Apples of the World: World cider

Susanna Forbes

Susanna Forbes

14 April 2016

Think that cider is all West Country smocks and ooh-arr? Then think again. Susanna Forbes takes us on a global trend tour of what looks set to be one of this year’s hottest drinks categories.

A more wine-like approach

While large players dominate the scene, a number of artisanal cideries are escaping the rustic crêperie typecasting. Domaine Dupont’s Calvados-cask aged cider appears at New York’s Gramercy Tavern. ‘We are bringing a more wine-like approach,’ says Jérôme Dupont. ‘I want to show apples from my terroir can produce not only “traditional” ciders.’

Pomze in Paris illustrates the shift of perception even further. At this Bib Gourmand-garlanded restaurant the humble apple appears as the cultural reference point for the food on the menu as well as drink.

Yet perhaps this is not surprising. As Pete Brown and Bill Bradshaw relate in World’s Best Ciders, just a century ago, more cider was drunk in France than wine, and the Bretons believe their region to be the true location of Avalon, the legendary ‘Island of Apples’.
Production centres on Normandy, Brittany and the Pays Basque, with producers such as Eric Bordelet, Christian Drouin and Domaine Dupont offering up ciders for celebration and food as well as quaffing. Inspiration comes from nature, not think-tanks.

For Guillaume Drouin, son of Christian and president of the family firm, a Christmas cider doesn’t mean one with spices added, but one where late-ripening cider apples are stored until Christmas Day. ‘I wanted to make the cider later, when it is cold, for a slow fermention,’ he explains.

Medium-sized producers such as Cidre Le Brun also keep faith in tradition. At its Breton base, fruit is handpicked, ciders are made with 100% juice and only cider apple varieties are used, except for special ciders such as its rosé cider, made with a pink-fleshed apple.

And what of the big boys? ‘While brands such as Ecusson and Loïc Raison hardly compare to artisanal ciders, they embarrass industrial brands from other countries, retaining far more of cider’s true character in both style and substance,’ say Brown and Bradshaw.

Apples: Primarily cider varieties; hundreds available. Blends are the norm, primarily with bittersweet varieties.

Best known for: Normandy and Brittany: 70/75cl bottles; off-dry, sparkling, bottle-conditioned or keeved cider (see box on p.93). Pays Basque: flat, drier ciders. More recently, refined, wine-like ciders.

Trends for 2016: Cocktails, either with cider on topping-up duties, or in its distilled incarnation, Calvados. Pommeau, the apple juice/Calvados aperitif.

What’s new? Cidre Le Brun in 37.5cl bottles (Instil Drinks).

Over here: Cidre Le Brun (Instil Drinks), Christian Drouin (McKinley Vintners), Côte Breton Brut Cidre (Truman’s); Domaine Dupont (Marussia Beverages), Eric Bordelet (Les Caves de Pyrène), Loic Raïson (Beers of Europe)

The theatre is integral

Spanish cider has two personas. One, the accessible, off-dry ciders such as Avalon, El Gaitero and Maeloc Dry. The other, sidra natural, the spine-tingling style of Asturian and Galician ciders, with all their heritage and theatre.

 In those regions, the tangy cider apples are the stars (see box opposite), yet precious few ofthese ciders actually make it to the UK for us to try – they are not the easiest sell to the uninitiated. If you do want to track them down, Spanish specialist Mevalco carries Trabanco’s Homegrown Cider and Instil Drinks has Maeloc’s Sidra Natural Ecológica.

Yet in Northern Spain, sidra natural is a way of life with a pouring ritual to rival sabrage. Try directing a stream of cider from a great height into a small glass. This technique aerates the cider, triggering a temporary burst of fizz. It’s known as cider-throwing and it’s integral to the taste experience.

Its tangy nature makes sidra natural a remarkably versatile partner for food. Mevalco’s David Menéndez points to strong cheese and the classic fabada asturiana, a rich pork, bean and black pudding stew, as two matches of note.

In Spain cider has made the transition from summer seasonal to all-year tipple, according to Isabel Trabanco, the fourth generation to be involved with the major Asturian producer. Production models vary. While Maeloc, part of the Estrella Galicia family, works with over 1,000 Galician growers, Trabanco uses apples from its own 100ha of orchards.

Many of Trabanco’s ciders ferment in traditional chestnut barrels, but look out for the company’s Poma Áurea Brut Nature. Fermented at low temperature for months before a gentle, secondary fermentation in tank, this cider is ‘dry, mellow and balanced, with floral aromas and a hint of fig,’ says Menéndez.

Apples: Over 100 varieties to choose from. Asturias has its own PDO, governing both production methods and the 22 permitted apple varieties.

Best known for: Dry, still sidra natural. Off-dry, sparkling cider.

Over here: Avalon (Morgenrot); Maeloc (Instil Drinks; Matthew Clark); El Gaitero (Beers of Europe; Instil Drinks); Trabanco (Mevalco)

Modern gastronomy match

Ranging from eloquent ice ciders to gregarious big boys Kopparberg and Rekorderlig, life certainly isn’t dull in Scandi-ciderland. Boutique producers number only a few dozen, but Andreas Sundgren, founder and cidermaker at Brännland Cider, says that the ‘craft cider industry is waking up in a serious way’.

Ice ciders are made in the Canadian method, allowing the must to concentrate prior to fermentation, and Sundgren is unperturbed that dessert apples predominate. ‘Their high acidity and freshness mirror modern gastronomy very well,’ he says, making this focus an advantage when finding ‘a unique Scandinavian expression’.

