As our orchards burst with fruit, it’s time to rediscover Britain’s finest ciders and perries
The season of mellow fruitfulness is upon us! I love this time of year when Olly HQ is filled with the smell of jam on the brew, chutney on the simmer and the apples are so plentiful they’re practically rolling in from the garden shouting, ‘Eat me, brew me, crush me!’ Apples and pears are a significant part of Britain’s heritage and until a few years ago it seemed that cider and perry were perilously close to disappearing from our shelves and bars for good.
Then came the marketing idea of serving cider on ice, and suddenly the boom from the orchard could be heard rumbling in the darkest corners of our cities. No longer was it a drink for scruffy wurzels – cider and perry had been to the barbers and had a makeover.
I’ve been tasting a wide range of samples to prepare for this piece and there are a number of ways to categorise cider and perry.
Is it from a single vintage? Is it a novelty brew blended with other fruits? What type of apple is it made from? And is it any good?
Just as you have different grape varieties that influence the taste of wine, so you have hundreds of cider apple varieties, such as Foxwhelp, Brown Snout and Chisel Jersey, each with different levels of bitterness, sharpness and sweetness that contribute to the final brew. Orchards, like vineyards, behave differently depending on local conditions, each one with its own unique influences of climate, rainfall, yield and typicity.
I’m fortunate that I live a stone’s throw from the National Collection of Cider & Perry at Middle Farm, Lewes, Sussex (middlefarm.com). The collection on taste is fantastic – cider and perry from up and down the country with names such as Palmerhayes from Devon or the local Pookhill, all to taste or take home. The Apple Festival is taking place on October 16 and 17 at Middle Farm, where you can ‘sample every pomoligical product and toast the unparalleled quality of our orchard treasures’.
If you want to learn more about British cider, check out cideruk.com, the website of the National Association of Cider Makers. It tells you everything you need know about how cider is made, its history and quirky facts. For example, in 1664 John Evelyn wrote: ‘Generally all strong and pleasant cider excites and cleanses the Stomach, strengthens Digestion, and infallibly frees the Kidneys and Bladder from breeding the Gravel Stone’. What a helpful chap.
But what of the ciders themselves? Well, there seems to be a sharp demarcation between the mass-produced, readily available kit and the local farm brews, with some fine producers such as Aspall somewhere in between. On the whole the standard is good and in comparison to other drinks there’s some great value on offer.
To be honest, I’m not a big fan of dosing cider with other fruits – for me it takes away the appleyness of the whole drink. But, if you adore the flavour of strawberry iced lollies, the ciders for you are Brothers Strawberry Cider (£1.25, Asda) and Kopparberg Strawberry & Lime Cider (£2.08, Tesco).
Perhaps the most perplexing bottles were the low alcohol ciders such as Marks & Spencer Low-Alcohol Cider (£1.49). With its 0.5 per cent alcohol and disappointing flavour – why not just buy apple juice, sparkling or still, and boost it with a trickle of real cider for a superior taste?
Gripes aside, there’s a world of brews out there, from everyday big names such as the bright tang of Strongbow, to supermarket own labels like Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference Suffolk Cyder (£1.99) or Waitrose Leckford Cider (£1.89), both of which are well worth sipping.
It’s great news for British cider drinkers, as Aspall’s Henry Chevallier Guild told me: ‘The apple may have travelled all the way from Kazakhstan over time, but it seems to have made its natural home in Britain; the richness and diversity of the varieties that have been propagated here in the past three centuries gives cider-makers a pool of raw material even broader than wine-makers have access to. We need to celebrate what was once our national drink more than we do.’
Drink up, it’s harvest time!
Somerset Vintage Cider
A classy packaged cider with layered complexity and a good sense of balance. It’s rich with a hint of zest and makes a stunning match with pork and apple sauce. Get your bangers out.
2009 Vintage Pear Cider
This was my top choice of the perry samples at the Olly HQ tasting. Floral aromas (think sweet gorse flower) and a bright, tangy, refreshing, complex brew. A brilliant drink to serve chilled and toast the last rays of summer.
£47.88 (case of 12 bottles), oddbins.com
A cracking cider with proper appley layered flavours, savoury depth and a rangy brightness. It’s only mildly fizzy so a real contender for an entire afternoon’s worth of glugging. At five per cent alcohol it was also one of the less potent brews – a perfect picnic choice.
Aspall Suffolk Cyder Premier Cru
This was hands down the best cider at this tasting. Complex, zingy, refreshing and elegant – the most wine-like in terms of its pedigree and excellence. The man behind this bottle reckons it’s a winner with spicy food. Chill it down and get involved.
This week’s top tipple:
Chateau La Dournie 2008 St Chinian, France
£7.99 (two for £13.98), majestic.co.uk
A magnificent bootylicious red with fragrant lavender-like charm, oodles of beefy fruit flavour and a long-lasting spicy richness. Marvellous to match with a steak-and-kidney pudding or a plate of hearty beef. Terrific value and a must buy for the last barbecue of the season.