Let us confront the elephant in the apple press. Today we are not in craft territory. What we have is a lineup of ciders from a producer whose output is about four times the size of the entire Basque region’s. This will be the cue for a large portion of our cider following to zip straight down to the reviews and check that I’ve given big cider a good old slagging off, and that we can continue to march in belligerent, we-know-better step.
But bear with me, if you will, because before we tuck into our chaptalized elephants I want to talk a bit about faults.
Faults aren’t something we’ve covered much on Malt, because they don’t tend to pop up much generally in whisky. Very, very occasionally you might find a corked bottle – I think I’ve opened as many as two that I’ve bought for myself, and tasted from perhaps four or five more at shows and bars – but they’re so rare as to barely be worth an aside. Beyond that, whisky doesn’t have “faults” so much as inadequacies and bickering. An immature whisky, for example, is not a chemical or bacterial flaw in the liquid, it’s just an impatient bottler. Shortened fermentations, caramel colouring, bland, efficiency-driven yeasts, fifth-fill barrels – these aren’t “faults”, per se, they’re deliberate decisions; just clinical bottom-lineism.
Personally, I’d suggest that a whisky overaffected by a sulphur candle or an excessively wide spirit cut would count as “faulty”, but there we get into bickering. At least one of my editors rather likes a bit of sulphur, because nobody is perfect, whereas John, who is young and mustard-keen and has drunk one too many sake cocktails seems to believe that every bodega in Jerez is stuffed to the guts with candle-waving Waluigi-types sniggering at the thought of all the whisky they’re about to ruin. Taylor has, quite correctly in my opinion, railed against spirit cuts that finish too low, but we mustn’t discount those dangerous masochists who like their whisky to taste of mulch.
When it comes to cider, some faults are a little clearer cut. TCA, as it is in wine, is a fault. Over-oxidation, to the point that one’s cider tastes of cardboardy Oloroso, is a fault. “Mouse” is a fairly prominent fault although, and I say this with a rodent-like whisper, one that seems to be blessedly on the decrease. Not to mention the sundry villainous microbial and bacterial infections that fermenting and fermented cider, particularly of the wild yeast variety, can be prey to. Ciders with such taints are, without question or debate, grotesque, rancid and unworthy of bottle, box or glass. Other than those fortunate enough not to be able to detect mouse, any drinker could tell at a sip that such ciders are simply wrong.
But today I want to talk a little about acetic acid, because here, like sulphur in whisky, the lines become a little blurry again. And it’s my opinion that they could do with some clarification.
Acidity, generally speaking, is A Good Thing. Actually, it’s an inherent thing; all ciders have acidity, in that all ciders have a ph of lower than 7. Generally from roughly in the region of 4 at the least acidic end to roughly in the region of 3 at the most mouth-puckering end. I dare say there’s a Foxwhelp or two knocking about that clock in at two point something, but really anything under three and a half is on the tangy side. Find & Foster Méthode Traditionelle 2017 Zero is apparently 3.4, and that’s pretty nippy. For a bit of reference, wine fans, Riesling clocks in anywhere roughly from 2.9 to 3.4. Ish. And lemon juice is something like 2, ranging (according to my best Google nosey) to a maximum of about 3. So there you are.
Without at least a degree of acidity, cider (and wine) would be hideous. Flabby, soapy, unpalatable; stripped of zest and life and poise and refreshment. Of course it’s all relative; something like a straight Dabinett might be described by its maker as “not having acidity”, but what they would mean is “compared to Foxwhelp, Browns, Bramley, Porters Perfection”. That its role in the blend is not the provision of acidity. All ciders have some acid, even if it’s not very much. We agree this and we move on.
