Tuesday 22 October 2013

Craft & innovation: thoughts on our future

When did you last think deeply about your ideas? I was doing it today and realised that even though we create them, they define us.

In the light of the Cider Trends Summit that took place in Bristol last week, a first for the UK, I found myself musing on the future of UK Cider from a craft point of view. The pressure to innovate facing the marketeers at the industrial end of the cider market was obvious early on that day. Their main advantage (other than actually having a marketing department) is their size, which allows them to compete in terms of quantity making their products cheap. Which left me thinking, OK- so whats going to happen at the other end of the scale? Small cidermakers were somewhat inconspicuous at the summit (something I hope the organisers will make efforts to improve next year) and my thoughts turned to them, and their ideas. How will they respond? I remember Christian Drouin telling me last year: "We shouldn't even try to compete on cost. Its much better to focus on quality" and thats probably the best place to start.

Classically, innovation is done as a response to a need. Assuming that is correct, as a craft producer, what are the needs you face and where do you invest that quality?

The answer is different for each producer and may be as basic as reviving an old tradition, such as keeving (that results in a naturally sweeter cider) or even something as simple and banal as serving 'over ice'. Wether you agree with either practice or not is besides the point - these ideas both invigorate our market to a greater or lesser degree. With regards to the bandwagon, lesser mortals will always jump on but its only ever a short term fix and original ideas will always last longer. When Peter copies Paul, their shared marketplace becomes more homogenised and less interesting. If that continues for long enough, the consumer becomes accustomed to it and we have a less interesting 'norm' with lower expectations and discerning drinkers will respond by looking elsewhere, shrinking the market and increasing competition further. The people who copy what everyone else is doing only encourage our cider market achieve less than it potential, and none of us want that! So new ideas are important to keep the market diverse and interesting. The responsibility for that lies with both marketeers and artisan producers.

If I can use Once Upon A Tree as an example, winemaker turned cidermaker Simon Day has only been selling cider since 2008, but his idea to start making Ice Cider (really, really well I might add) before anyone else in the UK allowed him to stand alone - he's been winning accolades ever since.

OK - so where do we get the ideas? They can come from anywhere, it doesn't matter, so long as they come. Personally - I get excited by looking at what other cider cultures survive on and whats challenging their 'norm'. Two key areas that interest me are influence from wine and demand from beer.

I'm constantly blown away by the mindset producers in the US have: its so open, those guys will try anything because they know its better to try and fail than to not try at all. Many successful things only exist because someone was brave enough to give it a go in the first place. As explored this week in the BBC's Radio 4 Food Programme, the idea of hops in cider isn't one that would sit comfortably with the majority cider drinkers in the UK, but when done properly, it works surprisingly well. That particular influence coming from their regional praxis of growing hops for beer. Cider here in UK is much like that of our Norman neighbours, it bears the yoke of tradition on its shoulders and is consequently a more difficult place to introduce new ideas -but it doesn't mean we can't. When Domaine Dupont was asked to produce something new for the American market by their distributors they come up with a Triple fermented cider (taking another influence from beer, but this time in Belgium) and also a Calvados barrel aged cider.

Foreign influence is a valuable source of ideas and export markets are currently being throughly explored around the world. Whilst they are there, I just hope they're looking beyond their own products because I'm hoping import will be just as strong a trend; we'd all benefit from that either as a producer or a consumer. Sadly, even though foreign cider is a valid product here, there's no real sign of an increase in availability here yet. Rather than competing with British products, it could really invigorate our own market at a point when sales are beginning to plateau.

Australasia has booming cider scene with some in the wine industry making cider for the beer industry to package up and sell on. That relationship has its own influence such as the use of the Moscato process for cider production, an influence taken directly from the winemakers themselves.

Many of our closest neighbours in Europe make cider one way or another and all of them would find a home here stylistically. Even the challenging northern Spanish sidra is a style I think we will see more of soon, although not neccesarily from Spain. It's a style that intrigues people enough to want to try and make their own version, something already underway here in UK and also in USA.

So whatever we do for a living, who would we be if we didn't try to make it better? Why replicate when you can innovate? Whatever you do, be original.


  1. Amen brother. But you already know where I stand on this issue.

  2. OK, agreed on the value of innovation. But let's face it, not everyone is an innovator -- and there's nothing wrong with that.
    I'm not sure I'd want to live in a world where nobody was focusing on the traditional, the comfortable, the familiar (oh god, I do sound 50+.)
    In fact, there's much value in people striving for perfection within a traditional, non-innovative technique. Isn't that what "Craft" really is (vs. "Art" which implies more creativity, exploration, innovation?)
    Many fields have this tension, and it's healthy. Sometimes a simple but perfect block+counterpunch outshines a spinning-roundhouse kick.
    So, yes to acceptance of innovation -- but let's also accept and appreciate the beauty in the old, proven, traditional, craft.

  3. Bill - thats a really good point and I don't want people to think that I believe everyone has to innovate, or try to, and abandon tradition in favour of it. I just want to make the point that the best innovations in Cider will probably come from the artisan producers because they have the skills and passion to push it. I'm Uber fanatical about quality and tradition as I hope you can tell; I certainly wouldn't want to live in a world where nobody was focusing on those either. I agree that 'the old, proven, traditional craft' is where the soul of cider resides and if everyone tried to innovate, it would indeed be a disaster!
    Thanks for the most awesome review of our book by the way... I try and show it to EVERYBODY!

    (EVERYONE GO HERE! --> http://cidersnob.tumblr.com/post/62281460695/walk-in-beauty-the-phrase-walk-in-beauty-is)

  4. Thanks, Bill - I try to show your book to EVERYBODY too. And I know you weren't downplaying the traditional - I just wanted to explicitly make the point. And also to get a karate analogy in there. :)

  5. Cider making is so new to us here in the US that we are all innovators whether we follow traditional paths or strike out to create new ones. In the interest of not recreating the wheel we have just chosen to study the well trodden paths first!
    I just read your review Bill Lyon, as Bill Bradshaw says "it's awesome"!

  6. Good thoughts Bill. I think my son and I have tried most of these apart from sidra and triple fermented. Of course babycham was a double fermented perry. I have been impressed with dry hopping -I want to experiment with some of the citrus flavours from hops - it is just a shame that hops - fine inbeer - turn cider into made wine according to HMRC

    1. Good point Alan, whatever our ideas maybe or wherever we are, we are always bound by the laws of our land; innovation under the cudgel!

  7. All of our traditional real apple cider at Windermere cider (in South Africa) is double fermented. Presently we also do a champagne (MCC) from our cider and are also just about to do Calvados in French oak barrels and leave it for + 3years. In the past we have also done a desert type wine from the cider fermentation.

    So referring to triple fermentation, are the above what you refer to as triple fermentation ?

  8. Hi Richard, with regards to the Triple fermentation I mentioned I think they do it thus: an initial fermentation using the natural sugars in the apples, then a second fermentation having added some sugar, and the third in the bottle to add condition.