Well, what an anti-climax. Apparently I, and my apple-based vocation, are of zero interest to the authorities and before I know it, I’m in Chicago. It’s my first time in this fabled city and I’m keen to see if it lives up to its Windy City billing having had resided in Windy Welly for a while – technically the windiest city in the world. Mind you, it tends to be windy wherever I am.
Leaving wind, climatic or gastric, aside, this is a fabulous city – neo-gothic architecture, the sweeping Lake Michigan waterfront, and apparently it has a river, too. The view from the Michigan Avenue bridge over the city’s eponymous watercourse is the money shot. I also managed to squeeze in a bit of time wandering the streets and acting the tourist: eat pizza pie – check; pretend to care that the Cubs won the World Series for the first time since the launch of Naoh’s Ark – check; use a payphone underneath an L train like I’m Harrison Ford in The Fugitive – check.
Other than antagonising the locals, my real reason for being in the US was a most kind invitation from the organisers of the world’s largest cider competition, the snappily titled Great Lakes International Cider And Perry Competition (or GLINTCAP for short), to judge at this year’s event. The competition’s location in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a mere 4 hour drive from Chicago (a nip around the corner in the US; a life altering journey over here #britishproblems) meant that I could call in my on buddy Ambrosia Borowksi, FOH boss, at the Northman Cider Pub.
Situated in Chicago’s leafy northern suburbs, the Northman is one of a growing number of cider focussed pubs and bars in the US. Each has its own vision and style, but at their heart is a celebration of great cider from the US and beyond. The Northman does this by managing to combine French Bistro chic with an Indiana Jones, shoot-out bar sassiness – but with Devon cider on tap. First and foremost, and central to its success, it’s an awesome local community pub, with good food and good vibes. But the range of cider is insane – UK, French, Spanish and from all over North America, presented in every way imaginable. There’s Sidra coming out of a wall, there’s funky farmhouse being poured out of exquisite bottles and there’s stacks of cool-as cans in the fridges. This is cider presented with super knowledge, by super nerds, offering super service to provide a super experience for the drinkers. Bravo.
There is nothing like this in the UK, mixing together the old cider world and the new, being creative and innovative and making a spectacle of cider. Bugger me, it’s hard enough to get some West Country cider makers to accept you make cider from dessert apples, or to understand that championing acetic, indole-riddled, hydrogen sulphide bombs does nothing to improve cider’s perception or to improve the consumer’s knowledge of quality cider. We’ve got some work to do.
My evening drinking, yakking and co-hosting a Cider School session (theme: wild, sour and funky – sounds like a girlfriend I had back at Uni) afforded me the opportunity to see the range of styles of ciders being produced in the US and to learn about the broader category. Cider volumes have grown massively in the US over the last decade, but in a market dominated by beer, its progress is all relative and many hurdles remain. It has gone from roughly 0.5% of total alcohol volume sold to 1.2%, but ask 10 random people in the US what their thoughts of cider is, 8 out of 10 will ask ‘What is cider?’ At least that’s an improvement on 10 years ago when it was 9 out of 10 people!
Stylistically, things broadly fall into two camps. Firstly, there are those that place an emphasis on apple varieties, heirloom orchards and terroir, producing a ‘fine’ cider. And secondly there are those that eschew more of a craft beer, modern, contemporary ethic, often presented in cans, and often with flavour inovation. Crudely speaking, one could generalise and say the former was more native to the East Coast and the latter of the West Coast; but, of course it’s never as simple as that. Of interest to me is the fact that the term ‘craft’ is not widely used to describe these drinks. I was anticipating greater use of the term given the caché of craft beer, but cider, wisely, seems to be plotting its own course.
There’s also the small matter over the term ‘cider’ itself. Thanks to the Prohibition era crackdowns, the term cider was transferred over to freshly pressed (unfermented) juice. This is still the case today, with cider a popular autumn and winter drink, being a staple at Halloween, Thanksgiving and New Year; whilst it’s fermented brother appropriated the name ‘hard’ cider. The obvious confusion that arises with the rest of the cider world over this terminology is being overcome with some effort to educate on the nomenclature.
