Before there was “rethink cider” – before “craft cider” was even discussed as such – there was Andrew Lea. In cider circles, amongst those who ought to know, Andrew is something of a hero. He’s worked in cider’s proximity for over fifty years, and not only has he literally written the book on craft cider, he’s revised it twice.
He has also just featured in a three-part documentary tracking his journey with other cider dignitaries to the birthplace of the cider apple in the Tien Shan mountains of Kazakhstan. And having recently re-read the book and watched the documentary, I thought I’d reach out to see if he’d talk to us for an article on Malt.
I’m thrilled that he graciously replied in the affirmative within a day, and our conversation is below in its entirety, condensed and edited only for clarity.
Malt: Let’s start with you. How did you come to be involved with cider, and can you give us a potted history of your work in and around cider since?
Andrew: So what happened was I did a chemistry degree in Bristol in the mid-60s and my first job was working for the Brooke Bond tea company, and they were looking at research projects around the possibility of developing instant tea. And one of the issues was about the solubility of tannins in tea, and about various technological problems with the tannins when you’re trying to make an instant tea.
So I got interested in tannins – plant polyphenols – and that was sort of where it all started, because then I thought, for personal reasons, I’d quite like to go back to Bristol, which was where I’d done my degree, and start on a PhD. And I knew that the Long Ashton Research Station was working on cider because it had been forever [Ed: since 1903], and tannins in cider apples were a thing of interest to them. So basically I ended up at Long Ashton on the basis of my tea tannin experience! And I started to translate it into apple tannins, and it so happened that they had a PhD project on the go at the time – this was in the early 70s – which was sponsored by Bulmers, and they were looking at tannins in cider apples. And they were worried that the business was expanding so greatly that there weren’t going to be enough tannins around in the cider apples to satisfy the demand. So we were looking at how we could understand the structure and properties and make the best use of the tannins. And then as it turned out, the whole of the market shifted during the 70s and the need for high tannin disappeared. The marketing people sort of shifted the idea of cider from something that was high-tannin to something closer to lager that was low in tannin, so in the end it wasn’t really an issue.
So I got into cider through the tannins really. I worked at the Long Ashton Research Station and in the time I was there, there were 250 people, but only a couple of us actually working on cider because it had become a sort of mainstream horticultural research station, and cider was not that terribly important really. Anyway, because it was largely government funded and by 1985 the funding was finally taken away, the cider section as it was, was closed. So I had to move from Long Ashton and take another job. So I ended up working for Cadbury-Schweppes Research Centre. And that was also partly on the basis of tannin, because there’s tannin in cocoa and chocolate as well. So it’s been sort of with me all my life!
But at the time I then bought a small plot of land next to the house and I thought “well I’ve really enjoyed my time in cider, won’t be doing any more of it, so I’ll plant a little cider orchard and we’ll have it as a sort of little hobby.” Really just to see the whole thing through from beginning to end – the whole cider process. So that was kind of how I got back into it on a personal level. And then the research centre I was at, Cadbury-Schweppes, decided to set up a separate business, a contract analytical business, called Reading Scientific Services. And we started working for various other people in the food industry. And lo and behold, some of the people I had known in the cider business started popping up as my clients. So I started to work for most of the mainstream cider companies at the time, and some like Aspall who were then quite small but were getting back into cider.
And so I had a foot in both camps – I had a foot in the very personal, small-scale cidermaking I was doing at home, but I also retained an interest in the cider that the larger companies were doing. And because my work in chocolate and soft drinks was moving more towards flavour chemistry anyway, the whole thing sort of integrated. But cider was always there. I’ve never worked directly for a cider company, not as a full-time employee, it’s only ever been a side-show really to the other things I was doing.
Anyway, in the early 90s I was doing my own small-scale cidermaking, and there was no internet then – there wasn’t much information available for small-scale cidermakers and what little there was was rather misleading, I thought. There was no Long Ashton to provide scientific advice any more. So I wrote a series of articles for a small self-sufficiency magazine about small-scale cidermaking. And then when the internet came along in the late 90s I set up a webpage and put all these articles there (as the copyright was mine) so there’d be wider dissemination of them.
