Craft cider 2018

Gabe Cook pops the cap off the increasingly wonderful world of craft cider


When Ferment comes a calling, asking for a round up of what is happening in the world of cider, one drops everything and sets to work fervently. It’s quite telling, however, that I am writing this article not in the bosom of the verdant rolling green hills of The Shire, but instead on the shores of majestic Lake Kawaguchiko in Japan, with the most awe-inspiring spectre of Mt Fuji looming in front of me. 

I am in Japan to head up the judging of the Japan Cider and Perry Awards (JCPA), the country’s first International competition. This random global cider trotting is indicative of what my last year has been like, and what is set for the rest of the year. By the end of 2018 I will have visited not only Japan, but also Spain, Luxembourg, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. All in search of cider. 

And let me tell you, the volume, quality and innovation of cider is kicking off all over the world. Crucially, although the UK is the world’s largest cider producer and consumer, its percentage of market share has dropped to 39% - the lowest in more than a century. It’s not to say that ciders of interest aren’t being made here (many will be mentioned in this article), but rather that drinkers should no longer consider cider as being something old fashioned, or traditionally British.

The real fun, creativity and activity is coming from the ‘New World’ – New Zealand, Australia, Canada and, especially, the US. 2018 is going to go down as the year that cider really made its mark on the global scale. Total worldwide volume is increasing, but much of that can be attributed to, for want of a better word, boring ciders. What do I mean by this? Well, you choose your descriptor – mainstream, commercial, low juice content, made from concentrate etc. You know, what the majority of consumers think of as cider. 

These are the Bud Light of the cider world; the Yellow Tail of fermented apples. Drinkers know what they’re going to get, and they’re happy with that because of one crucial factor – it’s cheap. But beer and wine drinkers also know that if they want something with more flavour and greater drinking experience, they can get that too. Cider isn’t perceived in that regard, yet...

Well, in the same way that the Craft Beer has changed the global beer drinking scene, and how Natural and Pet Nat wines are shaking up the vinifera world, a new wave of cider makers and cider brands is now shaping up to do the same for our fabulously unheralded drink. Is this the Craft Cider revolution? Well, you could call it that. However, some people don’t like the word ‘craft’ because of its ubiquitisation. Instead, many folk are grabbing onto their own language that describes what is crucial to them: wild, natural, fine, progressive, Next Gen. 

These ciders can be quite broad in their ethos, production and presentation, with some taking a cue from beer and others entirely influenced by wine. Their common denominator is something that I call High Value Perception (HVP). I know, it sounds like communicable disease, but I still haven’t found a better name (readers, please do write in with something better). Ciders with HVP are the antithesis of boring ciders – bold, characterful, flavoursome and something that punters are happy to pay more for. They are more expensive than boring ciders because of the time, effort, cost and skill that has gone into making them. They normally represent bloody good value for money; the challenge is trying to convey that info more widely.

Some of these ciders can eschew Omnipollo or Rogue levels of fun, boldness and brashness. Often, in these types of cider, the apple isn’t always the star, stepping aside to allow for the addition of other flavours or other characters achieved through clever production techniques, to steal the show. Look no further than the mind-bending range of ciders from Portland’s Reverend Nat, Boston’s Artifact or New York’s Graft (recently imported by Mitchells & Butler) for examples of how far the interpretation of cider is being stretched.

On the West Coast of the US, there has been a trend for making hopped ciders for a number of years now, and the trend is spreading like a feral hop bine across the planet. There are great examples of hopped ciders coming from Australia, NZ, Canada, UK and Estonia. My favourite is Wild Hoppy Tree from Austrian-based Blakstoc (now available in the UK – ask for it!). Don’t take my word for it – they have the Gold medals to prove their class. Making a hopped cider is no easy task – getting the integration of the apple and hop characters is notoriously tricky. When poorly executed it is a shit show of a cider. When done with skill and attention, it has the ability to add a whole new dimension. Check out Oliver’s Simcoe-hopped perry and see if you can detect where pears stop and hops start. I can’t. Incredible.

Wild fermentation is a USP to many of this new wave of cider makers. For some, this is just a given – why add anything else when Mother Nature’s multiple petri dishes can provide a plethora of flavours. Herefordshire’s Little Pomona and Ross-on-Wye Cider, along with Devon’s Find and Foster and Somerset’s Pilton Cider are true masters of spontaneous fermentation. These ciders transcend the boundaries between beer and wine, with their complexity boldness and varying levels of funkiness taking them down slightly different routes.

Some of the ciders leading the New Wave charge are out and out meant to be thought of, and drunk like, wine. Whether this be as an alternative to a sparkling wine (like the simply fabulous Gospel Green from Hampshire) or an apple version of a dessert wine. I defy anyone to try an Ice Cider from Brannland in Sweden, with a piece of salty blue cheese after their meal and not groan in delight.

There is even a small brigade of progressive makers who are not satisfied with sticking to apples or pears alone in their fermentations. Never mind transcending boundaries with other drinks, how about actually co-fermenting with them? As well as being London’s only commercial cidery (on Bermondsey Beer Mile, no less) and self-proclaimed Saviours of Cider, Hawkes have been making waves this year. Such is the appeal of their modern ciders and their vocal criticism of the current UK cider duty legislation, that Brewdog snapped them up this Spring for an undisclosed fee. 

For me, this is testament to the positive health of (insert your preferred term for craft/new wave etc here) cider in the UK. But crucially Hawkes are not all mouth and no trousers. One sip of their sublime Sour Graff will attest to that. A colab with Druid Street neighbours, Anspach and Hobday, Sour Graff brings together a Berliner Weisse base wort, and tannin-rich Dabinett apple juice in pre-fermentation. Sour Beer fans will not be disappointed – it’s a cracking drink.

The beer style that has always sat closest to cider and perry, for me, has been Saison. Not just from an organoleptic and attenuation point of view, but also the rural, seasonal culture of the beer. Last autumn, I was involved in a project to see what happens when these two worlds collide. The result: La Saison des Poires. The main protagonists were, Jonny Bright from After the Harvest Brewing, my big Brother, and awesome home brewer, Alex Cook, and the Wizard of the West himself, Tom Oliver; whilst I mostly provided moral support and sarcasm. I’m obviously biased, but the result is everything we hoped and far, far more. If you see a bottle, grab it – there’s probably only a handful left in the world.

The platforms for championing and connecting cider are ever increasing too - the USA’s CiderCon gets bigger and bigger; Bristol hosted the UK’s first ever Cider Salon (with great success – see you in 2019) whilst September’s Beavertown Extravaganza saw a number of cider makers present this year, including new, progressive Somerset upstarts, Pulpt. 

One of the great challenges for cider has always been that it lacks its own language and stylisation. Beer and wine are well understood by the drinks trade and the consumer because they have long-established styles and categories. Well, this year saw the IBD’s Beer Academy change to the Beer and Cider Academy, with the first Cider Sommeliers (or if you rather, Pommeliers) being ordained this autumn. The gospel is starting to be spread.

Finally, if ever there was an indication of something being on trend, it’s when a book is released on the subject. And guess what? My first book, Ciderology, is published this autumn – your guidebook to this new wave of cider. Enjoy. Wassail!

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