Small cider. Real cider. Craft cider. If you’re not careful you can tie your brain into a knot trying to pick your way through some of cider’s euphemisms.
We know what they mean of course; they mean broadly the same thing. Not big cider. Not Bulmers. Not made in a factory half the size of Herefordshire from concentrate shipped in from goodness-knows-where and spurtled together with corn syrups, flavourings and enough water to sink Bristol twice. Small, real, craft, they’re not legal terms, not weighted with set-in-stone meaning; they’re one-word pleas of “not guilty”. Not guilty of efficiency, of cutting corners, of cheapening ingredients.
Dig a little deeper of course, and several of the liquids bottled under the “real” nametag are deploying lessons straight from the big cider playbook. Chaptalisation is commonplace, ditto dilution, artificial sweetening and force carbonation. Which isn’t to say that they result in bad cider – several of them taste perfectly good – simply that we must be mindful about what we’re pouring into our own glasses if we are going to rail against certain practices. (To be quite honest, given what they’re perfectly happy with, CAMRA’s stance against force carbonation is possibly the silliest red line in drinks. But then who on earth let ale sniffers legislate for cider in the first place?)
More or less everyone seems entitled to a “craft” or “real” badge, so long as they’re not one of the really big producers. In fact, since there’s hardly a committee awarding these monikers, you’ll even find the giants using them too. Westons couch their vintage bottlings under those terms in their annual report. And deeply faulty and spoiled ciders shelter under the pitched tent of “craft” as well, by dint of scale. It is very much a “one-size-fits-almost-all” appellation.
In the last few years the term “fine cider” has emerged as an attempt to separate the wheat from the craft. Or perhaps, given it was being used by pomona scribes three-hundred-odd years ago, I ought to say re-emerged. It’s certainly entered the modern cider lexicon, at any rate. These days we have a Fine Cider Company together with a book – Fine Cider. Not forgetting Fine Cider Fridays, curated by the redoubtable James Finch, who we’ve met on these pages once or twice. Cider bottled with more swagger is becoming increasingly commonplace; Scrattings have ring-fenced an entire section of their website to “Fine Cider” and it positively beams with chunky, show-off, deep-punted, crisply-labelled champagne and burgundy-style bottles, each with more elan than the last. Fine cider talks an increasingly convincing game. But does it mean anything; does it help the consumer in any way whatsoever? Or is it just persuasive semantics for punters and what one producer I spoke to called “newbie influencers”? (I have no influence so I persuaded myself they weren’t talking about me.)
To dig a little deeper I began by reaching out to Felix Nash, founder of the aforementioned Fine Cider Company and scribe of the book of the same name. He was gracious enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions, which I’ve reproduced below (condensed and edited for clarity – did I say it right, Taylor?)
Malt: How did you come to the world of fine cider?
Felix: It was really down to a place. It was quite a long, slow occurrence I guess. Six years ago I started and there wasn’t really much going on back then so it was hard to uncover much about cider. I did some work at a college up in Herefordshire. I was up there for quite a time and started tasting ciders from a local wine merchant. So it was very much down to Herefordshire and just discovering some of the amazing things that had started being made there again.
Malt: What, to you, marks a cider out as fine?
Felix: So that’s been the big question for a long, long time and it’s something that’s perpetually evolving and being evaluated. But I do kind of put it down to uniqueness I suppose, so when a maker’s making something that has a character of its own; where no-one else is making something quite like it, but obviously is still within the remit of being good. Not going down the fault side of things, not pure dogma, for example being a bit more reverential to other factors such as the fruit they’re working with – yes, if they come from wine they might take a bit more influence from that – but just having their own house style and uniqueness with what they do. But the other thing I suppose is the way they make it. For example if you’re working in a much more mass-market manner I don’t view that as the finer end of the spectrum. It’s small scale, where you’ve got real attention to detail. The best term I think is “aspirational makers” – an aspiration to understand and to do things their own way in everything they do. And that seems to yield some really wonderful results.
Malt: How does that differ from, say, “craft” or “real”? More than just semantics?
