“Everybody has to have a first experience that blows their mind,” says Felix Nash. “When they realise just how much better cider can be than the mass market concentrate stuff is.” The owner of cider merchant Fine Cider Co’s words couldn’t be more true; at least for me, anyway. My first time was in Little Palais, a whitewashed wine bar in St Ives with a picture-frame outlook of boats bobbing in the harbour below. It was at a table looking out over that view that I first tried a cider that completely changed my impressions of what the drink could be, and bended my perception of the idea that the humble apple could produce a liquid of that calibre.
Golden in hue and served in a white wine glass, this cider was almost biscuity, dry on the palate, with a depth of flavour and well balanced tannins that would rival even the finest of sparkling wines. I’m embarrassed to say that if you’d served it to me blind I’m not entirely sure I would have guessed it was a cider. It was, as Nash suggests, a mind-blowing experience.
That particular cider was from the Michelin-starred restaurant Osip in Bruton, Somerset, and made in partnership with Pilton Cider. “Growing up we were surrounded by apple orchards in the West Country, and now in Bruton we have so many amazing producers at our fingertips,” chef-patron Merlin Labron-Johnson tells me. “Working on my own cider felt like a natural extension of my work here at Osip. We want to fully understand the provenance of everything we serve in the restaurant, and there’s no better way of guaranteeing the quality of something you’re serving than by making it yourself.”
Osip tends to serve its cider as a welcome drink for guests. “There are some instances that call for a particular sparkling wine or some really good-quality fizz,” Labron-Johnson tells me. “But more and more now we’re seeing cider held in a similar regard and really giving those high-end, more obvious wine or champagne choices a run for their money.” His thoughts almost entirely echo those I had when drinking the cider. Namely that I would happily drink it over a sparkling wine – particularly one of a lesser quality – and equally that this is a drink that seems almost made for pairing with food.
Not long after the revelatory experience with the Osip cider, I find myself on a golf cart clattering over gravel through fields of apple trees on the grounds of The Newt in east Somerset with the estate’s cellar master Greg Carnell. As we reach the crest of a hill, he parks the cart, directing me to a bench with panoramic views across the undulating terrain of farms and clusters of dwellings beyond. “Careful of the horse flies,” he says, popping the cork on the hotel’s sparkling cyder, The Winston, with a slightly anticlimactic thlunk rather than a resounding pop. “They’ll give you a nasty bite.” The cyder is dry; spritely in its effervescence, with a well-balanced acidity that wets the whistle beautifully. It feels like drinking a distillation of the almost unbelievably bucolic view in front; only slightly tempered by having to swat the nasty buggers away.
I ask Carnell about the spelling of the name, and the decision to use a Y instead of an I when referring to all of the ciders in their range (the offering from The Newt includes a still cider that drinks like a dry white wine, and a sweet cider that would hold its own against even the most quaffable of dessert wines.) “Back in the day, cider with an I is what the orchard workers were paid in,” he tells me. “It tended to be a lower-quality, watered down beverage that didn’t taste all that good. Up in London or in the fancier establishments the liquid they would be drinking – and the one that’s more similar to what we’re making here – was called cyder, spelled with a Y.”
We're seeing cider give high-end wines or champagnes a run for their money
It is a good reminder of the history of the drink, one that far predates your scrumpies and your sugary mass-produced ciders – and even its grapely alternative, champagne. “The method by which champagne is made – the traditional method – evolved over a few hundred years,” Nash tells me. “But the first step in the process – the really strong bottles – were invented in Britain in the 1600s, and some of the first uses were for making natural sparkling ciders and perries, so in some ways cider has a longer lineage than champagne.” Nick Showerings of Showerings Cider, a family with more than 180 years and multiple generations in the cider game, echoes these thoughts. “Cider has existed for hundreds of years, pre- dating the Roman empire,” he tells me. “It existed as a staple drink, alongside beer.”
“Interestingly, the first drinks made using what’s now known as the ‘champagne method’ were ciders in and around the 1650s,” Adam Wells, a Fortnum & Mason award-nominated writer and cider specialist, tells me. “In brief, they were made possible by a new, tougher glass born from much hotter, coal-fired glass meltings that were used particularly around Gloucestershire from the 17th century. The pressure this glass could withstand made secondary in-bottle fermentation possible.” There is even evidence, he tells me, of writing from the 1650s that discusses cider makers adding ‘a walnut of sugar’ to bottled cider for secondary fermentation – essentially the origin story of champagne’s liqueur de tirage. “This was the decade before Christopher Merret applied the same thing to wine for the first time,” he adds.
