This time of year in The Shire is proper lush (quite literally, in fact, with the warm, wet days we’ve had). I departed the UK on the 29th March, leaving behind bare hedgerows, a nip in the air and the last of the Dymock Daffodils festooning the woodlands and hedgerows like a vivid, 1970s shag pile carpet. Upon my return, some four weeks later, I had found that spring had well and truly sprung! Pear blossom, May blossom, Bluebells and Primroses were all in their pomp and looking resplendent; with the cider apple trees eagerly anticipating their moment to be punned as blooming marvellous. There are few other places and times that capture the quintessential essence of Britishness any better. I love it. ‘Where did you go, Gabe?’ I hear you cry. Well, I went travelling, and I can tell you, it was the most awesome trip. I went on a month-long global cider tour, taking in Australia, my old stomping ground of New Zealand and the USA for the first time in 11 years. Along the way I tasted some of the most exquisite drinks, was lavished with some of the finest hospitality and have been thoroughly inspired by the vibrancy, passion and fun of the cider movement in these lands. Such was the density of events, activities and anecdotes, I could probably write a whole book. But no one would buy it, so I’ll do the abridged blog version instead. This, however, is still too much to fit into one post, so you lucky readers are going to get a triptych of travel treats. I must, of course, begin at the beginning. I was ostensibly in Australia for the wedding of my old chum Matty and his kick-ass bride to be, Reet. The venue for the nuptials, was Byron Bay, sleepy surf town and Australia’s Eastern most point. Normally BB basks in swathes of sunshine, but the devastating Cyclone Debbie had recently rampaged its way through, swiping a giant brown smear across the landscape where floodwater had risen to record levels, but thankfully not causing any damage in Byron itself. This joyous wedding provided me with the opportunity to undertake some top level global cider research. What does the cider category look like elsewhere in the world? What are the current trends? Who are the players? So, I landed into Melbourne with nothing more than a spare pair of undies and a value pack of Rennie to go and seek cider nirvana. Whilst in the city I was fantastically chaperoned by Nath and Iva from the Cider Link. Much like me here in the UK, these guys are on a mission to champion great ciders. They’re doing it by providing an online platform for small, craft cider brands to be purchased by the discerning consumer. And they're doing an awesome job. We’d never met, but when they picked me up, I think they were somewhat
frightened bemused by this moustached cider fool, replete in Hawaiian Shirt, shorts and sandals. Even though it was only 15 degrees and actually a bit chilly – but I was on holiday so who gives a flip!?
We drove out of town and visited Daylesford Cider, a fabulous little cider maker in the eponymous village that exuded quality and value. It was Sunday lunchtime and the punters were arriving in their droves to the beautiful cellar door to sample flights of exquisite ciders and eat wood-fired pizzas in the courtyard - the middle class dream! It was a lovely combination of old world charm and new world innovation The fact that the trees were encased in netting to stave of the voracious cockatoos only added to the experience. I was half expecting a T Rex to smash its way through the wiring and chase me down the road Jurassic Park style. Claire and Mackie are making some truly exquisite ciders from quality cider apples. The standard has been set.
The most fascinating stop was visiting Drew and Irene Henry, from the apple growing village of Harcourt in Central Victoria. Sick of not getting paid enough by the supermarkets for their dessert apples, Drew planted up a huge array of English and French cider apples and perry pears and chanced his arm at making some artisan cider under the name of Henry of Harcourt. The name evokes the image of an Knight of the Realm, murderous yet emotionally complex; like he was Sir Lancelot's, nefarious drinking buddy, but who actually was quite empathetic and enjoyed painting watercolours.
Anyway, back to reality. The amazing thing about Drew was that he was planting these varieties over 20 years ago, way before the renaissance of cider and without any kind of support network. Drew had to call upon all the guile, skill and redoubtable can-do attitude of someone who had worked as a mining geologist for 40 years in counties such Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, West Africa and Russia, in order to succeed. And that he has done. For the wares from Henry of Harcourt are some of the most wonderful, idiosyncratically bonkers ciders I have ever tasted.
Firstly to have Dabinett, Yarlington Mill and co sat in a landscape where the biggest pests are grazing grey kanagroos rather than scab, is a little challenging for me to get my head around. It’s as if badgers in The Shire suddenly got a taste for cider apples and were able to climb the trees, seeking out the sugary goodness. Madness.
It’s the supreme growing conditions that make this place special. Long, hot, dry summers flow into stretched, warm, dry autumns. The resultant high sugars in the apples ensure that a high alcohol can be achieved, with the Dabinett hitting 10% abv and the Kingston Black tipping the scales at 11.2% abv!! Holy moly. But these ciders have been made with such skill, care and precision that, despite being bone dry and highly palette warming, they display all the finesse and elegance of a wine, but critically, still retaining their varietal characters.
Fantastic things are happening from a trade perspective, too. Thanks to the work of the industry body, Cider Australia, licensees and retailers are understanding the concept and value of craft cider, and are giving it position and prominence. Dan Murphy's, Australia largest bottle store (booze isn't really sold in supermarkets), is even trialling a dedicated bay for craft cider, ultimately running across every store in the country. How about that for telling the story of cider?
The consumers in Melbourne, certainly, have an appetite for fantastic ciders. Ben Day has been running the Brunswick Street Cider House for the last five years and has established the venue as a place of authenticity and inquisitivity (is that actually a word? I'll run with it). He regularly undertakes cider festivals, 5 course degustations and cider masterclasses. Bar the odd token wine and beer, it's all cider; from sweet and fruit flavoured, to wild-fermented, bone dry, lactic funk monsters (technical term). The punters are slowly starting to understand what cider is about and just how fabulous cider can be. And they're willing to pay for it, too.
It's so exciting to see cider being talked about and drunk in such modern, contemporary and quality-led environments. The UK could do with taking a leaf out of Australia's book. Granted, it's a pretty small book at the moment, certainly not a totemic cider bible, but they're working on it, gospel by gospel.
Yes, there's plenty of mainstream cider that does not excite the palette nor warm the cockles of authenticity. But there is a movement of passionate, skilled cider makers afoot here and they're making waves. It's going to be fascinating to see how far they can go (before the T Rex, or Kangaroo, hunts them down).
For me though, at this point, my Australian escapade came to an end. It was time to go back to my second home. Kia Ora Aotearoa....