Cider producers have been learning from – and joining forces with – their peers in beer and wine to create some extraordinary crossover expressions. Susanna Forbes investigates a world that is in the process of learning to love grafs, qvevris and even Bacchus yeast
'My mission is all about flavour. It isn’t about the volume or intensity. It’s about the unexpectedness. How often do you eat something and say, “That tastes like nothing I’ve ever had”?’ Nat West, founder of Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider in Portland, Oregon, is explaining why he gets involved in fantastical partnerships with breweries, such as Strawberry Pippin with Cascade Brewing Barrel House, or a coolship collaboration with one of Oregon’s hippest new ‘wild’ breweries de Garde.
As West illustrates, it’s not just the beer world that is being hyper-creative with ingredients, method and flavours. In cider, much of the excitement is happening at the edges. Where cider culture crosses over, sometimes quite literally, into the worlds of wine and beer.
Unfortunately we’re unlikely to see any of West’s creations this side of the Atlantic. Even his regular ciders have hops, which automatically places them in the prohibitive ‘made wine’ duty band. What does translate over here, however, is the continued quest for flavour, and for exploration.
Renowned cidermaker Tom Oliver partnered with Thornbridge and Brooklyn Brewery to produce The Serpent, the surprise beer hit of 2016. The strong Belgian-inspired golden ale was aged on Oliver’s cider lees for a year before lengthy bottle conditioning. The resulting product is a complex, funky 10% beer.
Last year, the buzz was (and still is) all about Foxbic, Oliver’s collaboration with talented young brewer Jonny Mills.
Oliver loves the lambic sour style. His poster beer is Cantillon. ‘These beers are their version of tang,’ he says excitedly. ‘Cider does it in a more direct and obvious way. Can we be as subtle and nuanced at it?' he asks.
Barrel ageing. Single varietals. Different yeast. There are lots of different things we want to do
Cue Foxbic. Bittersharp Foxwhelp juice is fermented in barrel with a Belgian-style wort using natural yeast before further barrel ageing. (See tasting panel overleaf for our verdict.) Oliver is currently in discussions with Burning Sky brewery about a possible collaboration.
‘There’s so much common ground between all food and drink makers when their jumping-off point is to create something interesting and special,’ says Barny Butterfield, founder of Sandford Orchards. Describing how he and Dan Kopman, then at Schlafly Brewery, teamed up to craft St Louis Dry Hopped cider, he says, ‘We were always going to be like a couple of stamp collectors. He had his big book of hops and I had my big book of apples.’
What characterises St Louis, with its spicy bittersweet base, is elegance. ‘We used cider’s acid structure to help release the volatiles in the hops,’ Butterfield explains. ‘Hops are after all just flowers,’ he continues, explaining how Kopman’s skill at knowing when to pitch, how to pitch and, most importantly, when to remove the hops, was crucial to the final product's success.
Simon Day of Once Upon A Tree cidery had his own reason for crossing boundaries. An experienced winemaker, back in the mid-noughties Day was running a vine importing business in Herefordshire. Frustrated at the lack of his own winery (he’s now also at the helm of Sixteen Ridges Vineyard), his Eureka moment came when tasting ciders during the local cider trials one May bank holiday.
Inspired by the flavours and complexity, he says: ‘I just felt that a lot of these ciders were such good food matches and so could be produced in wine styles. While I was in Jersey, I used to go across the channel for Sunday lunch to Saint-Malo. You had a fantastic bottle of local cider. It was a drink that went well with local food. That always struck me as missing in the UK.’
Striking up a deal with his orcharding neighbours, Day set about changing perceptions in his home country.
He fermented different apple varieties separately before blending. ‘Just like with wine, you have a target in your head. If you are looking at blends then you have the opportunity to tweak and to move wines in different directions to pair with different food styles,’ he says.
Day loves to experiment – look out next for his cider fermented on Pinot Noir skins. It’s this search for new angles that drew Josh Donaghay-Spire, winemaker at Chapel Down in Kent, into the cider world.
‘There’s no point doing something if you can’t do it better or differently or more interestingly than other people,’ he says. ‘There’s no point me copying the West Country guys. Let’s try and carve a different path.’
When Donaghay-Spire began to make his idea a reality, he knew he liked the provenance of farmhouse ciders, but he wasn’t a fan of some of their flavours. His brief to himself was to make an ‘alcoholic Appletiser’. Something drinkable and accessible, but equally with integrity and apples from a specific area. ‘Then we’d talk about variety and that we wouldn’t use water,’ he says, ‘or concentrate.’ Curious Apple was born. Using the dessert apple Rubens, Donaghay-Spire ferments with the winery’s Bacchus yeast, before diluting with fresh apple juice to reach 5% . ‘I don’t want phenol off-flavours,’ he says. ‘I don’t want malolactic fermentation.’
