Crunch time

Katie Mather drops in on a virtual cider tasting with Ferment favourite, Little Pomona

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The pandemic has given breweries and cideries the opportunity to perfect the virtual event. If nothing else, can we at least say that? What began as a few ramshackle attempts to videocall each other while drinking has turned into some really sophisticated examples of moving real life interactions and meetings into widely-viewable, vastly-accessible digital spaces. 

The question always remained though — can these virtual events really be as fun as being there in person? Often the sad truth was that they weren’t. They can feel a bit forced or a bit clunky — relying on marketing materials to pad out silences and smooth over glitchy technology. Seeing someone on a screen often has the strange effect of making them feel further away.

It was absolutely wonderful, then, to have all these thoughts popped like confetti filled balloons over my head when I took part in the Little Pomona “Some Like It Still” cider tasting event they ran back in March 2021. Calling it a revelation isn’t even hyperbole — because when was the last time you had a genuinely fun, enjoyable time at a virtual drinks tasting event? And didn’t even want to leave when it was over? See: REVELATORY.

Each cider was sent in a set of 110ml bottles, which were only available through this event. As well as making sure the cost for the set was kept way down (a great thing — home tasting events can get spenny) this seemed like a much more appropriate amount of booze to be drinking on a school night. I can’t be the only person who’s found themselves faced with a case of beers, each one stronger than the last, powerless to the knowledge that it’s only Thursday and I’ve got a Big Day to get up for in the morning. Smaller bottles just worked. I was a fan.

The first cider we tasted together was Old Man and the Bee 2018 — Little Pomona’s fourth vintage of this particular blended cider. Hosted by Susanna and James Forbes, Little Pomona’s owners, and led by assistant cidermaker and all-round excellent compére, Blair Côté, discussions began as we swirled the deep copper cider around our glasses.

“This vintage is really reflective of 2018,” James told us, reminding us of the hot weather that seemed to stretch on and on forever into late Autumn that year. 

“The aim of The Old Man and the Bee is to express the fruit and season of our orchard every year without oak influence. When I smell this one, I’m drawn back to the orchard.”

Pop your nose into a glass of this special vintage and you’ll find leathery notes (I wrote down “vintage store?” — think wood smoothed by years of touch; soft, worn leather jackets) and honeysuckle. Tall, tumbling hedgerows of honeysuckle. James confirms this — the stables where this particular cider was fermented is, apparently, absolutely covered in the gorgeous summery stuff. When you take a sip, there’s hay, a real ripeness that as James tells us, is a true reflection of the orchard when these apples were harvested, and as a result of that ripeness, the acid level is low even with the addition of Foxwhelp apples to a Dabinett, Harry Masters Jersey and Ellis Bitter blend. This means that it’s a mellow bittersweet cider with a ton of complex character.

You might be beginning to see why this tasting seemed so different to other virtual tastings you may have attended before. This was still cider being described with love and care, and despite being pitched at the expert level you might expect of a leading wine tasting, it was hugely fun, and easy to follow. All questions were answered breezily and with no judgement. Any terminology used was easily understood within context and, importantly, never explained patronisingly. By this stage in lockdown we’ve all learned multiple times how to taste, how to sniff a drink, how to discern tannins and acidity, what the word “terroir” means. Little Pomona went straight in with the good and nerdy details, and I honestly loved them for it.

The next cider we tried was Somerset Redstreak, a single variety cider made from macerating pulped Somerset Redstreak apples for 24 hours before pressing them into juice.

“This process was so smelly we called it “Somerset Redstink” — it was quite possibly the worst smelling thing imaginable,” Susanna told us. Gradually (and thankfully), it lost its stinky nature through the ferment, and after being matured on its natural yeasts, this cider was aged in chardonnay barrels.

In the glass, none of that stinkiness remains. Lift it to your nose now and you’ll find rose petals, strawberry sherbet, even soft, sticky mango. Drink it, and there’s a touch of five spice, or even pastis, adding deft new layers to its perfume. “Incredible,” I’ve written, alongside “joyful waving!!” referring to us all waving our arms around in appreciation for this surprising, wonderful drink.

