Want to know who’s making the running in the fast-moving world of craft cider? From New York to Dorset to London, Susanna Forbes picks out the producers and merchants you have to know
Oliver & Ryan Strong: Dorset Nectar, West Dorset
Production: around 72,000 litres and growing; draught, bag-in-box, kegs, bottles
Known for: organic status, sense of adventure
Terroir & fruit: Located four miles from Bridport, the area with Dorset’s strongest cider heritage, Dorset Nectar benefits from an almost maritime climate. The 15-acre organic orchards are based on Bridport Sands – ideal drainage for the apples. Blending across vintages, Dorset Nectar works with four dessert and 11 cider varieties.
Oliver Strong took the leap into the cider world more because of a quirk of fate than a family tradition. South African by birth and a sculptor of note, Oliver had outgrown his studio in the mid-noughties. ‘I needed the space to make noise,’ he says.
A barn became available nearby with, as it happens, 3,000 trees under contract to Gaymers. Having requested and been refused the option of keeping some of the fruit for themselves, Oliver and wife Penny took the plunge, terminated the contract, and recruited the help of their five children to deal with the hundreds of tons of fruit they ended up with.
That was 2006. Eleven years later, and the spirit of independence is still very much in evidence. ‘We prefer to innovate rather than stay how it was for the last few centuries,’ says son and production and marketing director Ryan. ‘Craft cider is the one to watch,’ he continues. ‘We are still in the throes of the craft cider revolution.’
Favourite fruit: Oliver: ‘Yarlington Mill’; Ryan: ‘Browns: They’re sharper, so they’re brilliant to blend with.’
Inspiration: Ryan: ‘The Pacific North-West of USA – the work they are doing there with different yeasts. Producers like Reverend Nat’s in the US and Pilton in the UK with its keeved ciders.’
Don’t miss: Elderflower Cider (3.8% abv): still bag-in-box, or sparkling bottle; medium-dry and fragrant, with cordial from locally collected elderflowers. Top O’ the Hill (5.5%): lightly sparkling, medium-dry; Champion Organic Trophy at The Royal Bath & West Show in 2016. Old Harry Rocks (6%): still; 2015 Champion Organic Cider at The Royal Bath & West Show, a blend across the years of bittersweet varieties. Great with barbecued lamb.
Ryan Burk, Angry Orchard: Walden, New York State
In post: since 2015
Known for: thrilling small-batch ciders; creative collaborations; natural ferments
Production: Angry Orchard cidery represents over half of the US cider market
Terroir & fruit: Its Innovation Cider House is in Walden Village, in the Hudson Valley, New York’s ‘Apple Belt’. The bulk of its 60-acre apple orchard are dessert and US heirloom varieties.
It’s been a good year for Ryan Burk. He was named as one of only three cidermakers in Wine Enthusiast’s 40 Under 40 Tastemakers of 2017, winner of the Overall Champion Trophy at the International Cider & Perry Competition at the Cider Museum in Hereford, and Champion International Cider at the Royal Bath & West Championship.
A New York state lad himself, he ‘grew up playing around making cider’, dropping out of law school to join Virtue Cider where he cut his cidermaking teeth.
He’s been heading up Angry Orchard’s cidermaking for two years now, where he combines the mainstream – think Crisp Apple – and the boutique. The small-batch artisanal ciders emanate from the Innovation Cider House, where some classic bittersweet varieties are gradually being added into the orchards. ‘I like phenolics. I like tannin. I don’t like it in the background, I like it upfront in cider.’
Burk is keen on ‘the artistic element’ of cidermaking and since he’s been at Walden, he’s crafted a barrel ageing programme of note, has delved deep into spontaneous fermentations, and collaborated with a number of key cidermakers.
‘I view [partnerships]as a growth opportunity,’ he says. ‘I want to make cider in America not a fad, but a noble beverage. The most exciting hasn’t happened yet.’
Favourite fruit: ‘Yarlington Mill. I love working with this apple. It reminds me of Herefordshire. The first time I used a Yarlington Mill, there is a memory that I can’t let go of.’
Inspiration: ‘Tom Oliver, first and foremost. I love the beauty of the West Country. Tom has been my gateway. It goes two ways. I have learned so much about tradition, while the US brings innovation. This is reflected in our collaboration, Gold Rush, now in its fifth iteration.’
What others say: Tom Oliver called his masterclass at this year’s Imbibe Live, ‘the best cider tasting. Ever.’
What else? Along with his wife, the noted photographer Eva Deitch, Burk has set up a food blog, ciderfood.com. ‘We think cider’s place is at the table.’ Favourite matches include a ‘brick’ of Neal’s Yard Somerset cheddar with a pint of West Country cider, and Fabada Asturiana, the Spanish stew of faba beans, blood sausages and chorizo, with an Asturian cider.
Three to try: Angry Orchard, Crisp Apple (5%; shepherdneame.co.uk). Oliver’s Fine Cider, Gold Rush #5 (6.5%): collaboration, in attractive 33cl bottle, where the barrel makes its presence felt over suitably dusky tannins (thefinecider.company). Anything from either Understood in Motion or First Flora series (distribution being confirmed).
Sam Mount, Kentish Pip: Near Canterbury, Kent
Started selling: 2013
Volume per annum: 220,000 litres; keg, bag-in-box, bottle.
