Our male-about-ale Pete Brown on why cider is a complicated drink
There’s no easy way to humblebrag this so let me get it out of the way and move on: I just got back from Chicago, where I was flown and accommodated for a week mainly so I could drink cider.
Well, it was one way to celebrate the end of Dry January.
I was invited to Chicago, which is currently located in the depths of the arctic, to talk about World’s Best Cider, the book I wrote with photographer Bill Bradshaw, to several hundred American cider makers attending the industry’s annual CiderCon. After the trade conference there was a public event, the Chicago Cider Summit, where 4000 punters – most of them very new to cider – came along to sample and celebrate a drink that is doubling in volume every year.
There was a bullish confidence among the cider makers, spiked by the rush of an event that, already in this fledgling cider scene, outstrips any celebration of cider I’ve seen in the UK.
My conference presentation was subtitled ‘The world’s most misunderstood drink.’ Cider confuses people in myriad ways around the world, and I’m not just talking about the effect of drinking a lot of it. One of the biggest areas of misunderstanding seems to be around what cider actually is.
You might think this is the most straightforward aspect of what on the surface seems to be a robustly uncomplicated drink. Go into any pub and ask anyone at random what cider is made of, and you could be reasonably certain the answer would be ‘apples’.
If only it were that simple.
Labelling laws are slightly different in the US than they are here. While I was in Chicago I was fascinated to pick up a bottle of Stella Cidre, which is currently spending big bucks building an image as a premium cider brand, just as it is here. The back label on the American bottle reads as follows:
‘Ingredients: Hard cider (water, apple juice concentrate, dextrose), water, sucrose, natural flavor, malic acid, sodium citrate, natural colors.’
This sentence makes for fascinating, if frightening, reading. Firstly, I’m scratching my head how the main ingredient of cider can be cider. This is common on commercial cider labels in America and I can only imagine the legislative battles that have resulted in a situation that sounds like it was agreed by people hammered on strong scrumpy.
To give credit to Stella Cidre though, it actually goes on to tell us what the cider in the cider is made of – something their competitors don’t always do. The label states that the cider that is the main ingredient in Stella Cidre is mainly water, with some added apple juice concentrate and sugar. Then, as far as I can understand it, they’ve added more water and sugar and other stuff to this ‘cider’ to premiumise it into Stella Cidre.
Can you see how easy it is to get confused in cider? If we were to judge it by the public understanding of what cider is, Stella Cidre c’est pas cidre at all, c’est mainly l’eau. Et un bunch de chemical additives.
Intriguingly, one of these additives is ‘flavor’. Not ‘flavorings’ or ‘flavor compounds’, but seemingly the quintessence of flavour as a concept. It evokes the notion that, somehow, the scientists and engineers who manufacture this substance have captured one of humanity’s five sensory stimuli in liquid (I guess) form.
Even more mystifying is that it is that this ‘flavor’ is ‘natural’. What a fascinating concept! A naturally occurring substance that is seemingly not animal, vegetable or mineral, but pure flavour itself.
The idea that flavour is a discrete ingredient, rather than a property of other ingredients such as, say, apples, leads us to ponder the production processes of large brands. It suggests you can decide to leave flavour out or put some in, irrespective of the other ingredients. Strangely, my palate wasn’t able to pick out the flavour in Stella Cidre. I wouldn’t have guessed it contained any flavour at all unless it said so on the label. So maybe that’s why it’s listed.
We don’t have the same labelling regulations in the UK. We’re a more cynical bunch, and I guess if HMRC asked “What’s your cider made of?” and you replied, “Cider mainly, and flavour as well,” you might get a slap, or at least a stern reprimand for taking the piss out of the principles of food labelling.
Sadly we don’t have the chance to witness that confrontation, because our cider makers are not required to list their ingredients on the label at all. There is no obligation for them to tell you how much of the product you think is made of apples is, in fact, apples, or what they’ve added to those apples.
This is obviously not ideal, which is why in 2010 the government brought in tough new standards. If you want to call your cider cider in the UK, it must have a mandatory minimum apple juice content (unless it’s a Swedish alcopop that has already been using the ‘c’ word for years in its home country and is therefore allowed to continue to do so under EU regulations, even though apples are not listed anywhere as an ingredient and never mentioned in any product information, not even for the ‘hard apple’ flavour).
To show they meant business, HMRC set the minimum juice content for (non-Swedish) cider at a level so high that one brand had to delay its launch while the product was reformulated, and at least one other was permanently withdrawn.
That magical, punishing minimum juice threshold is 35 per cent.
Under this harsh new regime, you can make a product that most people believe is mainly apples, but is actually 65 per cent water, sugar and chemical additives, and still legally call it cider. And that’s what most leading commercial brands do, give or take maybe ten per cent.
Actually I have no idea how much apple juice is in brands like Magner’s and Bulmers. A spokesperson from Bulmers told me that you, the drinker are ‘not interested’ in knowing how much apple juice is in your cider. Which is just as well, because if you did want to know, they wouldn’t tell you. When I was researching World’s Best Cider, every commercial brand I asked refused to disclose what percentage of their product was apple juice.
These big producers are quick to point out that higher juice content doesn’t automatically mean better quality, and I agree: I’ve judged some 100 per cent juice farmhouse ciders that were so awful I’d have swapped them for a bottle of Rekorderlig, given the chance.
But it is my overall experience that the more apple juice is in a cider, the more it tastes like apples. And I might be a bit weird, but when I order a cider that’s what I’m expecting.
So, even to an alleged expert, cider can be a confusing drink. “Ah,” I hear you say, “So what you’re saying is that the big commercial brands have confused everyone about what cider is, and that’s why we should all drink the good quality stuff, which is much more straightforward.”
Well, yes and no. Because we’re only warming up here. In my next column I’ll talk about what ‘real’, quality cider is. That’s where the misunderstandings really start to get going.
Pete Brown is the author of the newly published Shakespeare’s Local, an amusing romp through six centuries of history through the George Inn near London Bridge, watering hole to Chaucer, Dickens and the Swan of Avon. It is currently Radio 4’s book of the week. Pete is also celebrating being crowned Beer Writer of the Year for a second time.
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