I currently find myself in a rather bland hotel, escaping the early onset Autumnal drizzle, supping endless flabby flat whites, whilst grabbing an hour or so between an appearance on local radio and set up at the Witcombe Cider Festival where I am curating the Craft Cider Bar. It’s all go.
It’s been like that for most of the summer, and you know what, it’s been a bit of game changer I reckon. The New Wave (or insert your preferred term here) cider movement has been busy, what with the UK’s first Cider Salon, an exceptional Imbibe Live, cider catching the eye of beer journalists, wholesalers beefing up their craft cider range, and supermarkets starting to stock ciders with interest. This end of the cider spectrum is in a completely different state than it was 12 months. Smaller cider makers and advocates are more emboldened, cohesive and louder than ever before. The changes in the trade are starting to be seen and the global connections are growing all the time. I have had the pleasure of hosting guests from Australia, South Africa, Japan, USA and Spain in the last 3 months alone. It’s been lush.
All this wondrous cider activity has meant that I’ve had bugger all time to write about it, so apologies for the radio silence. I could probably write a 10,000 word essay on the nuanced state of the UK and global cider category, but this splurge will have to suffice. Plus I’m a little bit worded out because (***gratuitous book plug alert***) the finest (only) cider tome to be published in the last 5 years hits the streets next month (eeek!). I thought that by finishing writing the bloody thing I’d be over and done with it. No chance – the real work kicks in now!
The next 3 months sees me undertaking a wee bit of a global book tour (yes, again), taking in Japan, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, USA, London, Bristol and, of course, my beloved Shire. But if you simply can’t wait to receive your copy of Ciderology, then you can pre-order on Amazon now!
But in between the usual lurking, yakking and imbibing, over the last few months I have been keenly observing some significant changes, trends, challenges and opportunities for our humbled fermented beverage. Here’s a snapshot of what’s been occurring.
The C Word
For many, many people in the UK and beyond, the simple term ‘cider’ is loaded with so much pre-conception; largely negative. And with good reason! In the majority of occasions when cider appears in news in the UK, it isn’t to toast a new brand launch or celebration of heritage. No, it’s more likely to be attributed to some kind of anti-social or illegal behaviour. Just in the last four weeks alone, I have found articles pertaining to drunk drivers, attacks supermarket staff, inebriated burglars, and ill-advised roof climbing, And really, the list could go on and on.
Cider is so often a by-word for something negative, which makes the endeavours of myself and others to educate and inform on this wonderful drink somewhat of a challenge. My attempts to coax people off the street for a free cider tasting session I was conducting the other month with full champagne method ciders was met with eye avoidance and people (literally) crossing the street to dodge me. Ok, that might not have been due to the cider tasting, but the challenge of engaging with punters when using the ‘C’ word is a tough one. But we will prevail!
Too Many Apples
On the back of the Magner’s boom back in 2006, many larger cider makers planted up new orchards to satisfy the demand that they expected for the forthcoming years. Alas, after an initial rise, the last few years has actually seen a decline in ‘apple’ cider (or as I like to call it – cider) and a rise in flavoured cider. As I have said before, I am not anti-trad cider or anti-flavoured cider. I’m anti-shit cider, and unfortunately, many of the flavoured ciders in the UK are saccharine coated turds. Crucially for cider makers (and apple growers) these ciders don’t want the bold tannic profile of West Country apples, they want light, fruity dessert apples.
The result of this market shift and over zealous planting is an over supply of cider apples and the emergence of contracts not being renewed, or contracts being actively bought out if there are only a few years remaining. The majority of the affected orchards are modern bush orchards, but ill-advisedly, some rolling contracts on traditional orchards have ended as well. Expect a new domestic market for thousands of tonnes of bittersweet apples being created this autumn. The ball-breaker is that this is a market without any buyers. The time has come whereby we will see the emotionally charged sight of orchards being grubbed up. The killer, of course, is that such is the dynamism of the cider category, I predict that in 5 years time the biiiig trend in cider will be….drum roll….bold tannic ciders!
The question, rightly, gets posed: is there nothing that can be done with this fruit? Well, ironically (fan boy warning), the burgeoning, creative, innovative, value-laden US cider industry is crying out for this fruit. But they want their cider apples to be an expression of US terroir, not reconstituted once off the tanker. And what about the smaller cider makers in the UK? Can’t they use the fruit? Well….
Progressive Cider Duty
……the opportunity has recently arisen for small cider makers in the UK to receive the same kind of duty relief afforded to smaller brewers since 2002 . This could provide up to a 50% discount under a set volume of production – all of which is yet to be determined. I predict this could be a trigger for the growth in volume of pre-existing producers, and an increase in the number of smaller producers full stop; both of whom could have the opportunity to utilise some of the excess and unwanted, glorious tannic apples.
I am personally a fan of progressive cider duty, as smaller cider makers are so badly hampered by a lack of economy of scale that is afforded to considerably larger cider makers who pay the same rate of duty. This could provide a wonderful tool to create a healthy, prosperous and truly innovative cider category here in the UK, hopefully changing the perception of the C word. Watch this space.
By truly innovative I mean ciders that change the drinks trade and consumer’s perception of what cider is, and what cider can be; not bad ice cream. Fortuitously for me and other cider heads, this summer has seen the emergence of some truly awesome, weird, crazy, (not so) clever and sensational drinks, here in the UK. Finally, we are beginning to break off the shackles of the bland and the boring (well a little bit) and taking inspiration from other drinks and other nations about expressing the full gamut of options available to cider makers. If you’re in any doubt as to the potential why not check out Hawke’s Sour Graff, the collaborative effort that is La Saison des Poires, Starvecrow’s qvevri-fermented natural cider or the fabulous Dabinett and Pinot Noir skin co-ferment from Once Upon a Tree.
“Calling all medium sweet, medium tannin, 500ml beer bottle, crown capped, traditional premium craft ciders – you’re time’s up”
And what better showcase for the awesomeness of cider than the Cider Salon. What was a bit of a punt between a few passionate folk has already made its mark and is only going to be bigger and better in next year. Save the date, people: Cider Salon 7 – 9 June 2019. It’s going to be epic.
Despite all of the challenges facing the cider world, I can’t help but be optimistic that we have the power to change perceptions of the C Word; to reclaim it as a bastion of awesomeness, intrigue, taste, complexity and fun.