Because the thing is, there’s acid and there’s acid. Principally, when it comes to apples, there is malic acid. The clue, if you happen to be an ancient Roman, is in the name. Malic acid tastes … well … appley. Then there’s lactic acid. This arrives in a cider through a process known as malolactic fermentation; something of a misnomer, as it’s the work of bacteria rather than yeast. Specifically Oenococcus Oeni (lactic bacteria to its friends) and lactobacillus. These convert tarter malic acid into softer lactic acid which, as the name suggests, tastes creamy and buttery. You don’t want to go too far; no one wants cider that tastes like yoghurt, but the right level adds complexity, softness and depth. It’s pretty common in wine – think oaky chardonnay, as just on example – and there’s even a little bit knocking around whisky mash tuns when distillers can be bothered to ferment for longer than 48 hours. Not forgetting citric acid, which you don’t get in apples (though, as we’ve seen, flavours of citrus fruit sometimes suggest themselves nonetheless) but you do find in certain pears.
Then there’s acetic acid. Acetic acid, to quote Andrew Lea, is caused when bacteria of the Acetobacter family “grow on the surface of poorly-stored ciders” and “oxidise the alcohol to acetic acid directly”. He lists it in the “when things go wrong” chapter of his Craft Cider Making, commenting “Nowadays … most of us would regard acetified flavours as undesirable and it is quite possible to make a fine and well-flavoured ‘traditional’ cider without them”. It is also the first entry under “when cider goes bad” in Gabe Cook’s Ciderology.
Acetic acid gets into a cider through oxygen exposure, through fruit flies or through apiculate wild yeast (a type that are active in low alcohol and create acetic acid as a by-product). It’s not to be confused with ethyl acetate, which also gets into a badly stored cider and causes solventy smells that are a bit like nail-varnish remover. Acetic acid causes a smell that anyone ought to recognise with the smallest, cursory sniff. Because its other name is ethanoic acid, which even someone like me, who binned Chemistry the moment he left the GCSE exam room, knows is vinegar.
Now I would suggest that people generally don’t want to drink vinegar. I would posit that it is one of several reasons that people don’t wander their house the morning after, skulling the dregs from last night’s vino glasses. I would be the first to contend that a chip without it is a chip wasted. But I’m not sure that I want it in my glass.
And yet there is a tremendous amount of commercially available cider on shelves both literal and digital that is positively brimming with acetic acid. When normal, uninitiated, cider-innocent people think of “scrumpy”, a term that I shall grumble about in an article as-yet unwritten, they so often think of its challenging, vinegary sharpness. They think, whether they know it or not, of acetic. In fact I’d go further. I suspect that in ninety per cent of cases it’s at least part of what the average consumer thinks of when they see the term “farmhouse” on the label. I wouldn’t like to guess at an exact number, but I reckon somewhere around at least a third of the craft ciders you can buy offer some degree of perceptible acetic acid.
Albert and Mike Johnson, at Ross on Wye, are two of its more prominent critics. “I always think it reeks of carelessness,” commented Mike. “We’ve had containers whose seals have broken that have gone acetic and we’ve poured it all away because it’s the right thing to do.”
The chiefest problem, in the Johnsons’ view, comes with consumer perspective. Most people, finding themselves gulping a glass of vinegar, are unlikely to return for another. Cider already fights a battle against its shoddy image problem and such an endemic presence of bottled vinegar is hardly helpful. “Consumers all have a different taste but I think it should be written on the container if you deliberately have some [acetic] in there,” said Mike. “That’s the biggest issue really,” added Albert. “Because it creates a barrier for entry for new drinkers, it can turn people off.”
“And then if you have some cidermakers who generally have a high quality product but they’re deliberately introducing acetic acid because they think it adds to the flavour, that endorses all the faulty ciders. Because consumers can’t tell the difference between one that’s had it deliberately added and one that hasn’t.”
Little Pomona’s James Forbes introduced a caveat. “I agree that there’s too much around in the out of control sense. It’s a straight fault in cider when it gets to detectable levels (about 75ppm) and much of a cidermaker’s time is spent trying to avoid it. But that’s not the whole story. My feeling is that there is a level of VA [Ed: volatile acidity; read elements of acidity that present as a gas and can therefore also be smelled], around 125ppm, that in a high tannin, low acid cider, becomes something not only tolerable but possibly desirable”.