And it gradually just sort of built up from there, because as it happened there was a new cider revival, just as I was beginning, of small-scale people who were looking to make more interesting ciders than the mainstream. So I found I was getting more and more enquiries and more interest. And then the website kind of metamorphosed into something a bit bigger and then I crystallised part of it into a book. And it kind of went along with the fact that the industry was redeveloping on a small scale – revitalising really – and there wasn’t much information around. There’s a lot more now, because of the internet, and there are other books available on small-scale cidermaking, but there wasn’t much in the 90s. And that was really where it developed for me I suppose.
Malt:What sort of changes have you seen in cider during that time?
Andrew: Well the large scale cidermakers haven’t changed a lot. They’re still doing the things they’ve always done – heavy dilution of apple juice, working mostly from concentrate, and then a lot of dilution and fermenting of glucose syrup so that the actual juice content is quite low, as you know.
Whereas the small-scale people I was dealing with, for the most part, they didn’t want to do that. They wanted to make pure-juice ciders. So I suppose that was the fundamental distinction at the beginning. And then of course it’s become much more a matter now of understanding the varieties. You know, if you buy a cider from Tom Oliver, say, it’s got all the backstory and all the history and the fruits. And that never used to happen before. It’s partly gone along with what happened in the wine business – naming fruit varieties, which in the past it never did. That’s become more of a mainstream thing now.
But the bulk cidermakers are not interested – or haven’t until recently been interested – in actually specifying the nature of the fruit or telling you much about the backstory to what they’re actually producing. Because mainstream cider is an extremely industrial process, so there’s not a lot to really write home about it in terms of a story! Whereas the thing about craft cidermakers, shall we say, is that they’ve all got interesting stories to tell, not just personally, but from the point of view of how they got into it and how they view their fruit and their process.
Malt: Your book, Craft Cider Making, is seen as a bible by so many makers I’ve spoken to. What would be your definition of craft?
Andrew: Well I’d rather not try to define it really! I think I did try to define it once in the book as something like the best of tradition allied with the best of modern fermentation practice. I think it’s one of those things that defies definition, really. You kind of know it when you see it. But I suppose the fundamentals are low-input, working mainly from full-juice – or almost from full-juice. You’re probably not working from apple juice concentrate, you’re probably thinking more about the actual fruit varieties that are going into it and keeping the production process relatively simple. It’s not just a simple commodity, I suppose – it is a craft product.
Malt: Craft cider hasn’t taken off to the same degree that craft beer, single malt whisky, gin and so forth have in the last 20 years. Do you have any theory why that is?
Andrew: I think it’s for practical difficulties. I think it’s partially because the mainstream cidermakers are not really interested – they’re often owned by other drinks companies anyway so they’ve got different agendas in terms of the marketing of what they want to provide. But thinking of the difficulties – one of the things that differentiates cidermaking from brewing is the seasonality; the fact you can only make it at one time of year unless you work from concentrate (which is of course why the big companies use concentrate, because then they can de-seasonalise the whole operation).
So I think the seasonality makes it difficult, and the fact that it varies from vintage to vintage. It’s not totally consistent. And I think although that’s something that a craft cidermaker will latch onto: “this is my vintage from 2017, it’s different from the stuff in 2018 or 2019”, it makes it more difficult to be a fully consistent product. And I think perhaps the market doesn’t go with that. Whereas if you’re making craft beer, you work to a recipe which is consistent. And I think that’s a big fundamental difference. Any beer you work to a recipe – you choose your malts, you choose your hops. You weigh them out and you mash in a particular way, use a particular yeast and you get what you want reproducibly. But with cidermaking it’s a lot less controlled. Because it isn’t a recipe, it’s as much an interaction between the fruit and the process you’re actually using. And the turnaround is so much longer – you can make a beer in a fortnight; you can’t make a cider in a fortnight, you’re taking the best part of six months or more to get a craft cider out, so it’s a very different timescale. And gin is just a flavoured neutral spirit where the art is in the compounding of the botanicals, not managing a fermentation.
That may be part of why cider has developed in that way, or hasn’t developed in quite the way craft beer or gin has. And then if you want to set up a craft brewery you can go and buy everything off the shelf and then you can be in business as soon as the cheque has cleared. You can’t do that with cidermaking, it takes a lot longer. You’ve got to source your raw materials and all the rest of it – it’s a much more diffuse and long-winded process, I think.
