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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Saturday, 14 August 2010

It's time we talked about cider

Because I'm something of an expert on beer, many people believe I know about cider (and perry).  It's quite flattering I suppose, that they just assume I know loads about a drink that isn't beer and that I don't claim to be an expert on.  But it's been going on for so long now that I feel obliged to learn a little.  I've been extending my consultancy activities into cider over the last couple of years, and this summer I've been boning up my product knowledge so that I can incorporate it into my tutored tastings, food matching and writing.

This image was created by someone looking to promote cider.  Not take the piss out of it.  Hmm.


Not many of the beer people I know talk about cider (or perry) that much - I get the impression that they treat it with disdain as inferior to beer, or that it's a guilty secret.  For those among us who feel a little defensive about being called a beer geek, the bumpkin image of cider (and perry) makers and drinkers means there's someone one rung down from us who we can turn on.

For those who've argued with CAMRA that they should support all quality beer rather than just cask ale, cider is a bone of contention - the organisation that responds to criticism about beer with "The clue is in the name: what is it about the Campaign for Real Ale that's so difficult to understand?  That's what we're about, and that's all," cider (and perry) is an example of breathtaking hypocrisy, supported wholeheartedly by CAMRA at festivals and throughout the organisation despite the fact that it is clearly not real ale.

Cider is a sophisticated, quality drink.  No, it really is.

But if that's all we think, we do cider (and perry) a disservice.

I wrote recently in the Publican about the 'joyful anarchy' of cider, how cider (and perry) producers all seem to have a great time and many seem to operate at a slight angle to reality.  ABVs tend to be approximate.  Labelling and packaging often seems a little rough and ready.  It's gloriously shambolic.

But there's also refinement at the other end of the spectrum.  We have this positioning problem with cider in the UK, in that we consider it a direct alternative to beer.  We see a farmhouse cider at 8% ABV and sigh and go, "Shit, a pint of this is going to get me arseholed," and we shrug and order a pint anyway.

But why?  Cider is made from fruit, not grain.  It has a flavour range from dry to sweet, rather than bitter to malty.  Does that remind you of anything?  Yep, cider is a closer cousin to wine than beer.  Indeed sparkling perry was apparently the inspiration for champagne.  Cider is a hybrid, halfway between wine and beer, and yet different from each.

I've been enjoying the diversity and complexity of cider a great deal this summer, at least until what was shaping up to be a beautiful long hot summer got washed down a storm drain about two weeks ago.

I'm not a purist about cider, same as I'm not a purist about beer. If it tastes nice, I'll drink it.  But I do have one rule: it's ostensibly made out of apples.  Therefore it should taste of apples.  Or pears.  It doesn't have to be be squeezed on a nineteenth century press by a yokel in a leather jerkin and come out unfiltered and filthy to be cider.  It can be carbonated, balanced, blended, contain sulphites and stabilisers, come from big manufacturers, be served over ice from a pint bottle... I don't care.  So long as it's recognisably made from what it's supposed to be made from.  And tastes nice.

You would.  I bet you would.

I was helping an ad agency pitch for Magner's last year.  I organised a tasting of the big commercial cider brands, and got a bit of a surprise.  We took Strongbow, Woodpecker, Magner's, Bulmers, Gaymers and Westons Organic and tasted them next to each other.  As you'd expect, the Westons Organic was by far the most pleasant drink.  What surprised me was just how bad the others were - with one curious exception.  They didn't actually taste like apples.  I've had cider lollies from ice cream vans that taste more of cider than these drinks did.  They were sweet, fizzy and synthetic, the sweetness artificial with no discernible link to anything that's every been outdoors, let alone on a tree.  They weren't cider: they were alcopops repacked as cider, cheap, nasty alcohol in a new set of clothes to suit changing mainstream trends.

The exception?  Magner's.  Say what you like about it - and I know it certainly doesn't look natural - but it tasted of apples.  It wasn't a patch on the Westons, but it belonged in the same group, a class apart from its more commercial peers.

On a hot day I'll take an Aspalls or an Addlestones over beer.  Hall & Woodhouse sent me a case of their Badger pear cider and it's almost stupidly drinkable - shamefully I was hiding my last few bottles from people when we had out summer barbecue last month.

And if you're lucky enough to encounter Dennis Gwatkin - probably the most celebrated cider maker of the moment - you'll find stuff there to delight any craft beer enthusiast.  His cider aged in whisky barrels was one of the best drinks I encountered all last year.  Served in a wine glass, lightly chilled, it beats rose wine at its own game on long summer evenings.

So I like cider (and perry).  I'm drinking more of it/them.  I'm doing an event on (perry) at the Abergavenny Food Festival next month.  (I'm also doing one on Welsh microbreweries with a bit of cheese - but that's already sold out!)

