Our male-about-ale Pete Brown on why cider is a complicated drink
In my last column I talked about cider: a drink that most people think is made of apples, and showed often, it isn’t.
It’s a familiar story in food and drink: if you want to make sure what you’re putting in your mouth is what you think it is, you’re better off going for smaller producers who haven’t been compromised by the pressures of producing to the demands of our all-powerful supermarkets.
In cider, the Campaign for Real Ale also has a definition of ‘real cider’. Follow that [http://www.camra.org.uk/aboutcider], and avoid the brands on CAMRA’s blacklist of ciders that aren’t ‘real’ [http://www.camra.org.uk/nonrealcider] and you’re guaranteed a quality cider.
Ah, if only it were that simple.
Possibly the worst cider I ever (almost) tasted was a finalist in a CAMRA cider competition. I was one of a panel of judges, and was handed a glass of something cloudy and dead looking. When I raised it to my nose the aroma reminded me very strongly of human excrement.
“Excuse me, I’m not drinking this,” I said to the chair of judges.
“Why not?” He asked.
“It smells of shit,” I replied.
“Ah. When you’re drinking cider you’re supposed to ignore the aroma,” he said.
This is so untrue, so profoundly wrong, that if I hadn’t been the amiable (OK, easily embarrassed) guy that I am, I would have laughed in his face and walked out. Not only does it fly in the face of a painstaking evolutionary process that has allowed us to survive because of our ability to sniff dodgy aromas in foodstuffs, it also ignores that fact that around 80 per cent of what we consider to be flavour is detected in the nasal cavity rather than the mouth. I was being asked to judge this cider on the merits of its flavour, at the same time as being asked to ignore most of what constitutes that flavour.
That was a few years ago. What I know now is that the stink was the result of the yeast not getting enough nutrients during fermentation, a deficiency that can produce sulphurous compounds but can be easily remedied by adding yeast nutrient during fermentation. But this is a practice frowned upon by traditionalists, who believe the best cider is made by allowing nature to take its course, whatever that might be.
“Whatever flavours that are in there, that’s what the cider maker intended to be there,” said our chair of judges. It’s possible I suppose, that this cider maker did intend to produce a liquid that smelled of shit, but unlikely unless he wanted his cider to appeal to a very specialised niche target audience.
Throughout that entire tasting I longed for some of the ciders I’ve discovered in America. I revisited them again last week: clear and sparkling like commercial ciders, but made with 100 per cent apple juice, none of it from apple concentrate. Their clean, vibrant flavours were all about the blend of apple varieties used: some sweetness, balanced by sharp acidity, and in the very best, some earthy bittersweet tannin to add body and depth.
And yet, not a single one of my favourites would pass CAMRA’s definition of ‘real’ cider.
Their crimes are manifold. Most of them achieve their sparkle via artificial carbonation, and that’s a modern technique so therefore it must be bad, irrespective of whether it makes the cider more pleasant or not. Most are also micro-filtered to appear clear and attractive, and according to CAMRA this is a bad thing because it removes the yeast and ‘kills’ the cider.
And here’s the nub of the problem, the confusion surrounding cider: most of us, whether novices or supposed experts, judge cider as if it were exactly the same as beer. We drink it by the pint or half pint, even when it’s twice as strong as beer. And because residual yeast and a slow, secondary fermentation is a key part of what makes ‘real ale’ so special, CAMRA declares the same must be true of cider.
I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t make cider like this. Just that, in cider, it’s not the most relevant benchmark of quality. (There’s an increasing argument to suggest it’s not even the best quality standard to use in beer, with the rise of ‘craft keg’ beers.) Suggesting that the yeast MUST be left in cider is about as relevant as saying that real coffee must be served on its grounds, or real tea must still have the leaves in.
Some wines are aged on the ‘lees’ for several weeks, but are almost always racked off to be clear and bright afterwards, and no one – or no one who washes and uses deodorant at any rate – complains that these are not ‘real’ wines.
Good cider has at least as much in common with wine as it does beer. It’s made from fruit, not grain. That fruit is pressed to get the juice out, and that juice is then fermented with the natural yeast that’s on the fruit, like wine, or with added champagne yeast. It is not ‘brewed’ like beer is. And the blending of different apple varieties – which is the main determinant of flavour and quality – mirrors precisely the mixing of grape varieties in wine.
The upshot of all this confusion is that many people who turn their noses up at sugary-sweet commercial ciders investigate ‘real’ cider or ‘scrumpy’, and find they don’t like the sometimes sour, sometimes farmyardy, sometimes plain off flavours they get served, and therefore conclude they don’t like cider at all.
Some of these flavours have their place. The English ‘scrumpy’ tradition is at least one of the top two cider making traditions in the world, if not the very best. Some of those opaque pints contain a liquid that would in any sane world be selling at ten times the price if it were judged on its quality and artisanship. It’s something that my American cider friends wish they could emulate, but simply cannot. Yet.
There are already great ciders in the UK that fall either side of CAMRA’s definition but more than meet any objective definition of quality on cider’s own terms rather than those borrowed from beer.
But the English tradition is one among many, and there’s so much more to good cider than scrumpy.
CAMRA’s main crime is the same one they committed in beer: fashioning a definition of quality that is rooted in one national tradition among many.
This is understandable and eminently forgivable when you’re seeking to protect a tradition that is as revered as it is (or was) threatened.
But the world of beer is currently so exciting mainly because it is transcending national barriers and giving us a playful world of mix and match, where we can switch from an English Mild Ale to a German Weissbier to a Belgian Tripel and then, possibly – though I wouldn’t advise anyone to attempt this – a mix of all three.
We’ll soon go through a similar opening up process in cider, and a world of delight awaits us when we do. It’s already happening in America.
The misunderstandings of what cider is at both the quality and mainstream ends of the market are holding us back here. Hopefully, not for too much longer.
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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