Malt: A good bit of your book and website is devoted to talking about faults. Do you think there’s too much faulty liquid on shelves?
Andrew: Yes. Well I think there’s a lot less than there used to be, but yes I think that craft ciders have often been faulty in lots of ways. At the end of the day you’re trying to put some sort of objective matrix around what is a fairly subjective thing. But yes, let’s say, if you take acetification, there is a school of thought that “acetification is nice and natural and what all traditional ciders used to be like and if you’re making a cider without acetification you’re not making a proper cider”. I don’t subscribe to that view. Because you can avoid it by doing stuff like not exposing to air; by using sulphur dioxide, by being on top of oxidation. By understanding the chemical and microbiological principles of “why does it become acetic” and trying to avoid it.
I think it goes back to the fact that cider has never been – or has not been in recent years – a high status drink. It may be recovering some of that 17th Century status now, but farmhouse cider was often made a bit casually, without any care and attention. That was always the kind of tradition. And that tradition, I think, to an extent, is still there among some cidermakers. Not the modern cidermakers, I don’t think, who are taking on board the technical background that is required. One of the possibilities is that with brewing and with winemaking you can always get good technical advice, but with cidermaking, once Long Ashton had closed, there was nowhere you could get good technical advice, so if people did get faults and acetification they didn’t really understand why it was happening and they didn’t know how to correct it. Because most of the people involved in that sort of cidermaking had a very low base of technical knowledge and understanding. So I think that may be why it happened in the past.
It’s nothing like that bad now, and I can say that after having been involved in judging competitions over the last twenty years or so. The quality in terms of faults is nothing like as bad as it was. You don’t get the same level of faults in terms of acetification, oxidised ciders, mousey ciders and things like that. But they still pop up, and some people still espouse them – “this is what it should be, this is what we want it to taste like”. But generally speaking I think people are looking for a cleaner sort of product.
Malt: You’ve just starred in a documentary visiting the birthplace of the apple in Kazakhstan. That must have been quite something. Tell us about it and how it came about?
Andrew: Well it came about because I got to know Alex Thomas. He and his wife Aizhan set up a company called Apple City Cider, which is behind all this. And they set up in Almaty in Kazakhstan and they were surprised to discover that there was no native cidermaking, and they thought it would be rather nice to set up a cider company in Kazakhstan, as the home of the apple. And because of that they were looking for advice and help from people, and I was one of the people who helped them in the early days. Claude Jolicoeur from Quebec [Ed: author of The New Cidermaker’s Handbook] was someone else, and he [Alex] went on [UK cider educator] Peter Mitchell’s course, which was why Peter Mitchell was involved, and Ryan, who they met more recently – he works in the states [Ed: Ryan Burke, head cidermaker at Angry Orchard] and he came on board because he was very helpful to them.
So basically they got the four of us together so we could all indulge our wish, which was to go and visit the wild apple forests. Because we all knew about the forests, we all knew the story of where the apples come from, but none of us thought we’d ever get there. And the problem is you can’t just go there, you can’t even book a trip to go there, because the remaining apple forests are so close to the Chinese border that they’re politically and militarily very sensitive, so the Kazakhs don’t want all and sundry wandering around there. So, as it says in the film, you have to get a lot of permissions to be able to go and visit, so it’s not something your regular tourist is able to go and do. Obviously there have been previous botanical expeditions that have been able to go there that have got all the right permissions; there was a big one from America about 20 years ago that took a lot of material back to Cornell where they’re propagating it, some from France and other places. But for people who were looking from the cider point of view, which was us, that was a bit unique. That had never been done.
So we needed someone who could put all that together and Alex and Aizhan sort of happened to turn up at the right time. It was a wonderful coincidence really. As I said in the film, I became aware of all this a lot earlier, when I heard a lecture by Barry Juniper, who’s an Oxford botanist and author of “The Story of the Apple”, who’d made a professional visit to the apple forests nearly 20 years ago. But I never thought I would get out there myself. It just seemed impossible. Then suddenly Alex comes up with this idea: “let’s see if we can get ourselves a trip to the wild forests” so naturally I jumped at that one.
Malt: What was the biggest thing you took away from the trip?
