Forget sickly sweet Strongbow, summer’s the time to kick back with a pint of proper cider. Hugh Thomas investigates what makes British cider truly worth celebrating.
A friend from Hungary told me her mum had discovered a curious, supposedly very traditional, British drink. She took it home to Hungary, broke it out in front of her friends, and served it to them in champagne flutes. The drink? It was Strongbow.
I wonder what she would have thought if it was real cider. The stuff that’s sold in old milk cartons, and comes as cloudy as over-brewed tea. The worrying thing is, most of us only know cider as that drink made from apple concentrate, imported from who-knows-where; has CO2 pumped into it (rather than occurring naturally), and contains a whopping 5 to 12 teaspoons of sugar per pint.
These manufacturers are giving cider a bad name. Kopparberg proudly states on its website that it only uses ‘the finest soft water’ in its drinks. Someone ought to tell them cider doesn’t contain water. It contains apple juice.
What is proper cider?
To make cider, apples are pressed. The juice is then fermented from anywhere between three months to three years. Apples specifically grown for their qualities in cider-making are often preferred. These apples are typically unpalatable when eaten just as they are, but are used in cider for their naturally high-sugar content. Sugar which, during the fermentation process, is what gives the apple juice its alcohol.
Cider apples have terroir, too
Here’s where things should start to differ. If you’re in the East of England, traditional cider-making uses surplus dessert and cooking apples. The resulting liquid tends to be clearer; better suited to drinkers of lagers or milder white wines like Pinot Grigio. Meanwhile, ciders made in the West Country favour cider apples, which are sharper and with much more body. In Devon, you’ll find cider made from sweeter varieties – which typifies the orchards in the region – while Somerset’s ciders are stronger and more tannic. Gloucestershire’s you’d find to be bittersharp.
So terroir is a thing here. There’s a reason each variety is grown where it is. A little while ago, a farmer at The National Fruit Collection at Brogdale Farm in Kent planted two trees of the same variety next to each other, watered and tended to them in equal measure. The only thing he kept different was the soil. The disparity in the size and colour of the fruit was remarkable.
Cider can vary widely not only from one county to another, but from cider maker to cider maker. Nick Bull of Severn Cider presses his cider from apples grown in the fertile valley of the River Severn, just outside the Forest of Dean, making his cider distinct from any other. He tells me how he’s revived the Box Kernell, a local apple variety which went virtually extinct, and made a cider from it last autumn.
From scrumpy to keeved: cider-making varies hugely
Methods of production range widely, too, from what the apples are fermented in to how long they’re left to ferment. There’s also the question of yeast: some add it in, while others rely on the naturally occurring yeasts in the air, while carbonation may be left to develop naturally in the bottle or with added sugar. Keeved cider is the Champagne of cider, you might say: fermented in the bottle, stopped with a cork, and with a tingly fizziness on the tongue. Scrumpy, on the other hand, is often made in someone’s uncle’s shed most likely in a plastic bucket. Usually from any apple – however small, misshapen, sweet or tart, begged for, borrowed, or stolen – and as strong as you like.
Scrumpy is the kind of DIY approach that got many of today’s craft cidermakers into doing what they do. Neil Worley of Worley’s, though something of a cider-making powerhouse now, started with the very basics ten years ago.
‘Our first experience of making cider was when we ordered fifty gallons of juice from Roger Wilkins [his farm is one of the most revered in Somerset]. We made the mistake of adding a bit of sugar, and ended up with a 10.5% cider. One of the neighbours spent a few hours in a ditch.’
Things have moved on a bit since then at Worley’s. More recently, they’ve come out with a keeved cider. Sweet with a low ABV, and naturally carbonated, it’s just a tad more nuanced drink than their very first.
Other cider makers might start out the opposite way, planting their own 60-variety orchard in Herefordshire, and learning from traditional methods of cider-making before incorporating their own rules. Like Tom Oliver, whose cider is regarded by many as the best in Britain, if not the world. Of course, we have those who’ve been doing this for a fair bit longer. Burrow Hill Cider (part of the Somerset Cider Brandy Company), whose bus, cunningly named ‘The Cider Bus’, has become a Glastonbury icon since it first rolled up to the music festival almost fifty years ago. The farm has been making cider for almost another couple hundred.
The diversity of cider is something to be celebrated
For what involves such a simple process, cider’s diversity is striking. It seems the memo never got passed on to most of the mass-market producers whose cider tends to taste the same across the board. Still, we can be proud of our cider heritage, if not a little more scrupulous and discerning with what we drink. Let the French have their Champagne. Let the Czech have their Pilsner. We have our (proper) cider.