And so, myself, Ambrosia and the legend that is Cider Brian (*man-crush alert*) left the City behind to begin the journey up to Grand Rapids, but not before spending a night with Mike Beck at Uncle John’s Cidery in St John’s, Michigan. Everything about Beck is big – big man, big character, big farm, big hospitality. Until arriving here, I was unaware that the Mitten State was such a big apple growing area, benefitting from the mild, temperate influence of Lake Michigan. As well as the supply of fruit for juice, cider and apple pie, the apples on Beck’s farm, and other’s like it, serve as incredibly popular tourist attractions in the autumn. Up to 14,000 people a day (!) head to Uncle John’s Farm at peak times to drink juice, pick pumpkins and eat donuts. Often called ‘agritainment’, these enterprises are crucial to this region and must be quite the spectacle.
Upon arrival at Uncle John’s, waiting for us was cider rock star, Mr Bill Bradshaw, fresh off the plane and also in town to judge at GLINTCAP. So what better way to shake off the jet lag than to take a pootle around the orchards in Beck’s original Model T Ford – colour black (obviously). This slice of ridiculousness set the tone for a wonderful and bonkers evening. Suffice to say we got totally Beck’d.
Finally, it was time for the main event – GLINTCAP. At 1,206 entries, this is the largest cider competition in the world. The majority of cider champs in the UK are fairly hedonistic affairs – sampling the cider/perries in each category and identify the top three. It’s very much a process of elimination: smells like is should be going on my fish and chips? – no ta; has purple fizzing lumps in it? – move swiftly on, etc. Over here it’s a little more technical. Being a global Ciderologist, however, meant that I had previously judged at quite a few National and global competitions whereby they employed the same system of every product being considered and scored on quality and whether it is true to type. Accordingly, judging takes time, which with 1000+ products means lots of judges, who are a mix of cider makers and those more widely involved in the drinks trade.
The traditional cider apple varieties from the UK and France are being planted with increased enthusiasm in the US and Canada, but the vast majority of products are using culinary and/or heirloom varieties that tend to be more acid-forward, rather than tannin dominated. Not worse, not better – just different. The lack of tie to a particular heritage helps to facilitate the broad church approach and the presence of styles not so common in the UK, like fresh oak or bourbon cask matured, ice cider and foraged ciders. But they’re still able to make kick-ass UK-style cider’s too, as the Kingston Black SV from Blackbird Ciderworks proved, amongst many exponents.
As well as being a fantastic occasion to try the wealth of North American ciders and perries (and believe me, there were some exquisite offerings. And some shite ones, too), of greatest importance to me was the opportunity to meet the great and the good of the cider world on this side of the pond. To have impromptu tastings with Ryan Burk from Angry Orchard and Steve Wood from Farnum Hill was a real treat. It’s like having Aubert de Villaine, from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, cracking open a bottle of 2005 Grand Cru and talking through what’s happening in the bottle. Or at least that’s how it should be treated.
And this is precisely where the guys and girls of North American cider are excelling: the presentation of the products. It’s not just about the packaging, but it’s the concept – these ciders and perries are being presented as the best, the brightest, the cutting edge, the embodiment of quality. Drinks like Eve’s Albee Hill, Citizen Cider’s Full Nelson or Slyboro’s Sainte Terre, all, in their own unique way, shout quality and are the antithesis of mainstream.
But, before I knew it, the
party professional judging opportunity was over. A final bash at the outlandishly awesome Vander Mill Cidery and Tap Room, replete with balcony overlooking the tanks (and obligatory Caddy sat on the production floor) brought a fitting end to my US cider tour, and indeed the global trip. The passion, determination, pride and unashamedly celebratory attitude and focus that exists on this side of the Atlantic is totally infectious, and it has been an inspirational experience.
It was rather succinctly pointed out to me that Britain is in danger of becoming the German beer of the cider world – the home, the original, the high alter. And out of touch and left behind. Rest assured ,I am going to work bloody hard to make sure that doesn’t happen. Along with the likes of Bill Bradshaw and Tom Oliver (rapidly approaching cider demi-god status in the US, but mercifully still with shit on his shoes in The Shire) we’re leading the battle cry for Great British cider to relevant, to be bold and, most crucially, to be known and understood. It might take a bit of time, but like another well branded drink once said, all good things come to those who wait.