The Ciderologist’s View #2: We Need to Talk about Cider

This week I ran another round of my Cider Courses with the Beer and Cider Academy in London. These are not courses on how to make cider – there are other people, such as Peter Mitchell, who do that thoroughly and professionally. No, my courses seek to address what I consider to be the major problem within the UK cider category – a lack of language and styles.

Ask any person on the street to name a style of beer and most would be able to say ‘Lager’, or ‘IPA’ or ‘Stout’. Ask the same people to name a wine grape varietal and, again, I suspect that the majority considerable would be able to conjure up ‘Sauvignon Blanc’, or ‘Pinot Grigio’ or ‘Cardonnay’. What then happens if we ask the same questions about cider? The response to the naming of styles would probably illicit responses of ‘apple’ or ‘white’ or ‘sweet’ or ‘fruity’. How about a varietal of cider apple – ‘…erm…green?’ Oh dear. Hereford, we’ve got a problem.

Cider never developed the rich, in-depth language and stylisation that beer, wine and sprits have enjoyed for centuries, for which there are myriad reasons that I will cover another time, when I don’t have to smash out an article before to heading the barber. I believe that for cider to develop and grow as a category, a lexicon should be created to be used that enables the benefits trade to advocate the within the spectrum of cider to the consumer in a knowledgeable and informative way. Just saying that any particular cider is dry or sweet is not good enough.

Currently, the cider industry appears to have little interest in developing this lexicon. It is happy to continue to segment the cider world into ‘value’, ‘mainstream’, ‘premium’ and ‘craft’. These terms assist the category in understanding the occasion of purchase and consumption, and its perceived value. Crucially, however, these terms do nothing to assist the drinks trade, let alone the consumer, in understanding what the range of ciders actually taste like. When is someone going to walk into a bar and ask for a pint of ‘mainstream ‘cider’? Wouldn’t it be great if people knew that they could walk into a bar and ask a for a ‘tannic’ cider (dry and phenolic or maybe keeved and unctuous), or an crisp, fresh, acid driven ‘new world’ cider, or an aromatic spiced cider?

This is why I am creating these courses – to give cider the chance to be understood and perceived like beer and wine. And judging by the full house I had this week, there’s a demand for it. By no means do I think that this is the definitive approach to the creation of cider language – it’s just the beginning of the conversation. And this chatter is only going to get louder and louder over the course of the next few years.

International Cider Challenge

Last month I Chaired the Judging at one of the largest cider competitions in the world – the International Cider Challenge (ICC). Entries came in from 4 continents and we had a stellar selection of judges from as far afield as South Africa, USA, Luxembourg and Australia. And Wales. Every single cider was judged on merit, with the opportunity for the judges to decide whether it was worthy of medal standard, whether it be Bronze, Silver or Gold. Many competitions simply ‘find the top 3’, with little information then garnered on any of the other entries. Utilizing the medal system enables an entrant to ascertain what, in the eyes of those judges, what standard their product is at.

Over 250 produced 8 trophy winners from the UK and Northern Ireland, the US and France, with the Supreme Champion being awarded to Breton producer Löic Raison from for their Cidre Doux. Congratulations to them and to all the medal winners. A full list of results can be found on the ICC website.

Life can be Bittersweet

It was the most interesting to read this week that Heineken will be reintroducing the Strongbow Original cider back into the US after heeding consumer demand. Made in Hereford with traditional tannic, bittersweet cider apples, this brand was discontinued in 2014 and replaced with Strongbow Gold and Strongbow Honey and Apple. These new offerings were devoid of the bold and complex tannic fruit and made with dessert apples in a softer, sweeter style. Well, the consumer has voted with its keyboard, with 100,000 of them contacting Heineken via social media to demand their favorite drink be reintroduced. And it worked.

Ciders made with bittersweet apples are in the significant minority in the US, but with the continued growth of the category, especially from regional brands, there is interest from cider makers and consumers alike about the complex flavor and mouthfeel these varieties provide. Which, ironically, is in contrast to the UK (world’s largest bittersweet apple grower and cider maker) where the demand for these styles of cider are in decline, in flavor of a softer and sweeter profile.

God’s Own (Cider) Country

There was a great article in the Yorkshire post last week highlighting the wealth of cider makers in Yorkshire. One of the aspects of UK that gets me really interested is seeing the growth in the number of producers in atypical cider regions, such as Yorkshire, Northamptonshire and North Wales. It is a reflection of the desires of consumers to try more local food and drink with a provenance and personal touch, which doesn’t necessarily have to be traditional. Highlighting this article also justifies my use of this photo of the Monks of Ampleforth Abbey harvesting the apples from their orchards to make their own cider, which I think is utterly awesome!