Cider was once seen as ‘English wine’, could it regain its reputation for sophisticated sipping? Jane Peyton meets the cidermakers determined to make it happen.
Welcome to Ciderland, a magical realm ruled by nature, where the operating system is apple, and the language is acidity, tannins, and sweetness. This is not a fictitious universe, it exists now in Britain. Just visit the small independent makers producing some of the world’s most stunning ciders.
Ciderland is where real cider is created from freshly pressed apple juice, slowly fermented, aged (often in oak barrels) for months, and only deemed ready when the fruit determines it. This is apple wine, liquid sunlight, a souvenir of the orchard’s bounty.
Real cider (as opposed to the market dominating industrial alcopops made from apple concentrate, water, sugar, flavourings, and other additives) is what 17th century horticulturist John Evelyn described as “the native English wine”.
The lingo of real cider will be familiar to wine-drinkers – single variety, Pet Nat, barrel aged. Using this terminology makes it easier to persuade wine drinkers to consider cider especially if it is presented in 750ml well-branded bottles from leading producers such as Little Pomona, Oliver’s Cider & Perry, and Find & Foster. When matched with food and served in elegant glassware then the wine connection is reinforced.
Unlike wine, which is usually upwards of 11% abv, typical alcohol levels for real cider ranges between 3.5 and 8.5% abv so units go further and there need be no fear of that second bottle. The price is usually lower too, so customers are more likely to take a chance on something unfamiliar, especially if it is available by the glass (a wine glass, of course).
Cider is an opportunity for the on-trade to offer customers a new experience, to give them a sense of exploration, but more than anything to give their taste buds a workout that they will not forget.
There are challenges however, not least that ‘park bench’ and ‘teenage hangover’ are still phrases that sometimes come to mind when people hear the word cider. There is often a low value perception too, not helped by the rocket fuel necked by street drinkers. That has as much in common with real cider as moonshine has with Petrus.
Some of Britain’s leading cider makers have a wine making background including Simon Day of Once Upon A Tree in Herefordshire. Last year he and some other producers exhibited at the London Wine Fair.
‘We really were a stand-out attraction and challenged perceptions of what cider can be. From traditional method sparkling; big, bold tannic ciders; fruity and aromatic, or austere and lean, through to dessert-style cider, it is a category that can pair so well with a range of food styles and flavours, and yet unfortunately it seems to be the industry’s best kept secret. Cider is a huge point of difference to the mainstream offering.’
Felix Nash, founder of The Fine Cider Company, is the pioneer in supplying real cider to high-end restaurants and bars such as Claridge’s, The Fat Duck, and Tate Modern. He says, ‘the responses are amazing about the beautifully unique experience their customers get.’
If enthusiasm from cideristas was a measurable metric then cider would be the top selling drink in the land, just look at social media. The passion is palpable – but so is the frustration that so many operators, with otherwise impressive drinks lists, are ignoring one of the perfect libations.
In most venues with wine focused drinks lists even if there is cider on the menu, it is usually relegated to the last page. Most wine drinkers don’t read that far, so if cider is to be taken seriously it needs to listed ahead of the wine.
Ciderland has a plethora of stories to enthral customers. For instance, how terroir influences apples through soils, location of trees, and local climate. What about highlighting superstar apple varieties such as Foxwhelp with its bracing acidity, Kingston Black, bestowed with the Holy Trinity of acids, tannins and sweetness, and Dabinett, the darling of cider makers for its rich full depth of flavour.
Talk about how wild fermentation creates ciders imbued with the spirit of the orchard. That cider made from eating apples is akin to acidic white wine, whereas one made from cider apples has tannins in common with red wine. How traditional method ciders are produced in the same way as Champagne and why everyone should genuflect to ice cider where the juice is frozen to concentrate the sugars resulting in nectar.
Finally, a call-out to on-trade early adopters from the Fine Cider Company’s Nash. ‘Imagine being ahead of the curve on the next craft beer or natural wine. Having the best bottles and knowing all about cider just as it is coming to prominence? That is the real opportunity for cider in the on-trade. Get in early and be a part of it’.