The apple of knowledge

What's a Pomellier and why? Katie Mather kinds out

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I  know what you’re thinking. What does cider have to do with beer? Well, they might be made from different things but they certainly have the same “energy” – that is, they were invented to inebriate and developed to be delicious. Perhaps that’s why so many beer fans are crossing over into the tart and tangy world of cider, and why breweries are doing the same (see issue 39 for a feature on cider-beer hybrids if that sort of thing tickles your foxwhelp.)

There’s another connection too. Cider is a traditional English drink, and while the British Isles can’t lay claim to beer, real ale in its most cellar-cooled, cask conditioned form is quintessentially ours. Having two outstanding drinks traditionally crafted with care from natural ingredients on our doorstep is fairly huge. It’s absolutely something to be proud of.

So, you love beer, and that’s what you drink. Fair play. That’s probably why you ended up with this magazine in your hands. But when was the last time you had a cider? Did you like it? Why?

Unfortunately, for a long time, cider has been leaving a bad taste in drinkers mouths. When the main cider option to choose from is tannic, dry Strongbow, it’s not surprising. When you’re used to cool, perfectly poured beers, how does a drink of still fermented apple juice poured straight from the bag-in-a-box look? While some of us – and I include myself in this group – love cider with all our hearts, it can be a hard-sell to people who crave the bitterness of an IPA or the sweet, boozy snuggle of an impy. That’s why some apple enthusiasts are taking matters into their own hands.

Three intrepid women of beer and cider are taking on a specialised “Pommelier” course (don’t you just love a portmanteau?) to expand their knowledge of cider in all its forms. It might seem surprising that a simple-seeming, rustic-feeling drink might offer such variation that a tasting and food matching qualification may exist. Speaking to these passionate women, you’ll soon learn to think differently.

Susannah Mansfield is the director of The Station House in Durham, a micropub that puts just as much emphasis on its wide selection of ciders as it does craft beers. She came across the pommelier qualification while researching for a beer sommelier course, and decided to do both.

“I started with cider on the basis that, even though I loved cider as much as beer, I was less confident in my knowledge of it. Plus I have a tendency to root for the underdog.”

About to complete her qualification later this year, she will join Cath Potter as one of the British Isles’ newest pommeliers in autumn. Cath herself is a Manchester based cider enthusiast, and is a founding member of the newly-founded monthly Manchester Cider Club. She began her pommelier qual out of sheer enthusiasm.

“The growing love of cider and perry had made me realise that my knowledge was patchy and my taste needed development! The course seemed to be the ideal way to do both these things – and it was. These are exciting times and the whole campaign to #RethinkCider is just beginning to take off.”

Just beginning her exploration of cider is bar manager of Manchester’s Crown & Kettle pub Nicky Kong, who’s also taking on the qualification and started her certification back in April.

“I came from basically no cider knowledge, all I knew is that I didn’t like Strongbow! Ordering in the cider for the Crown meant tasting some from Ross-on-Wye ciders and starting to really like it, and then trying more from Oliver’s and other natural cider producers. Manchester has a really passionate group of cider fans, and Dick Withecombe [a prominent cider promoter and campaigner in the area] recommended the course to me.”

Courses like the Beer & Cider Academy pommelier qualification Cath, Susannah and Nicky are undertaking are shining a light on cider’s place in the world of food and drink. Where beer has been on a massive journey with regards to its perception, cider has lagged behind somewhat, especially in areas where it was never traditionally produced. It’s meant that as well as gaining knowledge about flavours and styles, Cath and Susannah have learned some pretty surprising things along the way.

“Counter-intuitively, it was actually the fact that a lot of the big brand stuff is technically fine – Strongbow is exactly what it’s supposed to be: a tannic led, west country cider with no discernible faults,” says Susannah. “It can be very easy to look down on people for drinking what we consider to be an inferior product, and it’s good to be jolted out of that snobbishness.”

“The question then of course is why I still think that supporting small, independent, traditionally made ciders is better than the big brands. That’s where it’s very interesting to try them side by side with a well made, whole, fresh juice cider of the same style, and to learn about the differences in the processes that got that cider into your glass – the difference can be stark.”

For Cath, learning about cider’s wider appeal has been eye-opening.

“The International growth in cider production and drinking – from the USA and Canada to South America, Africa, Australasia, Japan and the rest of Europe – has surprised me. Also, the discovery that internationally, cider is seen as a thoroughly modern drink.”

Location isn’t the only thing that’s blown Cath’s mind.

“As many women drink cider as men, which is a completely different gender profile than that for beer,” she says, highlighting the totally different ways in which cider is enjoyed here and all around the world.

One of the main aims of pommelier courses is to raise the profile of cider as a drink with subtle, provenance-driven characteristics. By pushing this level of understanding, cider pommeliers are hoping to bring it to the attention of fine dining restaurants as an alternative to wine in tasting menus.

“There’s a beer for everyone and there’s a cider too,” says Nicky, who’s quickly become an evangelist. “I took on the course because I want to pick out flavour characteristics and share them with our customers – I want to convert drinkers, and include those who are already cider fans by being able to talk to them more about the drink they love.”

Susannah believes there’s more to it than simply gaining an industry qualification. “I think schemes like Pommelier have the potential to both validate the product as a high quality drink, and to show the consumer that there is more to it than either the bland, sweet, fizzy stuff or the rough-as-pig-sh*t-and-probably-full-of-dead-rats stuff that is what a lot of people think of when they think of cider.”

Both Susannah and Cath will be sitting their vivas later in the year. This rather intimidating-sounding test, once passed, will see them both fully qualify as a cider pommeliers. Cath explains:

“My viva will consist of three parts. Firstly, a discussion of my portfolio; secondly, a blind tasting of eight ciders in which you explain what the tastes and aromas are and identify the style. The last part is the hardest and nastiest – six ciders will be presented, five of which have faults. You must identify the faults!”

The portfolio every pommelier produces involves various tasks and requirements, including organising events, running tastings and even food matching with cider. It can seem like a lot of work and difficult to get into, but Susannah has some words of advice.

“Don’t be put off if you don’t work in the industry at the moment – you can do a lot of it as a theoretical exercise if you don’t have the means to, for example, put on a festival. In my experience, if you’re passionate enough about it to be putting in the time and effort to do the training, you will easily find local pubs, bottle shops and restaurants that are interested in giving you some space, time and freedom to put on an event.”

To round off our conversations I decided to ask why cider was better than beer, for which I was roundly roasted.

“I refuse to rise to this!” said Susannah. “Cider is not better than beer, it’s different, but just like beer (and wine) there is a huge variety in flavour across the cider world. I love both, but I drink them in different ways. I am, though, really excited by the feeling in the cider world at the moment and the products coming out.”

“Cider is not better than beer!” says Cath. “Quality shines through in both and that is what we need to campaign for – drinkers deserve the best cider/perry and beer available and a good choice of them too!”

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