Saturday, 16 February 2013

Getting into Cider... and other musings

I've been on a bit of a cider kick lately. For too long I've ignored this great traditional British commodity and I feel now is as good a time as any to learn about it and gain a deeper appreciation of the nuances and flavours inherent to cider. Now it can be argued that ciders showcase a more limited spectrum of flavours than beer, but then again I think the same can be said about wine and just about every other alcoholic beverage out there, particularly fruit-based ones. The combination of barley, hop, yeast as well as adjunct in beer gives so much scope and possibility to the final product, fruit-based booze (wine, cider, perry...) just can't compete. But I hasten to add that a lack of versatility doesn't mean ciders or wines are any less real, important, interesting or delicious to drink!

However, if I may go off on one for a moment, having swatted up on wine in a fair bit of detail lately I increasingly find the wine industry on the whole a bit bananas, for want of a better phrase. Much of it seems based on subjectivity and there seems to be so much money floating around in there that big producers are able to employ geologists to postulate theories bordering on pseudo-science, about "terroir" affecting final product flavours (much of which isn't backed up by findings of sound research at academic institutions). It seems to me much more reasonable to assume its down to grape variety and even more importantly, the equipment, method and technique involved in its production that makes a detectable difference to the flavour profile of the final wine. Other gripes I have with the grape include not being able to drink it in big enough quantities (for my liking at least) due to the high alcohol level. The astronomical prices producers end up charging once they've gained a 'reputation'. And at the end of the day there just seems to be an aloofness to wine in comparison to other alcoholic drinks. On top of that wine labels are often annoyingly useless unless you have prior knowledge of all the rules and regs that apply to whatever AOC/IGT/DOC/DOCG (to name but a few...) it has been created under. I've mainly stuck to Italian wines thus far (they often say what grape cultivars have been included for one thing - unlike France!) and out of these I find the most exciting were the single varietals from lesser planted grape cultivars such as Nerello Mascalese, Nero d'Avola, Nero di Troia,... these wines seem to have individual characters and don't cost the earth, or even £10.

Rant over and I'm glad to report the world of cider seems to suffer from none of the pretence indigenous to the wine industry. Its not without its corporate giants however (Bulmers, anyone). In the main though it seems much more down to earth and much easier to navigate! You have your different apple varieties: cider apples (over 365 cultivars!), cooking (culinary) apples and dessert (eating) apples. Cider apples tend to have the highest sugar levels - food for yeast to make ethanol and CO2 from. Cider apples are further broken down into sweet, sharp, bittersweet and bittersharp categories; each based primarily on tannin and acidity levels. Two schools of cider are generally recognised in England: Western, referring to the south west counties of Herefordshire, Somerset, Dorset, etc, which tend to stick solely with cider apples. Eastern on the other hand, i.e. the counties in and around East Anglia, like to throw dessert and culinary apples into the mix. There are also many exciting and some off-the-wall single varietal ciders to be had out there too.

Kingston Black cider apples
Below are a few of the ciders I've tried which are widely available (we're talking supermarket bought ciders) and which I think have quite differing characteristics...
  • Aspall Organic Cider: A medium dry cider which starts sweet enough but then shows a remarkably abrupt, dry finish. Being made in Suffolk, chances are Aspall throws dessert apples in the mix with this one.
  • Co-op's Tillington Hills cider: A dry cider, but not without sweetness not to mention bags of fruitiness. The great thing about this cider is the tannin, which is palpable and really coats the tongue & cleans the teeth! Another one very similar to this (but not found in supermarkets as far as I know) is Dunkertons Premium Organic. It may even pip the Co-op one in the tannin stakes, being almost abrasive, but seriously tasty.
  • Weston's Old Rosie: An overtly acidic cider which is also distinct in being cloudy. Don't be misled by the word scrumpy on the label. Scrumpy, a west country word, tends to refer to any cider which is produced in a craft or artisanal manner on a small scale, it can be still or sparkling and is generally unfiltered/unpasteurised. However this offering from Weston's (a big producer by anyone's book!) would conform to none of the above were it not cloudy.
  • I won't specify one in particular but I've found that vintage (oak aged) ciders seem to offer an increased depth of flavour with some yeasty funk and/or acidic maybe even slight acetic notes from greater levels of oxidation. These properties vary from cider to cider though. 
  • Finally for now, Sheppy's are probably the largest producer to offers a substantial range of single varietal ciders. I know that their Dabinett is available in supermarkets and others may also be found. Deli's, markets and independent off-licences are also excellent places to look for some of these and other less widely available ciders.
Hopefully that gives a good starting point for anyone getting into cider. I've got plenty more to learn being just at the stage of moving away from the ciders of the large producers to those smaller scale ones which craft their products with greater care and individuality.  One of the best cider review blogs I've found, (co)incidentally, is called Cider Pages (no relation to this blog, I promise!).

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