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Cider communication: we need to talk

My Malt colleague Jon recently wrote compellingly about experiencing imposter syndrome when he writes his (excellent) articles here. A “sense of inferiority … leading to paralysing levels of nerves.” I cannot begin to tell you how seen I felt when I read it.

I have covered the world of drinks as a hobbyist blogger for getting on six years now, and I can’t think of an article I’ve posted without feeling, in the grottiest little ventricle of my heart, a sense of “what right do I have to comment on this subject? What’s the relevance of what I have to say? Who cares what I think? Who even reads this crap? Why did I use that word? What the hell is that comma doing there?” My long-suffering, indulgent editors will tell you that there have been more than a few occasions on which, having sent an article over to them, I have hastily emailed again asking for it to be withdrawn on grounds of general rubbishness. Large numbers of my subject lines, even for the ones I don’t recall, read words to the effect of “a bit shit, this one, I’m afraid.”

The needling sense of futility, irrelevance and pooterish presumption is sharpened when I come into contact with a paid-up, pukker ink-widdler. Personally, the thought of admitting bloggership to a professional drinks commentator curdles my innards. I once, long before my Malt days, back when I scratched away at my own shabby little website, found myself sitting unexpectedly next to a Master of Wine at an event. Somehow the talk turned to whisky and my well-meaning friend mentioned that I wrote a whisky blog. As I withered in my seat muttering protestations of “just a stupid little thing really”, the MW asked whether I ever felt I was just shouting into the void. Of course I do. Always. Every article. God knows how many hundred-thousand words later.

When you have the privilege of writing about whisky on Malt, the sense that no one is listening relaxes, even if the imposter syndrome is dramatically inflated. By the end of this year, if we don’t exceed it, we will have got near-as-damnit to four million hits in 2020. A mind-boggling total for which we are all profoundly grateful. It’s a number we’ve arrived at through huge personal effort from Mark and Jason, through posting daily, long-form content and through bringing in an enormous number of individual, disparate voices. The strength of Malt is our collective. We are many, many times stronger than the sum of our parts.

With cider it’s a bit different. I couldn’t be more grateful that Mark and Jason offered to let me hijack Saturdays for content that is not only a world away from our norm, but also elicits angry comments from some readers demanding to know why the weekends taste so much like apples these days. Writing about cider on Malt automatically gives me a platform I couldn’t dream of were I to have set out on my own and takes away any responsibility for editing, scheduling and publicising to boot. Broadly speaking I just bash content into a word doc, take a bad picture with a brick wall background, shove them both in an email and let the editors do the rest. It’s an extraordinarily privileged existence. But I still feel, from time to increasingly-regular time, like a lonely, irrelevant ghost at the feast. There isn’t that same collective of common-cause scribes that the site has with whisky. There isn’t that comfort blanket of camaraderie when you wonder what value your posts actually hold; whether anyone gives a damn. And, inevitably, the reading numbers and levels of engagement aren’t a scratch on that which we enjoy on other days. I write about cider because I couldn’t find the sort of articles that I wanted to read; regular, in-depth, long-form, challenging, critical in the term’s purest sense, informative and independent. And, more importantly, because it is something that I love to do. But the moments of soul-wringing “what’s the point? Who’s reading?” pessimism have lately begun to feel more acute.

I took a particular turn for the self-pitying recently when I came across something about cider writing generally, and not a single site was called out as a particular example worth sticking a bookmark in. Confirmation, I was hasty to convince myself, of Malt’s irrelevance to cider. Woe is me. But as that unworthy reaction skittered through my mind it occurred to me that I’m every bit as culpable of not highlighting those writers and websites which have provided personal inspiration; people who have been of profound importance to my exploration of cider, have helped shape and develop my views and who continue to push me personally in the composition of my own pieces.

There are no full-time cider writers in the world. There are a very small number of prominent voices who do incredible work and who have widened the goalposts of cider communication. I don’t need to list their names or designations here; you likely know who they are. But behind those voices is a growing corps of brilliant, insightful, eloquent, thought-provoking writers and communicators doing tremendous work to broaden our knowledge and understanding about cider and to point us towards the industry’s best angels. The sum of their pieces is a portfolio of cider information directed at the drinker that is unprecedented in its scope. But there isn’t a cider writer’s guild; there’s nothing that binds these talented individuals, and it struck me that several, perhaps many of them, may share to a greater or lesser extent my frequent moments of self-doubt and “who’s listening?” futility. So I thought I’d try to join them up by pointing you towards some of the cider communicators you ought to be reading, watching and listening to if you aren’t already.

