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.
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.
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.
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.