Tuesday 24 March 2015

Tuesday 17 June 2014

At The Hop

'I'm fired up' he said when we spoke after the 3 Counties Show. I wasn't surprised, he had just won four 1st's, a 2nd and a 3rd at a respected cider competition on his local turf. What I was surprised to see was a new cider on his stand... I instantly felt out of touch seeing it on sale to Joe Public without having had an inkling that it was even in the pipeline. I know how long it takes Tom Oliver to create his ciders, he devotes a lot of time to getting them just right and having spent some decent time in his company recently, I struggled to understand why he hadn't mentioned it.

He is undoubtably one of the worlds best cider makers and I have the opinion that if he put its in a bottle, I won't be disappointed. His new kid on the block 'At The Hop'  is a 6% hopped cider... yes, cider - with hops in... from England... an approach pretty much unseen commercially here in UK, that I've only tried in USA until now, so I was itching like an addict to try it.

He started out by explaining the reason behind it "You know I'm a cidermaker, but my family has grown hops on our farm for generations, so it made sense to give it a go. Besides theres are hopped ciders in USA and... I'm not going to let the Americans have it all to themselves!"

Harking back to a post discussing how craft and innovation can/should/shouldn't work together here, I'm reminded that innovation is a word the freaks out many craft cider producers here-they are very wary of it to the point of resisting change as, sadly, it often equates to another low quality 'cider' or cider like product. Not in this case, it is cider - just not quite as you know it.

We discussed the importance of the 'i' word' and his feelings are clear "There needs to be something to perpetuate new things (although its not that new- its in the US already)... but the cross pollination of ideas to move things along and make it more exciting." I concur - its the same with photography, music, art, design... you name it. Creative minds will mix genres in their own way to look for new places to express themselves.

Like many of the best new ideas, its simple. "Others might do it- its easy if people take the time to fine tune it. We'll just have to see." I disagree with that though - I'm not so sure the rest of us would find it that easy. He's set the bar high so lets hope if they do, they bother to take the time to get it right too.

Essentially, he's taken a fairly bland, characterless cider (his words!) and infused it with some Teme Valley grown Cascade hops to create a new product that its beguilingly moreish. As simple as it is, its not going to be cheap, not only are hops themselves expensive (ask any brewer), but in the eyes of HMRC, a 6% cider with added flavour/ingrediants falls under the classification of a 'made wine' and is subject to a large duty increase. Hopefully premium products such as this will always find a home across UK in specialist bars and restaurants that really cherish craft ideas and support small producers who make the highest quality produce. If not, I'm sure it'll find a home away from home in USA and Europe where products like this are often more appreciated, enough to make it commercially viable.

So whats it like? The aroma is fantastic- distinctive and unrecognisable so its quite compelling. I just breathed it for a few minutes trying to get my head around it. It starts off bittersweet cidery then you get something else thats difficult to describe... somewhere between gooseberries and green melon.
The first sip is granny smith sharp, a brief pinching sour tang at the base of your cheeks then that long, satisfying deep bittersweet, slightly floral honey finish. Its both full bodied and carbonated so its really lively up the palate, accentuating a zesty but gentle grapefruit tang. The hops don't bring any bitterness - their use is purely to add floral aromas and quiet citrus flavours.
As an ex-professional real ale brewer and cider addict, I never thought hops and cider could integrate so harmoniously, the hops have completely become part of the cider, its difficult to describe just how well... the balance is masterful. It has a great structure, everything is in its place and is very satisfying to drink alas, one that disappears too quickly whilst you are trying to understand it. If it were a character in a story it would be slightly mysterious, beautiful, yet understated. I think beer drinkers would really appreciate the blend and I hope they take the time to find it and explore its flavours.

As far as a food match might go, I wish I had more to experiment with. I opted to drink mine with some Tunworth cheese because the closest match I could make in my head was a traditional Norman cidre and a Livarot cheese, a match I know I enjoy. The Tunworth is creamy, nutty, uber pungent (it was very, very ripe) and slightly sweet. The cider cut right through it and each brought out new characteristics in the other, I'll have to get some more.