Felix: I guess it is a matter to a degree of semantics. But the differentiation I suppose I’d put is in terms of finesse. “Craft” can be individual, but a bit more rustic I think than the hearkening back – which is what these makers are doing – to the real heydays of cider and perry when it was drunk from cider flutes and when it was titled by John Evelyn “the native English wine”. I think there’s just a level more detail to it. And I know this might annoy brewers, and there are so many amazing things that happen in craft beer, but I don’t think it can have the same sense of provenance as cider can have. The wine-like comparison is batted about a lot, but the depths that it can have in terms of the terroir, the number of varieties … I mean I only know one or two brewers who grow their own hops; when you compare it to the complexities that a cidermaker has to deal with, even if they work in a very simple way, if they work with wild yeast fermentation the number of yeasts they’re working with is huge, they have hundreds of named cider apple varieties to work with out of thousands of apples and then you have all the different containers you can work in. There are almost too many permutations to know. And that’s where I think it comes back to the skill of the maker to finesse what they’re doing. It’s not just sort of “crafting” it. “Craft” to me implies you can control all of the variables and I think with this it’s much more of a stewardship process in terms of terroir, methodology etcetera.
Malt: A lot of the finest wines are thought of as such because they come from the best terroirs. I’m thinking particularly of the super-anal delineation of Burgundian vineyards along the Côte d’Or. But “terroir” is a word I see chucked around cider a lot without a huge amount of investigation into or explanation of exactly what those terroirs are. Do you think there needs to be more discussion of the particular qualities, features, attributes of an orchard’s terroir? Does it even matter?
Felix: I agree. I think the first precursor to that that we’re lacking in cider is a simple one: just enough makers making cider well enough that these things can start to become evident. They often say that cider research is a good 20-30 years behind wine [Ed: I’d put it a good bit longer than that, personally.] and I think there’s a truth to that in terms of understanding. I think that there’s an initial stage to be done that bit more before things like a sense of terroir can be made evident. And that sort of goes back a bit to what I was saying about the best makers having individualities. I think there’s a sense of what may be something like terroir in what they produce, by the way that they do it that can only come from that. I think we’re not at the stage yet that enough makers are making cider well enough for these things to be evident. It’s interesting; you look to the past for these things, to the heyday of cider and perry in the 17th and 18th centuries; members of the Royal Society then had identified two villages in Herefordshire that they said were the best places for growing and making cider with the Redstreak apples, the most legendary cider apple. And that’s just fascinating to me. That’s saying people used to look at these things. But you really need to look at it in a kind of level playing field. If there are only a couple of people really pushing the boundaries it’s harder to understand the terroir rules because it’s hard if it’s a quirk to apply it in a more universal way. So there’s a hell of a lot of exploration to be done with that, absolutely.
Malt: Your model seems to be mainly producer-based, rather than selecting individual ciders from their portfolios, as might be more the case in fine wine. Does that say that fine cider is about a producer’s particular ethos to you?
Felix: I think so, yes. In the early days I used to, for my own sense of exploration, do a bit more just taking on individual batches that I really liked. And the quest of it all, I suppose, has sort of taken me more to the kind of things that are maker-specific, yes. Proof of a kind of “fine maker” – it’s not just that they do fascinating things; variation between what they do is notable enough that they really have a consistency of quality. It’s not someone getting lucky one season.
Malt: Do you think the existence of a Fine Cider Company makes it difficult or confusing for producers outside your portfolio to use “fine” as a descriptor?
Felix: I wouldn’t necessarily say so. I feel a sense of responsibility – I always try to remember there’s a lot that I don’t necessarily know. But I do feel part of my responsibility is to keep improving what I know, what we do, to kind of be a little flagship to exemplify the best cider. But I think as a term you do see more and more people using it. But actually I had this decision in the early days: “don’t go for something that’s copyrightable, or trademarkable”. I much prefer the idea that what we’re trying to get across is a little different – a difference in cider but not to the term “cider”, actually charting off a new bit of territory. Say “yeah, there’s the mass cider, that’s absolutely fine; I might not be the biggest fan of it, might find a lot of it actually a rip-off for how it’s made and what it is; dull and not that great”. But it’s more a case of trying to get this point across. I get annoyed when people use the term if it’s just a marketing person, but I’ve never claimed any sense of ownership of it, it’s more just been a simple descriptive term. If it was about owning something, trademarking would have been the way.
