Summer is on its way. Do you know how you can tell? It’s because they have started to advertise barbecues and Magners on the telly. It must mean that driving rain, hailstorms and biblical storms are only a matter of weeks away.
But let’s be more optimistic. Let’s say there is a good chance that we’re in for a long, hot, sweltering summer (which, it has to be said, the experts are predicting). Well in that case, you would have to acknowledge that the onset of summer generally means that cider season is here, at least in many people’s eyes. And in a bid to be ever-so-slightly topical, now feels like the right time to complete my round up of Devon ciders, started all the way back in December.
Bays Windfall comes to you from the Bays brewery. They tend to make some pretty decent beers so I was interested to see what their cider was like. I’m afraid to say it wasn’t my favourite. For me, it lacked much in the way of a fruity depth in its flavour. It’s reasonably dry at the finish so it dies away quickly enough but I just wasn’t that keen on it up until that point. Luckily I like their beers though, otherwise I would feel mean.
So let’s turn straightaway to a cider I did enjoy. Green Valley Stillwood Sparkling Vintage Cyder is from the cider makers closeted away behind all the bottles of beer, wine and, of course, cider at the back of Darts Farm. This has a higher ABV and you can tell. It is a fuller bodied drink with a tart apple aroma. We drank this with a dinner of butternut squash stuffed with blue cheese and walnuts, which worked very nicely. The apples in the cider sat very comfortably alongside the cheese, and both drink and food had a simple, pleasantly rustic feel. A smooth, sparkling medium dry cider and very nice too.
Another Green Valley cider has a fond place in my heart. Their Dragon’s Tears cider is available in a particular pub that my student friends and I ended up in one afternoon during our university days. Not being Westcountry boys, we were uninitiated in the subtleties of cider and were debating between ourselves whether Dragon’s Tears sounded like it would be any good or not. At this point, the old boy at the bar (who could have come straight from Central Casting, with his ‘Mummerset man’ label still hanging round his neck) leaned across, jabbed a ruddy finger in our direction and slurred “Dragon’s Tears? Best cider in the West!”. Four pints of that then please, and an in-joke was born that long saw us slurring in exaggerated fashion at each other at the sight of any cider: “best cider in the West!”
But how does it hold up? Was he right? Well that’s a matter of personal taste I guess, and who am I to argue with someone who had, so clearly, committed himself wholeheartedly to putting the hours in at the bar? All I can say is that it is eminently drinkable. It has a good fizz (that’s a technical term, that is), a bold apple aroma and a fruity body that gives way to dry tannins. Maybe not the best in the West, but certainly very good.
It feels like I’m admitting to cheating on Devon, but I have to confess that part of my cider education saw me trying some bottles from further afield. Whilst good at cider, as the rest of this post will attest, Devon is not the leading cider county; you have to travel a little further north to find the traditional heartland of England’s cider scene. Sheppy’s Goldfinch comes from Somerset and arrives in a rather large bottle. It has a sour apple aroma on opening. This is a wine-like cider so leans towards sweet and acid, with less tannins, and the dry finish leaves a slight acidic aftertaste. Clear and crisp, with a light sparkle, this is rather nice. Also from Somerset comes Pilton Cider. This is a keeved cider and, as far as I could tell, there are no keeved ciders being made in Devon (so it wasn’t really like I had a choice, right?). A word of warning, this is highly carbonated; it almost took Mrs RB’s head off when we opened it. It has a really fruity smell (which was now liberally distributed around a large section of our kitchen) and, flavour-wise, it has a lot of dryness from the tannins but also enough sweetness to take the edge off. There’s no real acidity going on in there. In your mouth it is described as having a “mousse”-like consistency and, perhaps surprisingly, it actually does. It’s probably due to all those air bubbles.
We turn back to Devon again now for the final two ciders in my two-part, six-month-spanning cider write-up (clearly a multi-hyphenated undertaking). Sandford Orchards Shaky Bridge is a well carbonated cider with a strong fruity aroma. It has a big, juicy flavour and ends pretty dry with a tannin hit. At the same time it is still quite light and easy-to-drink. There is a gentle funk to it and I liked it a lot. With Sandford ciders popping up in pubs all over the place as a craftier alternative to mainstream ciders, I would certainly recommend grabbing a bottle or a pint if you spot it.
Finally, Devon Scrumpy (also from Sandford Orchards) is described with words such as “raw”, “deep”, “rich” and “bittersweet”. Whilst bearing all the hallmarks of the male lead in a shoddy romantic comedy, those phrases actually sum up a lovely cider. Somewhere between orange and yellow in colour and cloudy, with no fizz, this is a very smooth, almost silky drink. It has it all, but in balance: a bit of tannin, a bit of sweetness, a bit of funk. What doesn’t come through overtly is the acidity, but it must be hiding in there somewhere I think, because it all balances nicely. At the end it hangs around for a little while, as if it too is a bit sad about leaving the party early. Dangerously easy to knock back, this rivals Jack Ratt (featured in the previous cider post) for number one spot on my list of Devon ciders. If I had to pick a favourite, I think it would be this one.