Corks and corks
Across Kent, another winery sharing tank space with cider is Hush Heath Estate. Here winemaker Victoria Ash produces her sparkling apple wine in both white and rosé form. Cox, Russett and Bramley are separately fermented using three yeasts before blending and bottling for the cider’s second fermentation. ‘You get the acidity from the Bramley, the Cox is so aromatic and fresh, and the winemaking style gives the freshness that we keep in there,’ Ash says.
To avoid autolytic yeast flavours, the cider spends just three months on its lees. By comparison, the estate’s flagship Balfour Brut has around three years.
Up in Suffolk, a similarly high-end sparkling cider 1728 is being produced by Aspall. Speaking to me days before the family firm’s purchase by Molson Coors, third-generation cider producer Henry Chevallier Guild is quick to confirm that this new cider is here to stay. ‘It’s the start of something we want to do in terms of upgrading the profile of cider,’ he says. ‘Barrel ageing. Single varietals. Different yeast. There’s lots of different things we want.’
Chevallier Guild is working with Three Choirs Vineyard on 1728, named in honour of the Chevallier Guild's arrival at Aspall Hall. Deliberately eschewing bittersweet fruit, which they found became too dominant in their earlier sparkling cyder Cuvée Chevallier, the focus is on Bramleys. ‘I think we have a very specific take on the East Coast style,’ he explains.
Across the Irish channel, there’s a typically lively scene, with Dan Kelly’s, Stonewell and MacIvors all involved in collaborations with notable breweries. Craigies is on the case with a champagne-method sparkler, and Johnny Fall Down has just released its 2016 Ice Wine.
Old meets new
Meanwhile, Europe’s first qvevri cider is about to emerge in Kent from Starvecrow, which was recently formed by Ben Walgate, former CEO at Gusbourne, with his farming partner Steve Reeve. Drawing on Reeve’s 65-acre orchard, Walgate’s cidery is a sideline to his natural winery, Tillingham. The qvevri, a beeswax-lined terracotta amphora, was originally destined for Pinot Noir grapes. When they didn’t materialise, Walgate’s apple juice got its turn.
Walgate does not come from a cider background. While this can be nerve-wracking, he says it’s given him the freedom to make cider in completely his own way – informed by winemaking, but independent of traditional cider techniques.
‘It’s the most delicious of all of the cider ferments,’ says Walgate of the qvevri cider. ‘Qvevri have this quality to them, whether it’s wine or cider. They have this clarity, which is really inspiring.’
Back at the cider-beer interface, Hawkes founder Simon Wright has been trialling graffs, the true beer-cider hybrid. Fermenting a blend of pale ale wort and apple juice, Graff Apple Pale Ale is available in Hawkes Cidery & Taproom in Bermondsey. It will be followed by a series of graff collaborations with other breweries.
Sweeties from Sweden
‘We come into cider as wine,’ says Andreas Sundgren, founder of Sweden’s Brännland Cider, explaining his modus operandi. When he wanted to keep sugar at a low level in one of his ciders without pasteurisation, rather than accept conventional wisdom – that is ‘no’ – for an answer, he sought and actually found an solution from the world of wine.
‘If you’re making ice cider with a lot of acidity and acidic apples in the north of Sweden, the best flying winemaker comes from the Rheingau. It’s a fairly northern area in terms of winegrowing, and they make this vast array of stuff with Riesling,’ he says Step up consultant and fellow Swede Marcus Lunden, winemaker at Georg Breuer.
Brännland’s ice cider has been joined by an off-dry cider Pernilla Perle, with a dry one Just Cider, imminent. With apples from the south of Sweden currently being used, Lundgren is in the process of planting a number of suitably hardy orchards. After all, as he says, much like in wine, ‘to be a mainstay, place is everything’.
Susanna Forbes and a panel of tasters put some of cider’s crossover expressions to the test – and were blown away by what they found
On the wine side
96 Starvecrow 2016, East Sussex, 7%
Golden Delicious/Bramley blend. Unfiltered
AFS: ‘10/10! It’s like the apples have been shot from a cannon. It’s flinty, like gunpowder. Fresh, with hints of gooseberry and dancing flowers.’ CR: ‘Lambic like.’
Match: Lemon chicken, herby, green vegetables.
