I like beer. I really, really like beer, but I also have to admit to drinking other alcoholic beverages from time to time. Whisky has found its way into my glass on many occasions (with a real sweet spot for those heavily peated ones from Islay). Sparkling wines are something else I enjoy, especially the ones originating from Champagne with the designation Brut, and increasingly I am finding myself drinking and enjoying more cider.
Cider is loved by many beer drinkers and seems to find itself side by side with beer culture in many parts of the world, particularly in places where the beer tradition is British based. Now this may seem like nothing unusual until you consider that cider is made by fermenting apples, a fruit, making it in true sense a member of the wine family. However I believe it is the simplicity and down-to-earth nature of cider that attracts many beer drinkers.
One of my favourite memories with cider is being at markets in the UK and drinking cider from a small producer who had set up a small cart from which to sell his cider and Perry (pear cider) by the pint or by the jug (bring your own). No pretentions, just a very tasty handmade drink sold without fuss in the simplest way possible.
Cider production probably dates back as far as the time when apples were first discovered to be a ready food source. In fact it is quite possible the use of apples for producing alcohol outdates the use of apples for regular eating. This is due to the fact that apples for cider production are often not of the sweet variety of table apples. The bitter or highly acidic wild varieties that our ancestors had easy access to may not have made a tasty pie but probably made for a very tasty cider. Just like beer we don’t really know how and when this first came to be but legend has it that this occurred somewhere in Northern Spain, an area that not many of us associate with cider but one which still has a strong cider tradition to this day ( there are even dedicated cider bars)
Recipe formulation for cider is (obviously) quite different then that for beer. Beer balances malt flavours against hop notes and carries the weight of body from degree of fermentability of various yeast strains and mash profiles. Traditional cider balances sweetness, acidity and bitterness with only apple juice and wild yeast. Cider makers traditionally use apple varieties cultivated specifically for cider production and there are perhaps over a hundred of these available, sometimes apples of the table variety are blended in as well for extra depth and complexity. There is also the variable that the juice changes from year to year depending on seasons and that apples from the same tree can be very different in their juice composition. This means that one of the real arts in cider making is in selecting the right apples and blending them appropriately to get the desired end result. No easy task.
Many traditional ciders are made in a very rustic/farmhouse fashion. Apples are ground down with a mill into what is called pomace. This pulp is then pressed through bales of straw before being spontaneously fermented in much the same manner as the Lambic beers of Belgium. The resulting cider often has a flavour profile not too dissimilar (perhaps that’s why I enjoy them so much). However cider types and their flavour profiles, just like beer styles, do vary from country to country and region to region.
Cider can be served still or sparkling, most of us are probably more familiar with the sparkling type which (just like carbonation in beer) can be brought about by several means. In its many traditional regional forms cider comes in types that could be roughly generalised as dry still, dry sparkling, sweet still, and sweet sparkling. The first two types don’t present too much of a problem in that it is largely a matter of allowing the cider to ferment to completion before priming and bottling or just bottling in the case of still. Difficulties arise with cider of the sweet type in that, unlike malt, all the sugar in apples are fermentable. Getting the sweetness to remain, and particularly getting sweetness to remain alongside natural carbonation, is very very tricky without creating bottle bombs (something which the amateur brewers amongst us can probably identify with).
Most of us that enjoy real cider are probably more familiar with English cider. However there is also strong cider tradition in France, Spain and, to a lesser extent, Germany where sparkling and tart ciders find favour. Many of these (most notably the French and Spanish ones) are now becoming available in good bottleshops here in Australia. Whilst beer is generally categorised by style, cider is more often identified by regional type with the rough generalisation types mentioned above.
French cider is mainly centred in Normandy and Brittany where it is loosely split into three types – Doux, a sweetish cider with a lower abv usually in the 1.5 – 3 % range – Demi- sec, which ranges from 3.5 – 5% and the big boys of French cider are Brut which usually range from 5% up.
A large part of French cider is of the sparkling type is of the sparkling type and is, as perhaps to be expected of France, often packaged in Champagne style bottles. The French also produce Perry where it goes under the name of Poiré.
Spanish cider is a lot less known in Australia, yet it is of excellent type and in my opinion (from my limited tasting) is of a type that we can more closely associate with the more familiar British ciders. Spanish cider has its home in Cantabria, Asturias and the Basque country and is very often still rather than sparkling. The Spanish do have an unusual serving technique called escanciar un culín in which still cider or sidra is poured from arms length above into the glass to aerate, the result is a short lived effervescence.
We also should remember that there are also a number of Australian producers making what I consider to be very good traditional cider and Perry (pear cider) in Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia. Perhaps as the Australian craft beer scene grows so will the cider scene and we may yet see a time when beer and cider stand side by side at festivals around the country just as they do at the Camra run events in the UK.
Until that time comes I will be continuing to try as many ciders as I can in my quest to learn more about this fascinating drink.