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Ross on Wye Raison d’Être vintage vertical

There aren’t many ciders and perrys which can truly claim to have iconic status among those who know what they’re drinking. Eric Bordelet’s Poiré Granit is certainly one. Tom Oliver’s Keeved Perry would be another. I’d say Little Pomona’s Art of Darkness and Old Man and the Bee are both heading in that direction and there are a handful more over which we could argue the toss. And then there is Ross on Wye’s Raison d’Être.

I have written about whiskies on this site before which I have described as fairly pointless to review, in that I could lavish them with apotheosis or get the claws out and tear in with abandon and either way you’d still buy them without a moment’s thought. Raison d’Être sits in that same bracket. In fact, to those who know their way around both bubbles, it’s not stretching analogies too far to call Ross on Wye the Springbank of cider. Both stubbornly settled in their individual ways of doing things and both lionised by legions of disciples for just that. I dare say if I’m muted in my affections for Raison d’Être I’ll suffer the same comments section fate that befell poor old Phil when he dared to find fault with Springbank 15.

But perhaps today I’ll dodge the torch and pitchfork set, because Raison d’Être, in its previous vintages, has become one of my cider yardsticks. The 2017 was the very first cider I reviewed here on Malt; the classic bittersweet cider in my “essential case”. I was captured by the idea of an annually-occurring cider that encapsulated a maker’s philosophy whilst acting as a marker – a bellwether, if you like – for the characteristics of a particular vintage, drawing on a blend of the same two varieties each year with which to do it.

The annual launch of Raison d’Être usually coincides with the cider festival that Ross on Wye holds at Broome Farm. It would have been in a fortnight’s time, but has now been sadly cancelled for the same, sensible reason that almost everything has been cancelled this year. Nonetheless the 2018 Raison is now rushing down the pipeline, due for release in a couple of weeks, and I thought I’d catch up with Ross’s Albert Johnson to talk through all things Raison d’Être. Our conversation is below, lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Malt: How did Raison d’Être come about?
Albert: So at Ross on Wye we try to, where possible, ferment the 100 varieties of apple that we grow individually, with the intention of being able to express each of their characteristics like that and give people the opportunity to see how different all the apples are. Now I say 100 – some varieties we only have one tree of, so that’s not realistic. But we are generally within a two-to-three year period producing between 20 to 25 different single varieties of cider that we can. So we have this starting block from where we’re thinking about cider. And then the next thing that we do to influence our ciders and create something interesting is that we ferment a lot of our ciders in barrel. And we separate these from our single varieties because they aren’t then pure expressions of the variety. They’ve got influence from the barrel that’s then giving extra flavour to the cider.

So varieties and barrel, and then typically annually we’ll release 100 different ciders in bottle and in draught form, so you’ve got different draught blends, kegs, whatever. And so it wasn’t easy when people said to us “what is your favourite cider?” or “what’s the one cider to have?” And we do have a commercial cider that’s very, very popular, which is called Birdbarker, which is force-carbonated, back-sweetened. But that’s not the sort of cider that represents those two pillars as I just described them.

So I was aware of this hole in our range. And then the actual moment that it coalesced into a product was I had been working at the farm full-time now for four out of the last five years – I did one year and then I went back to University and then I came back. And soon after I came back – I came back in the autumn, and then six months later – I was handling our annual exports to Konstantin in Russia and unfortunately they weren’t able to come this year for obvious reasons, but at that time they came to the barn and we’d take them round and they could taste stuff straight out of the barrel because it’s not unusual for them to taste a barrel and say “ok, we’re going to buy the whole barrel”. So they obviously get to choose from the whole range. And in the spring of 2018 I’d been at the farm six months, Konstantin comes over, we open this 1000-litre IBC – plastic tank – of 2016 season Dabinett-Michelin blend, which had been fermented in oak barrel, and it just blew all of us away. It was just so phenomenal. It was by far the best cider that we tried on the day. And it was the cider that, in those six months, I hadn’t had a cider that stood out to me as much as this one. And it felt so characterful and that, as a cider, it was actually what I would choose to drink and what we would – if you had to strip us back and say “ok you can only release one cider”, then it would be this one.

And Konstantin said “well ok, I’ll have 200 litres of that in bag-in-box”. And we said dutifully “yes, of course you may”, and off he went, and we racked it, and we racked 200 litres in bag-in-box and then the rest went into four barrels. And I as I was putting the export together and writing up the invoice and seeing and being inspired by all the other innovative producers and forms of packaging and methods and aspiration in cider it occurred to me that actually, if this was the best cider that I’d found, since being here full-time with dad, probably it’s not a good idea to sell it for rock-bottom prices in bag-in-box. So I quickly decided that this was going to be my project, and this was going to launch us into the future, and this was going to be our sort of banner – or this was going to be our flag. It was going to be the thing. So I set about producing it. “Raison d’Être” came out of nowhere, but as soon as I said it to myself it was perfect, and I didn’t actually realise how few people do know what it means! Because I don’t speak French so it was just a phrase that I knew! But it had to be that one, so at that stage we had the cider and we had the name, and we know that this was just the perfect cider for that name. So Raison d’Être – “reason to be”, or “reason for being” depending on how you translate it was this Dabinett and Michelin fermented in oak barrel and it’s a vintage product.

