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Bittersweet or bust: a big ol’ bunch from Ross on Wye

The heart wants what the heart wants, and today my heart piped up with a squeak of ‘bittersweets’.

Yes, don’t get me wrong, often what gets me most excited is roaming down pastures new. Untasted varieties, weird and wonderful styles, international spotlights, co-fermentation, mistelle, you know the stuff. It gives this site texture and depth (or I think it does, anyway) and it shows the breadth of the cider world beyond our shores.

But sometimes all I want is a good old-fashioned English bittersweet from the South West or, as in this case, Herefordshire. And today was one of those days on which I had a hankering. (Incidentally, for a gorgeous unpacking of the humble hankering, you really must read this marvellous piece by Fliss Freeborn, whose blog I only discovered a week or so ago, but which I have been absolutely devouring ever since. But I digress, as ever.)

‘Bittersweets’, for those who may be newer to cider, refers to a category of apple within the century-or-so old classification of the Long Ashton Research Station, now closed. It divided apples into four camps: ‘bittersharps’, which have both meaningful acidity and meaningful tannin, ‘bittersweets’, which have meaningful tannin but low acidity, ‘sharps’, which have meaningful acidity but low tannin, and ‘sweets’, which are rubbish and should be thrown in the bin. (I joke, I joke, don’t @ me, as the even-younger-than-me youth say).

Whilst all four categories of apple contain multiple brilliant varieties for cider, rightly extolled in these pages, bittersweets and bittersharps are undeniably special. Not, as some suggest, because they are inherently better for cider (a tasting of, for instance, any good Egremont Russet, suggests that many apples outside of those camps make cider of easily equal quality) but because there are only two places in the world — Normandy and the west of England — where these apples are still grown in meaningful volume.

You can’t eat bittersweet or bittersharp apples — or at least you wouldn’t especially want to. The clue is in the name; the tannins, just as they do in overbrewed tea, or certain sorts of very young red wine, gnash away at your gums and dry your mouth out. The only reason for growing these apples is because of the specific textures and flavours that those tannins, and associated bold phenolics, impart to a cider.

Whilst bittersweets and bittersharps are now grown in various places around the country and the world, only north-west France and south-west England possess them in meaningful bulk. These apples are the cornerstone of what make our two cider cultures special, and they deserve to be revered and cherished as such. They make a style of cider that is found almost nowhere else, and I am constantly reminded of how lucky I am to live just a couple of hours from one of their heartlands. 

Of course the description ‘bittersweet’ is a net cast over dozens — hundreds — of varieties, each with a distinct character and flavour. Some have only the merest waft of tannin, whilst others are so bitter that ‘Bitter’ is part of their very name — Ellis Bitter, Tremlett’s Bitter, Ashton Bitter. There are varieties so full-bodied and voluptuous that the tannin levels are almost subsumed within their rich ripeness, and lean-bodied tannic monsters that hack away mercilessly at your gums. And cider is so much the richer for them all.

A striking observation was made at the recent CraftCon by Barney Butterfield, who pointed out that many of the big macro producers of the Western Counties are moving away from tannic apples for their cider, in favour of more anodyne, wispy-flavoured sweets and sharps that fall roughly under ‘crisp’ and can either be a more-or-less neutral base for some other added flavour, or a sort of apple-scented lager facsimile. The upshot being that numerous orchards of unique and irreplaceable bittersweets and bittersharps are seeing contracts cancelled, or are being regrafted with varieties which are nothing special, which tick a deliberately bland and boring box and which could grow just as cheerfully in any other orchard in any other cider culture anywhere in the world.

This, to my mind, would be an unthinkable loss. The malic equivalent of replanting Bordeaux with only light, inoffensive white grapes, or ditching Riesling along the Rhine. There are cidermakers by the hundred in places like America and Australia who would do diabolical things for access to the kinds of fruits available in western England, and here we are hacking them down. These things don’t grow back quickly, and the real sadness is in how few people realise what a treasure we are losing.

So three cheers for bittersweets and all those who champion them — and few champion bittersweets with the fervour and enthusiasm of the team at Ross on Wye.

These Herefordshire folk don’t really need any introduction; I’ve reviewed some 52 of their ciders and perries now, and my co-writers have probably scribbled up another half dozen. But no one offers as many single (or virtually single) variety bittersweets to explore, and in any case my particular bittersweet hankering was pickily specifying ‘and they also must be dry’, so it was back to Ross on Wye that I headed.

