· culture ·

Friday night, chez bsag, is Cider Night.

I've enjoyed cider since I was at University, but only Real Cider: Blackthorn, Woodpecker, and to some extent the trendy arriviste Magners are just fizzy, sweet, alcoholic drinks with no subtlety or depth of flavour. If you didn't know, you wouldn't guess that they were made out of apples.

According to a lot of recent articles, cider is enjoying something of a revival, with sales increasing, mostly -- it seems -- driven by former alcopops drinkers who have grown up a bit. Hardly a recommendation. Magners seems to have saturation coverage in advertising at the moment, with enticing looking glasses of golden liquid, full to the brim with ice, and dripping condensation. Ice is just going to make your cider watery, and seems to be part of a current marketing obsession with frigidly cold drinks. No, if you're curious about cider, try the real thing.

Real cider^1^ (which CAMRA is doing a good job of promoting), is made from real pressed apple juice, not imported concentrate. Some are still fermented using the yeasts found naturally on the skins of the apples, but most commercial operations of a reasonable size add carefully blended yeast mixtures these days for consistency of the product. Some are still and cloudy (often called Scrumpy in the West Country), and some are clear and sparkling. Traditionally, ciders are made from a carefully selected blend of apples (both eating apples and cider apples), and they therefore have a very wide range of qualities from sharp and dry, through bitter, to sweet and aromatic. Despite liking traditional ciders, I'm also a fan of Thatcher's single variety ciders (Katy, Spartan and Cox are particularly good). They have a modern, clean taste, but are full of very subtle, distinctive flavours.

Many of my friends seem to have developed a violent aversion to cider as teenagers^2^, having got appallingly drunk for the first time on it, and then suffering the mother of all hangovers the next day. It's easy to do, because cider has such a high alcohol content, but you need to take it easy and not swig down pints of the stuff. For some reason (I can't think how), I never developed an aversion, despite drinking some very rough cider at University in Bristol. We used to have Cheese and Scrumpy parties which consisted of:

The more I think of it, the more of a mystery my lack of Acquired Cider Aversion becomes.

Terry Pratchett mentions a drink called 'Scumble' in several of his books, which is obviously supposed to be scrumpy. He writes:

"I can speak with authority, having lived a short walking -- to get there, at least, although it seemed to take longer coming back -- distance from a real cider house.

  1. You are unlikely to buy scrumpy anywhere but from a farm or a pub in a cider area.
  2. It won't fizz. It slumps in the glass, and is a grey-orange colour.
  3. The very best scrumpy is (or at least, was) made on farms where a lot of the metalwork around the press was lead; the acid apple juice on the lead gave the resultant drink a kick which lasted for the rest of your life.
  4. While a lot of the stories about stuff being put in 'to give it body' are probably apocryphal, apparently it wasn't uncommon to put a piece of beef in the stuff to give it 'strength'.
  5. I certainly recall a case of a female tourist having to have an ambulance called out after two pints of scrumpy.
  6. We used to drink almost a pint, topped off with half an inch of lemonade; this was known as 'cider and gas' and was popular in our part of the Mendips. Two pints was the max. I recall that as we went back across the fields someone who is now a professor of medieval history fell down a disused mineshaft and still carried on singing."

I'm certainly not condoning excessive alcohol consumption in any way, but if you have never tried proper cider, give it a go. At its best, it's a very minimally mucked-about-with natural product, with a long and rich history. I saw a wonderful TV programme about the people who work in the Wye Valley a couple of nights ago, and it featured a cider maker, still producing cider in the old way. They still grow a huge variety of old apple varieties, Wassail in the orchards in January (you sensed mostly because it was an excuse to have a big bonfire, make a lot of noise, sing and drink cider, but still), and bring beehives in to the orchard to pollinate the trees (and make apple blossom honey) in the spring. Not a bad life.

^1^ For North Americans, I mean what you call 'Hard Cider'. That, incidentally, is a really disappointing linguistic difference for a cider lover if you're not aware of it: me, spluttering, "But that's just apple juice!" Logically, you should also have 'wine' (grape juice) and 'hard wine' (wine).

^2^ Something I call ACA: Acquired Cider Aversion.