Hello 2017 – my, you are looking bloody cold, damp and miserable. It should be a time of refreshment and life affirmation, but mostly seems to be about penitence. Right now, it appears that everyone is focussed on ‘being good’ and banishing Christmas’s excesses. A key, and indeed highly popular, method of achieving this for many people is through alcohol abstention. Alcohol Concern have run their Dry January campaign for the last 5 years, with an incredible 2 million people officially signing up last year, plus, presumably plenty more doing it on their own terms.
Confession time: I don’t always treat alcohol with respect. I’m not a binge drinker and probably haven’t been drinking considerably more than is advised, but the number of days where I have gone without a cider, beer or wine over the last 6 months has been (embarrassingly) few. So to kick start the New Year, my commitment, in addition to not being such a greedy bastard and getting off my arse a little more often, will be to participate in Dry January. But not the Dry January all the other heathens are signing up to. My version is all about drinking less often, and when I do decide I want a drink, it’s only going to be my favourite: something dry.
I’ve always had a dry tooth. When my contemporaries at school were scoffing Wispa Caramel bars and endless packets of Fruitangs, I was all about the stodge and carbohydrate. My favourite drinks are all dry, whether that be an elegantly finessed Chablis, a sensorially-tingling Geuze or a jaw-juddering West Country Cider.
Cider naturally comes out bone dry under ‘normal’ circumstances. All of the natural sugars contained within apples are highly fermentable, and all those lovely yeasts, whether they be wild or cultured, will chomp through them until there is nothing left. Dry ciders can be quite challenging, however; especially full bittersweet ciders, as anyone who has ever tasted a bitter-as-sin Tremlett’s or mouth-inverting Dabinett can attest. In order to make them more palatable and balanced, most ciders will have sugar or juice added back to them post fermentation. As always, there are exceptions, such as those who use the age-old Keeving method to deliver a naturally sweet and gently effervescent cider (and sublime they can be, too).
It’s actually quite hard to get a hold of true, dry ciders. The consumer’s palate has become sweeter over the last few decades, and there are practical decisions that have to be made by cider makers in terms of the drinks they produce. But in Ciderland, dry cider is still heralded as King; partly because this is how nature (or Pomona) intended cider to be, and because of the desire to crack the aforementioned challenges of producing a quality, pleasurable, balanced dry cider. One of my finest moments alive came when I won 2nd place in the Dry Cider category at the 2009 Big Apple Cider Trials.
Thankfully, as a result, I can still get my hands on some wonderful dry ciders. A trip to the Yew Tree in at Peterstow, Ross-on-Wye will invariably lead to a sampling Mike Johnson’s live, dry, ciders, straight out of the tap. An Oliver’s Vintage or Burrow Hill Kingston Black would similarly do the job. My favourite dry cider of the moment comes from a little producer in the Forest of Dean called Jolter Press. They have a crafted a bone-janglingly dry single varietal Chisel Jersey (a variety known for massive, and often uncompromising, tannins) into a cider with a smooth roundedness, layers of spicy phenolic complexity and an aftertaste that lasts longer than War and Peace. Simply fabulous.
I think my version of Dry January is far more sensible – it is sustainable in the long term and continues to support small, rural producers, whilst the antioxidant properties of tannic cider have been well documented in the past. A world without dry cider would be a poorer place, indeed. I’ll drink to that.