I’ve made some sacrifices over the years to bring you this column. But none as painful as this. I’m writing from a hotel room in Chicago. That bit is OK (well, it would be, except for it now being 11pm my time and 5am your time). The extraordinary sacrifice I made is that in order to be here writing this, I had to say no to cider karaoke.
And in doing so, I missed the chance to see a tipsy Henry Chevallier-Guild, partner at Aspall Cyder, belting out Sweet Caroline while wearing an extraordinary hat.
No, don’t thank me — I know where my duty lies.
Both Henry and I — and the people supplying both cider and vocals for the cider karaoke — are in town for this year’s CiderCON. Two or three other English cider makers are here.
Paul Bartlett, chairman of Britain’s National Association of Cider Makers, gave a speech in which he told several hundred American cider makers how excited he was to be in the room with them, and how Britain — even though it boasts half the world’s total volume of cider — has no cider industry event that could possibly compare to the excitement at this conference. And he said that before anybody had even threatened to start singing.
American cider is in an amazing place right now. Echoing what happened in craft beer 20 years ago, the US is reacting to a total lack of anything interesting to drink by moving to the other extreme as quickly and dramatically as possible.
When they did this with beer, they countered a market where three bland brands had more than 70% share by looking to the great European traditions — Britain, Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic — absorbing and copying their ideas, reviving traditions that had sometimes been forgotten, and in some cases transcending their influences.
Having got the hang of various diverse traditions, and having a new terroir, new technology and a fresh approach to play with, they then gleefully began remixing them and ultimately creating their own traditions, their own styles turbocharged with flavour, and selling them back to the Old World.
Here in Chicago, it’s very clear that a process that took 20 years in beer is going to be much quicker for cider. The number of attendees at CiderCON has doubled versus last year. The cider market has grown in volume by almost 50% over that time. America is acquiring a thirst for cider and, while it’s being drunk by the same people who drink craft beer, they aren’t drinking less craft beer — they’re drinking less wine and less mainstream lager instead.
That’s why Chevallier-Guild and Bartlett are here. They see an affluent market where people are prepared to spend good money on a quality, premium drink that’s less macho and bitter than beer, and less than half the strength of wine.
America is wilder for Henry Chevallier-Guild’s cider than it is for his crooning, with bottles of Aspall selling for up to $36 (£22) in fine-dining eateries.
But the cultural exchange runs in the other direction too. Just look at craft beer — few people in the trade now dismiss American beer out of hand like
we used to.
The best American cider makers are already creating products that are at least as good as the leading British ciders and light years ahead of our (and their) large-scale commercial stuff.
And while the top end of British ciders can often be funky and 'farmyard-y', off-putting to the mainstream drinker, the Americans are mostly cleaner — easy drinking, yet classy and characterful.
Currently I’m in a tiny minority in that I’m looking to the horizon, waiting for American brands such as Virtue, Farnum Hill, Snowdrift and EZ Orchards to grow to a point when they can start exporting to the UK.
Britain has ciders that are just as good. But with the exception of Aspall and the better Westons ciders, few people have heard of cider makers such as Tom Oliver, Once Upon a Tree, Hecks, Sheppy’s and Henney’s.
There will be a craft-cider revolution, and when it arrives it will shake things up just as much as the craft beer one has. Just like beer, it will be ignited when the American influence arrives. But if you want to get ahead of the game, you don’t have to wait that long.
Right now, enthusiasts in the Windy City are more aware of how special British cider can be than most Brits are. Redressing that balance could be an awful lot of (very profitable) fun.