Wednesday 24 August 2011

The United Hard-Cider States of America

Yes, its true, America makes cider and I have one of the best jobs in the world. I'm heading State-cide (ho ho!) on a trip to have a good look a whats happening up in the north east region of the US.
Back in June, the morning after my wedding, the very trustworthy and American sounding treasurer of the formidable Great Lakes Cider & Perry Association USA, mister Mike Beck, got in touch to invite my sore-headed self and iPhone-drowning author Pete Brown on a whirlwind 8 day trip to document the cider scene in the area at the top of the States between New England and the Great Lakes. It felt like the most unexpected of wedding gifts, something I wouldn't have dared hope for and was about the only thing that could actually make that day better. That and some pain killers.

We'll be kicking off our trip the day after my 36th birthday in September and whilst the final details are being sorted, its shaping up something like this so far.. 

Stage 1: A roadtrip around the beautiful New England area to get the low down on cidermaking there. We start by visiting Steve Wood of Farnham Hill Cider (NH) and then head out to meet a few more likely types including Eden Ice Cider (VT), Slyboro Ciderhouse (NY), West County Cider (MA), and Green Mountain/Woodchuck Cider (VT.)

Stage 2: We're then flying over to Detroit to meet up with Mike Beck and attend the Great Lakes Cider Festival at Uncle Johns Cider Mill in Michigan. (I know nothing about Michigan other than it gets very cold up there in winter, there is wildlife that can eat you and its full of interesting settler type history.) The following day we head right up to the very northern part of Michigan for a very special cider dinner hosted by Tandem Ciders. Then south to Muskegon on the western part of the Lower Peninsula to tour Vandermill Cider with the whole trip culminating in a ferry trip over a massive lake to visit  AEppelTreow cider in Wisconsin (another state I also know less than nothing about) to finally arrive back to earth with a slump as we crawl vaguely towards Chicago to find an airport home.

The more of this cider travel we do, the more often we meet people that assume their own culture is the only that makes cider, or the original one anyway (with the notable exception of Americans so far.) I first noticed it a few years ago when I was chatting with a French barman in Brittany and he was genuinely surprised to hear that we make cider here in UK. After some convincing he simply shrugged nonchalantly muttering something about everyone wanting to be French 'zeezse days' which made me laugh out loud in his face. In a Monty Python moment, being typically French, he became the stereotype we British seem to grow up with that all Frenchman have a very French Franco-centric outlook on rest of the world (Is it pride? Being British, its hard to tell -we're crap at it) I then realised I am as guilty at being Anglo-centric about the things I assume to be British, as I'm sure many cultures are. Its good to be reminded that the assumptions we hold onto (even without realizing it) can be wrong and nothing points that out quicker than traveling. Even those amongst us that realise other cultures make decent cider, are convinced that they can't possibly make it as well as us. When I told a friend 'I'm off to the States to have a look at their cider scene' his (standard UK) response was "America? What the **** do they know about cider..?" to which I replied as honestly as I could "I dunno, but there are an awful lot of them doing it and I think they've been making it for ages, so I intend to find out. I'll let you know." 

If there is one thing I've come to realise before I've even checked in online, it's this: I dare anyone, here in UK or anywhere else, to say that they don't take cider seriously in the States, they really do. They may not have the ancient heritage of other cultures or billions of the familiar cider apples or a large cider drinking market (yet), but they have passion and that counts for more than the rest put together. Indeed, those (our) traditions can can be limiting and not having them can make progress more forthcoming. Have you seen their cider map, its somewhat convincing... that's alot of cidermakers and the fact they have kindly offered to fly us over, put us up, feed us and show us around indicates a high level of commitment and seriousness to me! Much of the original cidermaking traditions and skills the US had, which came over with settlers, may have been lost during the prohibition era, not something we've ever had to experience thankfully. I envisage similar things to what happened in US craft beer movement and look what the Americans did for that... these are exciting times my friends.

The trip will give us both a chance to collect good material which I hope to share here upon my return. Shooting from the hip as you travel is something I'm used to doing to a certain extent, but this is a massive trip with a huge amount of personal interest for me. We have been invited to the 2011 Great Lakes Cider & Perry Festival right in the middle of it and I hope my trigger finger can handle it. My liver might be a little more swollen by the time I arrive home but I should hopefully have enough recuperation time before another visit to Brittany, meeting and photographing some of their cideries, 10 days or so later.