Tunworth - thats a ripe cheese
So how much will Tom make? "I only did 1000 bottles this time. I don't think I'll be able to sell huge amounts of it but if its popular enough, I'll keep producing it. I'll do some more experimenting with other hop varieties"

It takes some balls to swim against current as a small craft cidermaker and I think putting hops in your cider here in UK is just that, it just isn't done. But that boldness and dedication to crafting something worthy of putting his name on the label meant that 'At The Hop' scooped him the best prize of the day -Supreme Champion Cider of the show too. Congratulations to him and keep up the good work.

For more please visit: http://www.oliversciderandperry.co.uk/home.htm

Monday 28 April 2014

Haynes: Cider Enthusiasts Manual

It has taken me too long to do this (or even write a blog post) which is a sign of how busy things are - apologies!

Thursday 1st May sees the official release of my latest book "Cider: Enthusiasts Manual" from Haynes publishing (although it appears people already have copies.) Its the third book I've been involved with in about 18months, also about cider, so I've just about reached my limit (for now anyway.)

It certainly looks like a Haynes Manual

In late 2012, Haynes contacted me to ask if I would be interested in producing a cidermaking manual for them which, after some discussion, I agreed to do. I've been making cider at home (on and off) for 10 years and felt I had enough knowledge and experience to do a basic guide justice. I used to brew beer professionally, and whilst beer being a very different beast to cider- there is some crossover in terms of understanding yeasts/fermentation, equipment and basic processes such as cleaning. There are numerous excellent books already available to help newcomers make cider by increasing their understanding of the processes and stages that it involves. It would be pointless creating yet another to compete, so I opted for a slightly different approach. I thought back to the kind of book I was looking for and could't find when I first developed an interest in it. Back then, you had to choose between either a historical/literary books (such as the excellent 'Cider - The Forgotten Miracle' by James Crowden) which celebrates some of the history and culture of cider, or, a simple books that focus on technical production aspects (such as 'Making Cider' by Jo Deal). There wasn't a book that introduced newcomers to both areas simultaneously, which disappointed me (learning about one aspect doesn't meant you're not interested in the other.)

I've taken a holistic and philosophical approach to give people a foundation of basic knowledge from which they can begin their own journey - hence the title. There isn't much in there that you won't find elsewhere without digging, but I do think its the first time you can find as wide a cross section of information about the basic technical aspects of cider production alongside a substantial amount of cultural and historical background information. I wanted it to be simple enough to be giftable but informative enough to be useful so that anyone who has an interest in cider and might want to learn more about how to make it, can find out what they need too know. At the same time I wanted to introduce some historical and social background about how cider 'is' and came to be, both here and in other countries.

The Haynes Manual is a long established brand that has a worldwide reach. When I talk about having completed a cider manual for them, a smile always grows across peoples faces as the penny drops as if pleased that Haynes have diversified away from technical car manuals (something they've actually been doing for quite some time now.)

I've never claimed to be an expert and there are certainly many people out there who have far more experience than I when it comes to cider production, but I know enough about the basics to help introduce the basics of cidermaking to newcomers. However, its important to acknowledge credit where it is due so, I confess to having had some excellent help along the way. Cidermaker Matt Veasey made helpful and excellent suggestions. Neil Worley gave it technical approval, his wife Helen also proof read it. [NB I/Haynes managed to omit the Worleys from the acknowledgments - sincerest apologies team W.] Extra proofreading was provided by Simon Thomas, thank you. I've had some great input from adventurous and clever folk who have made their own kit successfully and donated designs: Nige Cox from the Marches Cyder Circle (who designed the infamous Codling Grinder  - a scratter designed to pulp your apples) and Mark Evens from North Cumbria Orchard Group who provided measurements, load pressures (and so much more) for a home made press- details of which can be found inside. I've collected a few top tips from industry legends such as Tom Oliver, Andrew Lea and Roger Wilkins which I have dotted about and have also included advice with professional cider apple growers to help inform people about growing their own fruit/panting an orchard.

Its available from all the usual outlets and, of course, I encourage you all to buy as many copies as you possibly can for the cider fanatic in your life. Therea re hundreds of people with apples trees on their land/in their garden that they don;t use, and this might just give them the impetus to try something new!