So that first one was 2016, it got bottled in probably June 2018, so we sent the 200 litres away to Konstantin, the only draught Raison d’Être that ever existed, although it was recorded, as you do! And we put it in bottle. And we had a fun time with Kerry, our label designer at Ross on Wye, who’s done the new labels, and she’s also the designer for Graftwood [Ed: the cider magazine edited by Albert, Little Pomona’s James Forbes and your correspondant]. And I went down to London with her with a bottle of this cider and some of the other ones, and we had an afternoon drinking in the park, brainstorming ideas and coming up with what we thought were the important characteristics and so we launched with this beautiful label with the map of the farm – drawn slightly abstract and, since with the first version, a lot of people never realised it’s a map; we made it a bit more obvious – and “2016” emblazoned in gold so it could be a real statement piece that said “this is a cider about provenance, about terroir and about integrity”. And it was just so popular. We didn’t know what to expect because it was launching at a quite significantly higher price point than anything else we were selling; the highest-priced cider before, in terms of retail prices, was £6.50, but we wanted this one to be £10. So it was a bit of a jump, but it was a jump that I deemed necessary for the sustainability of the business. Because that same cider at £6.50 had been the retail price for 15 years. So we hadn’t really adjusted anything for a long time. And there was only 800 litres of it, and if this was the best cider we’ve made in all this time then surely it’s worth that extra money. And £10 is quite competitive these days, especially looking at the market now, it’s very good value.

So it went out, it was very popular, and I think it really did catapult us into wider recognition; it came at the perfect moment for us to join the wave of interesting cider and we had such fantastic champions like Dick and Cath in Manchester. [Ed: Dick Withecome and Cath Potter, founders of Manchester Cider Club and probably the UK’s foremost champions for aspirational cider]. So I first met them in November 2018, two months after we launched it at our festival in September, and then they took it back up there; it was what they were able to use to convince everyone in Manchester that cider was a real thing, and that it tasted seriously good. So we went back to the barn and we looked around desperately and I said “any more Dabinett and Michelin from 2017, do not do anything with it, because we need to bottle it so that we can do this again!” So I could see that I wanted it to be a vintage product, that it was the thing that would relate the seasonal or annual differences of Ross on Wye into bottle so that people can chart them. They can do that if they’re paying attention with the single varietal releases; Major or Foxwhelp or whatever, but this was going to really make it plain to people that they need to think about vintages in cider, and they should be paying attention to natural cider and to the different outcomes that every year can have. So, you know, this year, whether we’re going to get some rain, which I think is meant to come – doesn’t look like it yet! – this should also be a good year for apples. (Although it’s a bad year for some other reasons.)

But ’17, eventually, we had four barrels of Dabinett and one barrel of Michelin in the whole barn, and that was it. So we said “well ok, we’re going to blend this and see what it tastes like, and we’re going to bottle it if it tastes good”. So we did a test blend just in little cups and I thought “yeah, that’s the business, that’s exactly what I want”. So we did go ahead with it, or rather we blended it together and then dad [Ed: world-renowned cidermaker Mike Johnson] tasted it and he said “ah, no, that’s too smoky”, and I said “no it’s not, you’ve just forgotten what 2016 tastes like”. Because by this point 2016 had sold out months ago – it sold out in March, so we were blending and bottling this in May and we didn’t have any left. So I found – I had six precious bottles and I had to go and get one, to show that they were astounding similar in flavour. Which was unfortunate because it goes completely against what I was saying about seasonal variation! But it just worked out like this, and then when it did come to be released, obviously we’ve said it before, but ’17 came out and people who still had a bottle of the ‘16 could compare them and they’d say “well the ’17 tastes like the ’16 did when it was just coming out”. But now that it’s had that extra year it’s changed. But the ’17 was still just as popular and in fact aided by the Russians. So those people who first started it all off by taking some bag-in-boxes were also drawn into this new presentation for cider, so we’ve been able to send Raison over to Russia successfully.

Malt: You’re perhaps best known for championing single varieties. So why a blend for this one, and why Dabinett and Michelin?
Albert: Well so it’s sort of a matter of practicality, because that first cider was Dabinett and Michelin and I decided that it would be a nice thing if they were all the same – if they were all based on the original cider. So it was sort of just “we’ve done it once and it worked, so we’re going to stick with it”. But also, we like single varieties, but my dad is still a blender and we love single varieties for what they give us and for how there can be a variety for everyone, and some single varieties, obviously, can be much, much nicer than some blended ciders. But it’s probably not something you can argue with a straight face – that single varieties are inherently superior to blends – because just objectively that’s obviously not true. An apple on its own has a distinct flavour profile and you can add another apple to that cider and it adds to the flavour profile, it doesn’t take away from it. On its own they’re wonderful things and we’ve released obviously this year single varietals from French oak barrel [Ed: reviewed here] Dabinett and Michelin.

