Scrumpy dory

Lily Waite asks how cider can tackle its image problem


In the eyes of many, one of the UK’s favourite and most wonderous drinks is merely one of three things: it’s the drink of choice for ruddy-cheeked country bumpkins – think The Wurzels, and ‘ooh arr’ – and yokels on tractors and combine harvesters; strong, acrid booze, named some combination of ‘white’, ‘star’, ‘lightning’, etc, favoured by problem drinkers and teenagers on swings; or saccharine, often highly fruited and Scandinavian, fizzy pop. Sometimes, it’s viewed as all three.

“People think cider is just old men with red cheeks who are really, really angry all of the time,” Albert Johnson, of Ross on Wye Cider and Perry, told me on a recent visit to his farm. “If it’s not old men, then it’s just kids in parks.”

Johnson, along with other cider producers, and cider writers, educators, and campaigners, has been working to combat that image: “Moving away from that image is one of the most important things we could be doing,” he stresses. This passionate group within the cidersphere is working towards an aim of greater understanding and appreciation of delicious, well-made, small-batch cider (or ‘craft’ cider, to put it in beer terms – though some cider makers disagree with that term), with the help of a snappy hashtag. 

In reality, the true potential of cider couldn’t be further from those garish stereotypes. And it’s time to #RethinkCider.

  It's makeover time

“We were speaking on the phone around 18 months ago and ruing the fact that most people do not know what real cider is, they give cider no respect or value, and associate it with alcoholic street drinkers or teenage hangovers,” drinks educator and writer Jane Peyton tells me, speaking about Little Pomona Cidery & Orchard co-founder and cider maker Susanna Forbes. “We commented that if only people would rethink cider they would be surprised to learn what a spectacular drink it can be when made how nature intended it to be. One of us said that Rethink Cider was a handy hashtag to communicate briefly that cider deserved some attention.”

Most people do not know what real cider is, they give cider no respect or value

If you search for the hashtag on Twitter, from January 2019 onwards you’ll see a plethora of cider folk extolling the virtues of everything from single variety ciders to Google Maps cider directories. Within days, producers such as Ross Cider, campaigners like Dick Withecombe and Cath Potter, and retailers such as Crafty Nectar had adopted the hashtag, lending their voices to the plea to rethink. Over the following months, the campaign rapidly picked up speed.

“Cider has had more attention in the media, and in the opinions of the drinkers who are keen to explore quality fermented drinks,” says Peyton, reflecting on the 16 months or so the campaign has been running. “Social media has been so useful in building support for the real cider sector and reaching a wide audience who want to know more about why there is so much talk about cider. This is helping slowly to change the widespread opinion that cider is a low-value drink.” 

2019 saw not only the cider world adopt the campaign and begin to rethink cider, but the beer and wine worlds, too. Across the country, an increasing number of bars, pubs, and bottle shops have since been introducing fine ciders to their shelves and fridges, or dutifully upping their offering. Within the beer world, specifically, comparisons are drawn between funky, fruity mixed-fermentation beers and full-bodied, complex ciders, and a number of drinkers tentatively continue to step beyond their beery bubbles to greater explore cider; in wine, spritzy ciders are held up as an alternative to champagne and sparkling wine. 

As promising as this all is, this is all happening within bubbles, as Peyton says. Beyond encouraging those “drinkers who are keen to explore quality fermented drinks”, the challenge lies in the rethinking of the broader public. But how?

 Fizzy pop

Nature’s vision for cider is a simple one: juice is pressed from apples, which is then fermented usually with the native yeasts and bacteria residing on the skin of the fruit, though other yeasts can be pitched if desired – a production not dissimilar to wine. The result is a product with a breadth of flavour to rival that of wine, with a depth of character and complexity a world away from one-dimensional, industrial-scale cider.

“The truth is,” continues Peyton, “that the majority of cider is sweet apple flavoured alcopops where flavour comes from sugar and added syrups and flavourings. Most people think of cider as a sweet fizzy concoction. It is perceived to be a low-value drink consumed in volume without much thought.” 

“Cider tastes amazing, but it has a perception problem,” confirms Susanna Forbes. “I would say that’s one of its main challenges, and in a way, we each have something that we can do to address that.”

By ‘we’, Forbes is referring to everyone from makers to you and I. The makers, she tells me, need to really make an effort to speak about and explain cider in a way that conveys their love and passion for it, to entice and enthrall consumers. “We can do a little more to help people understand why we are so in love with the apple,” she says. “We can also work harder to work with orchardists: if we understand more where our fruit comes from then we can explain it better, and then the public will understand better that it’s not just a run-of-the-mill thing, but it’s something made with special apples, or with specific apples, or specifically chosen apples.’

We can do a little more to help people understand why we are so in love with the apple

Then there’s the “gatekeepers,” and the consumers. “The really key link in the chain is the gatekeepers,” says Forbes. “What consumers can do to help the gatekeepers is ask for good cider. The gatekeepers are the buyers, whether that’s buyers for a small group of pubs, a big group of pubs, a supermarket – or Beer52. It’s such a key role, because you’re helping others understand why it’s worth it.”