Andrew: Well the main thing I suppose was that it confirmed for me – and for all of us really – that in the the apple genome; all the characteristics that we value in cider apples, whether it’s bitterness, astringency, acidity, some of the types of flavours that you get – they were all present in the wild apples, Malus sieversii in the Kazakh forests. Because in the past people used to say “oh well all these things come from the European crab apple, Malus sylvestris, and that’s the root”, but actually that’s not true, and DNA analysis shows that quite clearly. In fact probably cider apples are closer to the pure Kazakh apples than what we know as dessert apples, so that was a significant point. But the point is that all the present characteristics are existing in the diversity of apples that are in those forests. You don’t need to invoke any other apple species to get those characteristics. So I think that was the most fascinating thing which we confirmed in the field, as it were, just by tasting them.
But the second thing, which I did allude to in the film, is that there was quite an emotional connection, realising as one does now, that the apples come from this huge distance, from the western borders of China, and have come along the silk road and the trade routes, into Asia Minor, into Europe, into north-western Europe. And it’s been a long, long, journey, it’s taken thousands of years to do it, but there’s that connection, that strange connection; that feeling of inter-connectedness with a landscape far away. And I think that’s the thing that really I took away more than anything else, that feeling of connectedness with the fruit that began a very, very long way away.
Malt: Anyone watching would realise what an important role each individual apple has to play in making a cider. Do you think cidermakers do enough to communicate the importance of different varieties to the consumer – above and beyond just bitter, sweet and sharp?
Andrew: It’s a complicated one – I’ve been asked this question before. If you take an analogous situation in wine, for example, you’ve got very well-defined grape varieties. You might have Pinot Noir or Gewürztraminer or Cabernet Sauvignon or Sauvignon Blanc, which have incredibly characteristic flavours which are immediately apparent even to someone who’s not terribly well-trained in wine tasting. And they persist through to the finished product, or rather they develop through fermentation and arrive at the finished product. Being very blunt about it, you don’t really get that in ciders. It’s hard to tell, even if you’re very familiar with the varieties, that a particular variety has actually been used. I mean there are some that stick out a bit – the famous Kingston Black, quite aromatic; Foxwhelp. There are some. But they’re not as varietally distinctive as some of the very distinctive grape varieties in the wine world.
So I think, to some extent, the cidermakers can be forgiven for not harping on about those characteristics, because they’re not as clear cut. And I think it’s understandable therefore that they tend to focus on the broad brush – those four categories that we have which, when you blend them together, makes a cider. And that’s another slight difference I think, between cider and wine. Because by and large, you take any wine grape and you can either do it as a single variety, or you do a blend, but either way you get a fairly palatable product at the end, whatever you do. That isn’t the case in cider. If you make a single variety cider from a pure bittersweet they are totally unbalanced and for pH reasons they are likely to have microbiological problems during fermentation. So on the technical side there’s a whole level of issues in cidermaking that don’t arise in winemaking, to do with the variety of the apples. So it’s a slightly different thing I suppose.
Malt: Do you have favourite varieties yourself? What are they, and why?
Andrew: I suppose. When I set up my own little orchard I planted 13 of the varieties which I already knew; that I had worked with at Long Ashton. So they were ones I was already familiar with. And I suppose the frontrunners … I mean there’s always good old Dabinett as a bittersweet, a nice, soft, astringent bittersweet, which is a really good sort of background variety.
I was really pleased to get Broxwood Foxwhelp, which originally I hadn’t got on my list, but I was persuaded into it by Ray Williams. And that is fantastic because it does provide an aromatic character as well as an acidic character. You can get acidity from other places, but the aromatic character of the Foxwhelp was something that I really came to value.
Yarlington Mill is another good, soft bittersweet, but again one that seems to have the propensity to develop interesting aromatic – what we call “farmyard-type” or “bittersweet-type” – aromas, hopefully not in an overpowering manner. So I suppose that’s another one.
And then there’s always Kingston Black. For me that does quite well – I’m on quite thin, chalky soil here, and it does quite well for me, Kingston Black, it doesn’t necessarily do very well for other people and other places. And that is probably one of the few, as you know, that you can actually make a good single variety cider from without needing to blend. That has some distinctiveness as well. So yeah, those are the popular ones; the ones that really come to mind as the sort of highlights of the cider varieties that I’ve got.
