Dry, medium and sweet. these three terms are the most commonly used when describing ciders, but apples are far more complex than that and cider has far more dimensions to it. Our pallets are all different too, so these terms can become subjective and potentially meaningless. But how should we be describing those flavours? and What information do we need to make an informed decision before we choose our next cider?
I recently went to a fascinating seminar at Imbibe Live ‘The Art of the Cider Maker’. David Sheppy, sixth generation Sheppy’s cider maker, presented a great tasting using primarily single variety ciders and followed this with an interactive blending session.
First up we tasted an ‘unfinished’ cloudy natural cider. No added sugar, no carbonation and no filtration. It was dry, really tannic and tart or slightly sour with loads of fruit character. We later found out it was the bare bones of Sheppy’s Vintage cider, also in the tasting flight.
Next up was Falstaff, an eating apple, it was very low in tannin, bitterness and colour. It was really crisp with a high acidity, and barrels of sweetness. Not a traditional cider apple and not a traditional style of cider from the West Country, but exceptionally refreshing.
Our next single varietal was Dabinett. This is a medium bittersweet apple, it produced a honeyed and full bodied aroma with a flavour to match, all backed up with a gentle touch of tannin.
Kingston Black is often regarded as the best apple to use for a single varietal cider. It’s a bittersharp apple and, to me, had a slightly medicinal aroma. The result was a dry cider with not too much tannin or bitterness. While this apple is very traditional, a good all rounder and produces great cider, David succinctly explained why it isn’t seen in many commercial orchards today “It’s a bastard of a tree to grow”.
The final cider we tasted was Sheppy’s vintage. A blend of full bittersweet apples ‘Chisel Jersey, Yarlington Mill and Tremlett’s Bitter’ aged in oak vats, filtered, lightly carbonated and with a touch of sugar added to the first cider we tasted. This was a lovely drop, full bodied and sweet but well balanced with good levels of bitterness and tannin. David explains that his skill in blending had been passed down from father to son over six generations. The skills are clearly transferring well from one generation to the next as Sheppy’s has grown tenfold since he took the reigns in the 1990’s.
After all this Susanna Forbes challenged us to blend our own, we were given a measured test tube, a spare glass, a funnel and a bottle to take home our very own ‘frankencider’.
I love the contradiction that comes from the acidity and sweetness found in eating apples used to make cider. Aspall is probably the best known in this style and is a cider I go back to time and time again. So I wanted to use the Falstaff, I decided the Dabinett would add a bit of body and the sweetness to round out the tannin from the dry unfinished farmhouse. I mixed 1 part Falstaff, 1 part cloudy natural and over-poured with two parts Dabinett, it was delicious! Probably more down the standard of cider we had started with than my intuition. Convinced I couldn’t have nailed it on the first attempt I tried replacing Dabinett with Kingston Black, but it lost body and became too bitter, I tried with equal parts of my first three choices as I had initially intended, but the tannin of the natural cider and the acidity of the Falstaff argued, so I topped it back up with some trusty Dabinett and bottled my potion.
Helping consumers understand the effect that different styles of apples have on the resulting flavour, in my eye, is a very important step for the next stage of growth for the cider industry. Being able to understand whether you like full bittersweets such as Yarlington Mill or prefer a more rounded bittersharp like Kingston Black could be the key to demystifying the category. In order for this to happen we need more cider producers, including the big apples, to list the varieties or styles of apples they use, the sugar they added and, at the risk of opening a different can of worms, the juice content. We need more producers like Sheppy’s to share this information with consumers and be transparent with what they’re producing, and what they want us to buy and drink.
If we look to the wine industry, whose volumes soared since new world producers demystified the French naming conventions and focused on grape varieties, or to the craft beer industry, which has made the big boys stop, listen, engage with consumers about ingredients and start to experiment with hop varieties themselves, then hopefully the cider industry can start it’s own journey of education and information for the consumer. If it does, I believe we’ll see a healthy return on that investment.