Contrary to Fliss’s (Fliss’? I’m actually embarrassingly bad at, grammar) definition of ‘the hankering’, I did in fact have a handful of Ross on Wye bittersweets in the house already. I didn’t put much thought into the bunch I put together besides making sure that I hadn’t previously reviewed them, that I covered a selection of both unoaked and oaked in 500ml and 750ml formats, and that all were proper Bittersweets with a capital B. (No ‘I’ve got tannin, honest, I know I had it when I left the house, it must be somewhere in one of my pockets’ Somerset Redstreak-or-Bisquet-esque ‘bittersweets by technicality, but you could probably eat one and be fine with it’ sorts of apples today, no sir).

Oh, and I should probably mention — Ross on Wye finally have their own online store! What an albeit-financially-dangerous time to be alive! You can find most of what I’m reviewing today there, though a couple of my 500ml batches might be a bit old, so caveat emptor blah blah. All are dry and all are bottled conditioned for a very light fizz (apart from one, which we’ll get to).

Right, we’re starting with the unoaked 500ml bottles, which clock in at an ever-ridiculous £3.50 a pop. We’ll kick off with Harry Masters’ Jersey, one of the most iconic of bittersweets. I covered the variety in detail here, and had a pretty intense experience with an unoaked Ross on Wye ‘HMJ’ in one of my very first cider articles, here. Let’s see how I do with this one.

Ross on Wye Harry Masters’ Jersey 2021 (unoaked) Batch E63 – review

How I served: Room temperature. Same for all of them. (Though my room currently is a teeny bit cold.)

Appearance: Mid-gold. Good, brisk conditioning.

On the nose: Lovely golden autumnal tones with that HMJ inflection of dried leaves, dried apricot skins, rain water on slate. Evocative. A little fleshier yellow fruit within all that though; definitely not as austere and medicinal as dry HMJ can be (ie the previous unoaked I reviewed). Nonetheless pretty typical of variety, style and maker.

In the mouth: That waxy yellow plum and apricot skin is to the fore, with a little yellow juiciness, followed by hay, dried leaves and petrichor. Full-bodied for unoaked HMJ, though medium-ish bodied in absolute terms. Nice freshness. Then very dry, pithy, rather thin tannins kick in as you’d expect of this apple. 

In a nutshell: A very good example of dry, young HMJ … which is to say ideally give it some time and air or serve it with protein-rich food. Cheddar, for those of cheesey inclination.

I mucked my order up a bit, so the next bottle up actually sits lower down the scale of tannin — Ashton Brown Jersey. (In a hurry I saw ‘Ashton’ and my brain jumped to ‘Bitter’. Mea culpa). Anyhow, an excellent and probably underrated apple which I’m not sure has featured here as a single variety since this pair from the same maker way back in May 2020. This Jersey is typically lower of tannin than HMJ, but rather juicier of fruit and plumper of body. Shall we see?

Ross on Wye Ashton Brown Jersey 2020 (unoaked) Batch E34 – review

How I served: As above

Appearance: A pantone notch bronzer than the HMJ. Same conditioning.

On the nose: Oops. What a stupid order. Saw ‘Ashton’ and brain said ‘Bitter’. Hey ho. Anyway – plumper, juicier, deeper, more fruit-centric tones than the HMJ; tropical, slightly orangey. Bruised apple, but with some woodlandy notes of nettle and hedgerow intermingling. Some slateyness too — this is Ross on Wye, after all. Creates a complex mélange of juice and savouriness. Very nice nose.

In the mouth: Yes, this is definitely one of the most underrated bittersweets — apple varieties full stop — I reckon. Lovely plump body; not quite the juice bomb of the 2015 vintage, but then this is some bit younger. Nonetheless some lovely ripe mango tones, soft red apple and almost-overripe orange entwine with more of that nettle and wet slate and even some bitter, high cocoa chocolate. Some tannic astringency on the finish, but not to HMJ levels. Still worth serving with protein.

In a nutshell: A great dry, unoaked bittersweet really, and a super example of a ‘food cider’ if that isn’t a wholly stupid term. Oh you know what I mean.

Let’s crank things up a notch. Bittersweet ciders, especially those made with today’s sorts of bittersweets, often have a great affinity for oak. Interactions with the cask and time spent resting in the barrel help to break tannins down a little and create an overall softer cider. Many of the most raved-about bottles on this site have been oak cask bittersweets, and in honesty, this was really what my hankering was nudging me towards.

We’ll start with a pair of 500mls, which in oak cask terms can sometimes yield the truly outrageous value, underhyped gems of the Ross on Wye range. The Major and Dabinetts I reviewed here a couple of years back are enshrined on my memory’s palette as all-time-greats that could easily have graced a 750, yet they’re only £4 a pop. Let’s see if today’s pair stand up with them.

