In this edition of her monthly online column, beer and cider editor Susanna Forbes questions whether the on-trade is in danger of missing out on the craft cider renaissance
So where was everyone? The buyers from the UK’s go-ahead pub and restaurant groups? The leading craft beer bars? Certainly not with me. I was in Frankfurt, surrounded by the splendour of the city’s famed Palm Garden Banqueting Hall for Cider World 2019. Along with dozens of top producers. True characters. Amazing liquids.
I spied hospitality professionals from all over Europe but bar a few exploratory suppliers, precious little evidence of action from the UK on-trade.
Ah – but it’s only cider, I hear you say. No one’s interested. Right? Wrong. Craft cider in the UK is in the midst of its own revolution. Witness the imminent launch of two separate cider-focused consumer publications, Full Juice and Graft Wood, the return of Cider Salon to Bristol, and the birth of Ciderlands, a new international cider culture network. Craft cider is throwing off the shackles of mediocrity.
Take Manchester, for example. While cider had been cruising along on auto-pilot for a while, the last year has seen it hurtle into the fast lane. Now the city is snapping at Bristol’s heels to steal the UK City of Cider crown. The catalyst? Cider power couple Dick Withecombe and Cath Potter, Hogans Cider, plus a number of savvy Manchester hostelries.
The turning point for many came when Grub, Manchester’s go-ahead street food gang, teamed up with Hogans to host the Fairfield Cider Fête in 2018. A resounding success, this spurred Withecombe and Potter to explore further the depths of the apple. Now there’s cider maps of both Manchester and Greater Manchester, and the pair have been instrumental in a number of other initiatives. The Crown & Kettle has a year of cider clubs in its diary, The Smithfield Tavern boasts a world-class cider selection, and a flurry of chefs are planning a series of cider matched dinners.
That’s all well and good, I hear you say, I’ve got a cider. But is one really enough? Transpose that scenario to beer. Ah yes, it’s okay, gesturing at your taps, I’ve got a beer. Patently, not all beers are the same. That rings true for craft cider too.
From the point of flavour, the spectrum is diverse and complex. With wild fermentations so in vogue, contemporary craft cider appeals to craft beer drinkers and wine lovers as well as its own aficionados. With its mix of acid and tannin, cider is a natural food partner. Being gluten-free, low in abv compared with wine and relatively local are aspects which all chime with today’s consumer. And whether it’s on tap, by the bottle or by the glass, there’s no reason margins can’t work.
To succeed though, cider has to stop being the add-on. Generations ago, when volume took priority over value, cider became the drink that your brewer/supplier just ‘found’ for you. This led to corners being cut, prices held down, and the medium, middle of the road, ‘no idea what apples’ model becoming the norm.
It used to be the same with wine in pubs. I remember vividly the first time I had a decent pub wine experience. It was a Chilean red, Errazuriz, in a cosy Surrey hostelry. I told everyone. And I went back. You can provide that lightbulb moment with cider. Think of it like the craft beer revolution 10-15 years ago. And if you don’t engage, the public will leave you behind.
So what can you do? Lots, starting with Imbibe Live. World-renowned cidermaker Tom Oliver returns as cider ambassador, curating a typically aspirational programme. For example, The Crown & Kettle’s Nicky Kong will be among those joining the Building a Winning Cider List session, led by the cider revolutionary himself, Simon Wright of Hawkes.
Take a course at The Beer & Cider Academy. Visit cidermakers. Head to the Royal Bath & West and the Royal Three Counties shows. Reserve your tickets to Fairfield Cider Fête and Cider Salon. Widen your horizons with Ciderlands and Cider World.
It really is time to #RethinkCider.