Beer Cider Matters

Honesty is the best policy

The other day I was accosted in a ringing chamber and prevailed upon to write a column about cider instead of beer. Well, if CAMRA can include cider in its remit, then so can I and, with the season of mellow fruitfulness upon us, there’s no time like the present.

Some years ago I was buying a couple of gallons from a Somerset cider maker and he described his product as “honest cider”, by which he meant that it was made from pure apple juice – nothing added*, nothing taken away. Freshly pressed apple juice will ferment spontaneously due to the presence of wild yeast on the fruit. Depending on the sugar content of the apples, it will ferment out to somewhere between 6% and 9% ABV. It can be drunk young (i.e. rough and cloudy) as “scrumpy” but if kept in a wooden cask for two or three years it will clear without the aid of filtration or finings and mature to a more mellow and rounded flavour.

I like that expression “honest cider” and it’s become for me the yardstick by which all ciders are measured. With beer there’s a rough (extremely rough) rule of thumb that the quality tends to be inversely proportional to the size of the brewery and that is probably even more true when it comes to cider. Most of the output of Bulmer’s, not to mention the now ubiquitous Magner’s, falls well short of the ideal. It may be diluted, filtered, pasteurised, carbonated – probably all of those.

And, as in brewing the likes of Greene King and Marston’s have expanded from regional to national status, so Weston’s, Sheppey’s and Thatcher’s are now moving into the territory of the big boys, where quality is compromised by industrialisation, economies of scale and demands from the accountants to maximise profits. If you are looking for a half-decent cider on the supermarket or off-licence shelves, you could do worse than Henney’s or Dunkerton’s. And if your local keeps a polypin of Biddenden dry in the cellar (as mine does) you are indeed fortunate.

But if you want the very best cider, look to the small producers, those who keep below the duty threshold of 1,500 gallons per year, who have the time, the inclination and the patience to do the job properly. I don’t know if the chap I mentioned above is still in business, not having been down that way recently. If he is you’ll find him on the road between East and West Lyng near Taunton. Not far away in Ashill there were cider makers who regard him as an upstart because his family haven’t been doing it for generations like theirs have. If you’re in Herefordshire, give Much Marcle a miss and look for Lyne Down cider, just down the road towards Ross-on-Wye or seek out Broome Farm, just north of Ross.

There are others, mainly in the cider heartlands of Somerset and Herefordshire but also in the adjoining counties (Devon and Cornwall, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire) plus a few in Kent and Suffolk and even Hampshire (Burley), but you may have to keep your eyes open for a small hand-painted sign in some cases.

Of course you may encounter the odd rogue, one who adulterates his cider (I met one near Evesham who admitted to adding grape juice) or is simply not prepared to take the time or face the risk involved in maturing it for two or three years (there is always the possibility that an entire cask may turn to vinegar). But the honest maker of honest cider will always be proud to offer you a sample of his wares, so let your taste buds be your guide.

* You have doubtless heard tales of rats being added to cider. I guess if a small rodent should happen to fall in the vat it will do no harm (to the cider, not the animal) but, as for the story of a family preparing a special batch to celebrate the anticipated return of their sons from the war and chucking a whole dead sheep in (which eventually disappeared without trace), I take that with an enormous pinch of salt.

Maximus Bibendus

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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