I have also been asked to represent the Bath & West Show Orchards & Cider committee as an ambassador to encourage some entries for the 2012 show from these US producers. The international section of the B&W show raises an interesting predicament. We had something like a whopping 3 entries this year (2 from Spain and one from France) which makes the judging somewhat less stimulating. As a section, it would have a wider benefit everyone involved in cidermaking as more entries would allow artisan producers from overseas to push the boundaries of what we think cider is and can be here in UK. It would be great to see other styles from another countries enter the scene, spread their word and maybe win some an awards. Competition is the life blood of success and has been so at the Royal Bath and West Show since 1777. For the simple act of sending over a 750ml bottle of cider (for a measly $32) the winners receive a certificate boasting of their success at one of the oldest and most respected cider competitions in the world. As well as it looking great hanging in the cider shed, it'll really raise awareness here in UK and Europe that the US cider scene has not only arrived, but is thriving.

The main aim of the trip is for us to gain a greater understanding of what cider means in USA. I anticipate its a culture that'll be familiar and new at the same time. It'll give me the chance to collect lots of photography, the very best of which I hope to share with you all upon my return. It'll give both of us a chance to report back to Europe (Hörst du mir zu? ¿Estás escuchando? Etes-vous écouter? Hmmmmm?) on whats happening there and our common future. I really think we're going to see US Hard Cider here in UK over the coming years (they call it hard - we call it cider.)

I caught up with Steve Wood briefly when he was over here at the end of March visiting Julian Temperley from Burrow Hill cider (some snaps below.)

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Cider, Cider, where do I put thee?

One of the ubiquitous dilemmas facing people all round the world is where to put the cider. I'm not talking about the fridge or the pantry but about its 'positioning' (if that is the correct marketing jargon?) Its not beer, its not wine, its somewhere in between... somewhere... isn't it? Well, technically, it is a wine because its fermented juice from a fruit, but its not 'Wine' as the world knows it. I think here in UK and certainly in some other European countries with a strong cider culture, there is a decent enough awareness and understanding of what it is/where it comes from etc, but online, in the collossul hard drives of the US that host whatever-the-ginormous-proportion-of-yottabytes-that-host-the-internet-globally are, and whichever-dorky-office-based-list-compiler-type-personage decides who gets classified as what and goes where-  its a long way from Merry England where we know exactly what it is.

Most people seem to see it as an alternative to beer, in culturally here in UK I suppose it is. I asked winematcher Fiona Beckett what her thoughts were on the subject and they were pretty much that.

Even shopkeepers ponder over wether to put it in the beer section or the wine section? In a discussion with Steve Wood from Farnum Hill Cider in USA he relayed this very problem to me in no uncertain terms and reckons its his single biggest challenge. It is at this point we in UK should thank our industrial cidermakers, for they pay for the introduction, education and current level of public awareness about what cider is and where it comes from (regardless of their quality.) They have a product to sell and they go about their business and marketing doing just that. In an emerging market, alot of money goes on educating the masses. Advertising is expensive and artisan cidermakers certainly can't afford anything huge, like TV. Thankfully, there comes a point when that same market, eventually reaches a point where it educates itself as it becomes more dynamic and the pendulum starts to swing the other way, the newly educated drinkers seeking out something better and more interesting.

Things are a little clearer here in UK, supermarkets tend to have a mini cider section which, I think, is for the best. I can't say that I'm suprised that Wikio (who rank and sort all things blog) don't have a cider section, but this site is listed under the 'Beer and Wine' blogs and yet its still neither. Ironically, the only real public body that 'supports' real cider here in UK is the cider and perry wing of CAMRA whose heart beats for beer (as it should). Unfortunately for them, knowing alot about one doesn't make you an expert in the other and I personally don't always see eye-to-eye with CAMRA about cider (or beer) for that matter. Curiously, as a non-writer who works in cider, I am fortunate enough to be allowed to join the British Guild of Beer Writers, even if I am alone and on the fringes, I am welcomed as an orphan. Maybe we all look at cider as a cherished relative with no where to go and with whom we like to catch up with occasionally. Globally, its not quite well known enough as an individual product to merit its own 'section.' And this is the root of its identity crisis.

Can you see a pattern forming yet? Cidermakers and drinkers are generally a little more relaxed about banging the drum than our vinous cousins or malty associates, maybe thats why cider is still a little 'off radar' in the context of the wider world. (Maybe it likes it there and that is part of what makes cider as charming as it is?)

Beer and cider often get banded together (something I don't mind) and if it were a case of taking sides amongst the ever growing disquiet between beer and wine, I think the majority of beer drinkers here in UK would band with cider which I find really interesting (as I've said its technically much more akin to wine) but socially (in pints, at pubs and festivals) its more akin to beer. This is the most perfect example of where it sits and why people struggle to define it, not that I mind.

I would love to give this more thought and discussion but alas, I am out of time again.

Here is a photo of my first ever batch of homemade cider (2005) to stare at whilst you contemplate this global dilemma. Cheers!