Does craft beer have a duty to help lift ‘craft’ cider up, then, as the industry that’s a little further down the road to assimilation? Should beer buyers, wholesalers, and distributors promote delicious, real, full juice cider? 

“I would love to say that the adventurous ones, or the innovative ones, or the progressive ones, or the ones that care about their customers, I would love to say that they would see it in their best interests to do so,” Forbes smiles. “They’re in a lovely position, many of them, because they’ve built up trust with their customers, and I’m really not saying they should bring out the most crunchy, tannic thing and say ‘oh, try this’, because that’s not going to help anyone, really. But cider has such a variety!”

 Spreading the good word

In the UK, 56% of apples grown in the country are used to make cider, and UK cider represents 45% of the global cider market. However, the industry is dominated by a select few commercial producers making mass-produced cider – 90% of producers make less than 5% of the cider.

It’s a story familiar to craft beer drinkers: the plucky artisanal sector of a historically-macro-dominated industry railing against a tide of flavourless, one dimensional, lacklustre products. CAMRA, one of the key instigators of this, has long supported cider, but even it, a broad nationwide organisation populated by often like-minded individuals, has some rethinking to do.

Dick Withecombe, along with his partner, Cath Potter, has been a vital agitator for rethinking cider, and, indeed, for helping CAMRA’s shift in position. The pair created the MCR Cider Club, and have been leading Manchester’s cider revolution, by organising tastings and meetups, and bringing the country’s leading producers to the city. Withecombe is also cider rep for the Central Manchester CAMRA Branch. “Cath and I submitted a successful resolution to CAMRA Conference 2019, and in March 2020 I was invited to join the Real Ale, Cider and Perry Campaign Committee,” Withecombe says. 

“People at the top of CAMRA would like to see its cider campaigning modernise, but don’t have a template as to what that should be – the institutions of CAMRA are slow moving. Cath and I have a clear picture of what a modern approach to cider is and we are both very pushy. Time will tell whether we are too pushy for CAMRA.” 

“The work Dick and Cath do is point blank amazing,” says Forbes – their pushiness is clearly not too pushy, “and I’m so pleased that Dick is now helping CAMRA: CAMRA is actually rethinking its position on cider. It used to have a really narrow view, for example: some of the ciders that you and I might love from the West Country would just not be eligible. They’ve broadened and they’re rethinking. They're getting behind cider, and it’s great for us. It’s really good.”

The bar Withecombe managed at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival (MCBF) in February 2020 was a brilliant example of passionate cider evangelists encouraging others to rethink cider: with a range of ciders on keg and cask, and poured from a vast number of bottles, Withecombe and others were able to fully demonstrate cider’s range. And its success – the bar will be returning, and Withecombe and Potter will push to take on the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) in 2021 – is indicative of the importance of one key mechanism: education.

The age of the apple

How can these problems be challenged, I ask Forbes. “Through education,” she smiles. “In the nicest possible way: it’s sharing, or having a chance to taste, having a chance to chat, or having a chance to meet, even if it’s virtually – that’s the way forward. If you think how we used to just think that beer was boring, and then we used to think that lager was boring, then how do we get out of that? Well, we get to taste it. That’s the only way, we have to taste it.”

As well as makers like Forbes, Johnson, and numerous others, and writers such as Peyton, activists like Withecombe and Potter have been pushing cider education for some time. “It’s going to be a long haul, but the key is education about cider and customer engagement – slowly building a knowledgeable community of craft cider drinkers,” Withecombe explains.

Through approaching those with an interest in quality fermentation – craft beer drinkers – Withecombe and Potter work on converting drinkers to cider. “All we asked for in Manchester was for people in the craft beer community to try it, so we just kept visiting breweries and micro bars and giving them free cider tastings,” he says. “We picked the best ciders we could get our hands on to give them. Having won an audience and slowly educating a small community of drinkers we then began to focus on a simple message: ‘please put the same level of research and respect for the drink into cider as you do to your craft beer or natural cider selections’.”

Though, initially, only a minority listened, the beer world is cottoning on to cider. Beer festivals, from CAMRA’s MCBF and GBBF to Cloudwater’s Friends & Family & Beer, are increasingly highlighting cider amongst their offerings, and, through Withecombe and Potter’s work, breweries like Marble and Cloudwater in Manchester are engaging with and serving cider. But why should others follow suit?

It is the underdog, but hiding inside there somewhere is a thing of beauty

“Because it is the underdog, but hiding inside there somewhere is a thing of beauty,” Withecombe says. “It’s dominated by crap industrial cider, by an old fashioned image, by not being ‘of the city’. And what is that thing of beauty? Well that’s what people who ‘get it’ discover – it’s the combination of standing on its own two feet for quality combined with a heritage of respect for the orchard, for provenance, sustainability. Looking to the future it is ‘the’ modern drink.”

“So why should people #RethinkCider? Because its future is going to be exciting.”

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