Pete Brown: What is craft cider, and is it the new craft beer?

By Pete Brown

- Last updated on GMT

Cider? The new 'craft' drink?
Cider? The new 'craft' drink?

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As the craft-cider movement follows the craft-beer movement, we begin to see parallels in its development. Pete Brown looks at a selection of the very best craft ciders available and defines the term and the category from a range of industry perspectives.

Imagine you’re drinking wine (always difficult, I know.) Imagine that you’re appreciating a product which you firmly believe is made by the selection, pressing and expert blending of select grape varieties. That’s what wine is, after all. Now imagine that you suddenly discover your wine is made from grape juice that has been reduced to a concentrate before shipping, and then reconstituted with water.

After that, more water has been added, then to stop it tasting so watery, it has been pumped full of sugar, artificial sweeteners, artificial colouring and lots of chemicals, until a mere 30-40% of your ‘wine’ is grape juice. Doesn’t sound so appealing now, does it? But switch grapes for apples, and this is how much commercial cider is made. Even without knowing these details, cider-drinkers don’t revere their product.

The recent Mintel survey that claimed more people now drink cider than lager also showed that only 8% of drinkers believe cider is ‘sophisticated’ and only 14% believe it is ‘worth paying more for’. Cider still has a residual image problem. So does this mean cider needs a craft segment? Few people are talking about ‘craft cider’ openly yet. Would it be a good idea if they did? What would craft cider be and how would we recognise it?

High Juice?

I would hazard the opinion that high juice content would be central to a definition of craft cider, and cider makers don’t disagree.

“High juice content is very important because it gives you ‘taste potential’,” says award-winning Herefordshire cider maker Tom Oliver, from Oliver’s Cider & Perry. “Water doesn’t do this — and neither do sugar or preservatives. It’s a less interventional approach, which is the most honest, with traceability and provenance at their best.” But there’s more to craft than that. Commercial producers of ciders with low juice content quickly point out that high juice doesn’t necessarily mean good quality. (They’re right, but there is a strong correlation.)

Oliver's Cider & Perry

“‘Craft’ cider is about a whole range of things, not just the contents, but also the manner in which it is made,” says David Sheppy, head cider maker at his family’s firm, which has made Sheppy’s cider on a Somerset farm for almost a century.

Thatchers managing director and fourth-generation Somerset cider maker Martin Thatcher agrees. “A craft cider is subject to the same attention to detail, and years of experience, as other trades. Techniques come from years of experience, both in the orchard growing the right apples, and in the mill. Craft cider is a product that has authenticity, heritage, provenance and substance behind it,” he says.

Aspall’s Henry Chevalier Guild is also keen to point out the role of true artisanship in cider production. “All along the way, a nose and a mouth have to be guiding the making, maturation and blending. And a craft product should have the freedom to differ from batch to batch, as the raw material changes.”

Oliver adds: “I see craft as meaning ‘hands-on’. Everyone is involved in the fruit collection — the actual making of the cider. In short, you get your hands dirty. It should have a lot of heart and soul as well as outright commercial targets.”

Commercial viability

Inevitably, these commercial targets compromise craft. “All cider makers have to make commercial decisions as their businesses grow, and this leads to a range of opinions about what is acceptable or not,” says Sheppy.

“Bigger manufacturers have no alternative but to use concentration and to make heavy compromises on juice content, which is well beyond the bounds of ‘craft’ cider making for me.”

It might sound obvious, but the skill of a true craft cider maker is the selection and blending of apples, and the easy way to spot a proper cider maker is that they will talk about apple varieties as passionately as wine makers talk about grapes.

Chef Phil Vickery visits Sheppy's Cider Farm:

“What’s really important to us is that it starts with the apples, which are allowed to fall naturally, when the fruit sugars are developed. Then the juice is fermented naturally,” explains Sheppy. “The cider maker’s tasting and blending skills are key to creating a well-balanced taste, drawing on their experience and the range of apples available.”