But Raison just makes sense as a blend because it’s meant to be a cider that is just supremely enjoyable. And when you add Michelin to Dabinett it just softens it, lifts it up with a little bit more acidity – not too much, it’s still a bittersweet apple – creates some smoothness and some grassy, green fruitiness that wouldn’t be there without it. So it’s a really important part of the blending for Raison. And then also it’s just they’re the two apples that are the most emblematic of our farm as well, because they’re the two apples that we grow the most of. So it’s also good business sense! They’re just really nice, and we’ve always loved ciders using Dabinett.

Malt: How have the Dabinett and Michelin proportions varied over the three years?
Albert: In the first year I think it was around 60:40. In ’17 it was 80% Dabinett, 20% Michelin, because that was all that was available. And this year it’s probably around 60:40 again.

Malt: You’re fierce champions of dry cider. What is it that you particularly love about that?
Albert: I don’t want to steal words from James and Susanna’s mouth [Ed: J&S Forbes, cidermakers at Little Pomona] but I interviewed them this week together and they expressed this in a really useful way. And we were just talking in general about what it means to make dry cider. And basically the thing is that in a fully-fermented dry cider you get flavours that don’t exist unless it’s fully fermented and unless it’s dry. You get a perception and an experience of sweetness that you don’t get from sugar; it’s an entirely different type of mouthfeel, texture and flavour that is coming from the fact that these are an amazing fruit to ferment. And so those are really privileged things to get to taste, and they don’t exist unless it’s a fully-fermented cider.

So, for us, it’s simply the fact that dry cider is the most expressive and most flavoursome cider out there. The fact that, I would say, as nice as keeved ciders and cold-racked Normandy ciders and everything is, and they’ve very pleasant and some of them are very, very well made – and very hard to make – they simply, by their very nature, will not have as expressive a flavour as a fully fermented one. That’s what we think. A lot of people disagree – especially if they don’t make it! But it’s just like … Raison wouldn’t work if it was sweet. And we know that because we drink it when it’s been bottle conditioned, so we add priming sugar, and you taste it, and it’s not apple sugar but it just knocks the whole thing out of its very delicate balance if it has sweetness in it.

Malt: On that note – as with pretty much everything, different cidermakers have different takes on what constitutes “bottle conditioning”. Talk us through what you do and the difference that makes.
Albert: The point of Raison d’Être is that it’s had time to mature. So it generally spends around six months in oak barrel – or at least some of the blend does; this year’s blend only about 25% of it, 35% of it was in barrel, and the rest wasn’t. So it ferments out entirely in that method. And we only rack it … we rack it once as an individual cider. So it’s pressed, it goes in barrel, we add what we consider to be a small and sensible amount of sodium metabisulphite, which for reference is something like 100 parts per million for something like Dabinett, which doesn’t have its ph adjusted or anything, so it’s well above 4.0ph. And then we’ll ferment that in barrel or in plastic tank. And then we’ll rack it off those gross, primary lees into a new barrel and sometimes, especially with the oak barrels, they’ll be taking up a lot of space, so we’ll tend to rack about five of them together into a plastic IBC. And we only rack it once because like I say we’re looking for fully-fermented cider. And our fermentations take a long time anyway, because our soil is not treated with fertiliser or nitrogen or anything like that, so we have ciders from last year that are still fermenting, even though it’s August. (And especially a lot of perry still, because perry hates fermenting!) We have ciders that take this long to ferment, so we don’t want to mess with them by racking them unnecessarily and slowing them down.

So they just have that one additional racking and then they will continue in their new tanks. And then when they’re ready for bottling they’ll get racked again into a fresh container where we will add priming sugar. So we will have a cider that continues to ferment for three or four months maybe. Maybe a bit longer, maybe a bit shorter. And we add 5 grams per litre of dissolved granulated sugar – or caster sugar, depending on what’s available. Which is basically because we think that actually they don’t affect the flavour at all. But we also use those ones for sweetening [Ed: for Birdbarker] in the sense that they impart the least flavour, only sweetness. Whereas if you sweeten with something like Muscovado sugar then you get a real rich, you know, rum flavour. But that’s a different topic.

So we prime like that and then we’ll add a similar amount, like 2% fresh or fermenting yeast if possible, so fermenting juice yeast, so the most recently-pressed juice we have available. And we do that because everything is wild. So that’s our pitch of yeast essentially, to make sure that there’s a live culture going in there that then will be racked obviously during bottling. Bottling’s a form of racking, so then it gets racked more or less the third and final time. Though with the new Raison [Ed: 2018] it’s the fourth and final time because it’s a large batch, so it would have been initially condensed into a few different barrels and then it would have been condensed further when it was blended.

Malt: This is the third edition of Raison d’Être now. How did the three vintages differ as growing years?
Albert: I don’t really know, ‘cause I wasn’t here! I’d have to speak to speak to dad, but he’d probably tell you that he didn’t pay much attention! The only thing we can say is that ’18 stood out for being a superb year for cidermaking. All cidermakers in the UK will agree. Significantly higher sugars than normal – probably 15% higher than normal, which is very significant. And so ’17 Raison, for example, was only 7.4% because it was a lower year and also odd years are our “on years”, if that makes sense? That’s when we have a big crop. [Ed: this pertains to the significant biennialism of cider apple trees – something to talk about more in a future article …] So those sugars will also get diluted a little bit if there’s a huge crop because the tree won’t be able to feed them all as well as it does in an “off year”.

