With myriad cider types available, International Cider Challenge chair Adam Wells says consumers need to be better educated to understand the market

Let’s cut right to the chase. Cider styles – particularly in the UK – are a tangle of thorns tied in a Gordian knot. 

Those of us who have the thankless task of stitching their thicket of loose threads into some kind of coherent tapestry know only too well the trip hazards, rabbit holes and plain and simple legal red tape that exist to thwart us – never mind newer drinkers bewildered by a shelf full of bottles. Yet establishing cider as something that is not just monolithic “sparkly stuff on draught in pubs” or “funky stuff from farmhouses” is critical if the category is to progress. 

As Albert Johnson, of family-owned Ross on Wye Cider & Perry, puts it: “With a greater interest in craft style drinks, consumers have more options for which cider to buy than ever before. To aid consumers, clear marketing on a cider style is crucial, as the plethora of flavours and typologies of cider available is enormous.” 

Historically, UK cider styles have divided into two near-absurdly general camps. The first is West Country and Three Counties ciders, which are predominantly made with bittersweet and bittersharp apples such as Dabinett, Bisquet, Kingston Black and Yarlington Mill, and which, thus, tend to contain a proportion of tannins ranging from mild to significant. The second is Eastern Counties ciders, which tend to be made from dessert fruit such as Discovery, Egremont Russet, Bramley and Jonagold. They contain no tannins and are often described as “acid-led” despite, in many cases, showing less acidity than certain West Country counterparts. While these generalisations are a start, they ultimately perpetrate the vision of cider as more or less one-dimensional. 

First, they don’t account for ciders that are made from 100% fresh-pressed juice versus those that contain just the legal minimum juice content of 35% – all of which can be from concentrate – something which has a significant bearing on flavour and character. 

Second, not all Three Counties and West Country apples make ciders that are alike. There’s a world of difference between Dabinett (orangey, leathery, full-bodied), Bisquet (lighter, softer tannins, yellow fruit) and Yarlington Mill (burly, spicy, raisiny, almost Christmassy). In dessert apples, the strawberries and red apple tanginess of Discovery are far removed from the nuttiness and huge body of Egremont Russet. 

To further confuse matters, producers these days are experimenting more with single variety ciders, and even using apples that are not typically a feature of their region, such as the Egremont Russets of Herefordshire’s Little Pomona or the Yarlington Mill of Naughton Cider in Scotland. 

In stylistic terms, the picture is more complex still. Where many consumers see cider as merely still or sparkling, sweet or dry, there are dozens of ways to achieve those ends: ciders that are fermented with wild yeasts versus those fermented with a selected strain; sparkling  ciders that use the traditional Champagne method to achieve biscuity lees flavour versus pétillant naturel or charmat ciders that are designed to be more fruit-forward; or the more prosaic force-carbonated ciders familiar from pubs and supermarkets. Sweet cider could be artificially sweetened with sugar, arrested with pasteurisation so it’s still full juice, back-sweetened with apple juice, artisanally cold-racked, keeved or even ice cider. 

NARROW VIEW 

The differences in skill and effort, the expense of production and final quality are enormous. 

Yet few consumers are well-versed in what those differences are or why they matter – and that’s before we consider the labyrinthine and poorly legislated world of flavoured ciders. If this all seems to present more questions than answers it’s because, at this stage, the UK’s stylistic view of cider is hopelessly narrow. 

Competitions such as the International Cider Challenge (full disclosure, I am its chair) are valiantly attempting to illustrate differences and reward excellent examples. But there is still a long road to go. 

Johnson at Ross on Wye believe varieties will ultimately come to be key, just as they have been for over five decades in wine. “Consumers recognise hop or grape varieties, and as knowledge and understanding of apple characteristics grows, both consumers and producers will benefit,” he says. 

Ultimately though, it is effective communication about the flavour variations that come from both apple variety and process that will make the cider category more broadly understood and more attractive to a wider group of consumers.