Malt: Do you think there’s enough education/literature available to the casual cider consumer generally?
Andrew: Yeah, I mean it’s changing all the time, isn’t it? There’s more stuff coming along. Gabe Cook did a book last year, didn’t he, which has got more of a sort of background – less technical as it were, but more educational in that sense. Bill Bradshaw is doing a good bit with his photography.
My book is very much about “if I want to make cider, how do I do it?” It’s not really going into the philosophy of cidermaking in an educational way. It’s kind of making the assumption that anyone who’s got to that stage of wanting to make cider has already got a fair idea of why they want to do it anyway. But just in the last year or two there seem to be more interesting things coming along – whether books or magazine articles – about, as it were, the sort of philosophy behind cidermaking, I suppose. Magazines like “Full Juice” and “Graftwood”, though they probably have quite a limited audience. Which is probably part and parcel of the whole craft viewpoint of cidermaking, which is something relatively novel.
Malt: What’s your view on the modern cider scene?
Andrew: I would like to think that the current situation is quite positive. There’s so many things about cider I don’t like, I mean let’s look at all the so-called “fruit-flavoured ciders”; the alcopops that all the mainstream businesses are putting out. That’s just a way to sort of capture an unsophisticated client market by competing with each other to have these bizarre flavours. And if you go to the States, that’s a big thing, because they like to have these bizarre flavours. I do think those are likely to be a bit ephemeral. I think it’s a great shame that the name and the word “cider” has basically been hijacked for what we used to call alcopops. So that side of the business I’m very unhappy about.
But when you come onto the craft stuff, the more interesting stuff that people like Tom Oliver are doing, then you’ve suddenly got much more interest in the products themselves. They are much more interesting. And not necessarily every one is going to be the sort of thing you’re going to want to drink every time. So I suppose in a way the consumer is going to have to try and work harder at these craft ciders to try and understand what the producer is trying to do. And some of these things work and some of them don’t work. I always thought – just my own thoughts – that the sort of hybridisation with hops was not a good idea, but I have to say that some of Tom’s stuff has convinced me that you can actually make hop-flavoured ciders which are quite palatable! It’s all extremely positive.
What I do worry about, because I’ve been in the technical side of the food industry all my life, is that over the years you do tend to see a sort of race to the bottom in any novel food commodity. And it’s difficult to hold up standards as businesses grow. And so what I do tend to worry about with the new type of cidermakers is that they’re relatively small businesses, only a tiny fraction of the whole cider market, and are they really going to ever be able to expand into anything greater? Do they even want to? And if they do, will they lose what it is that makes them so individual? If you just take a snapshot of where we are at the present – take people like Tom Oliver, or Martin Berkeley or whoever, people who are doing these interesting things – then I think it’s very encouraging. I just kind of worry, “well in 20 years’ time, when these people have retired, what will happen then? What will the legacy of those businesses be?” And that’s just an open question – I have no idea. Will we just be left all over again with all the bland stuff the large companies are churning out? Will that be what we’re left with? Or will there be a permanent niche for what we are currently calling “craft cider”? I don’t know.
Malt: You worked for years at the Long Ashton Research Centre, now closed. Does cider need something like that again – a research centre that has at least a bit of a specific cider focus?
Andrew: I don’t think that the zeitgeist at the moment is ever going to allow that sort of thing to happen. I mean, why did it close in the first place? It closed because of the Thatcherite philosophy, which was about making the producer pay for the research that was required for a near-market product. That was why it disappeared. And I can’t see that that has changed, and I can’t see that anybody, in the UK at any rate, with our current philosophy, is going to fund a research institute which is going to develop that type of approach to relatively low value commodities.
(That’s an interesting point in its own right, because I think good cider is far too cheap, but on the other hand, because of the marketing position it has, you’re only going to get a very few ciders which are going to command the price that they really should do – higher value ciders that people are going to be prepared to pay five or six quid a bottle for, or ten quid a bottle if they’re bottle-fermented or whatever.)
I’d like to think there was a possibility of research being restored, but I can’t at the moment imagine how that would happen. Because the whole burden, in the food industry currently, is that individual companies do their own research and development. They don’t expect – or rather, in the last thirty years they haven’t had the chance of – anybody else really doing it for them, using public funding.
