Ambassador Tom Oliver on capturing the cider zeitgeist for Imbibe Live

Imbibe Editorial

Imbibe Editorial

21 June 2018

He might not wear leather pants (as far as we know), but Tom Oliver is undoubtedly the rock star of the cider world. He’s pulled together a programme for Imbibe Live with some of the biggest names in the sector that taps into the biggest challenges, trends and innovations in the ciderscape…

What’s been going on in the world of cider?

Speaking candidly, the overall industry has slipped very slightly in terms of volume and the major ciders are having a hard time. The issue at the moment is that the ciders that’re performing best for the larger makers are the fruit ciders. These are called ciders, but aren’t readily identifiable as a drink made with apples and I think that’s causing a bit of confusion.

You could ask whether the reason cider is struggling is because the consumer isn’t too sure what it is they’re drinking anymore.

What’s so terrible about fruit ciders?

I’ve spent my whole life thinking and believing that cider is made from apples, and you’d hope that its taste and quality would be reminiscent of the apple. To me it’s the same as buying a rump steak and someone telling me it isn’t actually made from beef.

I don’t relish the future of cider being fruit cider that doesn’t have any apples in it and is only fruit because someone’s poured a load of syrup into it to give it that taste.

[Fruit cider] is not the future of cider – if it is, then cider is already dead

That is not the future of cider – if it is, then cider is already dead.

Which types of cider are experiencing growth?

There’re winners and there’re losers, and the winners are the smaller cidermakers, like myself, who’re making first-class high-juice or 100%-juice ciders. Consumers are prepared to seek these ciders out and pay a good price for them, and they’re getting stocked in good restaurants.

The genuine premium end of cider is making real progress, which I think is encouraging. If the overall cider [sector] recommitted to the apple, in terms of taste and marketing, then people would once again understand what they’re drinking.

How does the Imbibe Live programme respond to these challenges?

The Ciderologist Gabe
The Ciderologist Gabe

There’s a number of ways you can approach it, and yes I think education is key. Imbibe’s Educator of the Year Gabe Cook is going to be talking about the nuts and bolts of cider in Who Wants to be a Pommelier? on the first day. It’ll be a general overview for the on-trade – nothing heavy – just enough that they’ve got the fundamentals at their fingertips.

We’ve also got Victor Zasadzki from Pilango Cider and Martyn Sharman from Clapton Craft for From Zero to Hero: the nuts and bolts of selling cider successfully. They’re behind the counters in their shops – not on-trade, but they have taprooms – and they have an individual and beguiling way of selling cider. They’re active on social media, as well as behind the counter, and I really wanted to share their knowledge of selling ciders.

Tell me a bit about the Clash of the Cider Titans event on the main stage – it sounds bonkers?

It’s basically about the sheer joy of drinking cider and its versatility for different drinking occasions.

You’ve got Henry Chevallier Guild [eighth generation of the Aspall Cyder dynasty] and me picking ciders [that’re being exhibited at Imbibe Live] for specific occasions, such as something you’d like to find in the fridge when you get home from work or for an important celebration.

It’ll be like Hyde Park Corner soapbox time: We’ll present them, let the audience try them and then vote for their favourites.

Have you picked your ciders yet?

Absolutely, I’ve chosen mine. Henry’s chosen his. It’s all top secret!

Cidermaking in America is full of young people, and there’s real unfettered imagination being used

How do you fancy your chances?

[Laughs] I’ve made at least one very brave choice, so it will at least make the audience think twice about cider.

Why did you decide to run a session on US ciders?

Cidermaking in America is full of young people, and there’s real unfettered imagination being used. You talk to these 30- or 40-year-old cidermakers, and they’re all about the apple and getting the best from it. They’re making real fruit ciders and hop ciders, doing co-fermentations, and it’s all about excitement and potential. Companies like Angry Orchard seem to have a far more enlightened approach to the potential of cider than some producers I could mention over in the UK.

Kyle Sherrer from Graft Cider, who’s talking at Imbibe Live in Catch the Wave – The US Cider Revolution? is right on the margins, in terms of ingredients and packaging and his aspirations to take on beer. All those things are very good – very modern – and will be really good to listen to.

You’re running a session titled Serpents in a Burning Sky – for the uninitiated, what the heck does that mean?

Serpent was the first collaboration I did with Brooklyn Brewery and Thornbridge. It was a strong Belgian ale, brewed at Thornbridge, laid down in Four Roses bourbon barrels with cider lees from my barrels for about 18 months, then conditioned in the bottle and aged for another year or so before it was released.

It was a pretty special drink – aromatic, tasty, challenging – and, for a lot of people, their beer of the year, even the decade, and what really got me into co-ferments. I think it serves to remind people that however great beer and cider are, there’s an area of interaction that can yield even more wonderful drinks.

Just to clarify, you’re dead against fruit ciders, but happy to use hops or pear juice in your ciders and to blur boundaries with beer?

The whole thing for me is about fermentation or co-fermenting of wort and juice by yeast – that’s the production of alcohol. Taking an alcohol base and tipping in fruit juice – that’s squash or shandy.

There’s no skill in that. It’s something anyone can do. Yeast and fermentation are the key.

Too often cider is piled up in cans at the supermarket checkout and offered at the same price as a lager brewed a few days earlier

You mentioned that the premium ciders are making it into the top restaurants now…

Yes, that’s what Felix Nash, founder of The Fine Cider Company, and chef Alexis Noble from Wonder restaurant will be discussing in Fine Food Meets Cider. If you believe in the trickle-down effect, which I do, Felix and others are bringing cider to the attention of these kind of restaurants and classier establishments and doing cider a service that it hasn’t seen for 100 years.

I had an email recently from chefs at Heston Blumenthal saying how much they’d enjoyed one of Felix’s tastings, particularly how he’d talked about cider in terms of taste – these are people who’re working at the highest level [of the food world].

Too often cider has been seen as the thing piled up in cans at the supermarket checkout that’s being offered at the same price as a lager brewed a few days earlier. That’s not the only way cider should have a presence and we need to raise its profile.

While you're here…

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If you don't already know, Imbibe Live is the innovative and interactive annual exhibition for anyone who sources, buys or serves drinks in the licensed on-trade. From sommeliers to buyers and from managers to publicans and bartenders, this essential date in the drinks calendar will see the industry’s finest come together.
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