Adding fruit to cider has been going on for centuries – and the results can be inspiring. So park your cynicism and start exploring, says Pete Brown
During the cider boom of the Noughties, the pint-over-ice punter who had been drawn into drinking cider for the first time eventually arrived at a fork in the road.
Go one way and you graduated into premium, artisanal cider that was all about the blend of different apple varieties tempering one-dimensional sweetness with drying tannins and bright acidity, really showing the complexity of good cider apples. Go the other, and you were into the populist, day-glo world of fruit ciders, some of which – ironically – were not technically ciders at all (with a base of fermentable sugars that was not the juice of freshly pressed apples) and often didn’t contain any real fruit. Essentially, they were alcopops in disguise, given a more mature makeover.
Better than wine
Such was their allure though, that even premium cider makers leapt in to launch ‘fruit’ versions, to the increasing irritation of purists who pointed out that apples were fruit too, so what was a ‘fruit’ cider exactly?
Now, beer and cider festivals regularly advertise cider lists where products made with 100% pure apple juice are in the minority, and ‘real cider’ social media groups commune in an orgy of wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Which is a shame, because not only are some of these products very good indeed, they’re also perfectly faithful to the long tradition of British artisanal cider making.
Following the restoration of the monarchy and the ascension of Charles II to the throne, French fashions obsessed London. Proud Englishmen in the counties resisted Frenchification and protested that what we had was just as good. So when French wine became the drink of the royal court, noblemen and scholars in Herefordshire argued that English cider was just as good – if not better.
The newly formed Royal Society encouraged people to publish scientific papers on everything under the sun, and a flurry of lectures and handbooks appeared on the cultivation of fruit trees and the making of cider. English cider was of such good quality, it began beating French wine in blind tasting competitions.
The tradition of fine English cider – or cyder – making dates back to this time, and one of the key contributors was 1664’s Pomona, written by John Evelyn, an apple cultivation and cider-making handbook which argues that the growing of apple trees should be compulsory for any English gentleman.
A very British tradition
But Evelyn also makes several clear references to the virtues of adding other fruits. While discussing mulberries, he says, ‘As for drink, the juice of the berry mixed with cider-apples, makes an excellent liquor, both for colour and taste’. He also quotes a Captain Sylas Taylor, who in his own discussion of cider making, argues that cider ‘mingled with the Syrupe of Rasp’yes makes an excellent woman’s wine’.
Long before refrigeration and controlled-atmosphere storage, apart from its obvious qualities as an alcoholic drink, cider was made as a way of preserving the goodness and nutritional value of fruit long beyond the point where fresh fruit would have rotted.
If you have an orchard growing cider apples, and the hedgerows surrounding that orchard are bountiful with berry fruit, it would have made perfect sense to throw some berries into the fermenter.
Fresh juice, please
This is the tradition that survives – or has been revived – today by quality cider makers. The difference between industrial apple cider and artisanal products is the ratio of apple juice to water, sweeteners and flavourings. Similarly, fruit-flavoured ciders can either be made with industrial fruit syrups or with freshly pressed juice, and the resulting character is just as dramatically different.
These products are perfectly faithful to the long tradition of British artisanal cider making
As with fruit-based soft drinks, that difference is one of subtlety. The alcopops of the 1990s were considered childish partly because of their packaging, but also because the products were as sickeningly sweet as the soft drinks sunk by small children.
Commercial fruit ciders today have a far more sophisticated image, but many of the products can be one-dimensionally sweet: fruity, rather than fruit-like.
Real fruit has more going on than sugary sweetness – in many fruits there’s a spine of acidity too, with the sugars developing more as the fruit ripens but never quite taking over completely. On top of that, there’s a specific taste that, say, cherries or raspberries have that’s unique to each and cannot be reduced to simple dimensions of sweetness versus acidity.
Fresh juice captures these subtleties in a way that juice that has been pasteurised and concentrated loses. Take a well-made sparkling cider, crafted from 100% juice with added fruits used judiciously to work with and play off the apple flavour rather than dominating it, and it’s closer to rosé wine than alcopops.
Ciders for grown ups
The burgeoning craft cider scene in the United States illustrates just how complex and seriously good fruit-flavoured ciders can be. Cider apples tend to be more challenging in flavour than those cultivated for eating – the acidity, and especially the tannin, provide structure to the drink that can be challenging if eaten as fruit.
When Prohibition came to the US, there was no official need for cider apple trees, so they were cut down and replaced by eating apples. Now, American cider makers lack the complexity of proper cider apples; even a very well-made cider consisting entirely of eating apples can be one-dimensional and dull.
So craft cider makers, particularly those in the Pacific North West, are doing what craft beer brewers did a generation ago, working outside an established national tradition, experimenting and looking forward, and working from first principles of flavour matching to create sophisticated, complex drinks.
Think about it in this way and fruit-flavoured ciders make perfect sense from a craft perspective.
The apple is a complex, versatile fruit that works well with a whole array of different flavours. Anything that goes well with whole apples or apple juice – be that berry fruit to add extra dimensions of sweetness and acidity, rhubarb to contrast with its outright sourness, or even spices such as ginger and cinnamon in baking – has the potential to create an interesting drink. There still hasn’t been a craft boom on the scale that cider deserves. Recently, fruit cider has been mainly about an endless search for novelty, with drinkers trained to expect new flavour combinations every few months.
But now even the brand leaders in fruit cider are launching flavour combinations that are subtler and more grown up. Traditionalists may sneer, but if we come at it a different way, fruit-flavoured cider offers an intriguing boost to the category.
And if it’s good enough for John Evelyn, it really should be perfectly good enough for anyone else.
Why John Evelyn was right 400 years ago
‘Proofe that ye fruited cyders can be most bangingge indeede’
Aspall Peronnelle’s Blush
Perronelle was the grandmother of Aspall brothers Henry and Barry Chevallier Guild, and she loved foraging for blackberries in the hedgerows around the orchards at Aspall. Those blackberries now combine with the apples to create a sweetish blush cider tempered with a nice streak of acidity.
4% abv, £6.64/12x50cl, Aspall, aspall.co.uk
Polgoon Cornish Berry Cider
English winemakers Polgoon know a thing or two about how to get the best out of various different fruits. Dark red berries are pressed with the apples to produce a delicate, crisp refresher that never gets overly sweet.
4% abv, £21.12/12x50cl, Polgoon, polgoon.com
Sandford Orchards Old Blossom
The very best perry pears can evoke a nagging impression of elderflower, so there’s a clear logic in adding pressed elderflower to a cider. Subtle and delicate, this is the taste of the first evening outside of a new summer.
4% abv, £1.55/50cl, Sandford Orchards, sandfordorchards.co.uk
Celtic Marches Cuckoo Penny
Okay, so not technically fruit, but think about the classic crumble – apple and rhubarb were obviously born to go together. Combining juice from Yorkshire’s Rhubarb Triangle with Herefordshire cider apples, this is medium sweet with a wonderful acidic bite in the finish.
4% abv, £15.20/12x33cl, Celtic Marches, celticmarches.com
Apple County Cider Co Raspberry Cider
A blend of cloudy raspberry juice sourced locally in Monmouthshire with Apple County’s award-winning medium cider, this is a powerful example of the difference between 100% pure juice and syrups from concentrate, for both apples and raspberries.
4% abv, £20.95/12x33cl, Apple County Cider Co, applecountycider.co.uk