Trojan horse or knight in cardboard armour? James and Jack explore the idiosyncrasies of Bag in Box.
Bag in Box (BiB) has always fascinated me as a packaging concept and when I started thinking about writing this piece I honestly didn’t know where to start. On a personal level I have found BiB to be a very mixed experience. When stored well and from a great producer I have had some wonderful ciders. Poorly stored and exploited by producers masquerading as full juice cider it can be awful, but that’s not unique to BiBs. This is meant to be a thought provoking article that highlights a couple of perspectives and we welcome comments and contributions to keep the conversations happening.
I could start with a pros and cons list, as I could for any packaging method and I’d be able to find similar numbers on each side. There’s no doubt it has it’s positives: compared to other packaging it is relatively low cost to purchase and when selling it’s a very easy to use as a draught dispensing method, with its own in built tap combined with the negative pressure collapsing the bag, it will last for several weeks if kept cool. Transporting, whilst heavy if in large quantities, it is still lighter than the equivalent in bottles, and you get more volume of liquid on your pallet.
It does also has its drawbacks though; challenging to store if in a large quantity, as a cellar or cool room is required to keep it at optimum freshness. Sitting on a warm bar does not lead to a good experience. In addition, some elements are hard to recycle, particularly the inner bag which is made from thin plastic which is not widely recyclable. It also creates significant restrictions on the liquid properties, only allowing still contents which means sweeter ciders need to either be pasteurised to stop sugar fermenting, employee the usage of sweetener or a very stable keeved or cold racked cider. None of which is an issue, just a restriction. Finally it has a reduced return (perhaps due to value perception?) when compared to other packaging methods.
Ultimately though it’s the affordability and accessibility that it offers as a packaging method that keeps it a firm favourite for the on trade. You don’t need a dedicated draught line and you can stack and rack them relatively easily for all your festival needs. So given that, surely it’s a great tool in the cider makers armoury, one that is keeping “craft” (for want of a better phrase) cider available to the masses? Or is it a trojan horse, already within our walls, slowly undoing the hard fought efforts of many small makers?
When it comes to the past, present and future of BiB, possibly controversially I think that CAMRA hold some of the keys to the kingdom. Always strong supporters of it over the years, particularly at festivals. However, that long history has led to a reliance and complacency in recent times. Many CAMRA beer festivals are incredibly switched on, bring in some brilliant ciders in BiBand take the time to curate and taste the offerings provided. Nottingham for example had a stellar line up of 160 different ciders and perries from craft producers from across the UK. Others appear to see cider as less of a priority, either through misunderstanding of the variation offered in BiB in terms of “quality” and juice content or through fear of taking a chance on other draught methods, such as keg conditioned. Jack and I spoke last year with a CAMRA rep and festival organiser at an event in Lincolnshire and whilst they had ten draught beer lines, there was a concern about opening up to include a couple of kegged ciders. Fear of Strongbow-esq ciders creeping in and taking over with their over fizzy constitution. Whilst in the background rows of BiB ciders revealed fruity, syrup concoctions, with the first cider to sell out being “rum and raisin”. I know Jack had a similar experience further South, when he asked the same question at another CAMRA festival.
On the other hand, some CAMRA festivals have been super diligent in labelling BiBs that are faulty (e.g. with a mouse sticker…for mouse [Ed: you don’t say]) or even “not real”. The question it raises, given CAMRA’s principles, is why are they selling them? Bearing in mind that CAMRA as a national organisation is often different in its views and approaches to some local branches. So I think there’s an issue with current understanding of the “quality” that BiB guarantees and the answer is it guarantees nothing. In fact there are a small number of producers that specialise in low juice, syrup filled ciders which are packaged in BiB with the sole aim of supplying pubs and festivals under the guise of being a “craft” product. I actually think that situation is one of the greatest barriers/threats to full juice cider, holding back many from being able to break into the on-trade due to being undercut in price and out performed in ability to supply on demand and in greater quantities.
What are your thoughts Jack?
