I think an enormous nut that cider still has to crack in our collective consciousness is the notion of when different styles ought to be drunk.
Ostensibly that’s a very simple question to answer – whenever I bloody well feel like drinking it, thank you very much. But, just as there are styles and flavours galore, so there are moments to which each individual cider is more ideally suited.
When I took my first juvenile sips, back in 2006 or so, the Magners boom had just begun, and the answer to the “when and where to drink” question was almost invariably: “outside, in the summer.” Prior to the pandemic, the majority of cider was drunk as a pint at the pub; once the world returns to normal, I imagine that may swiftly become the case again.
In the last couple of years there has been a little more tentative poking at matching the cider to the food. Cider-pairing dinners have become fairly commonly tacked on to existing festivals, and food matching pictures have become an increasing social media phenomenon.
This should be encouraged wholeheartedly. The degree to which considered food matching walks hand in hand with appreciation really can’t be overstated. Now I accept that a huge percentage of it, the nittiest, grittiest nub end of it, is broadly hokum. And I maintain that, with a handful of exceptions, the best course of action is to take the food you like and the drink you like and go from there. But there are a handful of examples of food to drink matches that can utterly elevate the whole experience.
Part of the tour I used to lead involved contrasting a tannin-led cider with an acid-led cider, and then comparing the two when paired with different foods. Now, as I’ve written before, I reckon the acid-led cider, on its own, generally took the votes of four in five of the customers. They tended to be relatively new to craft cider; tannins were a thing entirely alien to them generally, something that took some getting used to. But paired with a bit of cheddar cheese and the transformation was instantaneous. Immediately the tannins bound to the protein, softened and allowed the rich, full fruit to shine more. The effect would be just the same with dark meat; there’s a reason the classic Raison d’Être with steak is such a good one.
Considering the food you would serve your cider with automatically involves consideration of the nature and flavours of the cider itself. Demands a bit of thought, a bit of experimentation. It is the sign of a drink being taken seriously. Intriguingly, wine’s evolution in the last half century has gone a long way in the other direction. Once upon a time wine would almost exclusively be drunk with a meal; a weighty sense of occasion. These days, as it has democratised and attempted to shake off its po-faced reputation, a glass in an afternoon, at the pub, in the evening after dinner is entirely normal. Wine has spent decades trying to loosen its collar, whilst at the sharpest end, maintaining its command of reverence and awe. That is why it has probably the broadest church of any drink in the world, ranging from the most casual to the most considered ends of the spectrum. And it is a semblance of that broad spectrum to which cider should aspire.
Naturally, given its lengthy history, wine boasts a huge array of options to pair with the sweet part of a meal. But in the last thirty years or so, a style of cider has emerged that, at its best, can sit on the same lofty plateau as a really good dessert wine. We met it last in my “essential case of ciders” back in January. I’m talking about ice cider.
There are two principle ways of making ice cider, determined entirely by just how cold your winters get. Apples on the tree have a very, very low freezing point, and despite the cider latitudes sitting broadly north of wine’s, not many climates get close. You’re really talking about parts of Canada and Scandinavia. Even there it’s not an annual guarantee. But when winter really bites, when the apples are frozen solid, it is possible to press them straight from the tree, discard the ice crystals and find yourself with juice of a much higher specific gravity and concentration of flavour.
The alternative is to freeze the fresh-pressed juice itself, and then to extract the water from the must leaving you, again, with an intensely sweet juice highly concentrated in flavour.
Both of these, fermented, will result in a lusciously sweet, very long-lived cider that will match most puddings (though not chocolate – don’t go there) deliciously. Now admittedly, the romantic in me would like to believe that the former method, “cryo-extraction” resulted in the better flavour over the latter, “cryo-concentration”. It would tie in nicely with a minimum-interventionist’s view of the world and it all sounds jolly holistic. However I doubt whether sufficient side-by-side tasting has been done to reach any absolute conclusions. Personally I have had outrageously good ice ciders made in both manners, and I can’t remember anything about the few cryo-extracted ice ciders I’ve had that marked them out as dramatically different to the cryo-concentrated. Although the Saragnat Avalanche 2012 is cryo-extracted, and oe of the best things I have ever put in my mouth.
Of course these are just the two ‘catch-all’ categories for making ice cider and, as with so many things cider, tell only a fraction of the story. Like every other branch of the category, ice cider features several divergent twigs, their flavours and styles dictated by apple variety and cidermaking. So to get a bit of a broader picture I’ve lined up three rather different bottles to review today. As with dessert wines, the process is significantly more expensive than that of making regular cider; one figure I’ve seen suggests that you’ll glean somewhere in the region of 1.25 gallons of ice cider from five gallons of cider. So inevitably, and quite rightly, these sit in a rather higher price tier. Obviously that’s a figure dependant on the apple, variety, the method of pressing and so forth, but the bottom line is that any ice cider is a special occasion bottle, priced commensurately to the expense of its manufacture. So no grumbling from the “cider should never cost more than two farthings and half a cabbage” set, please. Right. Onwards.