First up is an actual Ashton Bitter, developed at the eponymous research station in 1947 (a crossing of Dabinett and Stoke Red) and famous as one of the most uncompromisingly ferocious of tannin of all. I reviewed a trio of Ross Ashton Bitter blends a while ago, and even time and sharps couldn’t contain their textural intensity. 

Ross on Wye Ashton Bitter Oak Cask Fermented 2019 Batch D100 – review

How I served: ^^^

Appearance: Lovely, rich almost buttery gold. Same conditioning as previous pair.

On the nose: Ross on Wye went through a bit of an ex-bourbon cask phase a couple of years back, and this cider definitely seems to have enjoyed its time in one. Vanilla, coconut, a malolactic butteriness and a yellow passionfruit tropicality. Red apple skins and sweet spices. Not sure I’d guess the variety from the nose, but it’s a lovely aroma nonetheless.

In the mouth: A riot of a palate. A true clashing-together of oak and apple, those bourbony vanilla, caramel and coconut tones joining surprisingly (for Ashton Bitter) juicy fruits and fruit skins atop a (not surprising) gnash of the biggest, coarsest tannins I’m likely to find today. The oak has added body, which alongside fruit ripeness (tangerine, red apple, ripe blood orange) has given ballast, but there’s a huge amount going on here — indeed perhaps too much for some drinkers. But that’s Ashton Bitter. This is to tannin what Foxwhelp is to acid. And that’s much of the fun.

In a nutshell: Not for the faint hearted, but a riot of a bittersweet cider that would be the best of friends with a steak.

I’ve made a hash of my order again, leading with Ashton Bitter, but the next apple up certainly isn’t short on personality. Indeed Major has now firmly established itself as a favourite variety of mine, often combining the orange juiciness of a Dabinett with a more genteel version of the savoury, phenolic finish of something like Harry Masters’. It has a particular fondness for oak, I’ve found, and having enjoyed my last Ross on Wye oak cask Major so immensely, I’m particularly excited (and therefore prepared to be particularly picky if needs be) about this one. 

Ross on Wye Major Oak Cask Fermented 2019 Batch E17 – review

(Blended with tiny amounts of Sweet Coppin and Gilly, so technically neither single variety or all-bittersweet, but you know what? Sue me.)

How I served: Same same same.

Appearance: Running out of synonyms for Gold now. Same conditioning.

On the nose: Well now. We have a twinge of smoke. Just a twinge mind — no need to call the ‘Too Smoky’ Brigade here. It curls and swirls atop a lovely savoury-spiced orange and lime marmalade with more of those autumnal, woodland and dried leaf tones. There is still a lovely freshness and clarity despite oak and age. A bracing, complex, autumnal cider nose of the sort no one does better than Ross on Wye.

In the mouth: Gorgeous palate. Right up my alley — very much the droid I was looking for. So complex, so much going on, yet wonderfully harmonious — nothing distracting or to excess. Fruit has retained lovely freshness, tannins add grip and texture without astringency, smoke drifts within it all, never overwhelming the fruit. Crunchy apples, fresh orange, apricot and lemon skins are to the fore. (The nibble of yellow citrus is a lovely touch). And that gorgeous sense of autumn country walk persists.

In a nutshell: I love this cider. This sort of bittersweet-barrel marriage is just one of my favourite things. Buy any that’s left.

Enough of this 500ml messing around. Let’s break out the 750s — the bottles you can fill a pint glass and a wine glass with and thus leave every drinker happy.

First up are the pair within this flight that I’m most excited about. Brown Snout is Albert Johnson’s favourite variety, which he beautifully described in that varieties piece of January 2020. And for a while there the oak cask Brown Snout 2017 was my favourite Ross on Wye full stop. (It would still be in the top 5-10). It’s such a distinctive and idiosyncratic apple; it’s hard to believe that such super-ripe, jellied fruit and idiosyncratic savoury-leathery spice comes from such a tiny, innocuous, pale green, brown-speckled piece of fruit, yet there it is.

Anyway, I’ve wanted more Brown Snout in my life ever since that 2017 release, but guttingly the trees that the Ross team used to harvest were cut down. Thankfully, in 2020, they were pointed towards another source, and it is from those new trees that today’s pair of bottlings originate.

Whilst both are the same juice, fermented in the same oak barrels, Ross took the (for them) very unusual step of bottling some of it entirely still, and conditioning the other half through their usual method. A few months later, before release, they discovered that the ‘still’ batch had still had the merest nibble-ette of unfermented sugar, and thus had continued to condition in the bottle for the most waif-like tickle of petillance. Thus the regularly-conditioned is labelled as ‘dry sparkling’ and the other as ‘lightly conditioned’, making for a very interesting side by side indeed. Both will set you back a tenner on the Ross on Wye website.

