On Drink

An apple a day…

Sampling a new wave of Bristish cider

It’s one of the big “what ifs” of drink history. What would have happened if English cider makers who experimented with bottle fermentation in the seventeenth century had perfected the technique of making fizz and marketed it around the world? Would Shepton Mallet look a bit like Epernay, and the Champagne region be a rural backwater rather than the place with the most expensive vineyard land in the world? Instead, the work of learned men like Lord Scudamore, John Beale and Sir Kenelm Digby was capitalised on by the French, not by English cider-makers.

There were a few exceptions, Bulmers in Hereford used to make a champagne-style cider which was highly regarded. Sadly after the Second World War there was something of a race to the bottom in the English cider industry and Bulmers moved to carbonation. In his book, Cider Country, James Crowden writes: “Bertram Bulmer once declared, in strict confidence, that you would not ‘catch him drinking any of his own products’.”

But the urge to make high quality sparkling ciders has never completely gone away. In the nineties James Lane at Gospel Green in Surrey began producing fine cider using the champagne method from local eating apples. Having bought quite a bit from him in the past — the prices were absurdly cheap — I can vouch that these ciders do age like a good sparkling wine, starting off dry with simple green apple notes but taking on flavours of brioche, nuts and toffee with time.

So I was very excited to be invited to a tasting of old vintage sparkling ciders at the Cider House in Borough Market by Felix Nash. His business, the Fine Cider Company, has done so much to raise the status of this much-maligned drink, even selling it to Michelin-starred restaurants. But before we got onto the old and rare bottles that Nash had been hoarding, we tasted some younger ciders from newer producers.

The trouble is it takes time to develop those opulent flavours and time is money

With the trains rattling overhead, we settled down to try the first cider from the Naughton Cider Company in Fife, the warmest driest part of Scotland and famed for its soft fruit. It was established in 2020 by Peter Crawford, who having worked in Champagne knows a thing or two about fizz. And it shows in his cider which was made from cox and bramley apples, a mixture of local and Oxfordshire fruit. It reminded me a lot of Gospel Green, very pure and elegant with beautiful fine bubbles, but as it was so young, its champagne-like notes were still embryonic. There is clearly much potential for the future.

Later we tasted some vintages from Polly and Mat Hilton who started a company called Find & Foster in 2015 to rescue old apple orchards in Devon. The pair, who look like a young rural couple from Hollywood casting, had no experience making ciders but quickly established themselves as one of the most exciting producers in the country.

I was particularly taken with their very first vintage, a 2015 champagne method cider. This was allowed to ferment fully with wild yeasts, before bottling with a champagne yeast to develop the fizz. It had been sitting on its lees (dead yeast cells) until the day before the tasting. I loved the bready nose with tarte tatin and almond notes. Despite having no sugar added the fruit tasted beautifully sweet. The trouble is it takes time to develop those opulent flavours and time is money.

Furthermore, there’s no automation like in Champagne, everything has to be done by hand — a laborious process to riddle and disgorge the bottle to remove the yeast cells and ensure a bright colour.

While they do harvest some cider apples, their champagne method ciders use only dessert and culinary fruit. I got a telling off from Polly for getting this wrong in a previous article. To tame the fierce tannins of traditional bittersweet cider apples, the Hiltons use a technique called keeving — rarely seen in England but common in Normandy — which preserves the natural sugar of the fruit. Mat doesn’t think cider apples suit the champagne method: “Not all ciders benefit from secondary ferment, it doesn’t work, it doesn’t add anything except fizz.”

As if to prove his point, we then moved on to some of Nash’s rare ciders which were something of a mixed bag. Perhaps the most memorable bottle was one which I won’t name from 2011 which smelt like a shot of funky cider vinegar. One can imagine Jeeves giving it to Bertie Wooster as a pick-me-up after a hard night at Drones. It tasted even worse. While you’d think time would have softened the tannins, it was quite the opposite, one taster commented that it tasted like “a wooden ceiling falling on your head.” Then there was the perry (made from pears rather than apples) that smelt of nail varnish and didn’t taste entirely safe to drink. “Mmm, lots of personality here” someone commented.

So they won’t be quaking in their boots in Epernay yet. Nash explained: “These weren’t designed to be drunk aged, any faults get accentuated over time.” Most farmhouse ciders just aren’t built for the long haul. The tasting made me realise how impressive the champagne industry is, producing millions of bottles of pristine age-worthy wine. Clearly British cider isn’t going to rival that any time soon. Then I went back to that Find & Foster 2015, it had taken on notes of marmalade and orange peel. Yes, the potential is definitely there.

Find & Foster will be releasing some old vintages this autumn. Go to: thefinecider.company for more information

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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