Forget the image of the straw-munching yokel. With everything from fruit flavours to bag-in-box, and infusions to trans-category fusions, cider is the most dynamic category in the drinks world at the moment. Susanna Forbes reports
Here’s a question for you. Which of these is an April fool’s joke: black cider, frozen cider, or rhubarb and custard cider? Answer: none, although Kopparberg’s Frozen Fruit Cider was inspired by an online April fool’s prank.
This may be the extreme end of cider’s new product development curve, but it illustrates the ability of cider – and perry – to morph into other incarnations, as well as the drinks industry’s wish to tap into consumers’ insatiable demand for novelty.
But where did this explosion of interest come from? While sweet ciders play to the youth’s taste, the interest in all things craft is spilling over into the category. Cider drinkers divide roughly into three: the experimentalists, who continually want to try out new flavours; the regulars, those who know what they like and stick to it; and the explorers, who want to delve deeper into what cider apples have to offer. The latter are seeking more premium cues, enjoying the chance to tap into the provenance of this product.
Premium draught and fruit ciders are spearheading growth in the category, with Kopparberg, Bulmers, Rekorderlig, Stella Artois and Somersby Cider all vying for the top spots. Many see the fruit contingent as ‘transitional’ ciders. But what is it that’s likely to excite today’s consumers over the next 12 months?
And if they are ‘en route’, where might our drinkers want to go next?
The world cider category is on the up, with arrivals from France, Spain, the Antipodes and America making their presence felt; but perhaps the most dynamism has been shown by Britain.
‘We have to rotate our ciders, we can’t fit them all in,’ says Andy Briggs, co-founder of The Stable, the eight-strong south west-based group of bars and restaurants that focuses on cider, pizza and pies. Regularly stocking around 70 ciders at each site, Briggs says these changes keep people coming in. ‘Producers are also becoming a lot more risqué. I’m always trying to get more quirky ciders in.’
The innovation of flavours can take cider cocktails to the next level
Alongside some of these wacky flavours, there’s a move back to apple-flavoured ciders, a modicum of dryness and – would you believe it – cider ‘with bits in’. The first quarter of 2015 alone saw the arrival of Thatchers’ appropriately named Somerset Haze, Strongbow’s Cloudy Apple on draught, and Rekorderlig’s Dry Äpple Cider in trendy 33cl brown glass bottles.
Box it real good
Long the vessel of choice for small to medium-sized producers, the bag-in-box format has been pivotal in the sector’s growth. ‘It’s a great opportunity to get new ciders to market,’ says Aspall’s Henry Chevallier Guild. ‘There is no installation charge, and you can easily have a variety.’ Seeing this format as an opportunity to bridge the gap between ‘mainstream’ brands and its more premium bottled offerings, Aspall has launched three tasty ciders in its Waddlegoose Lane range.
Award-winning Once Upon a Tree is another newcomer. ‘My arm was twisted by one of our suppliers, the Real Cider Company, in 2012,’ says founder Simon Day. The selection now stands at four, with the latest, Harry Taylor’s Thrown Hat, the first to be at a lower 5% abv, again in response to demand.
‘Our customers wanted something people would order two pints of, rather than one,’ explains Day.
While bag-in-box might embody the traditional face of cider, it doesn’t mean it can’t be creative. Spring 2015 saw
fifth-generation Westons cider maker Guy Lawrence infuse three fruit flavours into the Old Rosie range of cloudy ciders: elderflower, cloudy lemonade and our favourite, the medium-bodied, lightly tangy, off-dry rhubarb.
They don’t have to look dingy, these cider boxes. While Pilton Cider hand-screen-prints its boxes with a photo taken from the heritage orchard that its fruit comes from, Aspall’s dials up its heritage with an 18th century map. And if you want to store more than a few of these boxes, The Stable has the answer: super-sized wooden pigeonholes.
Extending the season
If beer sales track sporting events, cider is a slave to the sun. So how do you de-seasonalise it? The three Ms: mix it, match it or mull it.
Beer cocktails have been relatively slow off the mark, but not so with cider.
As well as the lower abv, the lengthening capability and fizz, perhaps it’s also because modern fruit-driven ciders seem almost cocktail-like to begin with, particularly once a cube of ice and a wedge of lime have been thrown in.