Ross on Wye Brown Snout Oak Barrel ‘Lightly Conditioned’ 2020 – review

How I served: Room temperature.

Appearance: Burnished bronze. The lightest of fizz spritzes; barely registers as bubbles.

On the nose: Big, ripe, wine-gummy aromatics. Yellow, orange and red wine gums steeped in oak-agedrum. lemon’n’lime marmalade and that distinct Brown Snout leatheriness, like a new leather jacket. A deep, soulful, ripe and harmonious aroma; I could carry on smelling this for yonks.

In the mouth: Lovely, luxurious texture. Medium-plus body with beautifully-integrated tannins that are plush, rather than coarse, adding weight rather than grip. This is what Herefordshire bittersweets are all about; juicy, orangey, lemony, ripe, gummy fruit that still has wonderful freshness amidst all that depth, balanced by spice from the barrel but always with the fruit to the for. Amazing complexity for a single variety too. Worth the wait.

In a nutshell: A glorious, standout cider. My favourite Ross on Wye cider for some time. And you know that’s saying something.

Ross on Wye Brown Snout Oak Barrel ‘Dry Sparkling’ 2020 – review

How I served: Guess.

Appearance: Same but a teensy bit hazier and a good bit fizzier.

On the nose: Similar — shockingly! — but the fizz springboards the aromatics and inflects the higher tones of orange and lemon. Preserved lemon and nettle. More emphasis on freshness of fruit than on richness, depth and wine-gumminess. (Cider-gumminess?) It’s conditioned nicely though there’s a tiny touch of reduction in mine, which dissipated entirely after a minute or two in the glass. Let it sit a moment after pouring. It’s a vibrant, lovely thing.

In the mouth: Follows the same pattern on the palate; that extra fizz buoying the higher tones, freshening the orange and lemon and leaning away from the darker, richer tones of spice and leather and gummy fruit — though with time they do appear on the finish, albeit in a fainter way than in the lightly conditioned. This feels (for current drinking) more youthful and vibrant.

In a nutshell: Still stellar, and drinking very well now, but my suspicion is that this will be even better for a couple of years’ ageing, to allow the darker tones to unclench themselves and come through more. Stash a few in your cupboard and drink the Lightly Conditioned for the time being. What a return for Brown Snout!

Whilst we’re Brown Snouting (a verb I immediately regret using and will avoid henceforth) here’s a bit of a riff on the theme. Ross on Wye are regrafting their extensive Harry Masters’ Jersey orchard with 64 (possibly 128?) different varieties at the moment, and of course they weren’t going to leave out Albert’s favourite. So one of the new rows features young(ish) grafts of both Brown Snout and Chisel Jersey.

Chisel Jersey is basically pure tannin concentrate that makes Harry Masters’ Jersey look like a silky-smooth, easygoing charmer you’d drink instead of Bailey’s. I’m not sure we’ve reviewed any as a single variety here before (there’ll be one I’m forgetting, I bet) and I’m not all that sorry we’re not reviewing one today.

What we have here is a ‘single row blend’ of Brown Snout and Chisel Jersey. As Ross occasionally do, it’s blended across two different vintages — 2019, which they fermented in oak and 2021, which had more softness and juiciness. The label copy ends with ‘A cider for the discerning drinker’, and I’ve found in the past that when Ross on Wye write words to this effect it often means ‘this will blow your palate off, but in a good way’. Let’s see if that holds true.

Ross on Wye Brown Snout and Chisel Jersey Oak Cask 2019-2021 – review

How I served: Température ambiante

Appearance: Hazy straw-gold. Light conditioning.

On the nose: Super intriguing. There’s a little persistent reduction; a bit of barnyard; but there’s also a really intense chocolateyness. Milk chocolate, vanilla. Some waxy fruit, but this is more about skins and leaves and hedgerow really. A sense of sous bois. And a bit of yellowy bitter lemon. Not my favourite aroma of the bunch (possibly wants leaving another 6 months before opening) but certainly an intriguing nose.

In the mouth: There’s a lovely softness considering the Chisel Jersey in this. A little pith, but nothing some charcuterie wouldn’t mop up. Fruitier than the nose, with none of that reduction (which definitely makes me feel that it could do with another 6 months — perhaps just very slow to condition; there’s not much fizz at all here). Lemon skin, tangerine, even a floral character (fresh spring flowers). Young, fresh and grippy – much more fruit than oak. Some more dark chocolate on the finish.