Malt: You’re quite outspoken about wild yeasts in your book. Is that a requisite of fine cider, to you?
Felix: No, not at all, I think everything should be judged on its own merits. And being wary of people, particularly in the world of natural wine, to go a bit too readily towards dogma on ethos. And not necessarily judge the thing in its own right. There are definitely things we do that involve cultured yeasts, for example secondary in-bottle fermentation. For me I’ve always tried to be wary of my own sense of taste. I’ve learned that lesson a lot of times. A maker has to decide what they think is good and work with that, whereas I have to be much more aware of saying “ok, what is the style of this cider and what is the best that style can be, and is this it?” Rather than saying “I like acid”. So it’s definitely not the case, but I have tended to find that of the makers I’ve come across and worked with, the wild yeast side tends to be how a lot of the makers I find most interesting work. I think because of the multiple strains vs the cultured yeast. That said, people like Little Pomona for example are doing experiments crossing over the wild yeast and the cultured yeast and it can actually have a great effect on cider. Pilton’s draught cider, Murmuration, is a really fascinating example. Using cultured yeast-fermented Jonagold alongside wild-fermented, keeved cider you are getting a more complex cider. So no, it’s not a requisite, but it is something that seems evident from the makers that I like, who are making the most fascinating stuff.
Malt: Could cider do with an official classification system along the lines of Burgundian Crus, Left Bank Bordelais Growths etc? Something to rank them by quality?
Felix: I think it’s got to work itself out a bit first. I’m wary of these things being too printed, and wine’s a fascinating example again, things like growers Champagne from the appellations, where something is amazing but doesn’t necessarily fit within those wider rules. Setting a remit on it is a difficult question, let alone what that excludes. And I think there’s some irony in these things, for example CAMRA saying “nothing pasteurised” but then hot-filling for bag-in-box is allowed. There are various little projects that try and mark approval but I think getting the wider message and the aura of quality and of good cider is a key thing, first of all. People actually knowing that the thing is good. And that hinges more around the names of the makers and their reputation. And me as a merchant, but it’s mainly the makers is the key first stage. I don’t think we’ve solved all the problems. There’s plenty of mass market cider that’s terrible, but there’s also plenty of full-juice, wild yeast ciders which are terrible. It’s not to say that you can put an objective structure on it and that answers all the problems. So I think that’s something to be wary of. More unity between the good makers, I think, is kind of important, so that someone with a bit of marketing doesn’t just cash in on something terrible. It does come back to quality speaking for itself. I’m just trying to ensure that it has a decent voice in terms of restaurants etcetera.
Malt: How have you seen the fine cider market growing? Are consumers more receptive to it as a concept?
Felix: Yeah totally. It’s fascinating all the layers I’ve had to go through with it. Back when I started, the first ever batch I did, which is in the book, was an Oliver’s single variety Yarlington Mill, and I had the thing of tasting the toothpaste from the morning and really learning to tread with caution about what I think tastes good at various different times and the other factors that have an impact on it. But yeah, now that we’re buying the bottles, sorting the boxes, doing 7,000 labels for maybe four or five other makers who jumped in there’ve been so many layers of evolution to get to the stage we’re at. But the last couple of years have been fascinating. Craft factors have helped, like craft beer, where that’s changed peoples’ perceptions of what price something should be. We’ve found in the last few years much more uptake on big bottles. We’d really been focussing on small bottles – individual portions – initially, even though the labour might be the same as the big bottles for a maker. And the costs are very difficult, it’s very hard to cover – there’s a minimum price point for small bottles and it has to be below a certain price. We’ve actually started getting restaurants doing it by the glass, doing the large bottle lists, so that feels like a more conducive format for a lot of the ciders we work with. Other places taking them include the Tate Modern last year, so we’re starting to get a broader appeal, being more public and democratic. So yeah, the craft beer and the natural wine world have been really wonderful. They’re people who think for themselves and find this stuff fascinating – really understand what it’s about. The big question now is more of the wider public.
Malt: Some people talk increasingly about “high value perception”. And until very recently almost your entire range was in champagne/wine-style bottles. Do you see presentation as particularly important?
