Sunday, 24 November 2013

Cider101 - Its all about quality...

This is a topic that has haunted cider makers for as long as I can remember. From my personal experience of dodgy west country scrumpy to drinking stuff that has more in relation to battery acid or domestic cleaner than high quality cider, I can attest that this is still an issue that needs addressing. And that is why I attempt to at least raise the issue in this blog post... I don't pretend to have all the answers (although to be honest, a lot of it should be common sense!!!)

Speaking to people who work within the 'industrial cider' category, I must admit that the attitude towards full juice cider came as a bit of a surprise initially - summing it up, they see full juice cider as variable at best: some being fantastic (the best you can get) and most being poorly made, poorly kept and dodgy (the worst you can get). Allowing for regional variations in style and taste, I came around to this way of thinking - a bit. After all, commodity cider, produced to a recipe and unbiquitous is - for all its faults and blandness - constant. Perhaps that is why it is referred to by their marketeers as 'premium'. It will be the same today, tomorrow and next year.

Picking something out of that: my firm belief is that the best cider you can get is full juice cider (in other words, made with apples and as little else as possible). As interesting and satisfying as a complex wine or whisky, it is to be sought after. What is in these ciders that other ciders don't get? I also agree that some of the worst examples of cider are also full juice. Often using the same varieties and similar equipment to process... what goes wrong? And... how is this stuff finding its way out to customers?

This isn't intended to be a moan. It also isn't intended to defend the practices of the mass cider community; though I do suspect the issue of consistency is one of the reasons that the industrial cider industry took off in the first place. To be honest, I feel that the likes of Magners, Bulmers (et al) have thrown the soul of their cider out alongside the variability (and replaced it with chemicals).

So, how can the full juice cider community bring up the standards? Well, I have a few pointers - though again this is neither an exhaustive explanation or going to 'cure' dodgy practices:

1. Learn the art.

All too often, I hear new producers aiming for commercial production as an end. The end should be the drink itself, not making a buck out of it. That is not to say making a bob or two is wrong (or making a lot), but if you put this before the cider itself, the quality is a secondary goal. People may drink anything... once...

Use resources like the Cider Workshop to ask questions. Taste your apples. Drink your juice. Taste your cider... every tub! What are you trying to achieve... challenge yourselves. Dont let crap get out there... if I get it, and it is crap I will say so. And what good does that do the industry?

I made cider for a number of years before taking the step to sell any cider. I didn't just make it and throw it out... why would you peddle anything that you are not happy with?

2. Make it well.

Black, rotten apples rarely do anything for the quality of cider. Don't just mill it and press it. If it isn't worth pressing then throw it away - you will be doing the rest of your cider a favour. Cider making is a simple process in itself... but the devil is in the detail. Use clean equipment, containers and hoses. Clean the fruit properly (in water - not in bleach!).

It is true that a 6% cider is near enough sterile. However, if you introduce dirt and bugs at the start you should expect faults with the cider.

3. Keep it well.

I know people who don't keep full containers - well they say they do anyway. I also know people who store cider barrels outside. But why take the chance? Air is the enemy to cider - acetic tones in cider does nothing for it. The keywords here are cleanliness, airtight and each container full...

Acetic cider is a big problem with full juice ciders in the UK. Not all of this is under the control of the producer... badly kept polypins (CAMRA... take note) do nothing for good cider. However, poorly kept bag in boxes are not a good idea either. Why some retailers/publicans think that (whilst they go to extraordinary lengths to maintain good ale) cider can just be shoved in a hot corner...

However, cider producers should at least be delivering high quality cider.

4. Get a grip of sweetening.

After many years of cider making I can honestly say that I still have no idea what is the best way to sweeten a cider. I hear the arguments for/against sugar, juice, artificial sweeteners and each can work... and each have problems too. This isn't a judgement on what people do as a humble request to blooming taste it and get it right.

There are no official boundaries for what qualifies as medium dry or sweet. However, come on. Do the leg work. If dry is anything up to a gravity of 1.005 then try and work out what that tastes like! OK, I am not a huge fan of sweet ciders but I am far less a fan of ciders that claim to be medium dry and turn out to be sweet.

This is a big problem for full juice ciders in the UK and, although I don't support increased legislation I would like to see some kind of device or body that can advise producers when they have this wrong.

5. No bullshit please.

This has less to do with the cider itself but is a growing demon of the cider industry in the UK.

I don't think I am being unfair when I say that most people are sucked in by PR/marketing nonsense, and it is one of the features of the commodity guys - they seem to claim anything to convince punters that their cider is an
ything but what it really is. No, not all lies - but it is what isn't said that is important. If XXX cider is only 35% apple juice, then what they say on the bottle is only 35% truth... and they don't fess up to the remaining 65%.

Full juice cider does not need to do this. If the practices are there and the cider is of highest quality then why not let it speak for itself. I have checked back on bottles I have from Burrow Hill, Olivers Cider and Ross on Wye... they are simple, (sometimes) elegant and no bullshit in sight. What do I remember about them? What was in the bottle, of course!

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