Cast your mind back to a time when cider cost more than wine. In the 17th century, these ciders (or cyders, as they were called) were high in alcohol, made from varieties of apples with evocative names like Redstreak and the best of them sold for more than the finest wines. And that’s not all, bottle fermentation techniques pioneered by these cider lords were later used to make champagne. Yes, cider in Restoration England was decidedly fancy.
Sadly most cider sold today is a pale shadow of its illustrious forebears. Cider legally only has to contain 35 per cent fruit juice so many of the big names are essentially apple-flavoured alcopops. At the other extreme are, according to self-styled ciderologist Gabe Cook, the kind of things drunk “on a family holiday down in Devon or Somerset – Dad drank four pints of ‘leg bender’ and fell over.” I well remember our garage at home packed full of just such concoctions, slowly turning to vinegar.
But since I first reported on 17th century ciders for The Spectator, the British cider world has exploded. There’s new blood in the industry: people such as Ben Walgate at Starvecrow or Piotr Nahajski at Chalkdown are bringing a wine sensibility to the category; and youngsters like husband and wife team, Find & Foster, are reviving moribund orchards in Devon. Meanwhile stalwart Tom Oliver in Herefordshire is making hopped ciders in collaboration with American breweries. There are even urban cideries making use of apples from people’s gardens.
There’s no other way to put it, cider is exciting! Another youngster, barely out of his 20s, Felix Nash runs a business selling fine English cider to restaurants like The Clove Club and St. John. When he puts on tastings, people tell him: “I don’t like cider but I do like that.” Cook, Nash and others are trying to change cider’s image and take it back upmarket to compete with wine. Cook offers a training course for ‘pommeliers’, the cider equivalent of a sommelier. It’s a sign of the times that a specialist cider magazine, Full Juice, is being launched next month by Susanna Forbes, a former magazine editor turned cider maker, along with Cook, and award-winning beer writer Pete Brown.
Most of these high quality English (and Welsh ciders) are not made in large quantities so you do have to search them out a bit. But that could be about to change: last year Brewdog took over Hawkes Urban Cidery in London Bridge. So what are you waiting for? Try some of these ciders, and party like it’s 1669.
Little Pomona, Art of Darkness 2015 (Beer Zoo £5.70, 50cl)
Made by Susanna Forbes in the heart of Herefordshire cider country. This is aged in old whisky casks. It’s still, dry and serious, and with food, like a mature cheddar or a pork pie, all that delicious apple comes out.
Chalkdown Dry Sparkling Cider 2014/2015 (Laithwaite’s £7.49, 75cl)
This is the kind of thing that could take proper cider mainstream. It’s full of bright delicious sweet apple flavours, and made using the champagne method. Currently on offer for £7.49, buy every bottle you can get your hands on.
Gospel Green 2016 (Eebria £12.95, 75cl)
Like the Chalkdown this is made from dessert apples using the champagne method: very elegant bubbles, opens up in the glass with some brown apples and honey. The business was taken over recently by entrepreneur Brock Bergius who has big plans for it.
Starvecrow Natural Qvevri Cyder (Butler’s Wine Cellar £15, 75cl)
Ben Walgate, former CEO of Gusbourne makers of top notch English sparkling wine, is now making cider at Peasmarsh in East Sussex. This particular example is aged in Georgian Qvevri (clay amphora) and tastes as pure and fresh as an underground spring.
Dunkerton’s Black Fox (Waitrose £1.88, 50cl)
Made from traditional bittersweet West Country apples. It’s great to see such a good cider in a supermarket. It’s just off dry, very very fruity with a proper bite to it, just the thing for washing down a ploughman’s lunch.