More info and excepts here.

hot off the press

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Bristol Foods Connections: CIDER Event. -CANCELLED


However, the good news is that there is still some cidery goodness to be had at Bristol Cider Shop's annual bank holiday knees up!

Friday 24 January 2014

How many apples does it take? The 'full juice vs low juice' debate (& some photos)

At the risk of boring you, I should warn you that this is quite a long and dorky piece that may disinterest many of you -apologies if it does, turn it off and pour yourself a glass of your favourite tipple instead. Here is a nice photo of some bright, refreshing, big, juicy farmhouse cider in all its sunny glory to tempt you, mmmm.

For the remainder, its about time I commented on a topical and ongoing subject. I want to broach a debate only ever raised by the 'real cider' camp - the issue of juice content and labelling. In a nutshell its been suggested that in the interests of honesty, quality and education, an approximate juice content should be printed on the label to help consumers distinguish between high and low juice products. Currently, a producer doesn't need to tell consumers how much apple juice is actually in their cider and it varies dramatically, more so than most people realise -which is where the problems start. Legally the guidelines in the major cider producing nations of the world vary massively. Quite frankly the UK minimum juice content is embarrassing, but its not the lowest and it even has some economic and cultural advantages that I'll mention in due course.

If you were to ask an occasional cider drinker in the pub what cider is made of, they might look a bit puzzled and say something like 'apples (you oaf...)' If you ask a cidermaker however, the response will more likely be something along the lines of "well, that depends on whose cider it is." The amount of variability allowed here in UK is quite astounding when you first realise the situation. In fact, its pretty astounding when you already know the facts but allow yourself to consider it again.

In 2010, our esteemed government decided that we needed to increase the minimum juice content of our cider by increasing the total amount of apple (or pear for perry) juice by 10%. A ten percent increase - hurrah! and for the most part and it was celebrated by all but the most unscrupulous production line managers out there. However, when you realise that the minimum amount of juice required to legally call your product cider is still only 35%... the confusion starts to set in. 

Yes, just to clarify, I can make an alcoholic drink that is 35% apple based and the remaining 65% can be water and sugar (with "no limit" to how much I can use) as well as other 'permitted ingredients' (at 'limits set by current food legislation') and sell it as cider. On one hand, its appallingly low, as any passionate cider consumer and producer will agree. Its like wine only being 35% grapes,  cheese being 35% milk or only 35% of politicians being filing real expense claims (oh hang on...)

On the flip side, such a relaxed limit allows for a proliferation of cider 'styles', offers producers incredible flexibility and enriches market competition by bringing millions of pounds into the cider sector. I've no real problem with people making cider using a minimum amount of fruit because quite frankly, millions of people love it. The revenue created by large scale producers employ a lot of people and their business keeps much of our beloved landscape in orchards of fine English fruit. If I don't drink it, its because I find it much less satisfying in every aspect, but I refuse to berate it based on it not being my cup'o'tea. Eventually, many of those drinkers get bored of these products and move onto a higher quality product - such as an artisan farmhouse cider or a bottle conditioned perry.

If you compare the legal minimum level of juice required to make 'cider/cidre/sidra/apfelwein/most' etc in other cider producing nations, you get some idea of the value they put on juice as the main ingredient. Its actually a bit more complex than these simple percentages but without going into a whole lot more complex detail (and turning off even more readers!) I'll leave it at these for now.

With the help of some very patient and understanding colleagues stationed in the far corners of the cider world (thanks guys!) below is what I believe to be the minimum juice content required to legally call your produce cider in that country.

Cider minimum juice content:

  Germany:    95%
  Spain:          50%
  France:        50%
  USA:           50%
  UK:             35%
  Denmark:    15%
  Sweden:      15%

NB: If anyone feels they can improve on these,  please feel free to comment.

Putting legal requirements aside, where the boundaries of what makes a drink cider, or not, becomes one of personal preference. Some will argue that most 'fruit ciders' are not cider because they contain such little fruit, something I agree with. I was told during the course of my research for this that South Africa have such stringent 'production method requirements' that companies like Rekorderlig and Kopperburg are unable to launch there as 'cider' currently. I don't know if thats true or not, but its (pleasant) food for thought.