So I don’t think that’s a starter now, unfortunately. I think the best that you can hope for is that you’ve got people like Peter Mitchell running courses. Peter’s retiring now, so it’ll be interesting to know what happens when all that eventually goes; you’ve got the odd book being produced, like mine and Claude’s. It’s hard to see, to be honest, whether there would ever be a situation where there would be any real underpinning by any sort of research centre, but I kind of think it’s not very likely, I’m afraid.
Malt: Cider often has a very insular feel, it seems to me. And where people have moved to it from another category it often seems to be from beer, which of course is an entirely different thing. Do you think cidermakers would benefit from visiting and talking more to winemakers?
Andrew: Oh yes, absolutely. It’s very interesting, because if you talk to English winemakers about cider they have been pretty much dismissive; they see no value in it whatsoever. That’s largely because the type of cider they’re familiar with from the supermarket shelf doesn’t fit well with the kind of high-end stuff the winemakers have been trying to do over the last half-century. (It may be slightly different now because of some of the more interesting ciders coming onto the market, but I’m not completely clear of that, and there are a couple of English vineyards now making cider I think.)
But if you go to Australia, for instance, you’ll find that there’s no real division between winemakers and cidermakers. The winemakers are very happy to become cidermakers, because as far as they’re concerned they’re using the same type of technology and the same type of principles to produce their products, you’re just starting with a different fruit. OK, there are some other technical differences, but there’s a lot in common and when I’ve visited Australia a couple of times I’ve been very impressed by the fact that so many of the new cidermakers in Australia are actually starting from a wine base. Because they’ve already got the technical understanding of wine, and they’re just moving across into cider. And it’s an enormous benefit to them.
Whereas if you’ve got brewers moving into cidermaking, as in the States, they have a hard job really divorcing themselves from being brewers and becoming cidermakers, because they keep a brewing mindset with them all the time. And I think that’s a mistake and a bit of a shame. I think the Australian model, which is a wine-based model, is better. Because when all’s said and done, cider is a wine, not a beer.
Malt: Rick at Pang Valley asked me to ask how you feel about Eastern counties ciders these days?
Andrew: Well they’re fine! When I was brought up at Long Ashton in the 70s, we did tend to think of cider being very much West Country-based, with the high-tannin fruits. I still think they’re probably the best ciders you can get, but it doesn’t have to be like that. So I think there’s absolutely no problem in making Eastern Counties ciders, it’s a different type of product. It’s usually a lighter product, it tends to be more acidic, it doesn’t have the tannin, it may be more aromatic and so forth. But I think in principle there’s no difference in what you’re trying to achieve, it’s just a different fruit balance, really.
Obviously it is harder if you’re just using straightforward modern dessert varieties like Gala and Fuji – and again I think this is one of the problems in the new world, in Australia and America, where they’re using almost entirely pack-house fruit which are rejects from the dessert fruit industry. I think that is hard, because they don’t really have anything else to work from, and those fruits have not been specifically grown for cidermaking. Of course there have recently been a lot of new plantings of cider or heritage varieties in the New World to counter this. In Britain at least you have Cox and Russets and suchlike. And Jonagold is surprisingly good for cider. So I think it’s tough, but it can be done. And I think some of the good Australian examples, and some of the good British examples like Rick’s now with Eastern Counties cider are absolutely fine.
Malt: Perhaps “Eastern Counties” is a misleading description, given producers like Whin Hill in Norfolk do such wonderful things with bittersweets and bittersharps.
Andrew: Of course! Because what happens – and it’s happened in the UK, and in America and in Australia, is that as soon as somebody gets into cidermaking they think “woah, we really do need to beef this up a bit with some more tannin, with some bittersweet varieties or whatever”. So the irony is that they tend to try to do this. So maybe, in a way, it does kind of point to the fact that the very best ciders are the ones that tend to have a little more tannin in them, more interest. Where these are apples that have been grown specifically for cidermaking.