Thank you James for inviting me to this musing on BIBs – it’s a serving format I increasingly turn to these days at home, so to put my reasons for choosing to do so into words has been a cathartic process. Every so often there comes a point where I have little or no cider or perry in glass bottles or cans at home (the horror). I’m ready to place an order with one of the many fantastic independent online bottle shops we have now across the UK, but I know it’s a 2-3 days delivery situation – and that’s fine, I live in a small market town in West Norfolk. I don’t expect or want drones delivering cider from Manchester, Anstruther, or London direct to my flat – Coruscant can stay firmly in the realms of Disney+. So in my situation I have a choice of three local supermarkets – Iceland, Morrisons, and Tesco – if I want to dash out for a cider fix at home. The first offers glass bottles, cans, and those big 2.5 litre plastic bottles of white cider – I occasionally try everything from here, but it doesn’t really float my boat. The following two supermarkets offer alongside the canned and bottled options, a 2.25l The Best Vintage Still Cider for £5.75 and a 3l Henry Westons Medium Dry Organic Cider for £7.50 (occasionally down to £6 on offer), and I believe both are actually produced by Westons. So in terms of interesting offerings from the supermarket, it’s always the BIBs I find myself going for these days, as it ticks the affordable and flavoursome end of their cider offerings (yet to see a BIB perry in a major supermarket). I know by buying from the supermarket, it’s an economy of scale situation, and that’s reflected in the range on offer (minimal) and price point (lower end). It’s fits in my fridge, is of consistent quality (never acetic or mousey) and sees me through to the next box of delights through the post. Job done.
To address the CAMRA Beer & Cider Festival point that James made above: I had a fantastic time at these last year in 2022. I embraced my CAMRA membership and travelled to Ely, London, Nottingham, Grantham, and Norwich – this year I’m also volunteering at Cambridge’s Beer & Cider Festival now it’s back on the scene. One of the reasons I attend these festivals is to try as wide a range of ciders and perries on offer as possible, usually in 1/3 pint measures, and with a good chunk of bread and cheese to line the stomach throughout the day. In these situations BIBs reign supreme. Last year the highlight had to have been Nottingham that really pulled out the stops to present a full spectrum of Dry, Medium, and Sweet ciders, a range of perries, and a few flavoured offerings. Where I struggle to understand the curation of these bars is when Salted Caramel & Strawberry Disappointment or Blueberry Banoffee Pie & Lime Shudder 20l BIBs outnumber a single variety or orchard blend expression from a particular maker. By attending one of these events, you’re already signifying you’re open to trying flavours and expressions that aren’t alcopops masquerading as ciders, and yet quite often it seems that preference is given to displaying a still version of these alcopops in BIB format. It genuinely excites me to try a still BIB version of a drink I love, from a producer I admire, that I’ve only tried in a sparkling presentation from a bottle before. And the notion at these festivals that by adding a few lines of keg-conditioned cider or perry, from producers that really care about the products they’re making, will somehow kill the BIB appreciation society – it’s for the birds! When you have a beautiful wall of 80+ BIBs and maybe an addition of 5 -10 keg lines, the only thing that is going to kill the BIBs off at these festivals is poor-quality, mousey, acetic, overly-sugared offerings…in my humble opinion.
Finally, on to a BIB evolution over the last few years – the packaging of cider and perry from producers who embrace the Fine Cider emergence on to the scene. This category enthuses me for the same reason as visiting those CAMRA Beer & Cider festivals – if I’ve loved the output of a producer over the past few years and have only tried their drinks in 750ml or 500ml bottles, and predominantly in sparkling presentation, then to have my own 3l BIB in my fridge to dip into every now and then over the course of a fortnight, well that’s pretty special. If I’m spending £12 – £17 on a 750ml bottle from this producer every so often, then a 3l BIB for £20 seems a fair price point when all is considered. Invariably I’m buying that BIB direct from the producer too, so more of the money is going right to them, rather than a supermarket taking a cut. I can get behind that as a model to have a wider range of drink presentations on offer. Back to you James!
To add a couple of reviews to this piece, we both purchased some recently released mini BiBs from producers embracing the “wine cooler” attitude and bringing the BiB to a fridge near you.
Little Pomona – Yarlington Mill (7%) – James
Appearance: hazy rusty amber
On the nose: orange rind, fruit cake, cloves and sharp citrus spirit, more Blue Curacao than Cointreau. Plus a slight note of oxidation at the end.