The obvious starting point, certainly in the UK, is James Finch. Yes – hands up – he’s become a good friend and a co-writer here on Malt. But long before I wrote any of my cider articles, his pieces on Crafty Nectar and his own blog highlighting such things as apple varieties and the need for transparency were giving drinkers an outlet to push the conversation forwards to the place it finds itself today. I’ve lost count of the number of Fine Cider Friday videos he’s made now; again dating back to a time well before such things were picked up by national media. His Instagram live conversations with cidermakers, still available on his feed, gave in-depth voice to producers who don’t always enjoy column inches. And that’s before we look at the several articles he has contributed to this website. Quite simply, without James Finch the conversation and culture of online cider lovers would not be where it is today. Nobody puts so much effort in with so little thought of personal reward, and he doesn’t get half the shout-outs and accolades his game-changing body of work deserves. If anyone deserves the title King of the Cider Wafflers, it’s James.

Pellicle, on the very small chance that it isn’t already, simply has to be on your radar. It covers beer first and foremost, but the cider articles they have published, by, to date, Lily Waite, Katie Mather, Nicci Peet, Laura Hadland, Anthony Gladman, Helen Jerome, Madeleine Herbert and Matthew Curtis, are amongst the best written on the subject by anyone anywhere. They’re spotlight specialists, taking eloquent, comprehensive looks at some of the most aspirational makers in the UK. They are, simply, a transportive joy to read over a morning’s coffee. It is always a special Wednesday when they release something about cider. Since I’ve mentioned Anthony Gladman already, now seems a good time to point you towards his blog, where you’ll find a few more of his excellent apple-scented musings.

Burum Collective has, from a standing start a few months ago, become one of my favourite places to read about cider. It helps – it almost always does – that the Burum group are some of the nicest folk I’ve met on my drinks travels, but even if I’d never met any of them I’d be ushering you towards Ben’s cider pieces as essential reading. And I was thrilled when Burum’s Chief Engineer Helen agreed to lead an interview with the Cider Women committee here on Malt. Go back and read it if you haven’t already. Oh, and it might not be about cider, but this Burum piece pairing wine with lockdown food is one of my favourite drinks articles of the year. If it doesn’t make you smile, you’re a lost cause. I want to write an equivalent matching aspirational ciders to crisps.

Another site that has pushed itself into essential reading (and viewing) territory in the last year is the Learn and Discover section on CAMRA. For a long time I wasn’t entirely sure quite what the Campaign’s position on proper cider was, but the coherence and energy they’ve shown in recent times has been remarkable and inspiring. In fact I’d argue that the breadth videos and articles on their site now, aimed at all levels of discovery, make it the second-most essential cider drinker’s resource on the web. *Ahem*.

It’s not easy to keep up with international ciders from the UK, but there are a handful of blogs that offer sterling service in this respect. Most of my interest in Australian cider comes through Hugh’s excellent Real Cider Reviews, whilst Meredith’s long-standing Along Came a Cider will give you significant coverage of the enormous and expanding American scene. On the European front, Natalia’s posts on Cider Explorer aren’t as regular as they once were, but her back catalogue of German ciders particularly is enormous – an invaluable resource. And I’m not sure you’ll find more tasting notes of UK ciders anywhere then you will on Nick’s sorely-missed Cider Blog. No one has helped me get to grips more with the goings-on of French cider than Calyce Cidre’s Camille. I’d heartily advocate her extensive blog posts on the subject to anyone. And  Haritz at Ciderzale should be your first port of call for information on Basque ciders and those of wider Spain – my trip to San Sebastian at the start of the year simply wouldn’t have been the same without him, and he has since been of immeasurable help in brokering this morning’s interview with Ion at Zapiain.

The written word may be by far the greatest medium of communication *more coughing* but other mechanisms are available, and there’s no better place to start than Ria’s utterly blockbusting Cider Chat podcast, now with well over two hundred episodes to feast your ears on. I’m a big fan of Ben and Albert’s work on CiderVoice, putting similar questions to an array of great producers to show the diversity of practice and ethos that exists in UK cidermaking. And if you have any long car drives still to make when you’ve finished all those, the potty-mouthed but exceptionally well-informed and tremendously fun bunch at the UK’s brand new Neutral Cider Hotel will sort you out nicely with news, laughs, in-depth chats with special guests and tasting notes that are nearly as good as mine. Whilst we’re checking in at the NCH, what list of cider resources would be complete without a link to its concierge’s blog, The Ciderologist? (Although these days you’re more likely to catch Gabe by visiting the Ciderologist facebook or Instagram pages … or by turning your TV on at the weekend.