“At this level it can play around the margins of the liquid, both exaggerating the fruit elements as well as altering them and lending the cider acid, which is perceived higher than it actually is. This effect can really lift what might otherwise be quite leaden liquids and the effect is very different to blending in clean, high acid cider … when you taste Enter the Dragon and [top secret upcoming releases] you will get what I’m talking about.”
“Beyond this level though it’s basically salad dressing.”
It is also worth bearing in mind that volatile acidity can also be found in wine – frequently outstanding wine – particularly that which has been aged for significant lengths of time in barrels. Writing in Decanter Magazine on wine flaws, Natasha Hughes MW comments “although the presence of high amounts of VA is considered undesireable, in some cases a touch of volatility is no bad thing”, citing positive examples as aged Sauternes, Amarone and Barolo, whilst suggesting that in dry whites, VA is always an “out-and-out” flaw. Then there’s Belgian Lambic, sour beer and the ever-booming beast that is natural wine – all of which carry components of volatile acidity such as acetic, and are much lionised by their proponents for it.
Personally, and I say this with due care and caution, as long as it isn’t presenting as vinegary I can stand the mildest bit of acetic – of volatile acidity – too. What James calls the “tolerable level”. I see where he’s coming from; I understand what he’s talking about when he describes the exaggeration of fruit. I can think of at least a couple of excellent – really excellent, top of the range – ciders that have had that trace, so small that I don’t think too many new drinkers would even really detect it. If it genuinely improves the drink – if the cider tastes complex and balanced and heroes the fruit – then it gets my vote, absolutely. What’s more, I like some Belgian Lambics. I like some sour beers. And, albeit trailing a Marley-esque chain of caveats and asterices, I like natural wines too (though some have been the roughest grape-wrangled horrors I hope ever to wrestle with). I think, generally speaking, that as long as it tastes good, as long as you are not drinking something and thinking “my goodness there’s a lot of vinegariness in my glass”, there’s a case for saying fair enough.
However. I think that when it comes to the degree of acetic acid prevalent in craft cider, personal preferences have to be put slightly to one side. Because the degree to which acetic acid presents in so much of what is on shelves in farmhouses and cideries is not a tolerable trace, it’s a dominant, overwhelming and distinctly off-putting bombardment. As a consumer, if my first experience of “real cider” had come from such a bottle I wouldn’t have returned for a second. As a sometime tour guide, huge chunks of my time have been spent explaining that real cider as a category should not be judged wholly on the sour, brain-scrunching, vinegared scrumpy so many people have encountered on holidays to the West Country. And, perhaps most importantly, if I were a producer, working hard to bottle a clean product without fault, I would be distinctly put out to be mentally receipted and filed with someone essentially bottling vinegar as a drink. Albert summarised it succinctly when he said: “it just feels to us that if someone is promoting cider that is acetic and not talking about the fact that it’s got acetic in, it’s undermining our cider at the same time.”
Acetic acid – cider vinegar – is on the HMRC’s list of ingredients that are acceptable in cider. And, off-putting as I might find them, there are those who perhaps were raised on heavily acetic ciders, who have acclimatised to them and swig them down cheerfully. Nonetheless, what I think is needed – urgently – are two things.
Firstly, transparency needs to tighten up. As the Johnsons suggest, if you are – quite legally – bottling cider in which acetic acid plays a strong or dominant role, you owe it to your consumers to make them aware of that on the label. In any case, if you’ve deliberately made acetic cider, if it’s to your personal taste, why hide it? If you see it as a flavour to be brought to the party, like oaked wine or peated whisky, why not talk about it openly? You wouldn’t see Laphroaig or Lagavulin being coy about their smoke; why be coy about acetic acid if you believe it brings positive qualities to bear? Why not take the chance to show working, to educate? For an excellent example of a producer doing just this, see Pomologik’s Volatil. The clue is very much in the name.
Secondly, I think there needs to be more calling out of ciders that are excessively acetic. Vinegar is not what the modern, curious, educated cider drinker wants in her glass. It is not what anyone wants lingering in their mouth and on their breath once the cider is finished; it is not a representation of the fruit in its fullest and purest form, it is not what will drag cider from off the overlooked bottom shelf and into a new and brighter tomorrow, it is not a demonstration of craft or care.