Thatcher is one of many cider makers who believe you can’t make good cider without an intimate understanding of what different apple varieties bring. “We currently grow 29 different varieties of apple here in Somerset — cider apples as well as dessert apples,” he says. But our company’s scale means it also has to buy apples from elsewhere, developing close relationships with other growers.

“Last week we hosted an orchard day which saw around 300 apple-growers from around the country getting together to discuss latest developments in orcharding,” says Thatcher. “Richard Johnson, our cider maker, talked to them about what a cider maker needs from an apple, and how growers can meet that demand. This ranges from specific varieties grown (each cider maker has their own favourite); the climatic and soil conditions in which those varieties are grown, and the quality of the apple that arrives at the mill — in particular, looking at components that add to the flavour, such as starch, tannin and acidity.”

Real cider?

So what happens once you’ve pressed juice from good quality apples and carefully blended it? Here, opinion begins to divide. Before all the more recent talk about craft, quality in cider usually came back to the Campaign for Real Ale’s (CAMRA’s) definition of ‘real cider’.

Andrea Briers, chair of the group’s Apple & Pear Produce Liaison Executive (APPLE) committee, tells me she’s never heard of the term ‘craft’ cider, and that for CAMRA, the definition of ‘real’ cider “excludes things such as carbonisation, as these processes are ones which are found in keg products.” The group’s thinking on this is that its campaign aims to “give the cider or perry drinker the chance to drink the more traditional products which are not so widely available”.

But there is, of course, a huge difference between tradition and quality. Some real ciders are undrinkable, while some celebrated ciders produced by the likes of Aspall, Sheppy’s and even Oliver’s Cider & Perry would be deemed not ‘real’, for various crimes such as filtration and carbonation — processes which, to many palates, improve the character of the cider. But consensus on high juice content and careful blending remains — processes inevitably compromised by large-scale commercial operations.

A Year in the Life of Thatchers Cider

So does this mean only small producers can create craft cider? Not necessarily. Bob Chaplin and Bob Cork have been making cider at Shepton Mallett Cider Mill, which now sits alongside Magner’s as part of C&C, for two decades. Forced by commercial reality to make cheap cider, the pair have produced a high juice content cider from treasured Somerset apple varieties, slowly fermented over three months, for their own enjoyment and company events such as wassails.

Cider has been released commercially in two varieties — stunning examples of their maker’s art. “With craft cider rising among mainstream cider tastes, this felt like the right time to blend both liquids on a larger scale,” says Cork. The products have been cleaning up at awards ceremonies since their launch. With non-craft cider still doing great business, is this high-end, esoteric market of value to the publican? Cider makers — naturally — say it is.

Operator interest?

“Pub operators have the same opportunity to benefit from craft cider as they’re currently doing with the renewed interest in craft beer,” says Thatcher. “There’s a wealth of variety being produced by cider makers — and in particular with the availability of cider in bag-in-box form, pub operators have an amazing choice at their disposal.” “A superior craft full-juice cider tastes better than the pretenders, and a higher price can be charged,” says Oliver.

“An 8.2% cider can sell for twice the price of a 4.1% cider: scarcity makes it distinctive.” “It offers the landlord considerable choice in terms of their offer,” agrees Chevalier Guild. “There is such a rich range of products to explore.” So is ‘craft’ a useful term to apply to cider? Yes, with reservations, seems to be the consensus.

“It’s important for a business to try to get across to the consumer what makes it different from other producers in the market,” says Sheppy, “But I also believe the word ‘craft’ is already being heavily used and abused.” Every drinks category develops today at a breakneck, cut-throat pace. Given the huge success of craft beer, and our insistence in looking at cider simply as a beer substitute, it’s inevitable that craft cider will have its buzz.

It’s in our industry’s nature to copy and cheapen anything good in search of a quick buck. But as C&C has shown with Chaplin and Cork, any producer, big or small, is capable of producing a cider that is truly crafted with love and care to deliver drinkability, layered complexity and character.

With the right approach to customer and consumer education and appreciation, these products can deliver significant margins and increase interest, value and longevity in the whole sector. It would be satisfying to see craft cider enjoying at least a brief heyday of true authenticity before its inevitable commodification.

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