In the mouth: Typical Yarlington Mill with lots of red apples, soft orange and gentle spice. It’s very well rounded and smooth, with a juicy quality. Tannins a very well behaved here, no harsh bitterness just a nice flutter of astringency, drying the cheeks between sips. The slight oxidation note comes through as a little twang near the finish, but it’s short lived and soon disappears after decanting, it’s not enough to detract from the fruit on show here but once you know it’s there it is distracting. Goes down very easily and has quite an autumnal feel to it, perhaps its the colour and and the softness but I just want to cosy up in front of the fire on a cold night and sip this.
In a nutshell: a smidge rough around the edges but full on Yarlington Mill. If you want to taste what this fruit has to offer, this is a great example.
Welsh Mountain Cider – 2021 Vintage Dry (6.7%) – Jack
Appearance: Brancaster sand dune orange. Great clarity, with a slight head after pouring
On the nose: Light tropical notes, super clean, suggestion of acidity. A bit like someone has squished a tub of redcurrants or whitecurrants in front of you.
In the mouth: A piquant, mildly astringent affair, 2/3 acid-led and 1/3 tannin-led. It’s very clean (to follow up on that suggestion from the nose) and palate cleansing. Those tannins hang around a bit afterwards, like a great Harry Masters Jersey SVC. A really good expression of a year from Welsh Mountain Cider.
In a nutshell: The closest experience you’re going to get to trying a cider poured directly from a cask or IBC at Welsh Mountain Cider HQ, but from the comfort of your own home. Really worth seeking out.
There’s still a tonne of work to do when it comes to cider education and I think the on-trade is one of the toughest nuts to crack. Which is why organisations like CAMRA are key to positive change and understanding. It was refreshing to see CAMRA National Executive Director; Gillian Hough calling out a local festival asking which ciders were “real” (their terminology), but until a bit more oversight and direction is given to local branches then I fear the awards for best cider of the festival going to a strawberry cider will continue. Of course you may completely disagree with me, all these flavoured ciders sell and sell a lot quicker than those made from 100% apples, so maybe it’s time we realised that cider has become something else entirely. Queue pitchforks…
As a final point I mentioned earlier on that there’s a value perception issue with BiB, with many makers selling their still boxed ciders considerably cheaper than their bottled. Not just as a consequence of cheaper production and packaging. The two we’ve tasted today aren’t bucking that trend, as they all come in cheaper than the makers bottled products. What they do draw into the spotlight though is the wider discussion about cider pricing in general and the concept of “fine cider”. Something we’ve looked at on Cider Review before and the debate continues. Ultimately I think for progress to be made, we need to move beyond the packaging size and type argument and look at the liquid. It could be argued that all full juice cider is made from apples, why shouldn’t they all be available at the same and low cost price? Personally I am willing to pay more for a cider that has been aging for a couple of years (tank space + time = money) , or been through the traditionalle methode or keevingprocess, or perhaps a very small batch from an orchard that was an absolute challenge to harvest. That being said I’m also willing to pay more (than the mainstream offerings) for a full juice cider that maybe didn’t go through all the above, but was just a standard orchard blend, might have even been back sweetened slightly and forced carbonated. I know it cost more to make than the mainstream offerings, so cannot for the life of me understand why makers undervalue their products, other than to try and compete, which I suppose is inevitable but surely we should focus on the differences rather than the similarities. Perhaps more on that at another time.
Buy more BIB cider and perry where possible, but also try to lobby your local CAMRA group to evolve from their It’s BIB Or Go Home approach. Perhaps exclusive BIB offerings at festivals from specific makers could be an additional draw for some consumers? I love still cider and perry as much as I do their sparkling bedfellow. I’m totally with James on the appreciation for all the extra effort involved in producing certain styles of these drinks if they have additional maturation in oak barrels or require keeving. There needs to be a raised rrp when it comes to drinks like these that have had more work involved in their production. Equally, what could be simpler than a fruit juice, fully fermented to dry, and served to a thirsty consumer in a bar or at a festival, showcasing all the inherent qualities that fruit has to offer? The BIB isn’t going anywhere, but I suspect it can accommodate some equally well-made kegged neighbours nearby it on the bar in the years to come.
LP YM: A bit bewildered by how an oxidation note would disappear on decanting…? If the fruit has begun to oxidise, I can’t see that exposing it to more oxygen would help. (it might make no difference at all, but…)
No doubt, I’ve got the wrong end of the stick.
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