£4.96/75cl, Fine Cider, 07792 616 446. Very limited supplies. 2017 Pét-Nat due March.
94 Brännland, Pernilla Perle, Sweden, 8.5%
Off-dry. Swedish apples
AFS: ‘Epically complex. Berries, fresh rose aromas. Bright palate. Intense apple flavours.’ CR:‘Gooseberries, elderflower. Lengthy finish.’
Match:: Savoury dishes.
£9.00/75cl, The Wine Inspector, 01628 628258
93 Aspall, 1728 (2015), Suffolk, 11%
CR: ‘Lemon verbena, sherbet, lime leaves. Fresh Bramley flavour with lemongrass finish.’ AFS: ‘Flint, mushroom. Bright acidity.’
£16.69/75cl, Aspall, 01728 860510
90 Find & Foster, Dartmoor Blend 2015, Devon, 5%
Cider apples. Pét-Nat
AFS: ‘Savoury apple aromas. Medicinal hint, rhubarb, sorrel.’
Match: Pork and mustard sauce.
£8.94/75cl, Fine Cider, 07792 616 446
89 Eric Bordelet, Poiré Granit 2016, France, 5%
15 pear varieties. Pét-Nat
HJ: ‘Moreish, notes of dry pears. Lower acidity and tannin. Pretty.’ CR: ‘Elegant mousse, elderflower notes, herbaceous sweetness.’
MATCH: Foie gras.
13.16/75cl, Les Caves de Pyrene, 01483 558820
84 Hush Heath, Sparkling English Apple Wine Rosé, Kent, 8%
Dessert apples, strawberry and blackcurrant juice in dosage
HJ: ‘Floral. Freeze-dried strawberies, high acidity, clean finish.’ CR: ‘Nose of blackcurrant fruit.'
£8.25/75cl, Hush Heath, 07825 758 833
74 Once Upon A Tree, Chapel Pleck 2013 Sparkling Perry, Herefordshire, 7%
CR: ‘Aromas of straw, strawberries and even Williams pear. Balanced with a somewhat vigorous texture.
£8.52 /75cl, Once Upon A Tree, 07904 637 716
70 Chapel Down, Curious Apple, Kent, 5.2%
Rubens apple. Carbonated
CR: ‘Easy drinking, flavourful, with a light sorrel, apple-skin aromas, and a crisp finish.’
Match: Lean meats, Thai dishes.
£15.60/12x33cl, Chapel Down, 01580 766033
99 Mills Brewing/Oliver's, Foxbic 2015, 4.7%
Foxwhelp juice, lambic wort
AFS: ‘The bomb! Amazing.’ SF: ‘Evolves on lemon/tangerine flavours, becoming savoury and herbal.’ CR: ‘Sharp, rich. Sweet nuts and tart fruit. Long finish.’
Match: Fried chicken.
£8.20/75cl, Real Ale, 020 889 23710
94 Pilango, SE England, 4%
HJ: ‘Light hoppy notes on top of a well-balanced, lychee palate.’ AFS: ‘Um Bongo on the nose!’
Match: Bang bang chicken.
£25.20/12x33cl, Pilango Cider, 07393 320 766
92 Oliver’s, At The Hop #7, Herefordshire 5.5%
Cascade, Kazbek hops
AFS: ‘Like a drive through the countryside with the windows open. Brett, apple blossom. Farmyard with confectionery notes, medicinal too.’
£32-40/12x50cl , Fine Cider, 07792 616 446, The Real Al, 07967 646 245
85 Sandford, St Louis Dry Hoppe, Devon, 5.5%
Ella, Willamette hops
CR: ‘Elderflower, sweet pear aromas, grass cuttings/compost. Slight tannic finish.’ HJ: ‘Nice balance. Really drinkable.’
Match: Goan fish curry.
£31/24x33cl, Matthew Clark, 0344 822 3901
75 Kent Cider Co, Hop Cider, 5.5%
East Kent Golding hops
CR: ‘Aromas of cherries, almonds, apricot pits and fresh flowers.’ AFS: ‘Nuts, pastry, smoky finish.’
£30/10l bib, £55/20l bib,
Kent Cider Co, 01795 521317
74 Dorset Star, FV IV A New Hop!, 5%
AFS: ‘Fascinating. Reductive. Fresh.’ CR: ‘Earthy, rich aromas: beetroot, orange blossom, honey, rosemary, star anise.’
Match: Indian food, cheese.
£45/20l bib, £21/12x50cl,
Dorset Star, 07974 416 526
Many thanks to our judges and to our hosts, Holly Macdonald and Carters of Moseley.