Felix: I do in that you’ve got to look at the world we’re playing in, craft beer, natural wine etcetera. If we’re saying this is a thing of wonderful quality that’s got a lot of skill and nuance in terms of its making, having that evidence in its presentation is really potent. Particularly to cider. I started choosing bottles in the early days that were like half-champagnes. I almost set a rule that was “none of the 500ml dumpy old cider bottles”. Because the difference and contrast can be a really important means of someone saying “oh, that’s interesting, that’s different.” You know, rather than assuming cider is what they always thought it was, which can be really potent. So I think there’s a really important role for that side of things to play. I don’t like going too, too expensive. You know, you look at wine and some of the ways it’s been taken on by the investment side of things and the money side of people [Ed. See also whisky…] you know actually something being wonderful to drink is key, but I’m also very keen of course that the makers can actually cover their costs by it, that it can be appreciated and understood. I think putting nuance into it by design, making that reflective of the liquid inside and the properties of that is a really important tool to work with.
Malt: Is it difficult to pitch ciders at higher prices than consumers may have come to expect? Do people “get it” quickly when you talk about their processes and production?
Felix: It’s definitely got a lot easier in the last year or two. Again with bottles – big bottles – hand-riddled, disgorged, traditional method, you can start using terms, in inverted commas, like “champagne method” and people start to understand, but they were much harder to work with previously. I think within our small world, the restaurants we work with, there’s more awareness and demand. So it’s gotten much easier to work with a slightly higher price-point bottle, and people understand it. It is the case that how easy these things are and how many restaurants you can work with that are able to work with these things is a finite number. Plus it’s very interesting at the moment; I was always focussing on the restaurant side initially as a verification of quality. The whole point was getting this message across to prove just how good some of these ciders are. And using the gatekeepers of food and drink, which are the restaurants, was a good way of doing it. In some ways it was pretty stupid because you’re talking wholesale then – the smallest volumes of something new to places that offer the wholesale price, the lowest margin, whereas we could have started off in retail with a bigger margin and not having to sell very much. But the point was getting this message across. And it is interesting at the moment, you know, with all the restaurants shut and not doing much with the shops we work with, but we’re doing more on our own with online retail, and anything you could do would be great, because we’re about, I don’t know, less than 5% retail before this kicked off and we had to go from 95% wholesale to 100% retail to try and fill that gap. But again I do like the possibility of retail, you know, the margin that you have is high. Restaurants have higher margins, and a bottle can end up being really low on the menu. If you’re working with labelling well, stuff online or in a shop can stand out more. And if a shop doesn’t have higher margin then people can get wonderful liquid at a lower price but the maker still gets a fair price as well.
Malt: A good few of your producers are people who’ve only made cider for less than a decade. Do you think coming at it without pre-existing ideas is part of why they’re happy to try new or different things?
Felix: I definitely do. It’s really fascinating. People come at this in a lot of way, some wine influences but aware that cider’s different, that you can’t be as straight-laced. You’re talking about something with half the alcohol of wine. I go back to the wild yeast side and there’s a risk, but the complexities you can get as a result are wonderful. And often those high alcohols give complexity to a drink. But I do think that, yes, coming at it from “day one”, if you like, but with a really good eye for influences and things to latch onto I think is a really potent thing. And I think there’s a lot of history and – even with some wonderful makers, who’ve been doing it for a long time, doing some great stuff – it can be a bit disheartening when you’re making something amazing and the public still just think of cider as a kind of cheap pub drink. So I think there is a lot to be said for people being able to come at it fresh but really take on a lot from other makers and the history of cider.
Malt: Have you seen other producers changing their approach to making cider at all?
Felix: I think there’s a little more openness from some people in terms of “ok, some of this stuff might actually be good”. I was a little bit careful in the early days not to go too deep into some of the old-school traditional bits of cider, because I’m sure I would find lots of them fascinating and wonderful actually, but I was slightly wary of saying “that’s all well and good, but the way things are and the way cider is known is as it is”. If we’re going to change people’s perceptions there has to be difference. It has to have something of change, even if it comes almost strangely full-circle and all of a sudden people prize those previous things more. I think the world doesn’t actually work like that necessarily, you can’t just fight over doing one thing, you have to be different; being engaging I think is really important. But yeah, I think you are getting more of that type of people actually latching on to our costs; I find some of the old guard love cider, but always want it to be dirt cheap. But if making it, the labour doesn’t add up to the costs, then that’s a difficult situation to be in.
