Bit on the Cider

Shh can you hear that? it’s the sound of the cider scene bubbling away and it’s about to reach boiling point. Here’s our take on the changing face of this historical West Country drink…

First off, I’m going to let you in on something: cider is about to have what you might call ‘a moment’. That’s right: bored of being the overshadowed sibling at the bar taps, constantly battling fruitlessly for the attentions of the crowd who flock to its cooler-looking and better-understood sister, beer, it’s reinventing itself. No longer will it be pigeon-holed as a refreshment solely for hot days, dehydrated festival goers or West Country traditionalists. Cider is reimagining itself as a sophisticated, premium drink, as fit for a drinks flight at a swanky restaurant as for popping the cork on for a night of quality time with the telly.

But let’s take a deep breath before we get overexcited, and cover some cider basics.

In case you were under any illusion (past experiences may have led you to believe otherwise) this centuries-old sip is but fermented apple juice – simple as. Well, that is, in some cases, at least. See, not all cider is straightforward. The government, for regulation and duty purposes, defines cider as being at least 35% juice – and a lot of what is sold on these isles is barely more than that. On the other end of the spectrum, the Small Independent Cidermakers’ Association (SICA) has created a National Quality Mark for what they deem to be the best cider, obtainable only for varieties made with at least 90% juice. That’s, of course, not to say that both kinds of drink aren’t relevant and well-liked, just that they’re rather different beasts.

West Friends

Cider is very much the official drink of the West Country and has roots here going back almost a millennia – as Ciderology author, and co-organizer of the Bristol Cider Salon, Gabe Cook tells us.

“It is fair to say that the proud heritage of West Country cider-making is based upon apple varieties that were brought over from France nearly 1,000 years ago,” he says.

“These tannic, bitter, inedible apples didn’t find a home in the apple-growing area of the South East of England, where all efforts were dedicated towards growing fruit for the table market in London. Instead, they found a home in another great growing region: the West Country. So, it was here that the proud tradition of British cider making first established itself.

“Cider’s zenith comes in the 17th century. During this period, Britain is almost permanently at war with its various European neighbours, France, The Netherlands and Spain – often all at once. As well as putting a financial burden upon the nation, this starved off the supply of wine, which the British aristocracy was devouring in great quantities, so there was an imperative to create an indigenous drink that could match the quality and appeal of wine.

“To the fore comes Viscount Scudamore, Ambassador to France, who returned back to Holme Lacy House in Herefordshire armed with a number of seedling of unnamed French cider apple varieties. He planted them on his estate and one – subsequently named the Herefordshire Redstreak – was a resounding success, producing the most amazing cider.

“During the same period, Sir Kenelm Digby was to make an equally telling contribution,” Gabe continues. “He established a glass furnace in the Forest of Dean to manufacture wine bottles which were stronger and more stable than any other in their day. These enabled a second fermentation to be undertaken within the bottle, ensuring that the cider was kept free from spoilage and, most importantly, adding a light, natural sparkle. What we are talking about is the first steps of the Champagne process. Indeed, Digby’s exploits were being undertaken before Champagne pioneer and Benedictine Monk, Dom Perignon, was even born.”

Learn something new every day, eh?

Comments from Gabe Cook amended from his book, Ciderology (Spruce, £16.99)

Apple watch

Keen-eyed cider drinkers may well have noticed things beginning to shift in the market for this historical and regional speciality. Pete Snowman, founder of The Bristol Cider Shop, sure has, telling us that the cider sphere is a totally different space to what it was eight years ago when he started the business. Now, in a way not dissimilar to the trend for natural wine, the bar is being raised significantly when it comes to everyone’s favourite apple-based drink.

“A lot of producers are going in the highend direction, focusing on what they can make with amazing apple varieties,” he says. “Whether the consumer trends arefollowing – I don’t know. I don’t think it’s filtered down to the wider market just yet.”

When it comes to those consumers, fruit varieties are super-popular – always selling out first on a sunny day at the shop, Pete tells us. That said, a growing number of people are taking more of an interest in artisanal, high-juice-volume, craft ciders.

These kinds of production principles have been part of the strict set of criteria that Pete’s shop has adhered to since opening in 2011. And while this is still very much its ethos, the cider market has changed so much that this cider pro has revamped his concept.

“We always sold cider within a 50-mile radius. That was it. Cider had to have that heritage, connection to traditions and its history. The thing is, people have been making cider here in the West Country for centuries – generations – and have largely made up their mind as to what cider is and should be, so there’s really not much room for innovation.”