I'll be cramming for this event on Bank Holiday Monday at the Alma on Newington Green, North London.  Fresh from the success of their first ever beer festival, they're doing a cider festival over August Bank Holiday Weekend.  There'll be twenty different ciders (and perrys) from five producers, including fruit ciders, perry, rum-oaked, whisky-oaked and wine-oaked ciders, and cider and food matching.

I think I'll be on the Rioja-matured scrumpy myself.  Just don't take the piss if I'm drinking it from a wine glass.

15 comments:

Sausage King said...

I have to agree with you Sir, lets get busy with the cyder love. I'll hook you up with the sausage maker of those bad boy pork and cyder sausages. Norfolk / Suffolk has to be top draw for Cider? Forget that Devon and Cornwall vibe! Aspall...

Alan said...

Perry is the bomb. I planted a bunch of pear trees at our old farm. Then read the old adage "he who plants pears, plants for his heirs." Then we moved.

We need an international perry appreciation society. I am now dedicated to finding perry on my trip this month to Cape Cod through New York and southern New England.

Tandleman said...

Ooh, Beer Expert! Calm down.

Leszek said...

The cider is a wide and interesting category, and it can spring up in suprising places. Carlsberg has created a new market for "cider" from basically scratch in Denmark some 2 years ago, and the best cider I ever tasted came from Svaneke Bryghus, Bornholm.
Very interesting dry ciders are also produced in Rhine valley in eastern Switzerland.

Gary Gillman said...

Some years ago now, I recall a pleasant bar in Pimlico which specialized in cider. It was a draught bar, with scrumpies and perries aplenty. Cider is an excellent drink and some of the commercial brands as you mention are very good, but to my mind, the unfiltered scrumpy and zum zyder was the best. It took a moment or two to change palates with these, since so often they were bone dry. Quite similar in concept really to the true lambic, or that puckery Loire white wine, Muscadet.

Cider is excellent alternative to beer and I plan to buy more of it.

Gary

atj said...

Perry is the great lost drink of England, complexand deliciously fruity-flavoured; it drinks like a German or Alsatian white wine — and it’s not pear cider.

Martin said...

While you're at Abergavenny see if you can get my brother-in-law (Mike Morgan from Llansantffraed Court Hotel) to give you some of his own cider.

Nicholas King said...

Sorry a bit slow off the mark with this question. Is scrumpy just unfined and unfiltered cider or does it have to have any other qualities/ingredients?

Mark said...

"I get the impression that they treat it with disdain as inferior to beer, or that it's a guilty secret"

For me it's simply a case of not being able to drink everything in the world that's good. I quite like Whiskey and I don't mind wine, but I love beer ... if im going to drink something, learn about something and read about something, it'll be the something I love (not the something I like).

I spend enough time and money on beer as it is, if I added wine and cider to that I'd be a pennyless drunk! :P

Chunk.

Shenan said...

I like the comparison Gary Gillman made of ciders to lambics- they can be fantastic, or they can be sickly sweet and artificial tasting. I appreciate your laissez-faire approach, though do have to say that in general I find the shorter the list of ingredients that aren't apples or direct apple products, the better it tastes (as this generally means it tastes closest to actual fermented fruit). Some of the best commercial ciders I've had have one ingredient listed: cider. But it's interesting to compare different ciders because for some reason, as opposed to other alcoholic beverages, they often have a displayed ingredient list.

Anonymous said...

good post. i think magners cider tastes real nice - especially pear cider. Hope the Abergavenny food festival goes well mate.

Anonymous said...

Go to Middle Farm. You will NOT be sorry.

http://www.middlefarm.com/07_cider_perry.htm

Anglepen said...

Great post Pete, and nice to have the traditional farm producers mentioned, you'll have to try my home made Chilli Paneer with a pint of my home brewed Cider, a match made in heaven

Gary Gillman said...

I was delighted to discover that the Pimlico cider bar and restaurant I mentioned is still going strong (since it's a good dozen years since my visit). It's called Chimes, and here is the link.

http://www.chimes-of-pimlico.co.uk/

Scrumpy is simply unfiltered apple cider, generally served almost still and (in my experience)allowed to ferment to a bone dryness. Being a farmhouse product, or in that style, additives of any kind are generally eschewed.

Gary

wiggo55 said...

It's a shame cider in the UK has become so commercialised. I had a sip of my brother's pint of Gaymers the other day, and god it was horrible. I live in Asturias, a nort western region of Spain with a very strong cider tradition. It is natural and is poured from a great height to oxigenate it and is drank in small quantities at a time. It tastes ten times better than any cider I have ever had in the UK. Cider lovers should check ot out. http://www.sidradeasturias.es/