Just writing that list, by no means an exhaustive one, makes me feel incredibly lucky to be a cider wonk at the end of 2020. There has never been more information waiting to be dug up, more opportunity to share opinions, ideas and knowledge, nor more people intent on doing just that on our behalf. We’ve long had a list of worthwhile fellow whisky blogs on the Malt resources page; thanks to the largesse and broad-mindedness of my editor, Jason, it has been expanded to include an equivalent for cider. But our list is certainly not exhaustive, and any help building it out would be hugely appreciated. If I’ve missed anyone important, do let me know in the comments. I haven’t even mentioned Full Juice or Graftwood Magazines (whose taste in contributors and co-editors respectively has come along splendidly this year). And I’ve certainly not touched on their equivalents overseas, of which I know shamefully little, besides being aware that I’m long overdue subscribing to Malus.

And that, I think, is the key point. Cider communicators are an enthused, passionate, obsessive bunch, but one with a historic* tendency to feel rather disparate. We’re energetic but individual electrons whizzing around the nucleus of cider; like our subject itself we could do with being more joined up. Mirroring the writers on Malt, we are stronger by far as a collective; when we are promoting and championing the wider body as well as just that part for which we are responsible ourselves. There is more than space within the growing world of cider for all of us to co-exist and it is joined-up thinking which will push at the boundaries of the most interested bubble. Believe me, I know how dispiriting it can be when it seems people only take notice of 5-you-need-to-try-style articles from barely-interested broadsheets. But for cider communication to flourish to its fullest potential we have to look a little further than our own self-interest. Otherwise we might as well be those irrelevant, small, lone voices shouting hopelessly into the void.

*Yes. I know. Strictly it’s ‘an historic’. But I just can’t bring myself to write that in a self-respecting sentence. Sorry pedants.

Lead image from Photo by ELEVATE, with other images from their respective sites.

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, one geophysicist and a small fluffy whirlwind called Nutmeg. For miscellaneous drinks banality, find me on twitter at Twitter.com/DrinkScribbler

  1. Avatar

    Thank you for your openness. I’m not sure if this will help, because everybody is different, but my advice is: write for yourself, and only for yourself. Don’t worry about what anybody else might think. Who cares what other people think? If they like it, that’s a bonus. If they don’t, feck ’em.

    1. Adam Wells
      Adam Wells says:

      Cheers Martyn

      That’s definitely something I try to do. Certainly wouldn’t publish anything I didn’t full-heartedly believe (even if it’s got me into hot water a couple of times.)

      Really appreciate the support – and thank you for reading.

      Best wishes

      Adam W.

  2. Avatar
    Pablo says:

    Adam,

    as someone who is always looking forward to your next article I feel compelled to tell you that you’re definitely not shouting into a void. At least I very much hope I’m not that hollow a recipient.

    Admittedly though, as I didn’t have time recently to read Malt as thoroughly and frequently as I used to, I only skimmed through some of your more in-depth pieces on cider. Meanwhile, if one of your often more humorous articles on whisk(e)y appears, I almost always read it entirely. Because well… I like me some light tone and good humour. Maybe I’m a bit more hollow than I like to admit after all…

    When covering cider I noticed that you tend to adopt a more serious, less tongue-in-cheek style. You did voice a few times, that you deem it important to advocate the quality cider domain as a whole, to bring it to a greater audience, to showcase the great efforts of the people in the cider scene. Hence also not giving out grades in order to not interfere with this greater proposition (as I understand).
    I don’t know if this is one of the reasons behind the – to me – more serious tone of your work on cider. All I know is that I would definitely love some more tongue-in-cheek, edgy cider-articles. Maybe it would give other readers less prepared for the deep-dives more exposure to cider journalism as well. This might of course be a completely wrong assumption since I don’t know the reader counts on your humouristic articles. But then again…

    In concordance with Martyn, I’m not saying you should cater to an audience. Your in-depth reviews, reports and interviews are amazing and of huge value. It’s just meant as a general observation, maybe it can be of some kind of help.

    Greetings from Germany
    Pablo

    1. Adam Wells
      Adam Wells says:

      Hi Pablo

      What a thoughtful – and thought-provoking – post. Thanks so much for taking the time to compose it.

