Cider is part of the trilogy with ales and lagers of our staple volume alcoholic drinks, served by the half or one pint glass and usually quaffed not sipped.
We have enjoyed the revival of ‘real’ ale, arguably thanks to the CAMRA campaign, and latterly for craft lagers. Could a CAMRA-like approach to craft cider be next?
There were 88 craft ciders listed at last year’s CAMRA Great British Beer Festival at London’s Olympia. Unlike real ale, though, cider has an established but fragmented background of small-scale artisanal production while the volume is claimed by a relatively few nationally marketed brands. Strongbow, for example, claims 15 per cent of the total cider market.
Distribution is a major hurdle for small producers, but the general consumer interest in all things ‘craft’ has prompted supermarkets to allow devolved buying options for stocking various local products, cider among them.
Where to next?
A first step is to build a consensus to define what makes a craft cider.
The basics are traditional production methods, from specific cider apples (not suitable for eating) with nothing added except, sometimes, cider yeast to regulate the natural but inconsistent yeasts from the apple skins themselves. This is what creates the bubbles with no pasteurisation or carbonation. They are generally around six to 8.5 per cent abv.
Like wine grapes, cider apples have tannin, acid, sugar and aromatic precursors (aromas and flavours released during the crushing process) necessary to make a complex fermented beverage. Unlike wine grapes, these are rarely contained within one apple variety at the required levels. Thus most ciders are blends from different cider-specific apples.
The apple varieties are rated depending on the level of acidity or tannins, bitter sweet, bitter sharp, sharp and sweet.
Like wine grapes, geography (terroir) also plays a part in the apple flavour. Their names are unfamiliar, curiously artisanal, such as Dabinett, bittersweet from Somerset, Sweet Coppin, sweet from Devon, Broxwood Foxwhelp, bittersharp from Hereford and Crimson King, sharp from Somerset.
The cider end product is judged on a scale from one (very sweet) to seven (very dry) and may be fruity, sharp, cask matured, clear or cloudy.
Craft cider really is local, and there is plenty of scope for the makers to differentiate their own brand and for us to experiment and choose a personal favourite. Prices are lower than for ales due to tax rates less than half the rate for beer which results in shelf prices between £1.20 and £2.50 for typical 500ml bottles.
Henney’s Classic (Herefordshire), classed as ‘dry’, was actually found by my younger age group tasting panel to have noticeable sweetness. £1.20 for 500ml at six per cent abv.
Westons Stowford Press (Herefordshire) Medium Dry, refreshing and, they say, “100 per cent local home-pressed apples from blossom to glass”, £1.20 for 500ml at 4.5 per cent.
For a rare ‘single’ try Thatchers Katy, the name of the apple, medium dry from Somerset, 7.4 per cent £2.55 for 500ml bottle.
To open your eyes to the broader spectrum, add Aspall from Suffolk bittersweet apples. The Premier Cru 7 per cent abv is dry and silky with floral aromas, and at £1.80 in my local Sainsbury’s for a 500ml bottle it is a bargain. Recommended, as many ciders are, to go with roast pork, chilli con carne, curry and stilton cheese.