Which brings me back to the Westons bottlings. These, I think we’ll all agree, are definitively not craft ciders. You can find most of the below on shelves in every supermarket in the country and you can find Stowford Press and Old Rosie on draught at goodness knows how many pubs. I’ve visited their cidery and goggled at the HGVs, the several-thousand-litre oak vats, the massed ranks of stainless steel enormousness packing cider by the megalitre. These ciders aren’t “craft”, they’re ubiquitous. Their liquid production is three times that of new-look Macallan. They are a megalith of cider, right up there with the bulkiest of bulk. But are they any good?
I’ve as many as five of their products in my glass today; not at the same time of course, that would be confusing. Stowford Press, their biggest seller, which does six weeks in oak before finishing in stainless steel. Old Rosie, named after their old steam roller, their most knowing nod to a farmy style of cloudy cider, recently reduced in abv, no doubt to keep the on trade pint-swallowers happy. Then there’s their 2018 Vintage, which I gather does six months in oak and clocks in at a whopping 8.2% and their newly-launched Signature Vintage 2019, which whimpers in at 6.8% and apparently “will inspire discerning crafted cider drinkers to learn more about the category”, to which I would respond that all concerned should be careful what they wish for. Finally there is the 2018 “English Vintage”, which is also 6.8% and differs dramatically from the rest of them by being packaged in a 750ml bottle.
The 8.2% Vintage cost £2, which is actually more per litre than I recently paid for four in-pouch ciders from Hecks, and is really not much less than you’d pay for any number of full-juice ciders in bottle. Needless to say, we’re not talking 100% apple juice today. Westons don’t make their juice percentages public; if I was a gambling man I’d guess they’re higher than Bulmers and lower than Aspalls. But I’m not really here to speculate. We recognise they’ve been somewhat chaptalized, somewhat diluted and we move on.
Westons Stowford Press – review
Colour: Bright gold.
On the nose: Let’s be fair – it smells of apples. Sharp, green ones rather than anything particularly ripe. And fizzy apple sweets. Just a tiny bit cloying and slightly metallic. There’s not much going on.
In the mouth: Well, it’s super frothy and it tastes exactly like the nose. The finish is a sprint – blink and those flavours are gone. Doesn’t feel big on bittersweets – at all. Wonder what apples they’re using. My impression is that the aim was crisp, crunchy, zesty. Which, in a fairly thin-flavoured way, they have achieved. Sugariness lingers in your mouth a little. Refreshing enough.
Westons Old Rosie – review
Colour: Diluted lemon squash.
On the nose: “Festival fodder” was the geophysicist’s immediate response. Again the nose is very faint, and this time it’s very confected. Melted haribo, maybe slightly tired tinned pineapple. Some vague musty-fustiness. And something a bit like playdough.
In the mouth: “It’s actually quite pleasant on the palate if you like uber-fake sweetness” commented the geophysicist. Alas I am not numbered among the fans of such. As with the Stowford the emphasis is on sharpness – there’s no tannin here. It’s very sweet; a jumble of indistinct, confected fruit punch. And that odd, manufactured, playdough thing. Under the lingering sugar it’s very thin. I’m afraid I really don’t like this.
Westons Medium Dry Vintage Cider 2018 – review
Colour: Stowford Press.
On the nose: Instantly fuller and richer, if still very simple. Red apples, pineapple and a little stone fruit. That confected sweetness again. There’s not much clarity to the aromas here. In the background there’s a leaner, unripe seam of green pepper.
In the mouth: I think we’ll just call off the hunt for tannin now, shall we? We’re getting nowhere. Sharpish, medium-sweet, confected (I have “confected” Tourette’s today) red apple fruit intertwangling with perhaps a bit of overripe red berry. There’s a lingering metallic bitterness towards the back of the tongue. I must admit I prefer the Stowford Press
Westons Medium Dry Signature Vintage 2019 – review
Colour: Westons Medium Dry Vintage Cider 2018.
