Founder of The Fine Cider Company, Felix Nash, shares with us everything there is to know about the cider-making process including different cider styles, the perfect cider season and the ultimate pairing with food.
The origin of apples
Just as there’s a garden in New South Wales that has the first Granny Smith apple tree, and a garden in Nottinghamshire that has the first Bramley, all domesticated apples can be traced back to the apple forests of the Tien Shan mountains in Kazakhstan.
The fruit from these forests was carried along the Silk Road and into Europe. In the 17th and 18th centuries apple juice became prized by the English gentry and was used to make fine ciders. As John Evelyn, a diarist of the time and a peer of Samuel Pepys’ said, cider was “the native English wine”.
It was drunk from cider flutes, decoratively etched and engraved, and the best vintages could fetch 60 times the price of common cider. There were even blind wagers, pitching the finest ciders against the best wines available, in which cider often won.
The cider-making process begins in spring, with blossom season. After the blossom is pollinated the fruit grows and basks in the summer sun and ripens through autumn and winter.
The apples are then pressed for their juice, which becomes cider over the winter months. As the weather varies year to year, so do the apples, and each season’s cider is slightly different in the same way that vintages of wine are different.
Today there are known to be over 7,000 apple varieties in the world and many 100s if not 1000s of them are cider apples
These varieties are not good for eating or cooking, but are perfect for cider-making. Just as the small array of apples we know from the supermarket are named, so cider apples have names such as Foxwhelp, Dabinett, and Yarlington Mill.
They’re like wine grapes, each with it’s own character. Some are acidic, others mellow, some wonderfully tannic.
Industrial and artisanal cider
To legally call something ‘cider’ in Britain it only needs to be made from 35% apple juice. The juice itself doesn’t have to come from cider apples, and it can even be from concentrate. The remaining 65% of the ‘cider’ can be water, caramels, colourings etc., so most of the ciders we drink are a somewhat industrial creation.
Rather than being seasonal they’re produced year-round and can be made from start to finish in as little as three weeks. The artisanal end of the spectrum aims to use 100% cider apple juice.
Part of what makes the finest ciders taste so good is how long they take to make – their long, slow fermentations often take six to nine months or even over a year.
Styles of cider
There are many different styles of cider: still and sparkling, dry and sweet. Often the method of production in a certain region has arisen from the properties of the local apple varieties. Where fine cider is concerned, sparkling will be naturally sparkling rather than carbonated.
The methods to make cider sparkle naturally go back to the 17th century, before even champagne, when the first glass was created that could take the pressure that sparkling drinks exert on a bottle.
It was invented in western Britain and the French titled it ‘verre Anglais’. Aristocrats then began to experiment with making cider and wine sparkle, using cork from Portugal to seal bottles.
What about pear cider?
The true name for pear cider is perry. And just as there are apples for making cider, there are pears for making perry, for example Thorn and Blakeney Red.
Perry pear trees can be over 200 years old and the perry from their fruit exquisite: it was once called the ‘English champagne’ by Napoleon.
Pairing cider with food
Cider pairs with food perhaps better than any other drink. The marriage of its succulent acidity with the fats in pork is well known, but the same rules apply to a wealth of combinations: cider and cheese, cured meats, shellfish, even game.
At The Fine Cider Company we supply a number of high-end restaurants and are teaming up with Michelin-starred restaurant Lyle’s, in East London, to hold a tasting event for London Food Month in June (for tickets, visit lyleslondon.com).
The finest ciders will be paired with the finest foods, and show just how much they deserve a place on the dining table. I sat down with the master cheesemongers at Paxton & Whitfield and came up with the following, perfect pairings of beautiful British cheeses and Herefordshire ciders:
Oliver’s Pomona with Barkham Blue
Oliver’s Fine Perry with Appleby’s Cheshire
Gregg’s Pit Yarlington Mill with Tunworth
Butford Organics Aurora with Chilcote
Oliver’s Stoke Red with Fosseway Fleece
Ciders available from The Fine Cider Company thefinecider.company; cheeses available from paxtonandwhitfield.co.uk.
I like to drink ciders as though they’re summer wines. Being lower in alcohol, they are wonderful with lunch and into the afternoon. They’re made slowly and should be enjoyed slowly.
For the perfect pour, chill them, but remove them from the fridge 5-10 minutes before drinking, as you will lose taste if they’re too cold. And never use ice, as this will simply water-down the taste.
There are a number of well known cider-making regions in the world. Somerset is well known, but Herefordshire in fact makes more cider. Devon is historically a wonderful cider county and despite losing 95% of its orchards in the past 50 years, it’s starting to recover and is becoming a region to watch.
Beyond our shores, Normandy and Brittany have cider woven into their cultures, as does Northern Spain, where sour, dry, still ciders are made and theatrically poured in small quantities from a great height (like sherry). In the USA, cider is booming, and over the past five years it has started to be treated like wine, with dedicated cider bars springing up.
Thanks to prohibition however, cider is not called cider in the US, it’s ‘hard cider’. If you ask for cider you may get juice.