Back to the future
Let us start by taking a trip back in time. We’re going back to the late 17thcentury and our destination is Herefordshire. I’d like you to imagine you are a rather affluent individual attending a lavish banquet where you expect there to be several toasts to good health amongst other things. Well it may surprise you to know that the beautifully intricate glass you hold with its elaborate engraving contains cider (or perhaps perry). That’s right…during this period cider and perry were the drink of choice for high society. But why???
Well firstly it was around this time that Viscount Scudamore,a cider pioneer, brought back some marvellous apples (the Redstreak) from France which made an exquisite drink. This was coupled with advances in the production of glass bottles which produced stronger glass able to hold the pressure of bottle fermented ciders. We have King James I partially to thank for that due to his order to glassmakers to stop using valuable timber, and so with the use of coal they were able to reach hotter temperatures.
The invention of Verre Anglais (Glass English) meant that Viscount Scudamore was likely adding sugar and creating secondary fermentation in the bottle (Méthode Traditional)long before the French started making Champagne.
On top of all that due to the wars with our neighbours in Europe and a mini ice age which destroyed a lot of English vines, the supply of wine was sparse. So what else would you put on your table, that’s directly comparable to wine
If you want to read more about the history of cider and perry I can highly recommend a recent publication entitled ‘Ciderology’ from a certain Ciderologist (Gabe Cook).
So what happened?
As they say; all great things come to an end, and sadly for fine cider in this case they did, almost as rapidly as they had started. Conflicts reduced (which was a good thing), but that meant the return of wine and port to the table of the wealthy,and fine cider was forgotten as quickly as it was discovered.
Coupled with this the government of the day, who had been watching the increase in cider production, saw a nice little earner and added a tax. A theme that was to be rescinded then repeated up to present day. But let’s not get started on that, a whole other can of worms that is currently stifling the craft cider industry.
Let’s fast forward to the early part of 20th century, back in Herefordshire and we’re with the Bulmer brothers (Fred and Percy). Ahead of their time and the current understanding of the cider process they set about learning from the French and others and created their own champagne cider; ‘Pomagne’. These two brothers were at the forefront of cider innovation in England, learning processes and techniques from Europe that enabled them to increase production and sustainability. They were even ahead of their time regarding employee welfare and wellbeing. All of this led to rapid growth and acquisition of rivals. However fast forward again to the start of the 21stcentury and the picture is much less positive; lay-offs and an eventual take over by Heineken and if you’ve tried any of the current Bulmers line-up or Strongbow, then you know what that led to.
However all was not lost as a small number of producers have been quietly continuing to innovate and produce some marvellous fine ciders. It’s not just reserved to the confines of Herefordshire either; east and west of the country as well as across Europe and America, cider makers are doing some wonderful things with apples and pears.
Over Here - Fine Cider in the UK
Let’s start here in the UK and we can’t talk about fine cider without mentioning Felix Nash. Founder of the Fine Cider Company, Felix has been working with a number of cider makers to supply fine ciders and perries to high-end restaurants, predominantly in London. They seek out unique and heritage rich ciders and perries made with reverence to the terroir and orchard.
2017 saw the first Cider Salon in Bristol, created by two fine cider champions: Tom Oliver (Oliver’s Cider & Perry) andMartin Berkeley (Pilton Cider). This weekend-long celebration of fine cider saw a multitude of events, including; meet the maker, tasting sessions, food pairing dinners, talks on methods and rare selections in venues across the city. It all culminated with the main event, the Cider Salon itself which saw sixty fine ciders and perries showcased by twenty producers from across the UK and the world. You can read my write up here, needless to say, it was a fantastic weekend and I can’t wait for next year’s event, which will be on the weekend of the 7-9th June at the larger venue of the Trinity Centre in Bristol (for the Salon itself).
I have to mention a few of the fine cider makers I have come across to date (extra’s to my recommendations at then end) to give you a flavour of the time, toil and talent that is out there, all of whom made an appearance at this year’s Cider Salon in Bristol.
Let’s start with Paul Ross of Downside Perry, who is a master of the mysterious and unpredictable fruit that is the perry pear. His passion comes through in all his creations, as well as his dedication and time to the processes which are as complex as his perries. His Special Reserve Perry 2017 is like white winein its qualities; fresh floral notes accompanied by citrus overtones and is an absolute gem to pair with fish and seafood.
Next, Ross-On-Wye Cider and Perry where for Mike, his son Albert and cider maker John cider making is a way of life and that traditional processes and an exceptional ability to draw out the best from each and every variety and batch is at the heart of what they do. What they do with apples and pears is miraculous, single variety and premium ranges all focusing on the brilliance of the fruit. They push the boundaries of taste such as their intensely smoky Yellow Huffcap Perry and allow time and nature to take its course, such as their Gordon’s Surprise, pressed in 2014 and aged in oak. They’ve just released a fine cider called Raison D’Être which is getting seriously good reviews.
Thirdly Little Pomona where James and Susanna Forbes make limited and unique fine ciders focused on highlighting the importance of time and terroir. Natural fermentation and no additions ensures the apples shine through. Such as their 2016 Unicorn which is bursting with complexity; light acidity followed by intense tannins. Wonderful astringency, velvety smooth in the mouth and full of rich apple skin taste. Or their Art of Darkness 2015 which spent 12 months in tank, 12 in barrel and at least 6 in the bottle. It smells of toasted vanilla with rum like aromas with tastes of vanilla apple, woody notes and an exceptional acidity.