John Logue, global customer marketing manager of Rekorderlig’s UK distributors, Chilli Marketing, agrees. ‘The innovation of flavours can take cider cocktails to the next level. The subtlety can balance out the alcohol. For example, our passionfruit works well with the juniper in gin.’
Three to try: Alice Churchward’s tips
Oliver’s Gold Rush Cider, 7%, dry, Herefordshire. £51/20l bag-in-box
Newton Court Cidery, Gasping Goose Cider Organic Cider, 5.2%, medium-sweet, Herefordshire. £47/20l bag-in-box
Barbourne Cider Co, Crimson King, 6%, medium-dry, Worcestershire. £48/20l bag-in-box
To back this up, Rekorderlig’s global ambassador Joel Persson hosted 60 cider cocktail masterclasses in bars and pubs throughout the UK, leaving good-looking, hard-working cocktail manuals behind as his calling card.
It’s not just the modern fraternity getting all mixed up either. Somerset stalwart Sheppy’s has developed a series of cocktails with BlackLeaf Events, ranging from a Somerset Collins to a Dabinett Mojo. Meanwhile over at The Stable, Briggs will be rolling out a sangria-type cider cocktail to all his sites over the summer, ‘particularly those near the beach,’ he says.
Some like it hot
Cider’s breadth of flavour plus its natural residual sweetness provides the perfect canvas for mulling. ‘We’re picking up the European tradition of warming drinks,’ says Logue. Rekorderlig’s Winter Cider was among the first, launched in 2010, with its recommended serve a mini-dimple glass with a slice of orange.
Kopparberg turned on the style with festive knitwear-festooned urns for its Spiced Apple cider in 2014. Supplying over 200 to counter tops last year, it expects that number to more than double in 2015.
At The Stable, Briggs makes his mulled cider from scratch. A mix of sweet, medium and dry ciders, with apple juice, a drop of cider brandy, plus a bouquet garni of sweet spices, his ‘special recipe’ is served with a slice of house-caramelised orange.
For Chevallier Guild, innovation is about ‘changing perceptions’. ‘We need to create the environment, and food matching is key,’ he says. Thus Aspall has been involved in many ‘Cyder versus Wine’ dinners in pubs around the country.
‘[This] educates guests in both drinks,’ says Aspall’s John Hadingham. ‘We usually score these events, with cider often taking top spot.’
A little bit of knowledge
Don’t know where to start? Call the Bristol Cider Shop. Having achieved success last year with its all-you-need Cider Festival in a Box, owner Peter Snowman can curate a series of ciders for you, or help if you’re still at the menu-planning stage.
Many of the interesting ciders you’ll see in London these days will be courtesy of The Real Al Company, a tireless one-woman (and one employee) band.
Novel things to note
Bhai Apple Cider: Pair with delicate spiced dishes, or go Sol-style, with a wedge of lemon.
£21.99/24x33cl, London Cellars, 01268 533999
Pimm’s Cider Cup: British cider with a dose of Pimm’s. £4.40/50cl RRP, Diageo, 020 8978 6000
Westons Caple Rd Cider: Good tasting cider meets good-looking can. Ace with dude food – pulled pork and burgers. £25.43/24x33cl, Westons, 01531 660233
Making weekly journeys from cider hotspot Herefordshire into the Big Smoke, Alice Churchward supplies lesser-known, rural ciders to enterprising customers such as the Cider Tap at Euston Tap.
Education remains key, and sampling and free tasters are always encouraged. Yet more often than not, she says, she
still gets the ‘just choose five for me’ request. Snowman, agrees: ‘They like the fact that we do the work.’
Meanwhile, Westons is taking another approach to education. Ambassadors are being recruited to visit the premium London accounts of its newest draught cider, Mortimer’s Orchard, to offer a mix of staff training and customer tastings.
So if that’s what’s around now, what does the future hold? Expect growth in spirit-infused ciders, or spiders as they are known. As we went to press, Heineken had just revealed its Blind Pig trio, named after the Prohibition slang for speakeasies, mixing cider with rum, bourbon or whiskey.
Look out for more keeved ciders, too. Producing accessible ciders with lower alcohol levels, forward-looking cider makers like Martin Berkeley of Pilton Cider are among those travelling to northern France to learn the skills.
And what about Kopparberg’s Frozen Fruit Ciders? While Strawberry & Lime and Elderflower & Lime are making their debut in the supermarkets, the company is already investigating cocktail serves for the on-trade with leading bartender Suzie Wong. Never a dull moment.