My new book, World’s Best Cider (co-authored with Bill Bradshaw) is out in the UK this week. The North American edition was published on October 1st).
Ever since I became known as a beer writer, people have asked me about cider. They seem to assume I’ll be just as knowledgeable about it as I am about beer. Why? “Well obviously, because you’re a beer writer.”
My mantra throughout the writing of this book was that cider is ‘The world’s most misunderstood drink’. This is just one example – people assuming that because you know something about a drink that is made by malting barley, mixing it with hot water, boiling the resulting wort and adding hops and then yeast for a drink that combines bitterness and sweetness, you’ll also be perfectly au fait with a drink that is made by the careful selection and blending of different kinds of apples (or pears), mashing up the fruit, squeezing out the juice and allowing a months-long fermentation (usually with either wild yeast or champagne yeast) to create drink characterised by a balance of sweetness, acidity and tannin.
Many who don’t drink cider believe it offers a simple choice between sweet, fizzy commercial stuff containing as little as 35% apple juice, and hardcore ‘scrumpy’ that can be awesome but can just as easily be cheesy or vinegary or smell like a farmyard. Cider campaigners tell them that this is ‘the good stuff,’ and they think ‘Really? In that case, I’ll pass.’
Go to the US, and most people think that cider is fresh, unpasteurised, non-alcoholic apple juice.
|Poverty Lane Orchards, New Hampshire.
Go to Frankfurt and talk to the apfelwein community, and they will refuse to believe you that Britain makes and drinks fifty per cent of the world’s total cider volume.
Go to Quebec, and you’re likely to find a cider maker who treats his product like fine wine, and has no idea that most of the world’s cider volume is sold fizzy and long, with an an alcohol content more in line with beer.
I didn’t know any of this when photographer Bill Bradshaw e-mailed me out of the blue in 2010. He’d read Three Sheets to the Wind on holiday and decided that we had to work together. He suggested we do a road trip across Belgium, drinking beer and recording our progress. Maybe we’ll still do that someday. But when I found out that Bill was fanatical about cider (as well as being a former beer brewer) I suggested he teach me about cider instead.
|Lovely section headers…
As we delved into the subject, pitching early ideas at publishers, we realised something extraordinary. Michael Jackson wrote the first World Guide to Beer in 1977. He introduced Belgian beer to the world. He set out a classification of global beer styles. He inspired the beginning of the American craft beer revolution. Since he wrote that book, countless others have followed, evolving into a fixed format that breezes through the history of beer, talks about how beer is made, then travels around the world’s most notable brewing regions comparing styles and traditions. As book has followed book, this format has evolved into a catalogue of beers, comprising hundreds of bottle shots and tasting notes. Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the first World Guide to Beer 35 years later is the almost complete absence of bottle shots. From a time less plagued by attention deficit disorder, the book is a collection of longer essays about countries and beer styles, written with quiet authority. Examples and tasting notes crop up in these essays, but the beers are never presented in an identity parade.
Hugh Johnson had done the first World Atlas of Wine six years earlier. Since then we now have similar books on cocktails, rim, whisky, coffee, tea – you name it. But not a single example of the same approach to cider.
I think it comes back again to being misunderstood. Very few cider lovers realise that there is any cider tradition in the world other than their own. Here in the UK we believe cider is a quintessentially British drink, and most existing cider books I’ve found focus on Britain exclusively. But the sidra-loving Asturians in northern Spain think they own cider, as do the artisanal producers of Normandy, many of whom only make cider as a step along the way to creating Calvados, the most treasured produce of the orchard.
|Canadian ice cider. Your new favourite drink.
The cream of the producers from these regions, plus others from Canada, Germany, Austria, the US, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, Norway and Japan, have only really started sharing and meeting with each other in the last five years or so. It’s rare (but not impossible) to find a collection of great ciders from around the world in any shop, pub, restaurant or bar on the planet. (We did find one. It’s in the book.)
|El Gaitero in Spain proves you can do both big and good.
So the format of World’s Best Cider will be familiar to pretty much anyone who’s ever bought a book about beer or wine. But the content won’t. As Bill and I discovered on our travels, almost everything you thought you know about cider is, if not wrong, then certainly incomplete. We soon realised we only knew a fraction of what was going on, and went on a very steep learning curve. We met three, maybe four people in the world who had a good grasp of the whole global picture. It’s thrilling to be part of broadening that appreciation.
Because this book is the first of its kind, I took some inspiration from the original World Guide to Beer, and there are more essays and longer articles than readers of this style of book may be used to. We both wanted to explore the culture and tradition of cider a well as the taste and style, and profile some of the characters who create it. This comes at a cost: this is not the Good Cider Guide. It doesn’t aim to give you every cider worth drinking so tickers can work their way though it. We give tasting notes for about 250 ciders. Some people tell us they never realised there even were 250 ciders in existence, but we’ve only scratched the surface here. Ben McFarland’s World’s Best Beers – the sister title to this book, from the same publisher – features 1000 beers.
|Some of the 250 ciders in the book.
This means that if you’re a cider fan there’s a possibility your favourite cider may not be here. If you make good craft cider and your brand doesn’t feature, this is not a slight. When you break it down, there’s very little space of each individual country. The ciders here are just a cross-section and are not meant to be the last word.
|Worth going to Japan for…
The book also covers pairing cider with food, and cooking with cider, as well as a section on the apple itself – a wonderful story in its own right. And we’ve attempted an initial cider style guide, going from light commercial cider and farmhouse scrumpy though apple wine style ciders to perry, Calvados and pommeau. (If you’ve never hard of pommeau, as I hadn’t three years ago, that’s worth reading about on its own).
|No jokes about pork in cider…
We’re doing a whole bunch of events to support the book – tomorrow I’m meeting London Glider Cider at Stoke Newington Farmers’ Market for a reading and tasting at 1pm. My blog is finally in the middle of a long-overdue revamp, and in the next few days there will be a new, separate events page which will be updated regularly with more tastings and talks.
Most exciting of all – for me at any rate – I’ve made a programme for BBC Radio 4 about cider as the world’s most misunderstood drink, and the new wave of cider production and enthusiasm that’s spreading around the world. It is broadcast at 12.30pm on Sunday 20th, and will be available on iPlayer for a while afterwards.
Cider is a very different drink from beer, closer in many ways to wine, but not too close. Deceptively simple and straightforward on the commercial side, it opens up to reveal a world of craft cider that is both more straightforward than craft beer (our definition if craft cider is basically cider made with a hundred per cent apple juice, or near to it) but goes in all sorts of different directions (dry hopped cider, anyone?)
I am, inevitably, being drawn into conversations about which is best – cider or beer – and whether this new push into the cider world means I’m abandoning beer.
But why settle for one awesome craft drink when you can have two?
Whatever makes you thirsty.