Malt: What issues do you think cider needs to generally confront if it’s to really play in the premium game?
Felix: There’s a strange phase we’re trying to go through where you’re saying – a bit like I mentioned before about the small bottle thing where we’re saying “ok, we’re going to do a bunch of small bottles because people haven’t come across this stuff before and don’t know what it’s like and how good it can be” but I think for a lot of the makers I work with, the best format for the nature of what they do is large bottle, by-the-glass. People always use the term education; I’m really wary of it. I think it’s more about building up an aura. Saying that you’re right and trying to ram education and knowledge down peoples throats isn’t necessarily the best way to go about it. You look at things like craft beer and natural wine; the people who enjoy those have knowledge. You know, it’s not just about knowledge, it’s about educating a taste bud so that people want that taste. I remember this with a friend once before with craft beer, saying they used to drink a lot of cheap lagers, but then they couldn’t after they got the palate for IPA – they just didn’t taste like much to them. It’s too easy to jump to the idea of “oh we’ll just educate them” rather than saying actually “how do you solve this puzzle? What are the stages?” So we did lots of small bottles initially to let people get a taste for it and now we’ve been able to move toward bigger bottles. In the longer term picture what allows makers to make enough money to do the things they want, but get big enough so they can do a really good price and do fascinating things? Actually what’s the longer term trajectory rather than just complaining about what’s wrong?
Malt: Current events notwithstanding, what’s on your horizons? Do you have any other producers in your sights?
Felix: At the moment, no. Much as I’d sort of love to in one way, at the moment I’m very keen to support the makers we already have and work with, to ensure they’re able to really get through this. In the longer term, I’d love to … you know we’ve done a lot of engaging with the trade, the early induction if you will, and I’d love to engage more with the public, because I think that’s a useful next stage to try and spread the word in a wider way. I think what we’re bringing to the table, hopefully in terms of the way we speak about it, photographs and everything can be very appealing to the public. I’m also very interested in international cider. There’s a lot that’s very difficult there, but I think in terms of proving to people how good this stuff is and being aware of what’s being made in all these different regions. I was in San Francisco in January for CiderCon, the big American convention, who wonderfully flew me out there for a talk I did with Tom Oliver and a couple of others, and even over there the quality of what’s being made is so much greater than what’s been made before. It’s really fascinating seeing quality moving forwards not just with the odd makers we work with, but with people internationally. I tasted the year before, in Chicago, some really fascinating ciders from Japan. So I think engaging a bit more with the international side, to me I think that’s another proof of quality to people as well. It’s not just one small region where the quality’s really good, actually the variation, the number of people latching onto it internationally is massively notable. So I’d love to do these things that can help us branch out and prove ever more what cider can be like in its best nature.
Chatting to Felix certainly gave me a clearer understanding of his view on fine cider. It’s one with which I suspect there would be a great deal of agreement; many if not most of the points he made struck a chord with me. For all the cynicism that can often be shown towards this sector; all the reverse-snobbery about 750ml show-off bottles and more ambitious prices, there’s no denying the role that perception has to play in the creation of what Felix described as an “aura”. His comments on terroir, on producers taking extra care, on the frequent mediocrity of ciders even couched under the term “craft” are all echoes of things I have written on these pages myself. Looking through the Fine Cider Company’s list of producers, every one has made ciders that I would happily class as “fine”. I have already reviewed several of them here on Malt.
However, it’s important to remember that Felix’s view is just that: his view, and his view only. Talking to several cidermakers, generally very good cidermakers, I either got the sense, or was told explicitly, that the existence of a Fine Cider Company could sometimes feel like the formation of an exclusive club to which they hadn’t been invited. Slightly cliquey, perhaps. That although Felix hasn’t trademarked or claimed ownership of the term “fine cider”, the company’s very name had captured the use of the term as a marketing tool, making it difficult for other producers to deploy it themselves. Many people felt that the term was simply another euphemism for “craft” and was liberally applied to ciders whose greatest selling point was the bottle they were packaged in. Whilst I understand Felix’s point about impact on a shelf and in a restaurant, several of the best ciders and perries that I have tried this year have been presented in traditional, stubby 500ml bottles, or indeed, for example, the pouches that held the Hecks Rock Perry and Broxwood Foxwhelp. Ciders that I dare say many of the smart restaurants and private customers who jump at the wine-shaped bottles would possibly overlook.
