A different sort of expert

Gabe Cook, The Ciderologist

22 October 2020 We're proud to be featuring a fine, winey drink based on a fruit other than grapes and are republishing this initial contribution free.

16 October 2020 Gabe Cook* introduces us to a drink that deserves much more attention.

Here in the heart of October, across the cool, temperate climes of the northern hemisphere, there is a harvest in full flow. From Oregon to Kent to Trentino to the Mosel, the beverage produced from this crop will be purchased and consumed by millions across the planet.

From first light, mechanical harvesters and pickers are scurrying through the rows ensuring that these select varieties, each with their own unique properties and characteristics, are brought in at their peak of ripeness. A number of these varieties are so revered that they have gained a global foothold; others remain happily ensconced in their own specific region.

The colour palette of fruit being delivered to the press is a sight to behold: zingy green, soft rouge, brooding tawny. The juice flows eagerly off the press into stainless steel or oak, its composition analysed and organoleptically assessed to understand how the resultant drink will present itself. The cellar abounds with the nose-tingling aromas of incipient fermentation – unctuous esters and black-tea phenolics intertwine with the first hints of carbon dioxide.

This is a time of magic, of science, of artistry, of bloody hard work and the annual re-boot of this multi-billion-dollar industry. But here’s the thing: I’m not talking about wine. This is cider.

If you were fooled by my attempt at confusion, don’t feel too bad, for you have probably not been given the full story of cider. When given the opportunity to peek behind the curtain, one can discover that cider is actually the world’s most misunderstood drink and can deliver all of the elegance, finesse, character and diversity of wine.

Wherever in the world you are reading this, there is a good chance cider will be available to purchase, and likelier still that that the majority of cider will be presented as a drink that does not exude the wow factor. More likely you will expect something cheap made with artificial flavours and sweeteners. And it would be remiss of me to ignore these uber-mainstream ciders.

But, crucially, these do not define what cider is, or at least what cider can be, just as Budweiser does not define beer, and Blue Nun does not define wine. Cider comes in an incredible diversity of styles, flavour profiles, presentations and occasions on which it can be enjoyed. This diversity is created through the selection of specific varieties, through cultural practices, cider-making creativity and through individual terroirs.

For two millennia, Europe has been the seat of cider-making. Asturias and the Basque country in northern Spain lay claim to the world’s oldest heritage. Anyone who has paid a visit to these regions will know that the natural sidra or sagardoa are their lifeblood, with all social occasions and meals washed down with this zingy, lightly bitter, brisk wild ferment. Further north in Brittany and Normandy, the apples and the processes are quite different but the passion no less intense. Bold, chewy phenolics in these French ciders are tempered by high levels of residual sweetness cleverly retained. Meanwhile, both aesthetically and sensorially, the lean, elegant, still Apfelwein from Hessen in Germany and the fun, sprightly sidro spumante from northern Italy could not be more different.

And, of course, there’s the mothership: Britain. It is far and away the world’s largest producer and consumer of cider, with its West Country region creating bold, earthy, dry, tannic drinks. Unlike in the other Old World regions, cider broke free of its regional association to become a nationally consumed drink, if in somewhat tempered form.

Cider styles

But today, wherever apples are grown you will find someone making cider, and this has led to the development of the New World of cider-making. Would it come as a surprise that South Africa is the world’s second-largest producer of cider? Did you know that Australia is producing utterly extraordinary wine-influenced offerings?

Last, but by no means least, there is the US – producing the most exciting, dynamic and influential ciders on the planet. A combination of Founding Fathers-era heritage, a vast commercial apple-growing industry and the new-wave craft influence ensure that there is huge variation in presentations and styles of cider: cool-as-you-like Seattle hopped cider, single-variety Gravenstein from Sonoma, aromatic Home Orchard blends from the Finger Lakes and exquisite ice cider from Vermont.

I don’t expect you to have known any of this – you’ve never been told and you’ve probably never seen these gems. Part of the challenge is a lack of distribution of these products outside their region of production, let alone internationally. But – whisper it quietly – cider is starting to find its voice and is going to be making an impression over the next few years. And the cool thing is, you’re now ahead of the game, you’re in the know. This is your opportunity to be a cider pioneer in your community and peer group.

Why don’t you start your cider adventure today? For those in the UK, get your mitts on the 2016 Gospel Green to see just how spectacular traditional-method cider can be. Or, to understand the full harmony of aroma, tannin and texture within cider, reach for a bottle of Find & Foster’s 2019 Pendragon.

If you’re in the US and are into slightly earthy, acid-driven wine, then choose a bottle of South Hill’s 2017 Porter’s Perfection. And to learn that Sonoma ciders can be every bit as exceptional as their vinous neighbours, seek out Tilted Shed’s Lost Orchard Dry.

So, here it is, the great Cider Revelation. Get out there and start your cider journey today!

*Gabe Cook, The Ciderologist, is an award-winning, global cider expert attempting to change the way the world thinks and drinks cider. As well as being Channel 4's Sunday Brunch resident cider expert, Gabe is a cider writer, judge, educator, industry consultant and the de facto go-to independent voice on all matters cider. We’re delighted to welcome him and his vast knowledge and enthusiasm aboard the good ship JancisRobinson.com.