The paradox of premium fruit ciders

By Pete Brown

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Alcoholic beverage

Brown: "Cider is the most misunderstood drink in the world"
Brown: "Cider is the most misunderstood drink in the world"
The PMA’s feature on cider the other week reminded me of a conversation I had recently with one of the most talented bar managers I’ve ever met. She runs a craft-beer bar, and whenever someone comes in and asks for a fruit cider, she wants to say (but doesn’t, because she’s very good): “Yes, we’ve got some lovely ciders made out of APPLES. They’re a fruit, you know?”

Of course, what people mean when they ask for a fruit cider is something with added fruit flavouring, that considers apples as a mere afterthought, or a novelty ‘naked’ variant.

One brand actually boasts about the quality of the ‘naturally occurring soft water’ it is made with — the main ingredient in a recipe that also includes fruit juice, sugar, acidifier (citric acid), flavouring and potassium sorbate.

Likewise, another is keen to talk about the ‘fresh spring water’ that is its main ingredient, along with (in size order) ‘pear and apple wines, sugar, acids: citric acid and sodium citric, berry flavours, preservatives: E202, E220 and caramel colour’.

And so we have another classic drinks industry paradox: ‘fruit ciders’ aren’t made from fruit, and they’re not cider. And yet these concoctions are seen as ‘premium’ products. I hope I never encounter the ‘standard’ versions.

With their sudden surge in popularity and giddy, out-of-control proliferation of new flavours and variants, ‘fruit’ ‘ciders’ bear a strong resemblance to the alcopops of the ’90s — because that’s exactly what they are.

Swathes of people raised on soft drinks secretly want their alcohol sweet and sugary, but these days there’s a stigma in admitting this. Whenever I judge packaged cider competitions there are very few ‘sweet’ entries but ‘medium’ is the biggest category, full of products that are in fact sweet, but afraid to say so.

In the mid-’90s, Generation X made a brief stand of rejecting adulthood in an age that had betrayed their childhood hopes: Scooby Doo and Hong Kong Phooey T-shirts were worn ironically at festivals. There was a brief fad of sucking dummies at raves. Alcoholic drinks with childish imagery, were not initially attempting to lure under-age drinkers; in fact they were appealing to image-conscious 20-somethings for whom the idea of alcoholic lemonade held an illicit thrill on a par with snogging one of the Famous Five.

In today’s more cynical age, we still crave sugary booze but there’s no room for irony. Instead we seek a veneer of authenticity. Cider offers this, a perfect disguise for the new generation of alcopops. Their Swedish provenance gives them just enough mystique to make them credible.

I’d have to be a fool to suggest that publicans should not stock these concoctions, because they are currently one of the trade’s few and increasingly vital cash cows. I hope you make as much money from them as you can. But don’t be fooled for a minute into thinking they’re premium ciders, or that they’re going to be around for much longer than alcopops were.

Sweeter alternative
Cider is the most misunderstood drink in the world. In the UK, leading brands of mainstream ‘apple’ cider can get away with containing as little as 35% apple juice — and that’s after the regulations were tightened in 2010. While at the ‘premium’ end of the market we have the Campaign for Real Ale’s (CAMRA’s) hopelessly mistaken, unfit-for-purpose definition of ‘real cider’, which includes the ‘rough’ scrumpy evocative of farmyards or drains among the good stuff, yet excludes 100% pure juice products that have been filtered, pasteurised and carbonated.

Millions of drinkers who don’t like chemical sugar-and-water concoctions, and who are equally dismissive of something cloudy and urine-coloured that smells of cowpats understandably conclude that they don’t like cider at all.

Fuller’s recent acquisition of Cornish Orchards, which produces clear, sparkling ciders made from 100% juice, alongside the burgeoning success of brands like Aspall and Westons, points towards where the premium ground in cider really is.

The best of these drinks have as much in common with wine as beer, and possess something additional that neither other drink has. These real fruit ciders offer a sweeter alternative to beer, a lower-alcohol alternative to wine, complexity of flavour, true heritage and authenticity, myriad food accompaniment opportunities — and premium price-points for those stocking them.

The sooner both the trade and consumers get to know them, the better for everyone.

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