Two weeks ago I was on stage in Bristol presenting the trophy to the winner of the Best Drinks Producer in the BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards.
This is one of my favourite awards to judge, because it places my passions — beer and cider — in the context of the broader drinks market. Then we judge drinks alongside
food producers, farms, takeaways, retailers and food heroes who make a profound difference to the way we eat and drink.
This is my third year of judging this category, and the fifth year this category has been in existence. Every year up until now, it has been dominated by beer. A brewer has won the award every year apart from 2012, when it went to cider maker Once Upon A Tree.
Each year we sift through hundreds of entries from the public and narrow them down to between eight and 12. We agree who we would like our three finalists to be, but we have to present our long-list to the judges of all the other categories, who taste all the long-listed drinks.
Often, at least one of our preferred finalists is overruled by the wider judging group, usually on the basis of tasting.
This year, we ended up with a shortlist that had no beer on it. It was a close-run thing: there were two brewers in the nine producers we took to the meeting, and it came down to a very close vote that one of them didn’t go through.
I should have felt disappointed when it didn’t, but I was fine. Beer is so strong just now, I felt we didn’t necessarily need to tell the story of its renaissance again in this year’s awards. And I have no doubt that, whether I’m involved next year or not, a brewer will be back among the finalists.
What we ended up with instead was Dunkertons cider, Warner Edwards gin and Square Root sodas.
Each of these is an absolutely outstanding example of its category. Ivor Dunkerton pioneered cider that is high quality, has high juice content, and revolves around the art of blending different apple varieties to get a perfect balance rather than adding sugar or flavourings, yet stands a world away from flat, farmhouse scrumpy.
Warner Edwards is simply the nicest gin I’ve ever tasted. When it comes to spirits, I’m a whisky man, but this is a gin I would sip neat, just like an Islay malt. If you must add tonic, it makes you reassess the G&T, and think carefully about both the quality and the amount of tonic used, so that the wonderful flavour of the gin isn’t drowned.
Both products should be on the bar of any pub that prides itself on knowing drinks and appreciating great flavour.
But I was delighted when Square Root emerged from a very tight race as our winner.
I’ve written many times about my frustration with the dire soft drinks offerings in most pubs. There simply seems to be no interest in the category among most publicans, which is daft when you look at the trends of people trying to cut down on alcohol, increased responsibility around drunk driving, and the fact that one in five of us is now teetotal.
When I give up alcohol each January, people assume I won’t be going to the pub for the month. But I would if drinks like this were available.
Ed Taylor and Robyn Simms started selling their sodas at a farmers’ market in North London in 2012. Ed worked previously as a brewer, and he brings a craft beer sensibility to a process that only uses fresh, seasonal ingredients, with little added sugar.
While I feel like I’ve been mugged at knifepoint when I pay more than £2 for a pint of lime and soda, I will happily pay up to £3 for a 33cl bottle of one of these thoughtful, flavoursome sodas. You honestly don’t feel like you’re missing out if you have one instead of a beer, and sometimes I even choose one over a beer — even when I’m drinking.
Square Root is not the only company making serious, adult soft drinks, but I think they’re the best at what they do. There’s simply no reason why pubs should not be stocking drinks like this as a grown-up alternative to sugary, chemical water from giant corporations.