On the nose: Perhaps it’s the youth, but this feels the most manufactured – the most industrial – of the lot so far. Plastic and playdough. A bit of the green fizzy apple sweets from the Stowford Press. Five is feeling like a long flight at this point.
In the mouth: Sharpest of the lot and – must be said – a bit less sweet. It’s still pretty thin but there’s some crisp green apple and the manufactured aspects of the nose are dialled back. Again, it’s much like the Stowford but with marginally bigger bones.
Westons English Vintage 2018 – review
Colour: Westons Medium Dry Signature Vintage 2019.
On the nose: Definitely the roundest and ripest and most defined nose of the lot. Albeit we’re not vaulting the highest of bars there. It shares the same DNA … but the fruit is more expressive. There’s more depth to the red apples. Faint and simple, sure, but actually pleasant enough.
In the mouth: This is comfortably the nicest yet. Follows the nose but with an extra note of peach. If I were feeling giddy I’d say there were reminiscences of a really basic Loire or Chilean Chardonnay here, but I’ve been using a spittoon, so that’s crazy talk. The mousse is prominent but not too intrusive and the sweetness isn’t too cloying. It’s alright. And you can tell anyone I said so.
The fashion amongst cider bloggers, when tasting ciders like these; ciders from “big cider”, tends to be to lambast, to twist the knife, to play to the gantry for cheap laughs by straining for imaginatively nauseating descriptions. To me, that misses the point. And it’s rather an urgent one.
These ciders are … well … they’re inoffensive. Other than the Old Rosie, which I would be loathe to go another round with. I have drunk them all before; I dare say I shall drink at least a couple of them again, particularly the Stowford Press, when there is nothing better available at the pub. They’re bland and dilute and a bit dull. They almost all share almost exactly the same palette of flavours, which is what the makers are going for. A cidermaker confided in me that he feels awkward when judging competitions blind, because the Westons (and Thatchers) profiles are so deliberately distinct. They’re not ciders to fire you with excitement, to make you want to savour them for hours, to cause you to peek further down the rabbit hole. They’re straightforward, basic, crisp ciders that normal people want to chill down, chuck back and swallow greedily in pubs or at home at the end of a long day, and they do this in their millions because, crucially, these ciders are not faulty. Because their flavours are not off-putting to the uninitiated. Because they may be a bit thin, a bit boring, but at least they’re clean. If they weren’t, no one would buy them.
Being clean is the first and minimum requirement most consumers expect of their cider. If a cider marching under the banner of “real” tastes dirty, tastes spoiled, no one will care that it’s made from a hundred per cent pure Slack Ma Girdle and that the cidermaker is best mates with his orchardist and that they’ve farmed in Muckle Sodbury since Cromwell was knocking on doors. We can argue back and forth about how much acetic is acceptable, but at some point it becomes vinegar, and that simply shouldn’t be given a pass. If you put vinegar in one glass and inoffensive Stowford Press in another, I know which I’d choose every time, and I’m a clued-up nerd who actually gives a damn.
Being full juice; being small is not enough. It’s not enough to merit the moniker “craft”, it’s not enough to grab your customer’s attention. If you want your drink – your category – to be respected, if you want market share, if you want customers back for a second bottle then the stuff you put into the first has to taste better than the watered down, chaptalized, from-concentrate* stuff at the pub. Right now, far too often, it doesn’t, and it’s time that changed – quickly. As a cider lover, I think it’s time to stop accepting and excusing faulty products. We’re all vocal about the practices we see as damaging to cider’s liquid, reputation and public perception. I’m not sure why bottling something excessively acetic is considered any different.
Many thanks indeed to Mike, Albert and James for taking the time to offer their thoughts on acetic acid. I’d also highly recommend reading this article by Andrew Lea, which I plundered for a quote or two and is excellent on cider faults generally.
*To be clear, I’m not accusing Westons of using concentrate. In fact I don’t think they do. But there’s plenty of it about.