The next big thing will come from apples

I looked for something new in spirits but wound up being more excited by something closer to home instead.

I’ve tasted a huge variety of drinks over the last couple of days at the booze-biz trade show Imbibe Live. I’ve had all sorts of beer and spirits, both with and without alcohol: from fizzy yellow swill to properly conditioned lager that made my soul sing; and from English single-malt whisky to artisanal mezcal all the way from Oaxaca. I’ve tried kombucha and nonalcoholic CBD bitters. I’ve even had a Swedish sparkling wine made from birch sap. One thing these drinks all have in common is that their makers hope to have found the Next Big Thing in the drinks market.

But what impressed me most at Imbibe Live this year was cider. You can call me a convert, in fact, because at last I’ve seen the light.

For most of my life I have avoided the stuff after disappointing early experiments with Strongbow, K and White Lightning. Other less-obviously-horrendous ciders that I’ve tried over the years have generally been too sweet and one-dimensional for me. That’s why I ignored all the Magner’s and Kopparberg type of flavoured fruit ciders that have been steadily growing their market share for years now. It all seems too industrial.

The ciders I tried over the last couple of days outshone all the CBD oddities and the alcohol-free also-rans; outshone all the spirits; outshone almost all the beer — apart from the ones from Mills Brewing, much of which in any case was brewed on cider lees and using portions of cider wort.

No doubt the good stuff was always there and all that’s changed is that now I’m finding myself in front of it at last. A typical Johnny-come-lately, talking about stuff plenty of people have known for ages as if it’s all new. What can I say? Guilty as charged, but at least I got here in the end. And I suspect the timing is good. It feels as though quality cider made with complexity, depth of flavour and real character is having a moment.

Tom Oliver has been making waves for a few years now. And just a few weeks ago Ross-on-Wye Cider and Perry Co won Best Drinks Producer at the 2019 BBC Food and Farming Awards. Hawkes, the self-proclaimed ‘saviours of cider’, recently expanded its tap room in Bermondsey at the heart of the Beer Mile. And this month saw the launch of Full Juice, a new magazine devoted entirely to cider. There’s momentum building behind the apple.

Another reason I think cider might do well over the next few months is Brexit. We like to think of beer as our national drink, and certainly it is deeply entwined in our culture. But cider has always been there alongside it. We’ve made cider for a long time, and made it well. As we enter an age of uncertain international trade, I expect more of us will look inwards for our food and drink experiences, if not exclusively then at least more often. And cider will be there ready to tell us the soothing story of a national drink to (re)discover and take pride in — something to make us feel good about ourselves. We could all do with a pint of that when wassailing time comes around again.

For those of us who wish to remain internationalist in outlook, cider is there too, primed to keep us linked to the rest of the world. Pete Brown told me recently that every cider-making culture in the world thinks it is the only one, but in fact cider is made all over and always has been. I quite like the idea of alcohol dissolving petty nationalist assumptions instead of fuelling them.

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