First up is Llanbethian Orchards, in South Wales’s Vale of Glamorgan. I made a detour there back in September when I was tootling around the cideries of Herefordshire and South West England, and cidermaker Alex was kind enough to let me interrupt his pressing to talk about Welsh cider in general and his in particular. It’s a very small operation – good luck finding any of his creations if you don’t live in Cardiff or Newport – but he certainly seems to rack up the awards, and he’s particularly proud of his ice ciders. He makes a good few of them, from a range of different apple varieties, both cider and culinary, and he even bottles a handful of ice perries; the only UK maker I know to do so other than Once Upon a Tree. (If you know otherwise, as I said in my January article, please, please point me in their direction.) Today’s bottle is a blend of Katy and Morgan Sweet, the former being a fairly commonplace culinary, the latter a “sweet” cider apple, translating as one without much in the way of tannin or acidity. I must admit that as a conventionally made cider, Katy is among my very least favourite apple varieties. It’s a stalwart of such drinks as Thatcher’s Haze, and I’ve always found it to give off a somewhat soapy character, with not much in the way of structure to lend it vivaciousness and life. But let’s see how it gets on with Morgan Sweet in cryo-form. My sample was a very generous gift from Alex, so I’m afraid I’ve no idea what it would set you back were you to stumble across it in the dusty bottle shops of South Wales.
Before we get into the glasses, long-standing readers will know that I tend to do my cider (and often whisky) tastings with the geophysicist, often adding her own staccato observations to my own. When it comes to ice cider though this is an absolutely pointless exercise. When the geophysicist comes to power I dare say all ciders will be forced to undergo some form of cryo process; she is all-encompassing in her whole-hearted, indiscriminate love of all ciders (and wines) desserty, and I can’t tend to eke much comment out of her besides “YUMMY” whenever we taste one. So I shall simply say that all three of the below carry her unambiguous, ringing endorsement, along with any other ice cider that ever has been and ever will be bottled, and leave it at that. Those of you with the sweetest teeth may not need to read terribly much further.
Llanbethian Orchards Katy + Morgan Sweet Ice Cider 2017 – review
Colour: Hazy honey.
On the nose: Intense dessert apple, honey and elderflower, with just a dusting of brown sugar and vanilla oak. Ice cider in high-toned form; not super-complex, but very alluring.
In the mouth: Big, unctuous apple and lemon syrup notes straight away, though it’s not as full-bodied as some ice ciders. A little acidity helps to slice through the sugars, keeping things fresh. Apple sauce and cut grass. Dangerous stuff really; fresh, clean, decadently sweet and endlessly moreish.
Scooting across the ocean we find ourselves in Vermont, specifically at Eden Ciders. We’ve met Eleanor Leger’s creations twice before on Malt, once when I reviewed her Oliver’s Twist in my “essential case”, and again more recently when her Goodwood popped up in our spotlight on the Kingston Black apple. Both were bone dry creations, a world away from those we’re examining today. But Eden are, perhaps first and foremost, one of the most prominent Ice Cider makers in America, if not the world. Their Falstaff, matured in barrel for a mighty six years, sits with the aforementioned Saragnat as one of the very best ciders I’ve ever had the good fortune to try. Today we’re looking at the Honeycrisp, an unoaked single variety 2015. Hoping to glean a little more information I reached out to Eleanor, and she was kind enough to respond in nothing flat.
“Honeycrisp is a very popular dessert apple variety developed at the apple breeding program of the University of Minnesota. It was the first variety developed explicitly for texture, rather than just storage and appearance considerations. It’s cell structure is such that it feels like it is exploding in juiciness when you bite into it! It is more expensive than most grocery store varieties because the tree is under patent, it does not keep well beyond January or February, and it is hard to grow well in more Southern climates – it prefers the cold, cold North! It has been an orchard saver for New England apple growers, particularly in Vermont where our amazing McIntosh has fallen out of favor in recent decades.
The ice cider was made using cryo-concentration to preserve the juicy crisp character of the fresh apple flavor. Apples from the Hodges family at Sunrise Farm were pressed late December 2015 and juice put immediately outside in our very cold Northern Vermont weather. Our average daily HIGH temperature in the month of January is 16F (-9C). The juice froze outside, up and down with natural temperature variation for about 6 weeks, and then we drained off the little bit NOT frozen, losing 80% of the volume we started with which is just left behind as ice.
The resulting super-sweet concentrated juice was partially fermented, and arrested using cold temperature control on the tank. We racked it off the lees a few times at cold temperature, and then gradually allowed it to come back to cellar temperature. It was aged in stainless steel, and eventually bottled in 2017 and 2018. No added sugar, acid, coloring or flavoring. Filtered only just before bottling, minimal sulfite addition, no sorbate or other preservatives.”