In the last few years, though, there’s been a massive surge in interest in cider in places like America and New Zealand, with interesting varieties also cropping up in Sweden and other countries in Europe. These areas don’t have any history of cider making and have been experimenting, borrowing ideas from other industries like brewing – Americans have invented hop cider, for instance – and are reshaping this historic drink.

There are more small, innovative producers cropping up across the UK too (including here in the South West), experimenting with production methods and apple varieties, with many even managing their own orchards. All this means that the shop’s 50-mile radius rule just isn’t relevant anymore, so Pete decided to totally change its focus, in order to explore the whole world of cider that’s available in 2019.

“We want to get people learning the story of cider. Get them involved in the experience, and join us in the discovery of global cider,” he says.

(Also new, by the way, is the online retail focus, with the shop having been converted to a tasting room – now with more of a bar feel, it showcases a regularly rotating range from the website.)

“Cider is changing,” he says. “I think it’s going to start snowballing – and I don’t think I would have said that five years ago.

Cider Salon, Gabe appearing on Sunday Brunch… People can’t ignore cider now. A lot of beer writers are starting to write about it now, when they wouldn’t ever have considered it before – any sense of snobbery there was is melting away. A lot of this stuff wouldn’t have happened five years ago. When we started this shop it was like we were in on this premium cider secret that we wanted to tell people – now, I think, the secret is out and people are trying to catch up.”

It’s tough to tell what’s coming first: the supply, from these new and exciting producers, or the demand, from consumers interested in quality, low-intervention products with a focus on provenance (which cider has in spades, thanks to its base ingredient being an abundant British crop).

Either way, there’s a bit of a sticky issue when it comes to this new-wave of high-end drinks: there’s no way to tell, by looking at the label alone, if it’s a small-batch, 100% juice cider, or a mass-produced drink made from concentrate and with additives.

“I’ve always been keen on the idea of a legally required distinction being made between craft cider and mass-produced cider,” says Pete, “but maybe that’s a slightly negative way of looking at things. I suppose it’s just about cider getting the recognition it deserves – and people knowing enough about it to make an informed choice. We need to change the way we’re presenting cider to people, and how we champion it.”

Speaking of which, we’re not seeing more interesting and high-end ciders in mainstream bars and pubs just yet. While there’s perhaps a willingness among publicans to up their cider game – encouraged by demand from consumers – many perhaps aren’t sure where to start. Hence, you get pubs where killer ranges of experimental craft beers sit next to comparably cheap, commercial, homogenized apple-based drinks. Good job, then, that we have some serious cider specialists on the local pub scene…

Holy tap!

These parts are blessed with a smattering of cider pubs – albeit fewer than there once were – which see to it that they have an assortment of cider that’s of the size and quality that we’d have of beer at a regular bar.

The Apple on Welsh Back in Bristol is one of the best known, along with The Orchard Inn, just off the harbourside. This free house has been on the receiving end of several accolades from CAMRA for its cider championing efforts over the years and, having changed management at the end of last year, is keeping its apple-led traditions alive. Well, for the most part.

“Cider has been sold on these premises for over 180 years,” says The Orchard Inn’s Steph Iles. “We believe at one point in its history, the pub only sold cider, and it was available to buy to take away in bottle and jug via a window at the end of the bar.”

While you can no longer take your own pitcher along for replenishment (soz) and, sure, there are some beers on the go now too, the focus is still fiercely fixed on cider. Traditional cider pubs like this one, guided more by fruit than hops, are enjoying the drink’s resurgence and making the most out of the developing offering.

“While the craft cider industry still has a way to go to catch up with the craft beer scene, it’s doing so in leaps and bounds,” notes Steph.

As with craft beers (and by ‘craft’, we mean made in small batches by indie producers, usually using traditional methods), this style of cider often packs a boozy punch, with ABVs tipping the 6% mark. But sessionable varieties, ideal for drinking on long afternoons while catching up with mates at the pub, are emerging now too.

“When it comes to cider, I would class anything 5% ABV and below as sessionable, but that rules out a big percentage of farmhouse ciders,” Steph says. “We have recently started selling a 4% ABV by Hecks, aptly named Somerset Session, for that very reason. The fermented cider is blended with their pure apple juice, making it a lighter, more easygoing drink.”

The Orchard Inn is among the (somewhat-dwindling) number of free houses on our turf, meaning – amongst other things – it’s not tied to any breweries so can shape its stock to suit customer preferences and trends. Selling well right now, we’re told, is the uber-dry Mendip Hills from Worley’s in Shepton Mallet and Janet’s Jungle Juice, from Westcroft in Highbridge.

About time, then, we reckon, we all took a fresh look at this centuries-old bev.