’18 was a great year for fruit, but then it was exacerbated on our farm by being an “off year” for our trees. So we had less tonnage, so those sugars are even higher I think than if it had been a huge yield. And then so ’16 also followed that cycle in that it was a year with less fruit – not to the same extreme extent as ’18. ’18, actually, the blending we did with that one; the first blend we did came out at 9.3% when we just put together all of our oak barrel-fermented Dabinett and Michelin and 600 litres of plastic-fermented juice. So we were like “oh, crap.” [Ed: over 8.4% the UK government no longer recognises fermented apple juice as ‘cider’ and taxes it significantly higher as ‘made wine’] We haven’t had to do that in the past, really. So I tasted through some more neutral fermenters until I found one that was 7.8% and so we blended that.

Malt: I gather there’s rather more 2018 than you made of previous vintages? What was the thinking behind that?
Albert: Well that reason is one part of it, because we had to blend it because of the alcohol. But also, 1,000 litres was not enough. It can’t be a flagship cider if it’s always out of stock. And so we wanted to do more. Obviously 4000 litres is a big jump, but we know that this cider is real, real good. We always wanted to take advantage of the fruit because 2018 is such a good vintage, so there was always going to be more of it.

Malt: Let’s talk oak. What sort of casks are you using? What do you like about them?
Albert: We get delivered freshly-emptied barrels from Scotland every year and we are a little bit unique in that we only use our barrels once. So we ferment in the barrel, where the cider is consuming oxygen during fermentation, because obviously a barrel is porous (and we’re aware that plastic is as well, but in our opinion slightly less so than a barrel. That’s our experience). And so when the cider’s finished fermenting we rack out of it and then we don’t want to … we don’t have space for the barrels and we don’t want to mix them up with water to keep them full until the new season. So then we’ll discard them – well, not ‘discard them’, we’ll sell them to people as planters etcetera. But they come from all over Scotland; we haven’t ever had a say in what arrives. It used to be quite nice, because they come tagged and it’d tell you which distillery they’d come from, and we’d known that we had great barrels that came from Starlaw, Bowmore, Auchentoshan, Highland Park – all sorts of places. And lots of Islay barrels that we prize. For the 2018 we blended many of them.

So it’s almost like this is why we have different blended ciders; personally having these blended barrels probably helps expand on the flavours as well, rather than just having barrels from a single distillery. But this year’s going to be different for the 2019 Raison because we’ve got a normal shipment of barrels and they’re much more bourbon-influenced than in the past. So we’re not sure really how many were used for whisky in Scotland, if any, and the cider that is in them has got much more vanilla and aromatics and stuff like that than in the past. But we’ve also got eight Caol Ila barrels, which taste completely different. And they’ve got a little bit of peat; not as much as something like a Laphroaig, but they’ve got loads of sweetness from that peat. So it’s really … we were discussing it today, we don’t know which ones we want to use in Raison and which ones we might do something else with.

Malt: Presumably if you’re talking about a big, ripe vintage you’d want to show off more of the fruit anyway?
Albert: Yes, for sure. I meant the oak definitely transforms the cider; adds to it and can mask bits of it. So to be a true expression of the vintage, purely talking about the apples kind of thing then I guess you wouldn’t want any oak at all. But the changing oak year on year is also as much a feature of our variating cidermaking as the fruit is. So it’s still an interesting thing to think about: “oh this vintage is smokier than the last” or whatever. We were always trying to keep it so that the cider and the apple is the main component of the flavour. You know, when people taste Raison and the first thing they say is “oh that’s so smoky”, we say to ourselves, give them a moment and you’ll kind of adjust to the smoke if you’re not used to it, and you’ll get what it’s about. Because it’s not meant to be about the smoke; that’s there, but it’s about the fruit.

Malt: How is it working with your dad? Are your tastes the same? How do you come to decisions on the cider?
Albert: It’s really a wonderful working environment – it’s a big privilege to be involved in it and to be able to be handed this legacy. And our palates are very similar. They weren’t always, but everyone’s palates I think are constantly adjusting. Even this morning dad said, almost to himself – we were tasting a Hagloe Crab and he said “I actually don’t mind this. Maybe I’m getting better with acidic ciders”. But when it comes to tasting and blending – I mean to be a good cidermaker you have to assess things that aren’t your preference and still know whether they’re good or not. So when we’re working with something like Foxwhelp, you’re employing that assessment, even though it’s not something we would choose to drink, either dad or me. So we can be objective and we can come to agreements on stuff even if we have slightly different preferences. And that’s really how we do do everything, with John as well.

When we’re choosing something to blend I basically, most of the time, I put forward what I want to bottle or I want to keg or whatever and then we’ll have a group tasting and discuss it, and they’ll maybe suggest alternatives and basically build a sense of what we’re going to do. That’s how it works. But sometimes dad will come down and say “oh I’ve bottled this” and then that’s always the cider that everyone’s like “oh that’s incredible”. I don’t mind when he does that!

