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.

Friday 18 October 2013

Welsh proverb

'A seed hidden in the heart of an apple is an invisible orchard'

Welsh Proverb

Monday 7 October 2013

Die Mostviertal: Perry in Lower Austria

Apologies for my lack of blogging - I'm well and truly up to my eyeballs in work and family life. This is a post I started in the spring but never got round to finishing as life got in the way. In a classic case of me believing I know more than I actually do, I was surprised to learn Austria has a region named after its long history of growing pears for perry or Most (pronounced mosht) as they tend to call it. The Mostviertal ('cider quarter') had somehow escaped my radar until I discovered earlier this year whilst researching Worlds Best Cider. I was contacted by the Mostviertel Tourismus and asked if I wanted to attend their first ever Salon des Mostes - a festival that brought together cider and perry producers from all over Austria, and also some from Germany at a renaissance castle in Schallaberg, a beautiful setting and a great venue.
The region is a place where the pear reigns supreme (for once, more so than the apple) icons are everywhere; signposts, on keyrings, posters, carved into the aged wooden beams in traditional bars - its even in the chocolate and the mustard. It really has become part of the fabric, which gives rise to the passion that every producer enthuses.

Our promotional day trip to meet some producers, try some products and learn a bit more only gave us a chance to scratch the surface, but it was a start. In the company of German cidermakers, Austrian food journalists and even a Spanish cider blogger - we were a thorough crowd.

As with the rest of Europe, the crop seems the season is a little behind this year so none of the pear trees were actually in bloom, but desite that (and the tourism video with its epic soundtrack) - its a stunning landscape. The echos of history are always there if you pay attention and this area is no different. A thousand years of agriculture and pear growing have left their mark, right down to the four sided design of the original farmhouses typical of the Roman villas that once contained a courtyard. The clay soil on which the pears grow, is the same soil that was used to make bricks that built both these and many of them are still standing today.

My guide told me that in 1763 -Kaiserin Maria Thresia, Empress Elizabeth decreed that more pears must be planted along all the main roads in an attempt to boost the economy (I'll suggest it to David Cameron if I meet him). After her- Joseph 2nd carried on the tradition and offered farmers who planted apples or pears silver coins for their efforts. By 1898, in Lower Austria alone, over a quarter of a million fruit trees were counted. In 1938, in Amstetten, a small part of the Mostviertal, there were a million pear trees (838 trees per km²) and in Lower Austria there were 5.5 million trees. Prior to WW1, there were 6-8 million apple and pear trees growing throughout Austria, the Danube used to take drinks from the Black Forest as far as the Black Sea at the time... you get the picture. Alas, by the 60's, as throughout much of Europe, cider was unfashionable, people weren't drinking it and so many of the trees started to be removed and were replaced with cereals.

Interestingly, as in Germany - the trees are grown in an open system ('streu obst'), which means no fences and no orchards so the landscape looks older and less tamed. To a Brit, a Frenchman or an American, it seems quite random when you're driving along and realise the Pear trees grow in lines along roads and paths, until you realise it keeps repeating, so they're meant to look like that. Its typical to see a line of 5 or 7 trees grown in such a way. They look abandoned to those of us that are more used to orchards, and in out own country -our temptation would be to stop and collect the fruit. However, the open system is respected- each tree has an owner and they want the fruit -so hands off scrumpers.

Our first visit was to a Mostellaria, where Josef Farthofer specialises in Mostello, a tasty pear based desert wine, as well as the usual array of Mosts.

One aspect I was surprised (and a little disappointed) to find, was how modernisation and 'improvements' that started about 20 years ago have now led to the Most not only being cleaner and more processed in style, but curiously, the also producers are prouder of it that way. Don't get me wrong, its still nice, but I felt as though it has lost its original character. As with the rest of Europe, when cider/perry is more traditionally made, blended from all the fruit and fermented using wild yeast -although a riskier process it can offer a product that has a whole lot more character to it and is a pleasant alternative to the more modern, cleaner style but unfortunately, its very difficult to find unless you know a local farmer. Single varietys are the vogue here currently, and it seems popular to add various crystalised acids (malic, citric etc) to sharpen the cider, to use egg white to remove the tannin and add a champagne yeast to ferment with. After asking my hosts if there is any chance of trying some traditionally made products on several occaisions, 36 hours later my very hard working and lovely lady guide Gerlinde appeared with an unlabelled, pale but slightly blushed and opaque bottle of perry for us to sample from a local farmer. It was fantastic and much more like the ciders I had hoped to find. I assume I preferred it because it tastes more like a traditional perry I would find here in UK, as such it had the best aroma so far and more character than many of the modern, single variety offerings we'd tried so far. I think, knowing its there, its important that if Austria wants to base some tourism on its perry heritage, they should also offer some traditionally made Most, because its really lovely and a real taste of the past. Not every cider producing nation has traditional techniques remaining, even amongst the farm producers. Having said that - they are a very welcoming people who are truly passionate about their pears. Its a country whose ciders/perries I will watch with keen anticipation and hope to explore in more depth at a later date

Thursday 3 October 2013

Cider thought of the Day

 “He Looked and smelt like Autumn's very brother, his face being sunburnt to wheat-colour, his eyes blue as corn-flowers, his sleeves and leggings dyed with fruit-stains, his hands clammy with the sweet juice of apples, his hat sprinkled with pips, and everywhere about him the sweet atmosphere of cider which at its first return each season has such an indescribable fascination for those who have been born and bred among the orchards.”

     ~ Thomas Hardy, The Woodlanders