In a nutshell: A rumbustious cider, still young and developing, to my palate. Could do with leaving a year or so as it continues to resolve and harmonise. But well worth your time.  

Shall we have a Dabinett? I think we really ought to. It’s the most widely-planted bittersweet in England, after all, and incontestably one of the best (along with Yarlington Mill in my book, and a nose ahead of Brown Snout (sorry Albert) and Major). A regular cropper that’s not short on tannin, but usually mops up any astringency with one of the juiciest, fullest bodied and most charmingly fruity palates of any apple variety grown anywhere in the world.

I recently tasted my way through a raft of Herefordshire Dabinetts via the fascinating ‘Sense of Place’ experiment conducted by Little Pomona and going back a couple of years James made his way through a whopping 18 as part of his ‘Dabinettiad’. It’s probably the most reviewed apple variety on this website — yes, even ahead of Foxwhelp — so we have form for it, and we love it in both its oaked and unoaked guises.

Ross on Wye’s Dabinett has found particular favour with us in the past — and in various forms. Their 2018 keg conditioned was part of my Essential Case of 2021 and no fewer than three of our contributors singled out Ross on Wye Dabinett for end-of-year praise in our 2022 roundup. But where Jack and James highlighted the Oak Barrel 2020 (aged in rum casks), young Ed favoured the Oak Cask 2019-2020 blend, which is what I’m tasting today. Unlike Jack and James’ pick, this has been aged in former whisky casks. It’s available on the Ross webshop for £10. (As is the 2020, which I’m not reviewing today, as I don’t have it.)

Ross on Wye Dabinett Oak Cask 2019-2020 – review

How I served: Once more into the room temperature breach, dear friends.

Appearance: Lightly-hazy gold. Though I can hear Albert saying ‘bittersweet cider is what the name of this colour is’. So let’s go with that. Nicely conditioned; gentle hiss of fizz.

On the nose: This, my friends, is what they call ‘sticking the landing’. What we’re smelling here is pretty much what got me into dry, oak-aged, bittersweet Herefordshire cider in general, and from Ross on Wye in particular. Pure Dabinett; all the hits — booming fresh orange, orange pith, orange marmalade, vanilla and black tea leaves, resplendent over a waft of salty campfire-on-a-beach-style driftwood smoke. Stealing a phrase I once heard from an eminent professor of barley: ‘I love the shit out of this.’

In the mouth: Of all of today’s lineup this has the most seamless nose-to-palate followthrough — which is to say that it’s just stupendous. Dabinett, ever more about the body than the tannin, always one of the most ripe and juicy and voluptuous characters, just booming that pure fresh, juicy, orangey loveliness over that coastal peatsmoke, spice and tea tannin. Evocative, wonderful bittersweet cider that makes my heart happy.

In a nutshell: What an apple. What a drink. Definitely beats the also-excellent Oak Cask 2020 in the Ross Dabinett-off, for me. I need a lie down.


Nowhere but the west of England and the south of Wales makes drinks quite like these. I drink them and I feel intangibly connected to something. I don’t precisely know to what, but it is to something. Only France, elsewhere, has significant quantities of this sort of apple, and even there they don’t make cider in this style.

On a personal level, ciders in this style — particularly the Major, Brown Snouts and Dabinetts — are the sort that Caroline and I used to take on long lockdown walks in the countryside, and so perhaps they evoke something for me that is less about the ciders themselves and more about the rugged, earthy associations of places in which I drank them and in which I saw them being made. Less terroir, perhaps, than a personally-conjured ‘sense of place’.

And yet I think there is something to good bittersweet Herefordshire cider that conjures not only this ineffable sense of land, but specifically the rough-hacked, lonely, spellbinding marches countryside of Herefordshire. I don’t know; I drink them and I think of gnarling woodland, tree and leaf, rivers curling round the crumbling loom of rock in a half-wild county that’s not half as well known or celebrated as it deserves to be. My twin loves of bittersweet cider and of Herefordshire blossomed and bloomed in more or less perfect tandem; I can’t be relied upon to separate the one from the other, and I’m not sure I’d want to anyway.

Favourite? The Brown Snout Lightly Conditioned. No, the Dabinett. No, the Brown Snout. No, the Dabinett. Oh, who cares? There’s not a bottle here I wouldn’t buy again, and it’s worth repeating how lucky those of us who live in the UK are to have access to them and to other drinks in their style. (God knows we’re running out of things to feel all that lucky about). The world of British bittersweet cider is a beautiful, mesmerising, complex and delicious one. I hope it isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

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