As a random addendum, Eleanor was intrigued as to why I’d picked the Honeycrisp over, say, her flagship Heirloom Blend, to review for this piece. I suppose I was intrigued to investigate a single variety ice cider, but being entirely honest the answer was simply that the Honeycrisp was what I had in the cider rack! Both are currently available from Scrattings, the Honeycrisp at £24 for 375ml. Our readers in the US can snap it up from source at $27.
Eden Honeycrisp Ice Cider 2015 – review
On the nose: That’s a lovely, clear yet delicate ice cider aroma. Rather buttery – popcorn and, indeed, fresh corn. Honey on toast. A little dried grapefruit tartness and lime marmalade. Pineapple juice. You feel somehow that you ought to be sniffing this in the garden wearing shorts.
In the mouth: Among the most summery ice ciders you’ll find, and very nearly a convincing imposter for Sauternes. The marmalade character remains – both orange and lime now – as does the honey and the butteriness. There’s a little seam of green guava and a dab of underripe apricot. Blissfully fresh fare with a delightful tang of pin-bright acidity scoring the sweetness. Eating lemon tart or anything with berries? You know what to do.
And now for something completely different. Ice ciders always sit at the hefty end of abv level – for small glasses, as you would a sweet wine – but Sandford Orchards’ weighs in at a fortified-territory 15%.
Reaching out to Andy May, Sandford’s head cidermaker, he explained “the hefty percentage is a big part of it. Ours goes through a more complete fermentation [i.e. no residual sugar left over] using champagne yeast to achieve that higher abv, meaning it’s drier, more like a Port than a dessert wine.”
“Tasted post-fermentation it was almost like a concentration of Devon cider and tastes so tannic and wonderfully cidery that we chose to leave it as is and not have it so sweet.”
“We typically always use late harvest, hand picked fruit from the older local orchards.”
I’m not sure I’d entirely agree with Andy on Port not being sweet, but we’ll set that aside. Our last encounter with Sandford Orchards was when their “The General” was the geophysicist’s entrant to our essential case. They’re Devon’s biggest producer, doing more than anyone to revive the county’s former status as one of the giants of English cider. Compared to most of the cideries we’ve covered in these pages they’re something of a giant, though they are themselves dwarfed by the industrial big boys of Herefordshire and Somerset. I’ve long admired the care they take in catering to both the mainstream drinker and the cider wonk, and if more pubs had their Devon Dry on draught the world would be a happier place. This ice cider sits in their “fine cider” range at £19.50 a bottle. Let’s give it a whirl.
Sandford Orchards Ice Cider – review
Colour: Super-sherried whisky.
On the nose: Aw. Yeah. Just a gorgeous, deep, dark glassful of molten lignin, that is. A spiceathon; clove, liquorice, star anise, nutmeg and demerara sugar, plus a slosh of cola syrup, all playing out against big, burly apple. It’s really not too sweet at all – the spices are more than equal to the more luscious notes. It’s very, very complex.
In the mouth: Tannin! Good lord! Ripe, coarse tannins by the flippin’ bushel. I’ve never encountered another ice cider with a texture like it, and I’ve encountered an awful lot of ice cider. Pronounced woodiness, more of the Christmassy nutmeg-and-clove spices, a hint of cinnamon, a great whack of Dundee cake and a high-toned, near-spirity polish character. Super-ripe red apple. Totally bonkers, enormous, epic stuff. The sweetness is totally outmuscled by tannin and spice. It’s hard to think of a cider that so insistently demands your attention.
A multifaceted study in decadence. The first two cleave far more closely to the traditional profiles of dessert wine, though both are generally higher-toned than the average ice cider you’ll find in bottle. My slight preference is the Eden, for complexity and definition, though both are on the sinful end of delicious. Chill them well and serve them with light and fruity puddings. (Or just ignore the puddings entirely and glug them down solo.)
The Sandford Orchards is a beast, and a beautiful one. I wouldn’t go near a pudding with it – those tannins would give most desserts a black eye and a bloody nose. In fact I’d go completely rogue with this one and try it next to something gamey and fruity with main course. Duck, perhaps, or venison (not that either features in our home-cooking repertoire.) If you happen to be a cheese person (I am resolutely not) then find your biggest, brawniest, most protein-pumped cheddar and let the two of these battle it out. I wouldn’t give the cider more than the most cursory glance at a fridge, if I were you. Tannins and cold don’t play nicely at the best of times; tannins like these least of all. Cellar temperature, perhaps even room temperature, is likely your friend. But do try it if you can – it is one of those rare and wonderful ciders that sits entirely in a bracket of its own, a bonkers and brilliant outlier.
Thanks to Eleanor and Andy for taking the time to talk through their creations, and to Alex for the sample. Such things don’t have a bearing on our ratings. Perhaps on our politeness. But not always even that I’m afraid.