Malt: You’ve released some wonderful limited edition ciders and perries in 750 ml bottles this year. Obviously whilst we’ve been drinking at home I’ve seen them splashed all over twitter. How do they sell at your re-opened pub, the Yew Tree?
Albert: At the moment they’re slower than 500ml bottles or draught cider. I think it’s the nature of it being a pub rather than a bottle shop or a tap room or a restaurant. Most people seem to buy big bottles to take away. It’s a lower number, but if you think three years ago we weren’t selling anything 750ml with a crown cap for people to drink in at all. We had a few screw-capped bottles and we had a few crown-capped batches of cider that had been there for two or three years because people just didn’t pay attention to them. So it’s gone from nothing to be a growing variety of what cider is drunk at the Yew Tree. And it should be dead obvious from the decisions we’ve made in the business – we’re optimistic that it’s going to keep growing. And from my point of view if you have one bottle of Raison d’Être 2018, you’re going to have two, and you may well have a third on the same night. Especially if there’s two of you, then it’s a sure thing. Because it’s a cider that’s just so sort of pleasant. But, you know, and it’s going to be true for a long time, the bestselling drink at the pub is Birdbarker. Because people want an easy one to sip. On the whole if you look at our sales Raison d’Être is right up there with Birdbarker in terms of being the bestselling product for us to trade, and as an ambassadorial cider. We barely export any Birdbarker but we export a lot of Raison.

Malt: How important have you found that added premiumisation in terms of perhaps shaping perceptions of Ross on Wye and bringing in new customers in the last few years?
Albert: I think it does bring in new people. I think there’s a lot of people who look at traditional bottles of cider, including our own, and just immediately disregard it. For whatever reason; whether they just don’t like it, whether they’ve had a faulty one or whatever. But when they see a cider that’s presented like this it appeals to people who don’t know what it is, or who had previously overlooked it. And particularly, the most important thing it does it that it makes people appreciate it. If they go out on a limb and they buy a bottle of this then they’re going to pay attention to it. And I think it’s when you’re paying attention that you get the most out of cider, because the flavours on cider’s palate you don’t get on other drinks, you don’t get in food; it’s stuff that you’re not used to tasting unless you’re a cider or perry drinker.

And I think particularly perry has benefitted from this new angle – new presentation. Because from our point of view, being perry producers for a long, long time, it was doing ok, it was about 25% of our production back in 2012, and then Kopparberg arrived and changed the fruit cider world forever by introducing these really low juice content, really low-value products, and particularly ‘Pear Cider’. And that just sort of removed the word ‘perry’ from peoples’ drinking lexicons. And it’s taken this new-found sort of way of standing up for itself – being in a fancy bottle – to get people to learn about it again. And perry has bounced back; it went from 25% in 2012 to 6% in 2018, and then since we’ve started doing this we’ve made more and more. So last year it was 10%, because we ran out of pears, and we wish we made more. Our perry’s been so popular that we don’t have any bag-in-box perry – I don’t know when it’ll come back. We don’t have any more, ad even if we do make more it may be too in-demand to go into the big boxes. Perry is so important because it’s incredibly hard to make. And it’s not worth making unless you can sell it for a good price. But it’s just worked out so well that the people who are buying it get that and they’re happy to support.

Malt: Let’s talk about social media for a moment. You’re probably the most prominent and prolific cider voice on twitter. How important is it? Is it something that craft cider generally needs to improve at?
Albert: Well I’m prolific on twitter because I grew up in my bedroom in front of a computer, and so I love the internet and I enjoy the feeling of being connected and having a platform to tell my friends about the world of cider anyway. So it’s actually a great way for me to keep in touch with everybody. And I think that we’ve benefitted enormously at Ross from our social media just through me being me. Because I’ve seen people say that, at the breweries when they were smaller, it was the owner or the brewer who did social media and it was authentic and engaging. And then they’ve quickly grown and it’s a PR company and it’s not quite the same. And so when you are small it’s a wonderful opportunity to be able to get across your personality, and obviously this is an interview, but on social media it’s your voice and no one’s translating it, or no one’s paraphrasing it, so you can really, directly communicate to hundreds, thousands of people that you can’t do by not using it. And, you know, it does take time, but how much time it takes is up to you, and you can use it without it being dominating. I mean yeah, craft cider should definitely use social media. And I think it’s getting there, but it needs to continue to.

Malt: Where do you see the problems and challenges for craft cider at the moment?
Albert: The biggest problem is that there aren’t enough good quality producers. There’s not enough – it’s not ‘honesty’, but I can’t think of a better word – about what is good quality cider. We need more good producers, we need more producers to realise automatically for themselves “am I really proud about what I’m producing, or do I know it should have been better; it’s not as good as it should be”. And then, when we have that, we will have more producers all around the country able to supply locally, then there’s more opportunity to buy it locally. And when it’ more widely found in pubs then we’ll have more drinkers and more people buying cider. And when there’s more demand for cider then we’ll have more producers. So this is the fundamental problem – it’s a circular problem – that cider doesn’t have enough producers, but it doesn’t have enough availability to create demand to get more producers. So cider needs people to be going out on a limb to create amazing products, so we can overcome being reliant on reliant outstanding individuals doing outstanding products. But this is thinking in the very, very long term. Because cider is so small, and so hard to produce in large quantities, and so hard to find the market for.