For another opinion on the nature of fine cider I spoke to James Finch, who came up with this response:
“All cider makers have a story, but not all ciders do. “Fine Cider” identifies those liquids where something special has been achieved through passion and dedication. They are ciders that take you on a journey of discovery, one that is finite and will be missed when it is finished. Fine cider is as much about consistency of quality (as in, faultless) as it is about inconsistency of everything else. Terroir, time, technique, all things that Fine Cider seeks to celebrate and capture in the glass; something memorable and unique”.
This chimes a little more with the notion of “fine cider” coming down to individual bottles, rather than the sum-total of a producer’s output, and again I think that many of the points are valid. Personally I’m not sure I wholly agree that “not all ciders have a story”. To my mind even Strongbow tells a story, even if that story is of mass-production, concentrate and dilution. The worth of a drink’s story, after all, is measured by the impression that’s left when the drinker has finished their glass. In the words of one cidermaker on his newly-bottled creation, “it’s clean and refreshing, which is what we’re after”. Not all ciders can, or should, spark up the choir eternal. More often than not, “clean and refreshing” is exactly what the customer wants. And, incidentally, is more than many of the faulty ciders on shelves currently are able to deliver.
A popular sentiment among the cidermakers I spoke to was that “fine cider”, as a term used by most consumers, is shorthand for cider that has undergone some additional wonkish process. A keeve, for instance, or the champagne method, or ice cider or pét-nat. That’s certainly not something I agree with myself; I’ve already mentioned the Hecks single varieties in this article, and I argued the case pretty emphatically for dry, still ciders a month or two ago. What’s more, I’ve had numerous ciders which have undergone these processes and haven’t come close to the standards set by others made through simpler methods. But again, looking through a good deal of the Fine Cider Company’s range, or the selections James has historically made for Fine Cider Friday, observers could be forgiven for thinking that if their ciders haven’t vaulted these extra hurdles they can never be mentioned in the same breath as those which have. Perhaps most tellingly, Bristol’s otherwise-magnificent Cider Salon, one of the flagship events in the UK calendar, is only open to what it calls “speciality” ciders, suggesting that being simply of exceptional quality is considered by the organisers as secondary to carrying USP. Or, perhaps more concerningly, that quality is being considered automatically inherent to ciders which have undergone these additional processes. I accept that the Cider Salon is predominantly focussed on showing people that these weird and wonderful things exist, but again the implication is that the style trumps the substance. In the blunt words of one maker I polled, “it shouldn’t be how wanky its methodology is”.
By now I have talked about other peoples’ opinions a good bit. So here is mine:
Wine is my work, and when people talk about “fine wine” I know what they mean. What’s more, when I mention it even to the relatively un-versed, I feel that they know what I mean too. It is the riposte to the patronising, reductive, shiftless, far-too-simplistic “all that matters is personal taste” argument; it is the demonstrable idea that something, regardless of how it was made, can be, quite simply, better than something else.
This can apply to so many fields derided by the inveterate statistician, maths graduate and miscellaneous bore as “subjective”. Whether in music, art, literature or booze there are certain individuals who are regarded as good, better, best; as greater, finer than their contemporaries. Worth more than others. It isn’t because they have ticked certain boxes or followed certain rules, it is simply because people – enough people, particularly enough well-versed people – agree that they are just better. It’s why a stick man drawn by me would fetch less than Swans Reflecting Elephants by Salvador Dali. It’s why my sister’s one-girl triangle recital is not on the billing for the last night of the proms. We can argue about who’s the better player of Messi and Ronaldo, but that argument exists because of the broad consensus that both of them are better than everyone else.
