What I don’t know about cider could fill a book.
Luckily someone has written that book.
Pete Brown and Bill Bradshaw have written World’s Best Cider about, you’ve guessed it, the world of cider. In large-format hardback, it is a mix of Pete’s text and Bill’s photographs and covers the history of cider, the different styles of cider and the various types of cider available around the world. As someone new to the world of cider, I found this to be a really great introduction.
“But I can just sit down and drink some cider. That’s a good enough education isn’t it?”
Well, I can’t really argue with that. But there’s a lot to be said for knowing more about the food and drink we enjoy. I found this to be true with beer through the Year in Beer and now, through the Devon food and drink challenge, I am casting my net even wider, exploring a more varied range of different products. Living in the West Country, it would be unpardonable to not include cider in that list.
Having bought the book, I decided that it was sensible to buy a range of local ciders, to get my palate going and to allow a comparison to be made between the different products.
The first one to catch my eye was from the Killerton Estate just outside Exeter. This is where the Killerton Parkrun is held each week, with the cider apples coming from the orchards on the estate, giving this a nice link between the exercise and the food and drink sides of this blog.
This was quite a tart cider in both aroma and taste, a medium cider with only the barest hint of fizz. To be fair, it does call itself “slightly sparkling” and this is an apt description. That fizz does lift the cider though and helps balance the heady, apple aroma and give it a bit of lightness. It finishes dry and, to the novice cider-drinker, was an all-round balanced cider.
The flavours of cider
Now might be a good moment to let you know about the three main elements of a cider. I would again recommend getting your hands on a copy of the aforementioned book for more insight and information, in place of my second-hand summary.
Cider is generally a mix of three different flavours: sweetness, acidity and tannin, and different types of cider have different levels of these flavours and in different combinations. A traditional farmhouse cider scores well on all three fronts, giving a full-flavoured but balanced cider. A keeved cider (no, I wasn’t sure either) has minimal acidity, but a lot of sweetness and a fair amount of tannin. I have found that it is only by trying several different ciders that I have started to appreciate these differences. They have to be good ciders though; your mass-market commercial brands are unlikely to score well on any front.
My favourite new flavour concept, however, has to be the wonderfully named “funk”: that lingering sense of the farmyard, lurking just out of sight behind the big pile of juicy apples. It’s a beguiling term for a feature of cider that can, apparently, be both a blessing and a curse to a pint of cider. I rather like it, and it has allowed me to sit there, cider in hand, uttering the phrase “hmm, a funky cider” ad nauseam.
Back to the cider
Next up was a sweet cider from Hunt’s Cider. Sadly, I seem to have misplaced the scribbled notes I made about this cider (have you seen the size of that bottle; it’s a miracle I didn’t misplace myself) so I cannot tell you much about it. This was a souvenir from the Dartmouth food and drink festival, which also served up another bottle of Ashridge cider.
Ashridge are based in Staverton, not far from where Mrs RB and I live. We first tried their Devon Blush cider (cider with blackberries) after the Ashburton food and drink festival, but this time I picked up a bottle of their Vintage 2011 cider. This is described as a “fruity, lightly carbonated, medium dry cider made from 100% pure apple juice.” On top of this, the cider is organic, with the apples sourced from orchards that have been certified as organic by the Soil Association.
This has a bit of an acidic zing to it and a tannic dryness, but is still nicely balanced. There may even be, if I may be so bold, a touch of funk in there just before the dry ending. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what I thought the funky flavour was, but it works well and is in balance with the other flavours.
It has a nice smooth flavour, not aggressive, and the slight carbonation gives it a lift. This was my favourite of the Devon ciders I have tried so far and I even preferred it to Devon Blush, which is an extremely easy-to-drink cider, as well as an award-winner:
Ashridge use a combination of up to 15 bittersweet and bittersharp cider apples, together with natural wild yeasts in their cider.
So where do apples come from? The theory mentioned in the World’s Best Cider is that the culinary apple originated in Kazakhstan. The seeds of those trees spread into Asia and Europe through the movement of animals and, then, humans as they began to trade and travel across ever-wider distances. Once it arrived on our shores, it mingled with the native European crab apple and gave rise to new varieties of apples, from which our current apple varieties are descended.
Cider makers normally use a mix of different apples from the four classifications of cider apple: sweet, sharp, bittersweet and bittersharp. Occasionally an apple will have just the right mix to allow a single-variety cider to be made, but in the majority of cases, a large part of the skill of the cider maker is in selecting the correct combinations of apples to achieve the cider they want.
Next on the list
The next cider I tried was Jack Ratt Scrumpy Cider from the Lyme Bay Cider Company. Named for a local smuggler Jack Rattenbury, this is another award-winning cider, having been a “Three Star Gold” winner at the Great Taste Awards in 2009. The cider has a big fruit hit in its aroma and, flavour-wise, it is very smooth and full-on. I found that this goes down remarkably easily.
Unlike the previous ciders, this is a still cider and I liked the smoothness that gave it. The combination of a tannin dryness with a bold fruit flavour that means that this ends abruptly, leaving you wanting another mouthful. Again, this is a dangerously easy-to-drink cider.
Having set the Ashridge Vintage cider to the top of my list only a few paragraphs ago, I’m afraid that its position is now under serious threat from Jack Ratt. But perhaps I am being too hasty; I have only tried five Devon ciders after all. Some more research may be required.
We are at the risk of this post reaching epic proportions and so I need to draw this one to a close. There are more ciders to be drunk and more opinions to be opined.
The cider will return in… The Cider Decider.
And if you would like to find out more about cider, from people who genuinely know what they’re talking about, please follow the links below:
Bill Bradshaw’s blog: http://iamcider.blogspot.co.uk/
Pete Brown’s blog: http://petebrown.blogspot.co.uk/
The Devon A-Z Challenge
Thanks to the various ciders tried, tested and tasted (and in true Sesame Street fashion), today’s Devon A-Z entry has been brought to you by the letters A, K and L.