Malt: You’ve described yourself as having unshakeable belief in what you do and in the style of cider that you like to make – how important is that mentality? Does it create any difficulties?
Albert: Well we have unshakeable belief in the fact that products like Raison d’Être are what we’re most proud of; they’re what we most like talking to people about. But we make compromises where business decisions demand it. So we still have products that are pasteurised, we still have products that are back-sweetened, and we make one or two products that are very partially diluted. And we don’t have … I gave a talk at last year’s CraftCon about running a successful cider company. And I think that the two things that you need to be are aspirational, so that you do make products like Raison; you do make expensive, high-quality, really fantastic ciders, but you also have to compromise. You have to work out what you need to do to make your business viable, you need to work out if you need to make something like Birdbarker to keep that cashflow going round, so that you can pay everybody all round the year and keep the lights on.

And, for us, we just want to keep our farm going, we want to expand our enterprises, we want to protect our trees and we want to keep everybody that we’ve employed secure. And so we take decisions from all of these things. And the fact is that we get to make the cider that we want to make because we compromise in other areas. So we don’t live the most luxurious life, but we accept that because there are so many privileges in what we do otherwise. It’s enough for us to keep going because we get to produce and drink something that we love. I think there are some people who get into cidermaking and see a market that doesn’t have many large-scale producers and they think “oh I can be a large-scale craft producer”. And then they’re coming to it from the wrong angle. A lot of the best producers started making it from fruit in their garden or fruit from their village and one day just by accident they were a commercial cidermaker. And I think it’s a long-term commitment to the process of cidermaking, and fascination with cidermaking, that tends to result in the best producers. I mean not everybody started like that. But the market for cider is not there to make loads and loads of money, and I think a lot of people would say that as well, but it can make you a living and it can make you happy, and that’s something to be grateful for.

Malt: What are your hopes and plans for the future, both for Ross specifically and for real cider as a whole category?
Albert: What I really hope is going to take off is keg conditioned cider. Because I think it’s a fantastic product; it’s made the same way as the bottle conditioned, you have your cider, whether you do it pét-nat, just with the natural sugars, or you give it time to mature and you’ve re-primed it, and it goes into a key keg – and it needs a key-keg or a poly-keg – so that the liquid is in its bag, whilst the co2 that pushes the liquid out doesn’t mix with the liquid, or it would defeat the purpose of it being conditioned in keg.
You are conditioning the cider in the keg to create natural co2 as a by-product of that fermentation. You then have to ensure that that cider doesn’t then have co2 pumped into it like in a normal style keg, which then pushes the cider through the line. In a keykeg or equivalent, the co2 fills the outer shell and compresses the bag, pushing the cider out without mixing the co2 with your product. So if you had that co2 mixing with your natural conditioning, it would instantly change the cider, and defeat the purpose of it being keg conditioned.
You end up with this purely natural product with very, very fine light bubbles from conditioning and I just think that it tastes great. And I think the best thing about it, the thing that we can all celebrate, is that other than the kegs, which are expensive, there’s no capital cost. If you want to do a force-carbonated keg you have to send it away and develop all those road-miles back and forth with your product or you have to make a huge capital investment in equipment to do it yourself. If you do a dry one then it’s not so bad, but the whole concept of our Birdbarker which is back-sweetened, force carbonated – it needs stabilising, needs that carbonating done. But a keykeg anybody can do it. So any cidermaker can do it, and it tastes great, it’s reliable, it’s safe, there’s a lot of things to celebrate in terms of how it can democratise the market for us. So I really hope that more drinkers start to engage with that and that more producers pick up on it. I just heard today that from Susannah at Fram Ferment that she reckons there’s going to be a permanent keg-conditioned Ross Cider line at Fram, so that’s just music to my ears, because it’s such an endorsement of this concept. And I think that can happen in the wider cider market; it’s not just us at Ross on Wye, or Little Pomona who pioneered it before us, but I can see Dave at ‘Udder’s Orchard in Huddersfield, he’s done his first keg-conditioned cider, and James and Colleen at Duckchicken have done one this harvest, so last year there were two, this year there’s four, and maybe more still to come.

And then for Ross on Wye I hope we can continue to sell more 750s. I’ve just ordered a ludicrous amount so it would make me very happy if everybody could buy them all. I think that’s it really, we’re trending well. I mean we’re working on our grafting project, we didn’t manage to do as much as it this year as last year, but now I think we’ve got maybe twenty varieties, all with at least thirteen trees growing and they’ll produce their first crop in five or six years, and then we’ll be able to double our single varietal range, so that’s something to look forward to and celebrate when it happens. We’ve got a big fire-blight problem in our perry orchard that I’m worried about, an unpreventable, uncurable disease, and you just have to cut it out. And I hope we can cut it out before it kills all of our trees. But even if it doesn’t I’m going to try and find the money and the time to plant very significantly more perry trees this year to sort of insure us for the future. Because they take so long to grow, so if I don’t do it now then I’ll never do it.