Berries are an intrinsic part of the local culture so it’s perhaps not surprising that fruit ciders exploded onto the world from there. Back in Britain, the love affair with fruit cider continues. Kopparberg’s Strawberry and Lime, for example, outstripped the fruit category as a whole, seeing growth of over 20% in 2015.

Apples: Dessert apples. Minimum juice content: 15%.

Best known for: Medium cider. Fruit cider.

Trends for 2016: Cocktails. While the ever-creative Joel Persson of Rekorderlig blazes a mixology trail around the globe, the talented Emil Åreng, a regular on the world bartender circuit, creates drinks with Brännland’s Iscider.

Over here: Kopparberg; Rekorderlig UK (Molson Coors); Herrljunga (Beers of Europe), Brännland (Nordic Nectar)

In top restaurants with wine 

There aren’t many US ciders over here yet, but with over 540 cider houses, it won’t be long. Cider’s heritage in the USA goes back to the first settlers. While some stalwarts stuck with their orchards, honing ‘heirloom’ varieties, the recent renaissance was triggered by pioneers such as Steve Wood at Farnum Hill in New Hampshire in the 1980s.

Today the situation is electric. While the big boys fight over distribution, boutique producers champion heritage apples and make ciders that sit beside wines in top restaurants. Take the legendary Aaron Burr cidery. Its ‘regular’ 75cl Golden Russet is on the list at New York’s Terroir’s for $44, while Malus Baccata, made from three years of foraged crab apples, commands $300 per 50cl bottle at groundbreaking cider bar Wassail, on the aptly named Orchard Street in NYC.

Washington State tops the apple-growing chart, with a cider Gold Rush under way. Born in 2013, Seattle Cider Co is already the fifth largest independent US cider company, mainly due to its dry and semi-sweet cans. Slowly, cider is breaking into the on-trade, with Bushwhacker pub in Portland among the first.

‘There aren’t many rules,’ says Ryan Burk, Angry Orchard’s cidermaker, who opened Innovation Cider House in New York’s Hudson Valley last August. ‘US cidermakers are innovating like crazy and defining global styles, like hopped cider.’

It’s not all fancy flavours. Wood, the godfather of the new cider wave, has ‘no intent to step into the crowd of “innovative” cidermakers. Our sort of cidermaking is more like winemaking than it is like wine-cooler. We only want to get better at the basic work we do, in the orchard and in the cider room.’

For more information on the US cider scene check out Eric West’s and the United States Association of Cider Makers (USACM) website: 

Apples: Production focuses on the Canadian border states. There are breakouts, including Virginia. Minimum juice content: 50%. Volume ciders: mainly dessert and culinary apples.

Best known for: Off-dry brands such as Angry Orchard and Woodchuck Hard Cider. Wine-like, 75cl still ciders.

Trends for 2016: Fruit and hop ciders. Good-looking cans. See Cider cocktails: Another Bite of the Apple by Darlene Hayes.

Ones to watch: Farnum Hill Cider; Snowdrift Cider Co; Eden Ice Cider; Reverend Nat’s, Wandering Aengus.

Over here: Angry Orchard is the first US cider to be fermented in the UK, thanks to parent company Boston Beer Company’s relationship with Shepherd Neame. Doc’s Draft (Euroboozer); Woodchuck Hard Cider (C&C, Matthew Clark), Seattle Cider Co (Left Coast), Original Sin (Beers of Europe). Also check out the peerless Canadian ice ciders, including the Neige range (Matthew Clark).

From Heirlooms to keeving - what affects flavour?

Like grapes, tannins, sugars and acid are the cornerstones of an apple’s flavours. Yet unlike grapes, the apple is a fickle beast. Plant a pip, and you won’t get a replica of the parent apple. Apple trees need to be grafted, meaning that every country has its own treasure chest of ‘heirloom’ varieties. Here in the UK, West Country ciders rely on so-called bittersweet and bittersharp varieties.

All of the sugars in apples are fermentable, so if you let nature take its course, as happens in the West Country, a full fermentation results in a bone-dry cider. To get an off-dry or sweet cider, sweetness can be added back in, or fermentation stopped part-way, and the cider pasteurised or filtered to remove the live yeast.

French cidermakers have perfected their own technique, called keeving. It’s tricky to achieve, but in essence, by removing some of the yeast’s nutrients at the start of fermentation, it stops it going all the way, resulting in an off-dry cider with slightly lower alcohol.

For ciders the world over, a key question is how much water is added after fermentation. This relates as much to big, commercial brands, where concentrate is routinely used, as it does to the artisanal producer. Most countries have a statutory minimum juice content – in the UK it’s 35%, the US is 50%. In proud cider regions like northern France and northern Spain, 100% juice is the norm, and leading producers would use nothing else.

Thanks to Pete Brown and Bill Bradshaw, for their inspirational book World’s Best Ciders.

Related content

News |  Beer & Cider

Comparing apples to apples: French vs English cider

France’s cidermaking traditions are very distinct – and distinctly different from those in Britain.

News |  Beer & Cider

Apples are not the only fruit

It's time to park your cynicism when it comes to cider using fruit beyond apples, says Pete Brown.


The World According To... Sam Kershaw

From The Dark Horse in Bath, Sam Kershaw talks Muppets, mince and tatties with Clinton Cawood‘All the best bar backs are Mexican, so we’ve got a guy,

News |  Beer & Cider

'Apples have got a little bit lost,' says Cider Trends Summit speaker

Fuller taste, more heritage, better vocabulary – these are some of the things suggested to turn around the slowing down of cider’s growth at Tuesday’s