From New World to Old – Innovation is key for Cider

The problem with having a full-time job talking about cider all over the country, is that sometimes it’s hard to make time for your hobby.  Especially when that hobby is, er…talking about cider. But how could I possibly complain about getting paid for yakking away about this wonderful libation.  It could be so much worse.  I could be a solicitor.

But, alas, busy I have been since I arrived back to these shores in late April.  As ever, my timing was impeccable.  I left New Zealand just as the days were shortening, the evenings cooling and the last Jonagolds were being picked.

I landed in time to catch the tail end of the last cold snap before Mother Nature put on her best William Morris patterned Spring dress and adorned her house with the most beautiful decorations.  Has there ever been such a display of Britain in Bloom as this year? Maybe 3 years without such a show accentuated the colours, variety and quantity.  But it really did seem like I was having my own personal welcome home.  I was back in The Shire.

So, let’s get the formalities over with.  Yes, New Zealand was gert lush; a land of majesty, wilderness, freedom and bad sausages.  Yes, the UK (even my rural little quarter) is horrifically congested, busy and noisy.  But it has old stuff.  New Zealand doesn’t have old stuff.  We take for granted our churches, pubs, alleyways, hedgerows and orchards.  The simple pleasure of being able to walk along a footpath is utterly joyous. And pagan ceremonies – you can’t beat a good pagan ceremony.

So, I have returned back from New Zealand a changed man (quite literally – I dropped the John Candy diet and discovered the joys of lycra).  Cider in the UK has changed too – total volume is in decline, cider making facilities have closed and the major buoyance is being provided by fruit ciders. But change isn’t always bad; in fact, it’s often the best of things.  Blimey, I should know, I change my job/continent/moustache wax at least once every 2 years.

I have returned to a burgeoning artisan cider & perry making scene; not just here in Cider HQ, but in a wealth of different locations around the country, from Ripon to Rochester. The number of people distributing, wholesaling and generally pimping cider has exploded – and it’s bloody marvellous! There’s a lot of new voices and players helping to shape the cider category in the UK, and it can only be a good thing.

Sadly, of late, we have had to bid farewell to a couple of cider stalwarts, who have gone to the great orchard in the sky.  Ray Tosh and Ivor Dunkerton were worlds apart in terms of their background, personalities and scale of cider business.  But their common denominator was that they were bloody good cider makers.  They took a rustic, rural drink and brought it into the 21st century, making it accessible to a new generation of drinkers. Wassail to thee, chaps, wassail to thee……

In the last 3 months I have travelled all over the UK, visiting locations as far afield as Northern Ireland, Kent and Cornwall.  I even ventured to Norfolk – there’s commitment to the cause! I’ve also had the privilege to judge at the Royal Bath and West Show and the Royal Three Counties Show. My primary observation is that there is a passion, complexity and entrepreneurialism within cider that I have never seen before. The time is ripe for a cider revolution.

And it’s going to happen by being innovative and open minded.  I left the UK as a (West Country) traditionalist, believing the best ciders were those made with full bittersweet apples: rich, dry and unadulterated.  I do still love this style – like the torch that anyone carries for their first love. But New Zealand, the land of ‘no rules’ and opportunity, has left an indelible, kiwi-shaped mark on me.  Given the UK’s crowded cider market, the idea of creativity and innovation is something I accept and endorse.  In fact, it’s key to its ongoing prosperity.

It is a cliché, but tapping into the style and language of the massively popular/overachieving/facial hair-endorsed craft beer category is something small UK cider makers should be looking at very closely. I am amazed that so few cider makers are packaging in 330ml cans or utilising bold, contemporary packaging.  Maybe I’ll have to put my money where my mouth is and have a crack myself (or that could just be the Scampi Fries talking)?

We do have some shining lights – the legend that is Tom Oliver: award-winning cider & perry maker, sheep farmer, Proclaimers tour manager and general good bugger.  Tom has embarked on collaborations with US cider makers, US & UK brewers, always seeking to push the boundaries and challenge the consumer of what a great cider can actually taste like.

Tom’s attitude to craft cider, as to most things in life, is earnest and simple. ‘Craft cider could be high-juice ciders, entirely fermented from fresh presses apples without chaptalisation or use of concentrate.  Although, I am actually more concerned that craft cider includes a lot of products that are poorly made and naïve in taste.  What is unforgivable is passing off cider as something when it is not.’

Tom sentiments seem to be echoed on the ground.  Events such as the recent Hereford Indie Food Festival, organised by the fabulous chaps at A Rule of Tum and Hereford Beer House, and a sell out across the weekend back in August, demonstrates that a new, younger demographic is emerging that genuinely cares about quality and authenticity, innovation and design.

It goes way beyond a lazy hipster stereotype (says he with a humungous moustache on his top lip). A whole generation of younger people are caring more than ever about what they consume, and with debt mounting, this has led to them drinking less. So it’s logical, therefore, that when they do open the wallet, brush away the cobwebs, and do shell out for a drink, they’re going to choose something that engages them and that they can savour and truly appreciate.

Cider makers need to be brave, put on their big girl pants, and start to challenge the consumer, and crucially themselves, about what cider can be. The role of cider and food matching is going to be a big part of this and you’re going to be hearing a lot more about this from me.  The opportunity is huge; but that’s for another day.

Right now, I hear the sound of a press whirring away, and the smell of freshly pressed apple juice is wafting in through the window.  That can only mean one thing – apple harvest is upon us.  Time for everyone to hunker down and start the big push.  Here’s to a happy harvest.


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