Kia Ora cider fans
After two and a half incredible years living in Aotearoa, I now find myself back in Gloucestershire, England, to pursue a career talking about cider. Although I suspected it before, my time in NZ has confirmed that my skills definitely lie in advocating this wonderful drink and heritage, rather commercial production.
This role currently doesn’t exist in New Zealand. However, based upon the growth of cider, both commercial and craft in style, I suspect it won’t take many more years before there is a necessity for someone to act as a champion. Don’t be surprised to see me on NZ shores some time in the future.
The wealth of quality offerings being created in New Zealand grows at an awesome rate, with the number of producers, and range of styles now available, considerably greater than upon my arrival in 2013. One can sense that the cider category is at a similar stage to where NZ craft beer was 10 years ago. The consumer is just starting to become aware of the varied wonders of the fermented apple, which, when using great raw materials, cider making skill and some good old NZ ingenuity, can create some truly bold and complex ciders.
If I was a glass half empty type chap (rarely is my glass anywhere near approaching empty), I would say NZ cider has an identity crisis – people might argue that the consumer doesn’t really know what it is. Actually, I am of the opinion that this drink stands on the cusp of a revolution. Now is the time for cider makers and cider drinkers to coalesce, and through the sharing of knowledge, experimentation and judicious ‘quality control’, start the ultimate conversation: what is New Zealand Cider?
Now, there is no answer to that question, nor should there be. Cider in New Zealand is far too nascent as a category to have a decent idea of what its identity should be. But there is now sufficient quality and quantity being produced that at least the conversation can begin. What New Zealand has always done well is to apply its bold, pioneering, ‘8 wire’ approach to its native drinks industries. It has never been afraid to make old drinks in its own inimitable style (look no further than Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc or Wellington IPA for evidence), and there’s no reason to doubt cider will, or should, differ.
It would be easy for me to simply advocate that ciders made from West Country English bittersweet apple varieties are the best exponents of NZ cider. But New Zealand isn’t England, and England isn’t the only country to have a proud cider making heritage (although its inhabitants would undoubtedly proclaim that it makes the finest). Normandy and Brittany in France, Asturias in Spain and the Frankfurt region of Germany, amongst many others, offer highly contrasting indigenous styles of cider based upon entirely different fruit varieties, production techniques and desired flavour profiles.
So, what constitutes a classic Kiwi cider? Well, that’s not for me to devise a definite answer. I’m merely proposing the question to kick off the great cider conversation and then buggering off back to the land of drizzle and soggy fish and chips. But I am fascinated by what the various contributions to that conversation might entail. So, as a parting contribution (for now), I have drawn up a list of my 10 favourite NZ ciders. I invited the New Zealand cider community to send me samples of their products that they thought were exponents of a classic Kiwi cider. And I was sent cider by the case load (and in one case, pallet load). Producers I had never heard of even got in touch. It was fabulous to get such a positive response and confirmed that this conversation is ready to take place.
My judging criteria were pretty simple. I wanted ciders that:
- exemplified great skill and command of the cider making process
- displayed great balance, body and texture
- exuded creativity and character.
Such a breadth of criteria and a lack of point scoring system enabled me to judge these on gut instinct, rather than a rigid set if parameters. The 10 ciders I have selected are in no particular order. I was not in a position to find ‘the best’, as NZ cider too young to know what the best is. My primary motive was to showcase the great ciders being produced and to highlight their diversity.
I was joined at the tasting by Stacey Walsh from Little Beer Quarter, who kindly hosted the session. Throughout the afternoon of tasting (yes, it was as good as it sounds!), we were variously joined by local brewers, bar owners and distant relations, all of whom were mightily impressed by the cider offerings. As was I. The range of styles and interpretations, from traditional UK, to crisp and clean, to full on ‘far out’ was fabulous to see and taste.
If this is the beginning of the conversation, then I suspect that it might be an in-depth one, taking time and lots of talking – and the drinking of some exceptional ciders (but then all the best conversations do).
The 10 ciders I have selected are a great testament to the passion and skill of cider makers in New Zealand. With these custodians at the fore, the future of NZ cider is certainly an exciting one. I look forward to seeing NZ cider continue to blossom and hopefully I’ll be able to participate in the conversation from afar.
Townshend’s Sitbee Cider/ 6% abv/ 500ml
New Zealand’s 2014 Champion brewer can also make a bit of cider, apparently. Martin has blended bittersweet cider fruit with dessert apples to create a wonderfully fruity and balanced offering. A rich, mildly funky nose gives way to layers of flavour – honey and toffee apples – which is punctuated by a soft astringency.
On the swallow, we are the recipients of a lingering fresh apple core. This cider is the prefect exponent of a balanced cider, with the holy trinity of acid, tannin and sweetness is perfect harmony.
Scoundrels and Rogues Evil Genius/ 10.5% abv/ 500ml
Ciders with a high alcohol content normally fill me with suspicion, but his drink shows what can be done when you really think outside of the box but retain the cider making skill. A healthy funkiness is displayed on the nose. A result of the wild ferment, this broad, nostril-filling aroma contributes to the overall flavour rather than dominates, which is a positive thing.
The sensation on the palette is a bit mind boggling – spiky, zesty acidity tussles with unctuous, fat apple sweetness derived from the addition of some ice cider. The whole thing would seem somewhat cloying if it weren’t for the barrel spirit induced alcohol to carry the flavours all the way over the palette, from front to back. Whoa, what a rollercoaster!