      It’s an interesting observation you make regarding the differences in tone and I’m sure you’re right. I certainly agree, to an extent, that I see my remit as to thrust real/fine/aspirational/just plain interesting cider into a spotlight and bring it to a new audience. And since I buy 95% of the ciders I review with my own money, I dare say I’m often careful to avoid buying anything rubbish! That said, looking through my pieces you’ll find plenty I’ve cited as (in my opinion) faulty, including bottles from such tremendous makers as Oliver’s and Little Pomona. I’ve talked a lot about the general problems with faults and with the various other difficulties involved with real cider and perry. In short: I’m not here to coddle, I’m here to critique in the purest sense; to look under the rock and speak as I believe I find. In cider, as in whisky, as in any field, the most dangerous thing is when people with a platform start withholding truths and being misleading, after all.

      That being said, I think my approach is slightly different principally because the two worlds are so different. When I’m writing about whisky, although there are several new-wave distilleries determined to do things the best way, the hard way, the way that impacts most flavour, vast swathes of the industry engage in what, to my mind, are cynical practices. Artificial colouring, shorter fermentations and distillations, more efficient strains of yeast that produce less flavour, over-use of barrels. I could go on, and that’s before we get into things like chill-filtration and minimum-strength bottling. Of course there are cynical practices amongst cidermakers too, particularly (but not exclusively) those involved in the more industrial side of things. But – and this is the crucial point – whiskies, made with all those corners cut, are then pitched to us by enormous conglomerates as something luxurious, something of the highest quality. They’re then marketed with some irrelevant nonsense or other and flogged for increasingly laughable price tags. And I suppose that makes me very angry, and I suppose on those grounds it’s my opinion that a more scathing, occasionally piss-taking tone is called for.

      With cider I’m very aware that most of what I review has been made as a small-scale labour of love by someone who isn’t making much money on it, who faces all sorts of difficulties and challenges selling it, and who has to convince the public that this thing s/he has created isn’t white lightning gut-rot or some impenetrable, undrinkable scrumpy. On the occasions when a fault has arisen, for example, it may be that the maker isn’t entirely aware of it, or hasn’t been told how to prevent it. Cider at the interesting end is really getting started, and the onus is, as I see it, on me to investigate it and shine a light on its better angels whilst engaging in the most constructive way possible with the challenges that currently face it.

      That’s probably a long-winded (and still not comprehensive) answer to your question, but I hope it makes some sort of sense. Scores? I’m still to-ing and fro-ing. (I didn’t even give them for whisky before I joined Malt and wrote our scoring bands.) There are reasons to do so and reasons not to. Is our 10 point scale the best one for cider? Would it stop people actually reading the notes? Now that we’ve built up such a bank of reviews I’d hope that readers are gradually getting a clearer picture of my tastes, so scores may now be more effective than they might have been had I used them from the start. But I just don’t know. On balance I think I’ll keep my powder dry until we’re at least past the worst of the pandemic. People, as Ria from CiderChat wisely pointed out when I first raised the scores question, have enough to deal with at the moment.

      Thanks so much again for engaging, and for all your kind words.

      Best wishes

      Adam W.

      1. Avatar
        Pablo says:

        Adam,

        thank you for this extensive and – yes – rather comprehensive response. Your depiction of the differences between whisky world and cider world really help me better understand your articles on both topics. While I always knew the gist of it, I think you put it exceptionally well in those two paragraphs.

        I’m glad to see you putting so much thought and consideration into the work you do. Really, keep it up!

        Best wishes
        Pablo

  3. Avatar
    Tom F says:

    Best news of the year! Not the covid vaccine stoopid, but Adam finally embracing CAMRA! I’m certain they can play a key role in promoting real cider amongst discerning beer drinkers, not necessarily the high end stuff but there is a lot of excellent “bottom end” cider. If at times CAMRA seem a little leaden footed it maybe requires a “learned cider ethusiast” (whoever that might be) to reach out to them with some usefull suggestions.

    1. Adam Wells
      Adam Wells says:

      Hi Tom

      Wonders never cease! I’ve always admired a great deal of what CAMRA do and thoroughly enjoyed their beer and cider festivals, particularly the Nottingham one in my student days and Reading, which is now my local. I’ve just found some of their position on cider to be slightly disingenuous in the past and occasionally unhelpful. (Much as it’s tremendously important to highlight such things as excessive dilution/low juice content, which they do.)

      I’ve been really struck by CAMRA’s willingness to listen and engage this year and I think their position on cider as a result is clearer, more friendly and, being frank, less gatekeepery than it occasionally was in the past. I think they’re really improving the way they talk and engage, and I’m excited to see what happens next.

      That being said, as someone pointed out on facebook, a lot of people involved with CAMRA have done tremendous work promoting real cider for decades, and it’s important that that doesn’t get swept under the rug. In the coming year I hope to chat to some of those people and get their experienced voices on Malt.

      Best wishes – and thanks so much for reading and engaging!

      Adam

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