The northern hemisphere is in the full blast of summer now. In the English countryside the lush green of early summer has been burnished golden brown. Everywhere is dry; so different from our Hong Kong weather! Apples are fattening up like these Somerset Redstreak beauties from Perry’s Cider, but many orchards have had little or no rain for almost two months.
Earlier this year, cider makers were saying the trees might take a rest after the decent apple harvests of recent years. But the lack of rain is creating even more stress. Trees usually shed some of their apples in June but some makers reported more lost fruit than normal. Quite a contrast from cider makers wintering in the southern hemisphere.
Trend or tradition?
As with wine makers, seasonal variations are important for cider makers too. But not so much for industrial producers who churn out many batches a year using concentrated apple juice sourced from all over the world – often China. Additives are used to keep the taste constant.
Industrial cider manufacturers make over 90% of the UK’s cider and, as fashions change, they jump on the next bandwagon. Right now they are turning to non-apple flavours, calling the drinks “cider” to give credibility with consumers. Distillers have joined in too with Jack Daniels (tastes “like a student halls drinking game”) and Smirnoff (“disgusting”). The beer industry is also in the midst of the alcopop fruit frenzy fad. In Hong Kong we now have Strawberry Milkshake IPA.
The brutal impact of is now being felt in the Herefordshire heartlands where Heineken is paying for cider orchards to be bulldozed.
Meanwhile the cider industry rages on about “craft”. I had the recent misfortune of tasting a cider called Orchard Thieves. Heineken have an artfully written marketing story. “A taste so effortlessly drinkable, it can be enjoyed from the first sip, the first aroma.” Not to my palate. This was a generic “meh” attempt at the vaguely west-countryish mass market. It’s very rare that I won’t finish a pint of cider but this was effortlessly undrinkable.
Orchard Thieves is cynical craftiness at its best/worst. Heineken says: “Originally coming from New Zealand and domesticated in Europe, Orchard Thieves makes for a great cider, always stealing the best apples for the refreshing and crisp appley taste. It’s as sly as the fox and thus can be found in different markets under different names.” [my emphasis]. In fact, different products can be found in different markets under the same name: Orchard Thieves Raspberry and Vanilla in New Zealand (“craftily worded, oops I mean blended with the sweet taste of raspberry and the smooth finish of vanilla”) and Feijoa and Lime in Singapore. By the way, let me know if you need help with real cider in Singapore.
So let’s get back to proper cider.
Cider done properly
Earlier in the summer my brother and I visited Ross-on-Wye Cider & Perry. The Johnson Family at Ross are the complete opposite of the big industrial producers. Mike Johnson is not only very highly regarded for his cider making but his generosity about cider making seems to know no bounds. He is also an all-round nice guy.
The orchards at Ross have an incredible diversity of trees yielding a huge range of ciders and perries, both blended and unblended. Our mission there was total immersion in their very impressive list of single varietals. For educational purposes obviously.
We stocked up with supplies from the cider shop and pitched our tent in the orchard by the farm before adjourning to the neighbouring Yew Tree pub for some delicious ham cooked in cider. After lunch and cracking into some of our cider stash, we met Mike, Albert and John at their cider barn for some cider sampling. Industrial cider makers use heat-induced fermentation for fast production. Heineken’s Orchard Thieves mentioned above allows 11 days for the sugar to be converted into alcohol. For them it is critical to process large volumes very quickly.
At Ross it is about minimal intervention, letting nature take its course: cider fermenting with wild yeasts at ambient temperatures. This takes time and there are many variables and idiosyncrasies, particularly when using wild yeasts. Traditionally the cider matures in its cask for six to nine months but it can be much longer. I recently enjoyed two 2015 vintage ciders from Little Pomona and a new blend of vintages from 2014, 2015 and 2016 from Oliver’s Cider.
The Ross team kindly invited us to join them for one of their routine checks on how their ciders are coming along. It was wonderful to see them in action and hear their conversations about their ciders. It was also great to be able to ask them about the ciders and try so many different types. For example, we often hear about the Michelin apple which can be relied upon for good cropping so it pops up in many commercial ciders but it’s not easy to find as a single varietal cider. Mike kindly pulled a sample for me. (Unlike all the others we tried, it turns out to be not very interesting.)
As the sun began to slip behind the trees we bade thanks to Mike, Albert and John for their generosity (their ciders and perries, their wisdom, their time) and retired to the campsite to continue with our stash of Ross beside a wood fire until deep into the night…
Until next time
I’d love to hear from you so please hit me with comments below and tell me what you want in future newsletters. And please click share below to forward this newsletter to anyone you know who is interested in cider. But for now...
...from your Hong Kong Cider Man,