It’s very interesting – you go back to the 17th century, to John Evelyn’s Sylva, the Pomona, and it’s very interesting reading there that even then John Evelyn made his own cider in Kent and Worlidge [Ed: who wrote Vinetum Britannicum] about the same time was making his own cider in Sussex I think, or the Sussex-Hampshire border. But they both of them acknowledged that the best ciders, even in the 17th century, were coming from further west. They were coming from Herefordshire or Somerset. So even in the 17th century there was an acknowledgement that there was something better about those cider apples. Now what that is, it’s hard to say, because again it’s a purely subjective element of human perception, and what I want my cider to be. But it goes back a long way, it’s true. But having said all that, you can still make some very, very good Eastern Counties ciders that are very, very palatable and very acceptable.
Malt: Perhaps we could use a different language to talk about cider styles then?
Andrew: I think the language has got to evolve rather than be imposed. If you look, for instance, at the American language that they’ve sort of constructed for doing their cider judging, which is quite interesting – the BJCP website has it, I think, the Brewing Judge Certification Programme – they embrace cider and they’ve got a whole set of cider characteristics and styles and all the rest of it. Which produces an awful lot of different categories! Is it helpful? Possibly, because it gives people the idea of what they’re looking for; what they should be looking for, and gives some idea of what is acceptable in a particular style and what isn’t. And it’s not so much a new language; it’s the old language, it’s just been codified a bit, you could say.
Certainly with something like “Eastern Counties”, the concept only really applies to Britain, because it’s just that the fruit that was used in the east of Britain was not so high-tannin, predominantly, not so full-bodied as the fruit that was used in the west. (Why that’s the case is another interesting story, to which I don’t really have a good answer!) I do think that the language has to evolve, rather than be imposed. And I suppose if you go back to your previous question about whether it’s helpful to actually explain on the label what your cider is made from and how it comes to be, I think that’s actually as good as anything in terms of getting the message across. If you’re making a cider from dessert fruit then that’s what you say and you explain the benefits of that, and what you’re looking for.
Malt: I noticed a few bottles of Harp Hill on the tables in the Yurt at the end of the Kazakhstan documentary. So are you still making cider yourself?
Andrew: On a very small scale, basically I just make a few hundred litres every season for myself and the family. I make most of that in what you might call a semi-commercial style. Because by and large I find that’s what most of my friends and family like to drink. I can do more challenging stuff for myself, but – and this is an interesting point as well – that’s not what most people really want to drink. So yes, but it’s very, very small scale. It’s never, for various personal and family reasons, become a business as such. It’s always been on a very, very low-key basis.
Malt: Can you tell us a few cideries and cidermakers that you particularly admire?
Andrew: Well yeah, I mentioned two, didn’t I? There’s Tom Oliver, obviously, because he’s pushing the boundaries in lots of ways. And not everything that he does, I think, is 100% successful, but there are some fantastic things that he is doing. I think Martin Berkeley at Pilton, because he’s sort of embraced the keeving thing in a very interesting, sort of serious way. There are lots of smaller cidermakers who have been around for a while – people like James Marsden at Gregg’s Pit. And there are people who have been and gone – Rose Grant down in Dorset who was producing some lovely cider for a while, but she’s more or less given up now, because she’s a very small producer and has retired. I like what Simon Day does at Once Upon a Tree because he approaches cider as a winemaker with a serious technical ethos, and I admire the Johnsons at Ross Cider because of their interest in understanding varietal contributions and also the help they give to others in the industry. But I think there’s a whole range of stuff coming on now from new entrants to the business that I’m not actually all that familiar with, so it’s a bit hard to make a huge judgement as to which ones I really recommend. I’m increasingly retired so I’m less knowledgeable about what’s been happening in the last couple of years.
Malt: Finally, what would be the most important advice you could give to a new or aspiring craft cidermaker?
Andrew: I’m only really able to quote from the technical side – I’d rather not pontificate on the marketing or the stylistic side. But I think the most important thing is to know your fruit, I think. Understand your fruit. Check your pH – pH control is very important in cidermaking, that comes through in the book. And then don’t be afraid of using sulphur dioxide to control the fermentation to keep it nice and clean. You may not want to use the whole whack, but those are the main things that I would suggest that people do.
Sincerest thanks to Andrew for taking the time to talk to me in such depth. You can find the recent Cider in Kazakhstan documentary, in which he features, here. And I strongly recommend that anyone interested in cider buys his book. In fact I insist on it.
There are book commission links within this article, which help fund Malt.