place. Glass bottles, inert and impermeable, are by far the best currently-available format for ageing, keeping cider and perry in better condition for longer, and since their strength, unlike bags and boxes, can accommodate sparkling styles and continued post-packaging fermentation, pasteurisation isn’t necessary for ciders and perries that aren’t already fully-fermented. Their larger size makes them ideal for sharing, and promotes mental associations with drinking alongside a meal, weaving cider into the tapestry of broader gastronomic culture. And yes, on a lower and entirely subjective level I like the way they look and feel and so on, because like everyone else I have my own set of preferences and biases, and a lot of (though certainly not all) 750ml bottles simply look nice and make me feel special, even before I’ve opened them, and grab the attention of people I’m pouring them for to boot. (And anyone who tells you that this sort of thing isn’t important and that as a long-term, brand-cynical category stalwart they’re not swayed by branding one way or another yarda yarda is fibbing or delusional, because – and I speak professionally here – everyone is. Even if they don’t know it).

Though I don’t deny that prices have gone up at the top end compared to what was more commonplace a few years ago, I’d argue that the increases have made small businesses more viable, have encouraged greater widespread experimentation in terms of methods, give orchards a better shot at financial stability, have the chance to incentivise growers to preserve and propagate larger numbers of rare varieties and in any case are still lower than counterparts in any other annual-harvest-based drinks industry that I can think of. Show me a wine that is as limited and as high quality as any vintage of The Old Man & The Bee for anywhere close to £15, or a traditional method wine made in as small a batch and with as much reverence for fruit as a Smith Hayne for anything like the same price. The likes of Raison d’Être and Oliver’s Keeved Perry being £10 or even under is almost outrageous. 

I came to non-macro cider from a wine background, so while I’m perfectly able to understand and appreciate cider and perry as their own drinks, and indeed view their idiosyncrasies and distinctions of (separate) identities as not only crucial but a central part of their attraction in the first place, it would be absurd if I was not particularly interested in the intersection between the three of them, especially as it is so overt. Remove scratting from the equation of cider’s production and there is no meaningful difference in the ways that wine and cider are made. Every method of wine production has a counterpoint in cider, and like wine, full-juice cider derives its flavours predominantly from the variety or varieties in its makeup. Besides, we’re perfectly happy aligning cider and perry – two very different drinks – on the same mental plane. Why exclude another fermented fruit drink from conversation and comparison when there is plainly so much that all three can learn from each other?

And of course it would be equally short-sighted to exclude beer from our thoughts and investigations when its cultural resonance reverberates so emphatically through the British cider scene, and when so many drinkers of such beers as gueuze have found a happy bridge across to the fermented apple. One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to cider, and we’re a poorer people if we try to force it to.

I am often reminded of how lucky I am to be a cider and perry drinker in the UK. There simply isn’t another country in which I would have such easy access to such a range of styles, formats, flavours and serves. Uniquely, this is a country in which every decent-sized town or city offers, at minimum, bag-in-box cider from an aspirational producer; probably several, and expressing a broad swathe of different flavours. Wherever I choose to live, I can have 750ml ciders from a similarly broad range of producers delivered to my door, and on the 26th of September there will always be somewhere that can serve me a Strongbow. I can have one cider from a pint glass and another from a wine glass and both can seem utterly perfect for time and place and mood and drink. And that’s without getting into stemless glasses, gerippte, txotx glasses, copitas and more. Our cider umbrella opens more broadly than France’s, Spain’s, Germany’s or Austria’s, and is easier to access the whole of than it is for any individual drinker in the USA. As far as cider drinking goes, I genuinely believe that we live in the best of places and at the best of times; one in which I can nurture specific, legitimate and strongly-held preferences whilst accepting that these represent only a part of the broader world in which we all operate. 

I love many keg ciders and I love many draught ciders. I hope they grow and improve and prosper. They comprise by far the bulk of (apple) cider in this country and they are the main reason cider remains in the national consciousness. I write about them from time to time, and will continue to do so; I think keg-conditioned ciders, in particular, have the potential to prove the biggest game-changer of all. But for all sorts of reasons they’re not what I’m interested in writing about most often.

Ascension’s Matt Billing put it perfectly when he wrote: ‘I don’t think we need a battle here, we can coexist happily. Whilst I am delighted that we are seeing more producers take aim at the fine/champers/75cl market, I am wholeheartedly dedicated to providing accessible, pricepoint achievable, naturally made, quality driven alternatives to the mass produced usual suspects. I want to see the entire spectrum of cider, from the champers bottles in the fridge, to the purple bev flowing from a keg, made better and made well, with the focus of the drinkers enjoyment the top priority.’

This ideal is encapsulated by a glance around the drinkers at the annual Ross on Wye festival, where glasses of draught and keg invariably intermingle with the most diverse and intriguing of 750s and all fit naturally and perfectly into their setting. I’m not sure there’s another drink in the world that could pull that off to the same extent. As I’ve written before, cider’s tent is broad, there is room for all styles and drinkers beneath it and — crucially — there is nothing stopping any individual drinker from moving around from sector to sector. Our world is expanding. There is space to explore. And it follows that there is therefore also room for all of our individual preferences to flourish.

I started writing about the sorts of ciders and perries predominantly covered on Cider Review because I found in them drinks that spoke to my preferences and personal interests in particularly eloquent ways, yet which I felt, as Jane and Susanna did before me, received a smaller amount of coverage than they deserved. They remain the sorts of ciders and perries which captivate me most, the bottles in which I find the greatest levels of awe and soul and wonder. The ciders and perries which I most want to share with my friends and which — despite the monumental efforts of rethink and its successors — still occupy the smallest and most fragile corner of that broad tent of the modern British cider scene.

As, like drinkers in other categories, we reach a more sophisticated and defined understanding of the ways cider’s various sectors both overlap with and distinguish themselves from each other, the niche which rethink cider helped chisel out and in which parallels with wine are often made overt is likely to remain, for better or worse, the one I love most and want to continue predominantly writing about. I think its existence and growth has made our world a bigger, more interesting and delicious one, and I’d be devastated were it to be lost. But if you want to write a counter-argument, or about a different sector entirely, I’ll be first in line to read it. And if you just want to disagree with me over a pint of draught or a fruity bev, I’ll be delighted — the first round’s on me.

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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.

1 Comment

  1. Thomas S. Bishopston says

    A detailed and accurate summary of where we have come in the last five and a bit years. Things have changed massively for the better for a lot of businesses. This year will certainly prove the trickiest however. Cider’s broad tent (much sturdier and more dignified than the other broad tent commonly discussed) is indeed one of its greatest assets. It is always surprising to drinkers when explained to them that macro cider is often from concentrate, and only 35% juice, but does it actually bother them? No, to be honest, and that’s the crux of the challenge with draught cider.

    Regardless, there is one simple rule when considering all this:

    Cider is for Everyone, and Everyone is for Cider.

    Like

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