Steel Press Bee/ 5% abv/ 500ml
This is a most intriguing cider, produced using atypical methods. Made with mostly dessert apples, it is fermented ‘on the skins’, much like a red wine, and has the addition of no sulphites. The result is unique, with aromas of bergamot and apple strudel, and bold, fresh apple flavours backed by gripping tannins. These guys are pretty small and based of Wellington. If they keep producing innovative products like this, their future looks bright indeed.
Forecast Cider Fine About the Ranges/ 7.5% abv/ 500ml
This cider harks back to the West of England, having been made with true cider apple varieties. To their credit these guys haven’t held back, creating a wild fermented, bone-dry, complex and quite challenging cider. My notes simply state ‘bold nose’, which is my shorthand for ‘complex array of aromas conveying spicy phenolics and herbaceous malolactic notes’. Wow, that is a nose of Gerard Depardieu proportions and the taste doesn’t fail to live up to the nasal hype, either.
The highly tannic fruit provides black peppercorn and clove like spiciness, along with gentle bitterness and a soft astringency. The aftertaste lasts nearly as long as the cinematic version of Lawrence of Arabia; but much like the film, this cider is worth the wait. I suspect that this cider will be too much for some consumers at the moment. But as palettes develop (much as they did for highly-hopped beers) this product will be regarded as a king amongst ciders.
Peckham’s Home Block Cider/ 6.5% abv/ 500ml
It is no surprise to find a Peckham’s cider amongst the top 10, for these guys, in my opinion, are the true pioneers of craft cider in New Zealand. Alex and Caroline scoured NZ to source cider apples, and have planted up probably the largest orchard of it kind, supplying a wonderful array of varieties with outstanding results.
They’re not interested in a quick buck and are admirably ardent in their quest to make the best cider they can, and to do this they employ slow fermentation and up to 18 months maturation time. This Home Block cider is a blend of oak and steel fermented batches. I think that is it could/should be treated like a classy Chardonnay: bold, textured and something to be savoured. Toffee apple nose and a soft spiciness on the tongue turn this into a real lip-smacker of a cider. All the complexity, without the challenge, this is the perfect ‘gateway’ cider for consumers to step up to this style.
O Cider Resident Hawk/ 6% abv/ 750ml
Husband and wife team Simon and Rowena Pearce have a wine making background, and have boldly applied all their knowledge to another fruit, with some truly stunning results. You’re going to be hearing a lot more about these guys.
This full methode champenoise cider oozes quality: soft, ripe fruit has been wild fermented in oak to give a rich, toasty profile with exquisite finesse and balance. This cider demonstrated just how high a quality cider one can produce, and how much inherent value can be attributed to a humble cider. The beads of bubbles, a result of the methode process, lift the flavours in this light, dry and elegant cider; perfect as the accompaniment to a meal.
O Cider Perfect Pear/ 6% abv/ 750ml
Perry is the pear equivalent of cider: the product of fermented pear juice. Perries typically exhibit a light, delicate florality compared to cider, especially when made with varieties from the UK that have been grown for centuries specifically for making this drink. These varieties do not exist in NZ (barring the odd tree), but the guys at O Cider have excelled themselves in creating a product that the old perry makers from the UK would be proud of.
Again, they have utilised their wine making knowledge to great effect, and the result is an easy and appropriate substitute for a sparkling white wine. With aromas of quince, and a palette of ripe pears, sturdy phenolics and excellent balance, this perry is what you should be popping open next time there is call for celebration.
Forbidden Cider Simply Apple/ 5.6% abv/ 500ml
Winning gold medals at both the Brewer’s Guild Awards and at the New World Beer and Cider Awards demonstrates that this is a cider with a burgeoning pedigree. Ruby red, and with an enjoyingly low carbonation, this is a big and broad medium cider. It fills the mouth with a rich fruitiness, but is neatly counterbalanced by a prickle of sour acidity, not unlike an Asturian sidra. I suspect this will be a mainstay of the cider category for years to come.
Abel Cider/ 7% abv/ 500ml
Just by looking at the packaging, you can tell that this cider has been made by a winemaker. With a bottle shape and label type reminiscent of an Alsatian wine, the presentation is exceptionally elegant and pretty. Much like a red wine, the fruit is fermented on the skins to extract maximum tannins from the soft, acidic fruit, before being pressed off, bottled, and allowed to undergo a secondary fermentation in bottle. The light, fluffy sediment in the bottom can be excluded by judicious pouring, or one can be rather French about the whole thing by giving the contents a good swirl, creating a Pastis-type cloudiness.
Lean, crisp and just off-dry, a light citrus nose is enhanced by a wonderful light petillance. The perfect accompaniment to a meal (think chicken or fish), or the classic thirst quencher on a warm summer’s day.
Zeffer Newtown Pippin/ 6.5% abv/ 500ml
To round off my Top 10 I have chosen something a little different. Wild fermented on new(ish) French oak and allowed to go through a FULL malolactic fermentation, the result is unlike any cider I’ve tried before. It’s most reminiscent of a sour beer, a style which is gaining traction in NZ, especially in the hippest bars in Wellington.
Absolutely bone dry and so bold and daring it could climb Mt Everest without oxygen, this cider is not for the fainthearted. In fact, it’s down right challenging. But it works. Some great skill and craft has been to make this drink and I like it precisely because it demonstrates, once again, cider’s amazing versatility.