Saturday 30 November 2013

Old Grove Red Devil Cider

Time for another single varietal cider that has been sat on my shelf. If there is one thing I will say about Old Grove, it is that they are not afraid to try new things... it takes a brave cider maker to do something with Bramley, for example (and I believe they have won awards for it too... which offsets the fact that I wasn't that keen on it nicely!).

I found this in Herefordshire earlier this year, as it is perfectly clear and with no sediment still I suspect I can safely say it is filtered without having to open the bottle. To be fair (and looking back at my notes on the other ciders) this is common to the Old Grove ciders I have tried. Polished and bright - the lot of them. In fact, looking at the bottle before opening it, it has a blush about it. Old Grove describe it as a 'delicate and well balanced rose cider'. Well, it is definitely rose coloured!

Red Devil is a dessert apple. It's actually quite a new variety (1970's) and is a cross of Discovery and Kent. Now, I do know that some producers start the pressing season with a Discovery blend... light, early apple which is quite acidic without huge flavours. I use another dessert variety to start things off - but as with most early varieties wouldn't necessarily make an SV from it. Now, Red Devil is early to mid season harvesting (September-ish), which I suspect gives it slightly more character. However, the notes I have got on it suggest that it isn't a keeping apple (so has to be pressed fairly quickly).  One thing all sources say is that the juice is pink in colour. To keep this from juice through to the cider though is quite an achievement.

It opens with a low/moderate fizz to it, which settles down nicely. In the glass the rose is more of a tint than anything, I am not getting much of a smell of it, but what I am getting is a light smell, citrus with a touch of body about it.

The taste is a bit odd - it is very light and delicate. It is also very clean (which probably is as a result of the filtering). Hmmm, it is a bit syruppy to be honest - though this isn't really the sweetening. I would say it is a medium to taste. However, because it is such a delicate flavour the sweetening overpowers it somewhat.

How can I describe it? Ithas a rather weak cidery taste, light and a little sharp. There is some body to it (though there aren't any significant tannins). However, the sweetening - whilst not huge - does build up in the mouth and becomes the dominant taste after a while. The aftertaste is fairly short (although the sweetness lasts a while).

I do feel that it has been over filtered. This is something I have said before about Old Grove and I do feel (especially with such a light cider) that it detracts from the overall experience. The fruitiness of this drink must surely be much more pronounced than it is.

However, alongside some ciders I have tried recently, it is not a terrible cider and for those seeking to try different single varieties then this ought to be on the list. It isn't going to challenge the sense though.

A score of 61/100

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Thistly Cross Cider, Original Cider

Lets give a second bottle of Thistly Cross cider a look in. I have three in all, including their Whisky Cask Cider (which I am told has been declared by someone the nicest cider in the world). Having tried two previously that have been far too sweet, I am hoping that the 'Original' is, well, a little more 'original' and dry in nature. Mind you, having made the effort of bringing them all the way back from Scotland, I will drink it none the less!!

Unlike others (no - not going to bang on about cider reviewers again) I will draw a blank slate and open this bottle before judging it:-)

 At 7.2%, this cider is in the middle of what I would expect for a cider that describes itself as "small batch cider made with Scottish apples". Again, I like the presentation of the bottle, the saltire on the cap and the fact that it is actually made from apples. Again, as I am unaware of cider apples being grown en masse in Scotland I am expecting this drink to be on the lighter, sharper side of things.

Once it is in the glass (with a 330ml bottle you can get it all into a single glass) I can see that it is bright, very light gold and quite highly sparkling. It has a strong smell - light and sweet (again) and no tannin in the nose. There is some citrus in the smell too, which sort of already confirms that it is going to be a light, sharp cider.

The taste is different to the smell. It is sharp - very sharp I would say although this has been countered by being way too sweet. Why do some producers (newer ones - I can think of Tutts Clump, Mr Whiteheads and Three Cats as examples) think that good cider needs to taste so sweet... their market research must be wrong! There is also a bit of an odd taste to it too - almost whisky like actually (I hope this isn't the wrong cider in the bottle... or the wrong label for the cider).

As I have mentioned Tutts Clump already, I have to say that I do draw a comparison between them. Apart from the sweetness, there is a touch of sour to it as well... this (to me) indicates a high percentage of culinary fruit; usually of the Bramley kind; but I have to say that other apple varieties - if not fully ripened when pressed - will give a sourness to a cider. I think it mainly affects culinary varieties but unless the sugar has been left to fully develop then you get this underlying sourness which builds as you work your way through the cider.

The main job of the sweetness in this (however it got there) is to offset the sharpness of the cider, leaving me to think that it is there to attempt to balance things out a bit rather than add a huge amount. The aftertaste is long, sharp with a note of sweetness that lingers longer still.

I do think I prefer this cider to the 'Traditional' that I tried recently. It is a more honest cider in many ways, but is still entirely too sweet. And I cannot think why - the Scots don't necessarily have any sweeter teeth than the rest of the UK and whatever you may say about the mainstream producers the better ones don't sweeten this much!

A score of 63/100 is the best score for Thistly Cross yet.