It begs the question around whether my musing that new-age cider was perhaps being positioned as a champagne alternative were somewhat redundant, because cider was in fact the beginning of it all. But, historic use or not, the fact remains that in the subsequent years cider had lost its sheen, being resigned to an often saccharine beer alternative favoured by students and budget-weary drinkers who usually consumed it lukewarm and quickly. Wells attributes this shift towards new-gen ciders and a greater appreciation for the product to a number of different factors; the general rise of the conscientious drinker, a boom in new producers attempting to redefine the product alongside a growth in cider advocacy and, finally, the pandemic forcing people to drink at home, driving discovery of cider in this 750ml format.
“The UK cider industry is changing rapidly,” Liam Tinston, the founder of Tinston Wines & Ciders, tells me. “There are more producers of fine cider than there ever have been and they’re doing loads of exciting things. Lots of winemaking methods are being brought across to cider, but cider producers are often more experimental than winemakers ever have been. Due to the lack of a codified system – like the one wine in Europe has always been governed by – producers are allowed to be experimental and challenge the norms of what’s considered to be cider.”
His words occur to me when I take my first sip of The Winston. It’s about as far from what I would expect cider to be as possible, but it also feels like in that freedom they’ve found restriction; utilising this experimental field to create a classic drink. On a tour of The Newt’s cidery earlier that day, I had genuinely felt like I was in the control room at a vineyard. Stainless steel tanks lined the walls, while upstairs a select amount of the liquid was ageing in oak barrels. It’s unsurprising that this wine-like liquid should come from apples when the process so distinctly mirrors that of winemaking – and that’s before you even get onto the subject of terroir.
That term is so often connected with wine, and encompasses everything from the soil the grapes are grown in to the climate of the area and even the direction the land they’re on faces. And yet it’s mentioned time and time again by both the makers and the professionals I speak to. “From the terroir of where the fruit grows, to the fermentation of the juice, our process of making fine cider has more parallels to winemaking than brewing,” Showering tells me. “Choosing the best soils on gentle south-facing slopes is second nature to Somerset cider makers. The temperate climate of the South West is well suited to orchards and there’s a skill in choosing areas with protection from winds and frost while still having good humidity and air flow. Cider apples do best on medium- weight, well-drained, moisture-retaining soils. The nutrients of the land have a direct relationship to the quality of the apple.”
Cider producers are often more experimental than winemakers have ever been
Similarly, Carnell tells me he hopes that one day cider apples will be referred to – and respected – in the same way as grape varietals. He wants consumers to be able to associate a Dabinett or a Kingston Black with their expected flavour profiles, much how someone would assume say, a sauvignon blanc grape to be acidic with grassy notes, or a pinot noir to offer a hit of red fruit with a savoury undercurrent.
While chatting to experts and tasting various ciders for this article, I realised my initial intentions for what I was trying to say were incorrect. Driven by a desire to seek out these ciders as champagne alternatives, I had failed to give credit to a whole host of fine ciders that aren’t carbonated at all. At The Newt, the Fine Cyder is akin to a dry white wine, with a well balanced acidity and a fruit-forward palate. “I don’t see Showerings as an alternative to sparkling wine or champagne,” Showering tells me when I ask about the comparison. “It’s closer to wine.” He says he wants to see drinkers pairing it with food as they would any wine, and suggests it partners best with dishes like lamb curry and slow braised pork shoulder, or, do as Alain Roux does at three-Michelin-starred The Waterside Inn and serve it alongside your cheese course.
“I’d argue that these traditional-method ciders only form one very small piece of the growing tapestry of great, full-juice, aspirational cider, just as champagne itself is only one piece of the fine-wine picture,” Wells tells me. “We also have incredible pet-nat and keeved ciders, and we have ice ciders which are just the most beautiful, rich, intense dessert drinks. They were pommeaux and mostellos – our fortifieds – that are autumnal and wintry and similar to ports or Malmsey madeiras. We’ve got co- fermentations, exciting beer-cider hybrids, and perhaps best of all, are the simply still, dry ciders that beautifully reflect their apple varieties and their orchards of origin.”
There is, to put it simply, an entire world of cider possibilities – even more so than perhaps in wine, thanks to its lack of prescribed rules and expectations. In terms of what’s to come, the consensus from everybody is that this is an extremely exciting time for cider, and that the key to keeping this momentum is breaking down people’s preconceptions about the liquid and what they expect it to be. Wells believes the offering in pubs needs to improve to help people get familiar with this new wave of ciders, while Nash thinks you’ll see more and more ciders popping up regularly on restaurant menus, poured from 750ml bottles and served in wine glasses.
Sipping on that Osip cider in Cornwall, and toasting to a magnificent view over Somerset with The Winston at The Newt, it is easy to see why this is a drink worth getting excited about. For an entire industry – and especially one so tied up in British history – to be changing and growing so exponentially is without a doubt a wonderful thing. When the liquid that is being produced is of such a high calibre, it’s certainly something to be celebrated. British cider has been made for centuries, and through rediscovering its origins and making what is old new again, it might finally be doing credit to its potential.