On that note, it’s about time we drank some Raison d’Être. I’ve all three vintages in front of me, for which I have to thank Albert again. As noted in the interview, ’16 and ’17 are now all but extinct in the wild, although I recently unearthed what must be some of the very last bottles of the 2016 at Middle Farm in Sussex, and the 2017 at the time of writing is down to its last two bottles via The New Union in Cumbria or “the last few” at Fram Ferment, at £10 a bottle in both cases. 2018 has yet to be launched, but will be around £10 a bottle from Ross when it does and likely a similar price from Scrattings and elsewhere.

Those sharp of eye will have realised that I am covering the 2017 for a second time on Malt. But given the evolutionary nature of bottled cider and the fresh context that will be offered by sitting it beside the ’16 and ’18 I hope readers will offer me indulgence on that score.

Finally, as an extra ‘Easter Egg’, I have a 250ml bottle of ‘Dabinett Oak Cask Matured Batch B64A’ from the 2012 vintage at Ross. Although a single variety, it serves as something of an “origins story” to Raison d’Être. When Albert came home from University in the USA he bottled 1000 litres of it. He’s since called it “the most important cider of my life … the precursor to the cider we now call Raison d’Être … the epitome of what we do at Ross.” Without B64A there may well not have been a Raison d’Être and as part of the Raison story it merits inclusion in today’s vertical. If you happen to find it in the wild I would be extremely grateful if you would quietly let me know where …

Ross on Wye Dabinett Oak Cask Matured Batch B64A- review

Colour: Burnished gold.

On the nose: Huge, rich and deep. Fulsome and so ripe that it almost borders on sweet in the expression of its fruit. Packed with orange and mature, dried apple and vanilla tones. There are developed notes of sandalwood and cinnamon I would expect in an aged Rioja, but presented here alongside apple fruit. There’s certainly tertiary development.

In the mouth: Full, ripe and yet still with that little lift of conditioned freshness. Tannins are luscious and entirely melded into the developed apple, vanilla and dried orange. Plenty of classic earthy Ross minerality. Generous, pillowy soft, but retains its firmness of structure underneath. Absolutely dry. Dabinett at its most complete.

Ross on Wye Raison d’Être 2016 – review

Colour: The same.

On the nose: Instantly smokier than the 2012, though the fruit over the last couple of years has increasingly enveloped that smoke and now holds the tiller hand. Where the 2012 is all deep, matured fruit, this is more on the cusp twixt fresh and dried. Firmer. Less sweet. Red apples and oranges. Oak and nettle. Four years have knitted it into a harmonious whole.

In the mouth: Fabulous delivery. Plush, ripe, black and orange fruit sits a beat ahead of oak and smoke, themselves a nose ahead of pronounced tannin and a bracing, drying pithiness. Protein please! Those spicy, savoury, tertiary notes typical of aged claret or Rioja creep in along with a dark chocolate. Starting to soften, but the structure is still of steel. We’ve years left to go here. Just the lightest, lightest trace of fizz. The finish is all Ross earthiness and iron and drying leaf. Complex and mesmerising.

Ross on Wye Raison d’Être 2017 – review

Colour: A tone brighter and lighter.

On the nose: The smokiest yet. Unlike the ’16, which has really pushed on this year, ’17 is still broadly as it was on release. Campfire and leather and vanilla and orange. Forest floor, ripe apple and light meatiness. It’s a more intense and firm aroma than ’16; the elements haven’t quite yet harmonised to the same degree.

In the mouth: Same story. Pronounced oak and smoke and lovely ripe apple, but where ’16 is mingling and intertwangling, the elements of ’17 are boldly distinct. Very, very layered though – comes in waves. Mixed citrus chewits with a seam of nettle over cigar and chopped nuts and soil. Smoke returns markedly on the very drying finish along with firm, astringent tannin. Epic stuff, but if you can bear to leave it a year or so more then do.

Ross on Wye Raison d’Être 2018 – review

Colour: Back to ’16 and ’12.

On the nose: An absolutely enormous wumph of ripe, juicy apples and oranges atop a big green bed of nettle, a fatty meatiness, savoury pastry and a lick of vanilla. Nothing dried here – it’s all fresh fruit. Not quite as intensely and pointedly aromatic as the ’17 – fatter and softer and riper and rounder. If there’s any smoke at all it’s the teensiest, weensiest wisp.

In the mouth: Biggest body of the lot by miles. And a juice bomb: apples mingling with savourier, leafier green tones and the sweeter vanillin shades of oak. Then suddenly in comes the finish – and the smoke and nuts and savoury, soily spice – which just continues to dry and dry and dry ad infinitum. This is where the bittering pith comes in and shows this cider’s youth, though the tannins themselves have been wrapped up in all that juiciness. Spices aren’t as sweet or developed as in ’16 or ’17, though I’d say this is easier to drink in youth thanks to its huge, ripe, friendly delivery. That said, it’ll last for years. Definitely keep some back.

Conclusions

The boring bit first. 2012 is unquestionably, of the quartet, the one that is at the top of its curve. It’s difficult to imagine this getting better than it is already; that development of fruit, mature tertiary character and softness of body all point to something that is bang in its drinking window, and should be enjoyed now if you happen to have bottles.