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!

Thursday 21 November 2013

Tieton Cider Works, Cidermaker's Reserve

OK, this one has sat around for a while patiently waiting its turn. I am not that familiar with American hard ciders, but did get talking to one earlier this year and the kindly sent me a bottle (although I would not say it is free... the duty payable on delivery definitely compensates for any free idea!

Being the first hard cider, I guess it gives me an opportunity to explain what is meant by that. 'Hard Cider' basically is what the Americans call 'cider' (OK, this is written primarily for a UK audience - so if you are reading this in America then 'cider' is what British call 'hard cider'). It really is as simple as that; no difference from the French calling it 'cidre' or the Spanish calling it 'sidra'.

Well, that was a complex and space consuming explanation wasn't it. Guess that gives me more room to go through this hard cider properly:-) Perhaps.I should elaborate on how I came to get this cider... though it was a while ago now. Every now and again I am asked to try a specific producers wares - I get sent updates and announcements and the like. I am normally unwilling to do this: these reviews are fun if nothing else and I don't want others taking them more seriously than they are. One thing I do try to do is to promote the good stuff. If one person reads a review and chooses a cider based on it... and then really enjoys the cider too... well, that makes the work worthwhile doesn't it.

This one was slightly different. I figured that it was the only way I was going to get to try a cider from across the pond. So there you go... I actually think its brave of Teiton... I wouldn't want to be the first to send cider for review!!

The first thing to mention is the bottle. Very classy - I don't think I have seen cider served in a champagne bottle like this! Also, the label is nice - not sure about some of the language though; "vanilla and plum notes"... hmmm... "hints of charred oak"... OK then. I guess I could put this down to the difference in language from across the pond, I like the design though.

It pours out foamy and fizzy. I can smell it from across the room - it is an interesting smell and more along the dessert fruit tradition, light and a touch tart in the nose. However, if I am thinking of it I am getting some vanilla in the nose... though I am always dreadfully suspicious of being 'primed' to smell something. No plums though:-)

It is also ever so slightly hazy - I am not convinced it has been filtered, though there is very little sediment at the bottom which is common in bottle conditioning.

The taste is very light and has a nice amount of fruit in it. There is a sharp element to it but it has some body too - perhaps a touch of sourness that is likely to come from using a fair amount of culinary fruit in the blend. It comes across as a medium to medium dry and is nicely done so the sweetening doesn't overpower the character. It also tastes rather strong (and at 8% I am not surprised!). Finally, it is a little yeasty; though this is possibly a result of it sitting on my shelf maturing in the bottle as much as any bottle conditioning.

The aftertaste is pretty long and light in the mouth. I do have to say that I got a touch of oak - a hint - but not charred oak really.

I quite like this cider. It has some character and individuality (although, as this is the first cider from the USA that I have tried that is a dangerous statement to make). With a score of 72/100 it joins the ranks of the bronze apples.

Re-reading this before posting it I do have one thing to say that has nothing in particular to do with this cider. It is aimed at other cider reviewers. Actually, it is to specific 'reviewers' who claim to review cider. See I do keep my ear to the ground occasionally:-) My message is simple... Read the above review. That, my friends, is how you review and appreciate a cider. For God's sake, if you are trying to do right by those you are reviewing (those who actually put themselves out there by producing the stuff) then actually give the bloody stuff a chance and don't just judge it off-hand like you already had a problem before you even started!

I do like reading, viewing and listening to other reviews - it gives a perspective to what I write. But quite honestly listening to their babbling was just a joke! Don't just take a gulp and declare something crap. That shows no work; no research, thought or consideration and, quite frankly, insults the cider (and the producer) that you are trying to review. It reduces your views to ignorance and is, quite frankly, pathetic. I think I speak on behalf of every other reviewer of cider, ale or whatever when I say that from what I have heard this kind of review does no service to anyone and makes us all look bad.

If you don't like something then try to communicate what it is you don't like - with knowledge or some kind of vocabulary (if you have any). Currently, your reviews are no use to man and beast and are simply a waste of three quarters of an hour! There are other reviewers, both blogging in text or as video's that are great - my advice would be to read them, think about what they are saying... perhaps even try a couple and compare (if you can get them). A good review doesn't simply diss something - it tries to communicate something that others can use - agree or disagree... if you can't, please do us all a favour and don't bother! 

As a final note to this - I have always said that if producers or drinker feel that my own reviews are unfair then I ask that they let me know. I hope my own reviews have NEVER fit into the category I mention above... I always consider a cider, do as much research as I can and if I find a fault then try to think about what it is. It is easy to knock something, but lazy not to do the work - every cider and producer deserves that.

Monday 18 November 2013

Long Ashton Cider Co., Ashton Press Cider

Here we have a cider produced by a brewery (which is not uncommon). Butcombe Brewery near Bristol is perhaps better known for its ales than it's ciders, and looking at their website the purchased the cider business in 2003 as an extension of their own business. This is, perhaps, a better way of doing things than trying to start 'brewing' cider within a brewing environment... As others are fond of saying, beer is not cider is not beer. Anyway, the label suggests that this cider is a celebration of The National Fruit and Cider Institute at Long Ashton.