Known for: redefining the Kentish image; single-batch, interesting ciders.
Terroir & fruit: Being in Kent, the apples are predominantly dessert and culinary, including Cox, Discovery and Katy. Seven types of cider varieties make up a small percentage, plus Conference and Comice pears, and a few perry pear trees.
Sam Mount grew up on the family farm – the Mounts have been growing fruit for four generations. Initially he escaped the outdoor life, producing music festivals while his dad, Mark, was making cider as a hobby in the garage. In 2012 Mark decided to go commercial. Current cidermaker Ed Curry joined the next year, and Sam came on board from 2014.
Varieties are fermented individually, with different yeasts, depending on the variety. As well as the core ciders, look out for Sam’s special edition range exploring apples and production techniques. For example, Pure Discovery – ‘it’s the first apple to ripen. You get this amazing, pinky/purple flesh, with a floral character. Similar in approach to a Loire Valley Chenin Blanc.’
Sam attributes his innate sense of flavour to his mum, Rosie – ‘an amazing cook, a great palate, a keen forager. She used to get us out gathering berries.’
His experience in a marketing environment shows through in the strong brand image: distinctive, intriguing and colourful, but still with artisan appeal.
Favourite fruit: Russet apple. The texture and thick skin ‘gives it a bit more depth; it speaks of where it comes from.’
Inspiration: Other cidermaking cultures. ‘At the moment, in my fridge at home [there’s] Breton cider, [and]one from Latvia.’ Sam believes in collaborations, both nationally or internationally. ‘There’s a great scene in New Zealand,’ he says.
What others say: Kentish Pip’s Pear & Russet (6.5%) appeared in Tom Oliver’s Pyramid of Cider masterclass at Imbibe Live 2017. ‘It’s a clever way of bringing the apples and pears together. A fruity number, with a lovely lot of pear on the nose, plenty of apple behind it, and a lovely finish,’ said Oliver.
Three to try: Skylark, Apple Cider (5.5%): The first sparkling cider, awarded Best Cider in Kent in 2017. Fresh, apple notes and a ‘bit of intrigue and interest’. Craftsman, Medium-Dry Cider (5.3%): A deft mix of cider and dessert varieties. Best Cider in Kent, 2016. Forager, Hedgerow Berry Cider (4%): A mix of dessert and cider apples, inspired by Rosie’s Hedgerow Jelly, with an autumnal blend of berries, including damsons and elderberries, gathered from the farm.
Alice Churchward: The Real Al Company, London
Known for: Always buzzing around on her Honda CG125; lively selection.
Range: 20-30 cidermakers, 15 regulars.
‘Everyone wants booze.’ Alice Churchward’s succinct response to my question on why she set up her company illustrates her savvy, down-to-earth approach. Not afraid of rolling up her sleeves, we first met when she was packing her borrowed van to the gunwales with bag-in-boxes for the return Herefordshire-to-London trip. These days, there may be more in her team, plus a warehouse and more producers, but she’s still to be seen handballing casks and bibs, and her ability to spot something tasty continues to set her apart.
Hailing from Herefordshire, her business started by taking beer into London, with The White Horse in Parsons Green, the famous Fulham beer pub, being her first customer. Following many requests for cider, she gave Tom Oliver a call. ‘He was out, partying in the States.’ So she called Once Upon A Tree. ‘And boom!’, she was off. Current customers include Mother Kelly’s, The Southampton Arms, the Albion Group and the Clapton Craft group.
Kent ciders have also joined the portfolio. The dessert fruit, she says, produces ‘quite wine-like’ ciders. Manchester’s Moss Cider, London’s Urban Orchard, and Monmouth’s Apple County Co are also on board.
‘I’m always on the look-out,’ says Churchward of her quest to expand her cider offer, swiftly mentioning her latest find, Joe Abbott at Iford Cider, with his small batch ciders from orchards on the historic Iford Estate near Bath.
Who else does she highlight? Big Nose & Beardy from Sussex, and Perry’s from Somerset. Turners ciders from Kent, she says, are ‘refreshing, light and delicate’, and Sea Cider is another who is changing the face of cider. ‘They’re easy drinking, quality ciders. No concentrate. Try the Rhubarb and the Blood Orange.’
One thing Churchward finds frustrating is some of the old-fashioned branding. ‘People buy with their eyes,’ she says. ‘We want to be keeping up with beer.’
Appropriate, then, that the Real Al is soon to open its first Tap Room in Walthamstow, on the Ravenswood Estate next to Wild Card Brewery. Led by cider and perry, there’s plans for keg lines, a bag-in-box wall plus sharing bottles.
Favourite fruit: ‘The Winnal’s Longdon perry pear. Mum grows them. Tom Oliver’s perry has some Winnal’s in it. I just love perry. It is the forgotten fruit. The amount of people who don’t know what perry is…’
What others say: ‘Alice is passionate, informed and good fun, bringing in a range that’s interesting and which showcases how versatile cider can be. She sells some of the best ciders from different counties,’ says Martyn Sharman, Clapton Craft.
Three to try: Real Al’s Crafty Apple (4.2%): Churchward’s own sparkling medium cider. Sea Cider, Rhubarb (4%): ‘I love its depth and super fruity nature.’ Iford Cider, Peto Press (5.5%): ‘It’s really appley. Full bodied, with a tart edge and good long finish.