They key term there is “broad consensus”. There’s enough of that in wine and whisky for a degree of hierarchy to be laid down. Enough of an educated base, and enough critical voices, to come to certain agreements within the squabbling. You might not personally have liked the ex-Oloroso cask Kilkerran 8-year-old, you might hate Mouton-Rothschild 1945, but if you’re suggesting that they are bad, that they are not fine – finer than the average – then you are a distinctly anomalous point. The overwhelming public and critical verdict has outweighed your opinion out of significance.
Cider, certainly cider that isn’t mass-produced, doesn’t do “broad consensus”. The whole of cider is a fraction of the drinks market, and full-juice cider is a fraction of that fraction. The ciders we drink are not only wholly different liquids to those being drunk by the average consumer; the average consumer generally doesn’t even know they exist. We are a growing but still-tiny community in which there is a great deal of love and enthusiasm, but also a tremendous amount of bickering and more than a little identity crisis. The idea of a cider being couched in such terms as “fine” is still very new, or perhaps renewed, is vociferously opposed in certain quarters and is certainly used (cynically or entrepreneurially, depending on your viewpoint) as a marketing tool in others.
I don’t believe that “fineness” is something you can define or legislate for, but I do believe that it is, at its most compelling, broadly indisputable. I think, generally speaking, that when something is truly great, truly better than something else, people tend to recognise it. On that basis you could say that the only “qualified” fine ciders are the Euskal Sagardoa Premiums of the Basque Country and their counterparts in Asturias, which have been rated as the cream of the crop after assessment by an independent tasting panel.
I believe that truly fine ciders exist, because I have tasted them, and because after goodness knows how many thousand wines and whiskies and ciders I’m arrogant enough to flatter myself that I know greatness when I taste it. But perhaps, at the moment, the audience for fine ciders and perries is too small and too dogmatic and too fractured; carries too much baggage for broad consensus. Perhaps the truly, truly fine ciders and perries; the ones which can genuinely go shoulder to shoulder with properly great wines, are too few in number for the concept of real, next-level, Grand Cru “fineness” to fully exist in the minds of the average cider consumer. Perhaps, as one maker suggested, and Felix later echoed, the term “aspirational” is currently most apposite; ciders that genuinely are trying to be faultless, to show off their fruit to best effect, whatever form that takes. Perhaps, when cider’s “broad majority” of educated drinkers is so small, any solid answer to the “what is fine?” question is impossible to come by. To repeat a hideous aphorism I proposed in a facebook group, if someone paints a masterpiece in the woods and no one is around to see it, who’s to say it’s worth anything at all?
And perhaps worrying about what constitutes “fine”, given all the other battles cider is fighting at the moment, is a bit like trying to mend a chair when your house is burning down.
But shall we drink a couple and make our own minds up?
Both of today’s lineup can be bought from Felix’s range. We’ve got one from the east and one from the west. In the culinary corner is the Natural Cider 2019 from Sussex’s Starvecrow, whilst boxing for the bittersweets is the Dabinett & Yarlington Mill 2018 from Herefordshire’s Gregg’s Pit.
The Starvecrow is a blend of various cooking and eating apples fermented with wild yeasts in a former whisky cask by Ben Walgate, who also makes Tillingham Wines. I’ve enjoyed their ciders for a long while now and visited the cidery/winery last summer. But this Black label is the first of their 2019s I’ve tried so far.
The Gregg’s Pit is a stainless steel keeve of probably the average cider nerd’s two favourite bittersweets. It’s a 2018 which, as we’ve seen before, was an absolute peach of a vintage right across the west country and three counties, and having admired many a Gregg’s Pit creation before I am deeply excited to try this one. Keeving, in case you had forgotten since my coverage of Pilton in January, is a technique to deprive yeasts of nutrients thereby creating a naturally lower-alcohol cider. In this instance it has also been bottled before fermentation had completed and is therefore also naturally sparkling. You can dig into the more swotty nuances of it in this article, but you’ve already read 6,000 of my words by this point, so let’s just get into the tasting, shall we?
Starvecrow Natural Cider “Black Label” 2019 – review
Colour: Hazy straw.
On the nose: Noses on the sharper end of culinary apple-led cider. Dandelion stem, cut grass, grapefruit and yeast. It’s lively, zesty and youthful and very much about the fruit. The oak skulks in the background – there merest suggestion, really.