I don’t really need a huge excuse to say something about this institution… however, rather than wax on in my own ranting style I will pinch something from Andrew Lea. Well, I am actually copying it from BBC, but the link is found on Andrews own website ( Dr Lea is ex-Long Ashton himself, so I doubt I could beat that knowledge!!
Long Ashton started life in 1903 as the National Fruit and Cider Institute.

Farmers who despaired of producing sour and undrinkable cider wanted to know what made their cider good or bad.

Over the next 80 years, Long Ashton provided the answers.

Scientists identified the best apple varieties, growing conditions, and production methods for grateful growers and cider-makers.

"Long Ashton has done a huge amount for the cider industry," says Martin Thatcher, whose family has been making Somerset cider for almost a century.

"They developed a lot of the techniques that are used today in cider-making.

"They helped to work out what made the cider really good, batch after batch. That, of course, is something we're reaping the benefits of now."

The fact that it says ‘premium quality’ on the label doesn’t fill me with huge confidence, but as I go I coming to the conclusion that it is is neither negative or positive: it is meaningless – a cider is neither better or worse with these words on the label. It pours out golden and bright and rather foamy. A high carbonation then.

The aroma is clean with cidery notes. There is stacks of fruit in the nose but at the same time it seems a bit ‘washed out’. I hoped that it was just me, but sadly this is the theme of the review. The taste confirms that it is a fainter version of itself. It is, well, a posh Magners.

This medium cider is very controlled – ubiquitous almost. There is some fruit and a faint tannin with a bit of acid (but not too much). It has a short aftertaste which is OK but rather uninspiring.

Umm. OK, it isn’t going to set any records (or get an apple from me), but it isn’t terrible. However, it joins the ranks of those ciders that seem to be designed to taste and appeal to mass produced cider drinkers… which is a shame.

I think if I were looking for a cider that celebrated Long Ashton and the knowledge that came out of it I would probably beat a path to Andrew Lea's door and pinch a bottle of his cider. This, to me, is not a high end celebration of the institution. However, as a lot of their work was done for the large scale industrial cider makers, perhaps it is:-) A score of 57/100.

Friday 15 November 2013

Thistly Cross Cider Traditional Cider

First off, my apologies for the absence. Last year I had this season planned... this year I failed to do so! So I find myself very busy with lots of cider sitting on the shelf waiting to be tried. Well, finally, I am back!

I figured it would be nice to open one of the three Thistly Cross ciders that I have sat on my cider shelf. I had opted not to say this, but as Thistly Cross call themselves the 'original Scottish cider makers' I really suppose I have to: Cider is not normally made this far up north. Well, it never used to be. Now I think we can safely say that wherever you go in the UK you are sure to find someone making cider.

Part of the reason that cider is not traditionally known in Scotland is the availability of high quality apples with character. James Grieve, I believe, originated in Scotland - but that is a hardy sharp apple more related to cooking than to cider making. So, to some degree, I am expecting this to be a cider in the 'eastern counties' tradition than something with tannic cider fruit in. There were a couple of  'non apple fruit' themed ciders on offer that I opted not to buy - so they are exploring other flavours. So perhaps they don't get the full choice of cider fruit that others do (who oddly don't venture into 'non apple themed' flavours. 

So, lets get on with this cider then. It is presented in a 330ml bottle which seems a bit odd as the price didn't really reflect that. However, I like the label (and the Saltire on the cap). A couple of things that stick out from the label: “Premium Scottish Cider”. This tells me that Thistly Cross are a successful company who are courting the supermarkets and wider distribution (I am forming the theory that anything with a broad distribution has to be called ‘premium’. The other is “classic Scottish session cider”… at 4.4% I was wondering what it was – it cannot be full juice in any case. However, the ingredients list (also on the bottle) says ‘apple juice and sulphites’. OK, so it may be – although where I come from the use of water counts as an ingredient.

It pours out very pale golden and brightly polished. There is a moderate fizz that settles fairly quickly. The smell is quite faint and light – I am getting something like sharpness in the nose though; I expect that the main fruit crop in Scotland are going to be dessert and eaters so this is not surprising.

The taste is rather interesting. Firstly it is indeed made with cookers and dessert apples. It should be very sharp… but this is almost totally masked by the sweetening. It tastes a bit apple juicy, though I am not convinced it has been back sweetened with juice or if it is artificially sweetened and naturally a fruity cider. There is no tannin in here at all, but I am not getting a lot of sharpness either – just sweetness.

So, it is like a sweet apple juice – I noted that it isn’t dissimilar to WKD, although its credentials are far better and, actually, it is a bit nicer (and no boiled sweets!). However, it is not a favourite by any stretch. Too sweet to start – and it is naturally rather a thin and sharp blend.

The aftertaste is short.

Overall, I don’t really go for this cider on a number of levels. It is possible that the signs of a cider heading towards mass production are there… low abv, high use of sweetener (even the use of language on the label). It scores an actually respectable 62/100.