Craft on draught: The keg cider revolution

Gabe Cook

02 July 2019

Keg has given volume and heft to craft beers, but can it do the same for craft ciders? Ciderologist Gabe Cook believes it can – and that the revolution is just beginning


In the grand scale of the on-trade, cider is currently only a small voice – but it’s growing, with practitioners from the West Country to Luxembourg, from Kent to Austria on a mission to raise awareness of just how fantastic the drink can be.

It’s undoubtedly true that if cider is to grow from the roots up, it needs to start appealing to a crowd of younger, contemporary drinkers. That 50cl bottle of 8.4% abv Old Leg Bender with a picture of a 1954 Massey Ferguson on the front is never going to entice a millennial away from New England IPA. 

But taking a cue from craft beers, the packaging and branding of next-generation cider makers has improved rapidly over the last three years. There’s now a range of ciders in 33cl cans (better for the fridge space); ciders that list the apple varieties contained within; and products that actually describe the cider’s flavour, rather than just its level of sweetness.
Check out Kentish Pip or Hallets as great examples of these canned ciders. 

Drawing on the influence of sparkling wine, natural wine and big-bottle lambic beers, there are now a number of 75cl bottled ciders available to the trade. On the surface, you could say that these are best suited to restaurants. But any establishment looking to stock an indigenous, lower-alcohol wine alternative should try something like the sensational Gospel Green. 

However, no packaged ciders, even with their enticing, much-improved designs and flavours, can fulfil the one crucial requirement needed for the success of the category in the on-trade: volume. If craft cider is going to achieve even 10% of what craft beer has managed in terms of trade and consumer awareness, litres sold and willingness to pay more for the drink, craft keg cider is the only way forward.
 
A keg up

The fact is, despite being made like wine, cider is almost always consumed like beer – and down the pub, that equates to a pint. Craft beer did the clever and challenging job of convincing pubs and drinkers that tasty beer can come in a keg, and that its tastiness derived from being packed full of expensive ingredients.

It even suggested that, because of the higher alcohol and intensity of flavour, you might want to have two-thirds of a pint.

And just as not all keg beer is boring beer, so not all keg cider is boring cider. The method of dispense, in other words, shouldn’t lead to a debate over whether the drink is ‘real’ or ‘proper’ enough.

These craft keg ciders are made with skill, packed full of expensive raw materials and are wonderfully, wildly diverse in aroma, taste and mouthfeel. Naturally, owing to economies of scale and a greater percentage of apple juice, they’re more expensive. 

This price/quality issue is currently far better understood for beer than it is for cider, but this, too, is beginning to change, driven by a small but rapidly increasing number of craft cider makers. 

Producers like Pilton Cider and Dorset Nectar have been driving hard for the last three years to gain penetration into the bars and pubs of their respective local regions of Somerset and Dorset, while Kentish Pip has been doing likewise in the south east. 

One of craft keg cider’s advantages is that it can appeal to a broad range of drinkers, whether that means pre-existing drinkers of mainstream cider who want to trade up, or intrepid beer drinkers who want to trade across.

Crucially, we are now in a position where an increasing number of distributors such as Nectar, The Real Al Company and Crafty Nectar are starting to believe that the transformative ‘craft effect’ is working on the cider category as it has done with beer. And with the distributors getting on board, pubs and bars are buying in to the idea, too.

At the forefront of this movement is The Stable. The restaurant group has had a range of craft keg ciders available for the last 18 months across its locations, and its popularity has contributed to the rise of a raft of even more craft keg producers, such as London-based Hawkes and Luxembourg’s Ramborn.

These ciders are a long way from Old Leg Bender, and they would make great additions to the fonts of not only classic pubs and contemporary bars, but also to those of restaurants. My advice: give craft keg cider a punt. You might be just ahead of the curve of the next big drinks shift. 

The Ciderologist’s top craft keg ciders
Ross-on-Wye Birdbarker 
The wild-fermented farmhouse ciders from the Johnson family in Herefordshire are renowned throughout the small cider-making community for their character and intensity. Birdbarker is no different, bringing lip-smacking tannins, neatly balanced with firm, fruity freshness. 
5.5% abv, £85/30-litre keg, Ross-on-Wye Cider, rosscider.com
Ramborn Perry 
Who knew there were perry makers in Luxembourg? Well, there are, and Ramborn’s Traditional Perry is multi-award winning. Estery, fruity and bubblegummy sensations give way to broad, mouth-swelling astringency. 
5.8% abv, £92.92/30-litre keg, Nectar, nectar.net
Pulpt Level 
New kids on the block and already causing a stir, Pulpt brings uber-contemporary aesthetics and award-winning liquids to curious drinkers. A blend of classic Somerset cider apples is cleverly balanced with light acidity and gentle floral fruity characters: approachable and eminently moreish.
5.4% abv, £131.82/50-litre keg, Nectar, nectar.net
Nightingale Night Bird 
This cider from Kent really shows what can be done with dessert apples. If you prefer your cider light, crisp and sophisticated, then go for this sessionable, wild-fermented blend of classic eaters and cookers.
4.8% abv, £85/30-litre keg, Crafty Nectar, craftynectar.com

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