If you want a great read and a place to start on exploring further amazing fine cider creations out there, across the world, then I’d highly recommend Susanna Forbes’s (of Little Pomona) recently published book: ‘The Cider Insider: The essential guide to 100 craft ciders to drink now’.
Take a trip overseas
As you’ll read if you look at the Bristol Cider Salon website, Martin Berkley and Tom Oliver took their inspiration from Franklin County CiderDays. The original CiderDay goes back to 1994 and was comparably small event to today’s enormous programme; full of events, workshops and a Cider Salon provides an opportunity to sample more than 120 individual hard cider brands from across North America and Europe.
We got a flavour of what was on offer from the United States through Angry Orchard and Eden Speciality Ciders who attended the Cider Salon in Bristol this year. Ryan Burke (Angry Orchard) was sharing his wonderful Edu limited edition Asturian sidra inspired cider, which is full of acidity coupled with rich tannins, sweet vanilla and toffee apple as well as sharp palate cleansing crispness…it’s quite a taste journey.
Eleanor and Albert (Eden) introduced me to their outstanding Heirloom Blend Ice Cider, which was sweet, smooth and full of juicy apple taste. Eleanor also had a small bottle of their Cellar Series: #2 The Falstaff 2008, which had been aged for 7 years in French oak. It had a much darker colour to the Heirloom blend and the flavour had developed into rich caramel and dried fruit. Sadly it was all sold out…
A juicier USA review coming soon…
Head in the other direction from here across Europe and there are some other incredible cider makers creating wonderful fine ciders. Such as Estonia where Jaanihanso, a family-owned cider house and orchard have been making fine cider creations since 2000. Alvar and Veronika Roosimaa were at the Cider Salon in Bristol sharing their Brut MéthodeTraditionnelle 2015 which had been in the bottle for two and a half years, I’m going to say no more as I still have a bottle to review, but it is outstanding.
Putting the “fine” into cider
Hopefully I’ve given you a good start on your journey to discover what fine cider is all about. There are sceptics on the use of the word “fine” as there are with the word “craft”. In fact there has been a lot of discussion lately on that very subject on social media. My view... for what it’s worth, is that the word helps draw out and identify those more unique and rare creations that have involved time and skill beyond normal fermentation. They are limited and collectible, they aren’t an attempt to create an annually consistent product, they are an effort to capture the terroir, crop and the environment that year and let it speak to the drinker.
You’ll notice I’ve compared a fair bit to wine in this article and that is deliberate. The reason being that I am trying to highlight the comparable qualities, skill and process involved for those new to cider and fine cider. After all, you get wine and you get fine wine, the word ‘fine’ being added to those wines that exhibit the additional qualities I’ve referred to above. The Fine+Rare blog on fine wine is well worth a read if you want to explore the analogy further.
The Cider Critic’s top five Fine Ciders (in no particular order as they’re all marvellous):
1. Pilton – Tamoshanta
In the glass it’s a beautiful rich amber colour (think ‘Jurassic Park’ amber) with a delicate fizz and on the nose it’s full of ripe crisp apple and sweetness. It reminds me of the smell of ice cider. The initial taste is exactly as it smells, with that delicate fizz hardly coming through at all. The finish is of very slight acidity followed by delightful sweetness and gentle woody after tones. A magnificent alternative to a dessert wine.
2. Oliver’s Fine Cider – Bottle Conditioned Dry 2014
This is a marvellous example of how bold and audacious cider can be, reminding me of a tannic, robust red wine. It pours a deep orange colour, with heaps of carbonation that takes time to dissipate. It smells of wood, straw and barn yard with ripe apple skin in the background. The initial taste is acidic and of sharp and dried apple. This is followed by that fizz which is almost foamy and chewy on the tongue. The finish is wonderfully astringent, sucking the moisture from the sides of your mouth and leaving a lingering smokiness.
3. 6 Somewhere – Premier Cru Dry Normandie Cidre (5.5%)
Pouring dark straw in colour this smells of juicy apples and ripe skins. The taste is of crisp dry apple with a sharp fizz that leads into a long dry and smoky finish with a slight residual sweetness. This has the dryness and sharpness to compete with any champagne, but with a light sweetness that lifts it into a league above.
4. Angioletti – Secco
This is incredibly prosecco-like, pouring pale straw in colour and with tropical fruits, such as kiwi on the nose. It’s sharp and acidic and a subtle bitterness, but the finish is dry with sweet notes of those tropical fruit flavours. It’s nowhere near as fizzy as prosecco, but I would be almost convinced it was in a blind taste test.
5. Find & Foster – Pétillant Naturel 2016 Blend# 003
The colour of sunset in a glass, it’s filled with vibrant bubbles and a light foamy head that doesn’t dissipate. The smell is of rich apple, interspersed with cinnamon and clove spice and cinder toffee. First taste brings a rich juice flavour that forces your mouth to salivate, in a lip smacking good way. The light fizz then ripples along the tongue and the finish is of candied fruit sweetness that lingers on and on. It’s absolutely addictive.
Care to have six very fine ciders shipped directly to your front door?? Did I mention that four of my top five are included?? Thought that might grab your attention…well James and Ed have pulled together such a box and you can put your order in right here. What are you waiting for…??