In the mouth: Ah, there’s the cask. Honey and vanilla swinging in beside those green, fresh, chlorophyll-y notes. Totally dry, but there’s a creaminess, a leesiness – this is very vinous actually, which probably oughtn’t be a surprise. Batonnage? Malolactic? Maintains its edge and poise though – lots going on here for such a youngling. Culinary apple cider with swagger and pretention and class. Lovely stuff.
Gregg’s Pit Dabinett & Yarlington Mill 2018 – review
On the nose:: You won’t find many better fruit-only bittersweet noses than that, keeved or otherwise. Just the most fabulous, rich, round interplay between the orange and vanilla of the Dabinett and the deep, complex spices of the Yarlington Mill – clove and grated nutmeg; that almost-woody lignin. The fruit is just so big and booming and fulsome and ripe and inviting. There is both depth and freshness here. I can’t wait for a taste.
In the mouth: Immensely mouthfilling; those big-boned, burly bittersweets lent voluptuousness by the sweetness (medium to medium-sweet, I’d say) and mousse. Huge, fresh-pressed red apple juice, leather, cigar and vanilla. More of that orange (both fresh and dried) and clove. That these flavours are coming from the fruit and keeve alone really is eloquent testament to a stunning vintage, outstanding apples, scrupulous hygiene and meticulous cidermaking. Fresh, juicy and light on its feet despite the depth and richness; holds its tannin tremendously. Gorgeous already, but this will keep bringing pleasure for years to come. Just epic.
Yes, I’d happily describe both of these as “fine”. And, at about £9.50 apiece, tremendous value when set against liquid competitors across the spectrum. I would highly recommend that you pick up at least a bottle of each one. The Gregg’s Pit, in particular, is wonderful. If it’s not in my top ten at the end of the year I shall have been a lucky boy indeed.
I can’t think of a single reason for opposing the concept of the existence of fine cider. Nor can I think of a single sensible person who would. Why should producers not strive to make something better – to bottle cider with more quality, less fault, than has previously been bottled? The idea should be pushed, should be championed, should be encouraged. It shouldn’t be to the detriment of ciders that are simply aiming to be clean, refreshing, easy-sipping; if the category is to be a broad church with a broad congregation there needs to be ample space for both to co-exist. But you can’t just make something be “fine” through clever marketing or contrivance or wishing for it hard enough. It’s not something you can force, something you can pretend or convince others is there when it isn’t. All we can do is create a space for it, allow it to develop, and hopefully recognise it when it arrives.
Of the several producers I spoke to, both on and off Felix’s list, perhaps the most telling comment I heard was this:
“My main feeling is that if you make such judgements based on wine there is no such thing as fine cider. The vast majority of cider made in the UK, probably the world, is totally insipid and it’s hard to see why anyone from the producer to drinker would bother with it. That said, there is another, smaller, side of cider and some great liquids out there that do bear comparison with great wines, beers etc. What’s missing is that depth of history of quality production. There seems to have been some focus on this 300 years ago, but that disappeared until very recently, so fine cider is a nascent concept. I hope generations from now this fine cider movement will grow and many decades of these ciders will help define the true greats from the one-hit wonders”.
The word I keep coming back to there is “nacent”. Cider is currently in the process of pulling itself up by its bootstraps. Of having conversations, debates. This most insular of categories is starting to look around; to measure itself beside other drinks and view itself through the eyes of craft beer and wine consumers as well as the audiences it has played to throughout the last few decades. To gradually, tentatively start prodding and nibbling at the boundaries of what is possible with the apple. To call out, highlight and (I hope) by degrees reduce and eliminate faults. To improve the quality across the board, to gather a larger audience, to form that broad-if still-bickering consensus that can organically recognise the ciders and producers who stand out as the very best. Do fine ciders, ciders worth talking and thinking and writing about exist? Certainly. But fine cider as a category, as a defined and distinct idea? It’s a snowball at the top of a mountain. It could start an avalanche, or it could simply melt away. Only time, and a lot more talk, will tell. I, for one, will relish the conversation.
Huge thanks to Felix, James and the several cidermakers who took the time to talk to me across the writing of this piece. And, if you’ve waded through all 7,000 words, huge thanks to you as well.
Unopened bottle images from the Fine Cider Company.