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