All this begs the question- what can the remaining percentage be? Its a complex and variable answer but in a nutshell, cider is made based on a combination of factors ranging from the personal tastes and preferences production methods of the cidermaker, cultural expectation and national legal requirements. 

In Britain, Notice 162 is an HMRC document that 'explains the effects of the law and regulations covering the production, storage and accounting for duty on cider and perry.' It covers every aspect of commercial cider production and is so important to cidermakers, that they joke about keeping a copy by their bed to read because it directs nearly every aspect of their business. Section 25 lists the permitted ingredients and these are what can make up the remaining percentage to a greater or lesser amount. In the case of traditional cider which is, in the vast majority of cases worldwide, full juice (or high juice 95% apple juice) then the answer is a small addition of sugar, water, yeast and possibly some sulphites. In a low juice scenario (35% apple juice), we are looking at these plus raft of other ingredients such including sweeteners, acids, gases and over 45 E numbers.

For any of you that do not make cider, its a generally accepted rule of thumb that the more fruit you use, the better your cider will be (its not quite that simple, but its a good rule of thumb!) That having been said, there are some awful full juice ciders out there and some very acceptable low juice ciders, so its certainly not a clearcut argument. Sadly though, and this is my main point today, consumers are often completely in the dark on the issue. I'd love someone to poll a wide section of the public to find out how many people think cider is just apples.

Seasonal variation and consumer preference (on the whole) matters when you aim produce a high quality cider, so a degree of flexibility in production methods becomes beneficial (which ironically got us in this situation in the first place.) Sometimes you will need to add some sugar to allow for a crappy summer and resulting low sugar levels in the fruit. Alternatively, you may need to add some water to dilute the juice and reduce sugar levels in exceptional years, bringing the final abv down (Section 30: legally cider must be "less than 8.5%abv".) So whilst we must accept that we need to maintain a degree of flexibility and therefore need some room to manoeuvre in terms of production, I'd like to suggest we help increase awareness of actual juice content by giving punters an indication on the label. I've no idea how we could police it (although trading standards would probably do a thorough job) but surely it can only be a beneficial improvement. 

Drinkers would soon learn which producers use higher, or lower juice contents to make cider and it would allow them to choose a drink more suitable to their preference. It would also give the producers that subscribe to a declaration an advantage on the shelf/at the bar. Yes you could argue it unnecessary because the vast majority of consumers don't actually give a shit, but in in a marketplace awash with low juice cider (the sales of which are staring to wane) companies are looking for new strategies and ideas to produce and sell their drinks. Surely a higher quality drink it has to be a good start?

High juice content cider contains less of these:

Low juice content cider contains less of these:

Friday 13 December 2013

Funeral of a cidermaker.

Today we buried a legend.

Frank Edward James Naish (5th February 1924 - 29th November 2013) a gentle, quiet man and traditional cidermaker was laid to rest by his friends and family. The weather was pretty gloomy, heavy cloud setting a sombre mood. On the whole people were positive and its interesting how such occasions can bring the best out in us: there were as more smiles than tears which I'm sure would have pleased Frank. As Julian Temperley said - his death marks the end of an era. His respect of tradition and cidermaking philosophy made him the best kind of example of why cidermaking has been kept alive for centuries in Britain. Traditional farmers like Franks making traditional cider from local apples. It was said he was the oldest working cidermaker in the UK, possibly Europe (which may be true) if so, quote possibly the world?

It was suggested last week that I document Franks funeral, an idea that made me uneasy initially but after some thought, compelled me to do it. Its always difficult photographing an event where loved ones are emotionally charged and might not always understand why you should capture a moment, but as a friend Sean said afterwards: people might not like it at the time, but you can bet they'll appreciate it later. Actually, no-one seemed to mind and despite there being at least 6 professional photographers there (all because they wanted to be) it didn't feel too callous to document it. After all, its probably the best form of respects I can pay him.

Rest In Peace Frank.