As Apple Cider Day approaches, we took an in-depth dive into the local love of the drink, and heard from the people who make and serve it…
This week, cider-lovers will happily raise a toast celebrating Apple Cider Day. An annual celebration held on 18th November. This primeval drink, loved and perfected by ancient Greeks and Romans, is making a triumphant comeback onto consumer tables.
THERE IS A CIDER FOR EVERYONE
Cider sales have steadily grown by almost 6% in the UK. Producers offer flavours ranging from traditional heavy bittersweet, to an endless variety flavoured with lime, elderflower, honey, caramel, or any other imaginable taste. Cider makers are also not shying away from giving an eye-catching name for their creations. Naughty Horse, Hazy Daisy, Slice of Life, Bear Bender, or Rainbow Seeker, to name a few.
“I am a firm believer that there is a cider for everyone,” said Hanna Osborne, Cider master and Deputy manager at The Bournemouth Stable. The Stable chain offers more than 50 cider varieties across all its restaurant-bars.
Hannah has always enjoyed drinking cider, but she never intended of becoming a cider master. She studied performing arts and her job as a waitress at The Stable helped her to pay her bills. However, an old and rich cider production history adjusted her plans.
“I love discovering new ciders and learning how they were made,” Hannah said. One of the most loved aspects of her job is helping a new customer discovering and enjoying cider.
She explained that consumers can find a few different styles of cider. Traditional cider made of cider apples, modern cider that is made by mixing eating and cider apples, flavoured ciders, and pear ciders (or Perry).
APPLE VARIETIES OFFER LIMITLESS POSSIBILITIES
There are 7,500 varieties of apples grown throughout the world, and several-hundred of them are categorised as cider-specific. Cider apples have earned a nickname “Spitters”, since after a bite, the first instinct is to spit it out for their bitter and sour taste.
These apples have been cultivated specifically for making cider and have high levels of tannin, sugar, and acid, ingredients that enhance the fermentation process. The quantity of tannin, a type of astringent, is crucial in creating cider flavours. The more tannin, the more complex the cider taste is.
Although most people tend to associate cider with beer, its production process is more similar to winemaking. Apples, like grapes, are pressed to produce juice that is left to ferment.
“It is important to understand what kind of juice different apples will produce,” explained Simon Baxter, of the Sherborne Cider Company. “Levels of tannin and acidity during the fermentation process will affect the final cider taste. If you use basic supermarket apples, you might end up having a cider without any depth of flavour.”
OBSERVING ANCIENT TRADITIONS
DNA analysis indicates that apples originated in the mountains of Kazakhstan, arriving in the eastern Mediterranean by 2000 BC. They soon became the favourite fruit of the Romans. When their armies marched across continental Europe, they planted apple trees in their new settlements.
It is believed that Dorset was the first county to make cider in England, according to an article published in 1938 by PTH Pickford, the Cider Orcharding Advisor to the National Fruit and Cider Institute. Through the centuries, small cider-producers peppered Dorset. Even today, those producers use family recipes and even traditional cider-making tools.
Penny Strong, one of the founders of Dorset Nectar, an award-winning artisan cider company located near Bridport explained:
“Before the Norman Conquest, monks from the Northern France settled in a village near Bridport and started making cider. It must have been a very good cider, since its popularity spread quite rapidly in the region.”
A family-run business, Dorset Nectar uses 11 apple varieties to make sparkling and still ciders. Penny and Oliver Strong run their cider operation using new technologies, following new trends, and inventing recipes that appeal to younger generations. However there is one ancient tradition they still observe — Apple Wassail. A winter apple tree-blessing tradition practised in the orchards of southern England.
“We ask the tree spirits to bear well, fruit well, and bring us bags of apples,” said Penny. “And we end the ritual by making a big noise. People bring trumpets, pots, pans, and make noise to scare away evil spirits.”
Oliver and Penny found themselves in the cider-making business more out of necessity rather than a planned business venture. They both created sculptures that gained them international popularity, with their works exhibited in multiple shows including in Hampton Court Flower and Garden Show and Chelsea Flower Show.
In 2006 the pair acquired an orchard and hoped to use it as a place to create their renowned metal sculptures. However, during the global housing and economic crisis, they found it difficult selling their sculptures and needed to look for an alternative income source. Since Oliver and Penny were already making small quantities of cider for their own use, they decided to expand their cider production.
“We never imagined that we would be cider makers,” said Penny. “When we lived in the United States, we received a gift. A card with the lithograph of a cider-making family. Years have passed, and now we are a cider-making family.”
Penny believes that the secret in producing a good cider lies in paying attention to every single detail during the production process, and choosing a good blend of different apples.
UNPREDICTABILITY IS PART OF MAKING CIDER
Simon Baxter introduced himself as the world’s smallest cider maker. Nevertheless, traditional ciders made from apples grown on The Sherborne Cider Company orchards won the most prestigious UK awards.
“I suspect that local climate and the way apples ripen here makes Dorset cider unique,” said Simon. Simon and his wife Victoria produce small quantity, high-quality craft ciders, selling them locally.
“It is very easy to make cider. It is hard to make good cider. And it is very hard to cell cider,” said Simon. “There are a lot of people who are making cider, and it is hard to find shelf space. Be it a supermarket or a stand at a festival.”
Simon and Victoria are commodity apple growers, growing for different producers across the country. However, about ten years ago, they decided to try to make some cider themselves.
“This is when I started drinking cider again. Experimenting with different flavours as part of our market research,” Simon said.
He laughingly confessed that, like many young people, he enjoyed cider too much in his younger years and suffered the following day. These experiences put him off drinking it for years. Until the day when he decided to start making cider himself.
The Sherborne Cider Company’s orchards have 14 apple varieties that Simon mixes when creating dry or medium-dry ciders.
“Most good ciders tend to be made from a blend of different apples,” he explained. “Cider makers know the characteristics of each apple and try to produce a reasonably consistent-tasting cider every year. This way, customers know what to expect”.
However, like wine, cider has its taste variations. And climate and apple-ripening time are impacting those variations. “There is a lot of unpredictability in cider making,” Simon said.
Although apples have fewer taste variations than grapes, quality ciders still carry complex taste, in Simon’s opinion.
“A consumer needs to develop a palate that appreciate the complexities of the drink.”
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