The Raisons, whilst not quite as developed as the 2012, all edge it for complexity. Tasting them side by side, at different stages in their journey, is a privilege. As fascinating for the shared core of their DNA as for the differences that characterise each individual vintage. For current drinking 2016 is the best. In fact I’m astonished by just how far it has progressed in six months; tasting it in January it remained incredibly close to the 2017, but it has since kicked on into new realms of complexity and harmoniousness and depth. I will be interested to revisit the 2017 over the next couple of years and see whether, with its extra proportion of Dabinett, it takes a little while longer to unfurl. 2017 itself has an arresting directness and intensity. Its components haven’t quite fully harmonised; they’re all laid out in individual contrast. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a delicious thing – the geophysicist’s pick of the set, in fact – but if you have bottles left and can bear to wait a while, I suspect you’ll be rewarded.

The 2018 is a different beast entirely; whilst sharing that earthy, slatey Ross DNA it is fatter, richer, more forthright of fruit and luscious of body. It drinks tremendously already, but the wise amongst our readers will eke out whatever they buy over as long a period as they can restrain themselves for. This has, without question, years in the tank.

What all three Raisons unquestionably share is a markedly drying finish. It’s where the smoke really lands on the ’18, and where a bittering pithiness comes through in both of the two most recent vintages. My recommendation would be to open them with either steak or some other form of meaty protein; something to gobble up the tannin and bitterness until your palate has become accustomed to it. After which you can make your merry way through the bottle(s) over the course of a long evening.

The fulcrum around which criticism turns is love. For everything which is emetic and insipid there is something else which is profound and inspired, and criticism demands – requires – recognition of both. In wine or perry or cider’s parlance, that which sits in the highest echelon is that which speaks most eloquently of the place in which it is made and the care and philosophy which nurtured it from fruit to bottle. These are the drinks which inspire the deepest devotion; the liquids that move beyond basic flavour into tangible feeling; which can claim most compellingly to possess some species of a soul.

By that metric; the metric of care taken from bud to bottle; of wrung heart and iron conviction made manifest in the liquid in your glass, I can think of a few ciders with as much soul as Raison d’Être, but none with more. It is certainly a cider that nestles in the crook of mine; this quintessence of Broome Farm trees and belief; the Grand Vin of Ross on Wye.

Huge thanks to Albert for going to that extraordinary level of detail in talking to me and for providing samples when he knew he certainly wouldn’t need to.

CategoriesCider
Adam Wells
Adam Wells

In addition to my weekly-ish articles on Malt I write about whisky for Distilled and cider for Graftwood and Full Juice Magazines. Somewhere amidst all that I've also done the WSET Diploma in Wine and Spirits. I share my home with several hundred bottles and one geophysicist. For miscellaneous drinks banality, find me on twitter at Twitter.com/DrinkScribbler

  1. Avatar
    Tom F says:

    Hello Adam,
    thanks to Malt for hosting a cider page, & thanks to yourself for your hard work on cider, (is a labour of love hard work?). I’m often critical of what I perceive as chancers aka entrepreneurs in cider (the whisky bubble is full of them), and was impressed by Albert Johnsons comments of some of the newcomers in cider that are looking for the “fast buck” rather than producing a quality product. As he says, you can make a comfortable living by not charging the earth.
    After your constant wittering about Ross’s premium bottlings I finally purchased a Thorn Perry & yes it had a bags of character although the acidity was rather rich for my palate. I took a taster round to a neighbour who’s a big fan of dry Sav Blanc & (as you suggested) she absolutely loved it! Fresh from my discovery of Ross’s premium cider I tracked down a Raison d’Etre 2017, the shop only had 1 so sent down a Ashton Brown Jersey along with it. Very impressed with the Raison but equally impressed with theABJ. Ross’s (& Scrattings) will be getting more of my money when the whisky budget allows.

    1. Adam Wells
      Adam Wells says:

      Hi Tom

      Thanks so much for reading and engaging with the cider posts, and I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed exploring Ross’s range. The 2018 Raison has my full endorsement when it becomes available tomorrow (as is pretty clear from the article!) The Thorn’s certainly no shrinking violet, but I must admit that I love its sheer full-on-ness!

      I was really pleased Albert agreed to the interview. Obviously super experienced, steeped in the world of cider, talks really well and is wonderfully forthright to boot. Totally take the point that a few makers are (possibly) trying to run before they can walk a bit. That being said, proper cider has been underpriced for years, and I guess if people want to drink stuff that’s made the best way, with the best equipment, without fault (lots of those around in cider) by people who really, properly care, there has to be some financial incentive for the makers. No point sweating their guts out all year just for peanuts at the end of it.

      Obviously where I do get massively turned off is if stuff that I believe to be faulty gets highly priced. To be honest I’m not happy drinking acetic, mousey, H2S-affected stuff at any price, but it particularly smarts when you’ve shelled out for it. As Tom Oliver says in my interview with him on Malt, there possibly need to be conversations about what really great cider is and – de facto – what it is not. And then hopefully within these conversations can come shared knowledge, technical expertise and whatever. The great thing is that they’re already happening: as Andrew Lea says in the chat we recorded, faulty ciders used to be a lot more prevalent even 10-15 years ago. Fingers crossed that in another few years they’ll be scarcer still.

      That was a pretty meandering response to your question – sorry! Thanks again for reading, and best of luck with your explorations.

      Best wishes

      Adam W.

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