“We’ve no idea when this will be available to buy,” James told us. “When it’s ready we’ll let it go.” 

Orange Cider was the third we tasted together, and this is now available to buy at your local bottle shop and direct from Little Pomona. Named after orange wines for its bright flavours, tannins and acid, the apples used in this cider were harvested in mid-November 2019 because of the cooler summer and relentlessly wet autumn that year. 

Because Orange Cider was aged in Sauternes and Meursault barrels, you do get a lovely ribbon of vanilla and frangipane rippling through the aroma and the flavour too, but what’s interesting is the definite scent of sweet orange juice, like being spritzed as you peel a tangerine. I wondered if it was psychological, given the name of the cider, but no, it’s there and it’s beautifully fragrant and uplifting. Tangy, juicy and with silky tannins that wash it down like fine wine. It’s fun.

“Orange Cider was actually destined to be Old Man and the Bee,” we were told. “Two of the barrels just didn’t want to be that cider though, it was aromatic, wild, perfumed, salty, spicy… We followed the apples’ direction.”

After a quick break to chat about what cheeses everyone seemed to be eating while we sat in on the tasting together, we poured out cider four, Little Pomona’s Netherwood Estate Reserve 2018.

Picked on a northern slope of the old Netherwood Estate in Herefordshire, we were told how the White Norman, Chisel Jersey and Dabinett apples survived the ferociously warm summer of that year with perfectly ripe fruit because of the shelter that slope provided.

“In the black cold of November we picked what turned out to be pristine fruit on the estate,” Susanna told us. 

It’s hard to explain how thrilling it was to hear about White Norman apples from cidermakers who themselves somehow manage to remain genuinely thrilled about the process of harvesting and pressing apples. A strange variety, White Norman apparently ripen into egg shapes, pale and pinkly pockmarked; they are altogether unlikely producers of beautifully sweet and perfumed juice — melon and jasmine, green apple and honey.

Sauternes barrels elevated that perfume, creating a finished cider that told me it actually had ambitions of being sprayed from an elegant glass atomiser and worn to a black tie dinner. Bear in mind: this is a still cider. A still cider can be like this.

“In days gone by, still cider was cherished,” Susanna said. “It’s been overlooked for some time, but now we have Netherwood Estate Reserve 2018 on top restaurants’ wine lists.” 

In days gone by, still cider was cherished

It’s true. Penson’s, a Michelin starred restaurant at the centre of the Netherwood Estate’s recent renovations, is serving the cider proudly, both for its local connections and because it’s absolutely stunningly delicious.

“Our fifth cider, Solera Foxwhelp, takes us back to the start of Little Pomona in 2015,” James explained in storyteller-like fashion.

“This blend is an important component of some of our blends, and once we take away some of the cider from the batch, we top it up.”

This solera-style method of keeping character and flavour within the cider while also allowing it to mature and deepen over time is taken from sherry making, a drink beloved by the Little Pomona crew, and can also be found in sour beer making projects and even the best balsamic vinegars.

“Over time the cider has developed smoky aromas and flavours, which we were really surprised about because we’d spent a lot of time and care choosing whisky barrels that weren’t peaty!”

As Little Pomona say themselves, for a cider blend that’s around 75% Foxwhelp, a bittersharp apple high in acid, it’s a very approachable cider. It tastes like cranberries and freeze-dried raspberry, candied orange peel and lemon rinds thrown on a fire. It’s easy to drink, but you feel smart and sophisticated while you knock it back.

And then, that was it. The tasting was sadly over. The event became a rush of love for the ciders we’d tasted and, briefly, an exciting moment of spontaneous fruit trading as James put out his desire for medlars this year. A guest, it turned out, had plenty of medlar trees to spare. James clapped his hands and reached for his glasses, writing down the details.

That’s what cider is like, to me. A world where people are generous with their time, knowledge, skills and produce. Cider is a refuge of camaraderie and beauty in a world that needs that sort of escape, and between the stoic trees and their delicious fruit, the skill of the cidermakers and the enthusiasm of the drinkers, perhaps it makes sense that not even a computer screen could dampen that sense of connection.


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