It’s not often a drinks show can claim to have an actual wizard involved, but Tom Oliver, Imbibe Live’s cider ambassador, is actually the wizard of cider. (In our eyes at least.) Laura Foster phoned him up – while he’s on the road with The Proclaimers, no less – to find out his thoughts on the current state of the cider and perry categories
Hi Tom! It’s great to have you back as our cider ambassador for a third year. How do you think the cider industry has changed in that time?
I think it’s seen a substantial change, a lot of it so far from within the cider industry, but it’s gathering pace outside in terms of the consumer as well. The major brands seem to have hitched their horses to fruit ciders and seen some really good success, but they’ve vacated the area in terms of the apple, which has left it wide open to a lovely new breed of cidermaker with fresh ideas, some that have been disciplined in the wine industry, some traditional west-country, some making use of culinary dessert fruit.
All of this is going on with fresh branding, and it’s really vibrant. It’s starting to filter out to the wider public. That’s not to say that cider has come on hugely, it’s still the smaller cousin of beer, wine and spirits, but it’s showing a real determination, and the people behind it now have got great imaginations and are trying to push the whole quality of the product. It’s very exciting.
When it comes to cider, do you think that consumers are going beyond dry, medium and sweet?
Unfortunately, it seems as if cider is still presented to people as a dry, medium or sweet drink, and I don’t think that helps in educating people of the great breadth of characteristics in cider. I’m trying to avoid dry, medium or sweet as an opening gambit at tastings.
What I am observing is that the male palate is moving towards what they think is dry, but it’s medium, and it’s the ladies that are loving dry ciders. The men are clambering around looking for a bit more sweetness, it’s fascinating.
One of the great things that cider has going for it is that it’s 50:50 male, female consumers
One of the great things that cider has going for it is that it’s 50:50 male, female consumers. So that’s a nice asset to cider, it shows that it has broad appeal.
Are there any particular cider trends that visitors should keep an eye out for while going around exhibitor stands?
Yes, I think that there’s a definite high-value sparkling cider trend going on. Where people drink prosecco, I urge them to go and listen to the talk by Alvar Roosima, who’s making cider in Estonia. It has beautiful character, they’re wonderfully clean, and a wonderful alternative to prosecco and champagne.
We’re seeing any number of variations on the fruit side of things: we’re moving into cucumber and salted caramel, things that have nothing to do with apples in my mind, but if it’s balanced and you can still taste the apple element then it has its place.
Then something else that’s very close to my heart, the hybrid world, where the boundaries are blurring between beer and cider. Where people enjoy Belgian lambics, I think they’d really enjoy cider.
Do you think perry is about to have a moment?
Speaking as someone who’s been hoping for, waiting for, seen a number of false dawns in perry, I would love to say it’s going to have its moment. What I will say is it’s hard to better it because it’s such a unique product.
Where it doesn’t have so much fun nowadays is in the widely distributed keg market, where fruit ciders are taking over the market. Perry needs to do what it did in its heyday in the 16th and 17th centuries, where it was seen as the champagne of England, where every earl and duke would showcase perry. It’s that quality area where we need to concentrate.
We hear that the Manchester on-trade scene is strongly championing cider. What are your thoughts on this?
The power of a small number of people promoting, talking about, using social media, actively participating in things has proven that you can break open a market where they’re just looking for a little bit of guidance.
Once venues stock real cider and perry, they see a real market for it, they have a USP and something they can talk about with their customers. These products reek of authenticity, terroir and character. It works. And then they ask ‘Why didn’t we pick up on this sooner?’.
I find it fascinating, because that’s the sort of grassroots approach that really does open things up. Manchester is exciting, but I don’t see why it shouldn’t happen in other cities if a few people pick up on it.
I’m off up there in a couple of months, and it’s virtually sold out when we’re two months out. That’s ridiculous, it never, ever would have happened even 12 months ago.
You and Mitch are facing off once again in the Beer v Cider Smackdown at Imbibe Live – do you have any prematch fighting words for Mitch?!
Without a doubt, Mitch is on the back foot already! I’m full of admiration for his energy and enthusiasm and belief that beer is better, but I’m working with a far finer drink, so I see him struggling to gain the upper hand. So my condolences to him. I think he’s facing the inevitable with a brave face!
I might have shot myself in the foot if he wins now!...
I’m excited by this year, because the food isn’t going to be straightforward food. There’s going to be multiple ingredients having multiple characteristics in the mouth. I find it really interesting when you’re presented with complex dishes with really big flavours, and you have to find a cider to match.
What other projects have you got coming up?
The whole world of cider is moving on apace. What I’m really excited by are the collaborations I’m doing, whether it’s in the beer world, cider world or food world. We’ve come up with some drinks, Johnny Mills from Mills Brewing and I, that don’t taste like anything else. We want to keep talking to each other, we’ve got a lot of opportunity to create something that’s exciting. And the whole purpose is to bring into sharp focus is the great qualities of cider.
It’s 20 years since I started selling cider. I’ve had a great time, but I’m looking for the next generation, that’s what it’s all about.
Anything else you’d like to add?
The presentations we’ve got at Imbibe Live this year are fantastic, they’re covering an awful lot of ground, so I hope that people come and fill the rooms out. It’s 40 minutes, and you’ll get so much out of it, and fun and experience. They’ll open your eyes to what cider and beer can be.
While you're here…
Have you registered for the on-trade’s favourite drinks show yet? Imbibe Live is taking place on 1 and 2 July at Olympia London.
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, from managers to publicans and bartenders, this essential date in the drinks calendar will see the industry’s finest come together. Register today at live.imbibe.com.
We can’t wait to see you there!