You may not know this, but in the UK, we drink more cider than any other country in the world. In fact, along with beer and tea, cider is arguably one of our defining drinks culturally.
The popularity of cider has fluctuated through the ages. At one point, cider was considered a breakfast drink, while labourers’ wages were once paid with the drink. There have also been times when cider was less popular than imported drinks such as wine and port. Fortunately, in recent years, cider has been enjoying a revival like that of craft lager and beer.
History suggests that a lot of our cider culture came to England with invading armies. The Roman Empire brought a number of apple varieties, along with cider-making techniques. When Christianity assumed the position of dominant religion around 600 CE, monasteries began to plant orchards and produce cider. This was both for the monks to drink and to sell to the public. And when the Normans invaded in 1066, they brought new tannic apple varieties that were well-suited to cider-making. They planted additional orchards, and even brought with them the state-of-the-art pressing technology to make the process even more efficient.
Cider really began to assert itself between 1500 and 1800, when the world went through a period of cooling. This had marked effects around the world, but in England, the result of the drop in temperatures was that grapes were killed off as the climate became unsuitable. But apples had no problem surviving in the new temperatures, so cider experienced a rise in popularity.
At the same time, political unrest also made it harder to acquire wine, due to wars with France, Spain, and the Netherlands, which halted wine imports. This led to the upper classes taking more of an interest in a drink that had hitherto been regarded as a drink for commoners. In 1664, John Evelyn presented a paper on cider to the Royal Society, in which he suggested that cider could take the place of wine in our dinking culture. The rise in cider’s status even reached the man at the top, as King Charles I was said to prefer the drink to wine.
The tradition of using cider as a type of payment goes back to 1204 CE, where it was first recorded as a payment to labourers at a manor house in Runham, Norfolk. This practice carried on for many centuries, usually as a way for wealthy landowners to pay their farm labourers. Some sources even suggest that top labourers were paid as much as eight pints per day. The Truck Act of 1887 officially prohibited this practice, but it lingered for many decades.
Commercial cider production increased hugely during the 20th century, and the National Association of Cider Makers was formed to represent the industry in 1920. To keep up with increasing consumer demand, growers began to intensively manage their orchards to increase yields and produce a consistent product. According to regulations, for a drink to be called ‘cider,’ it only needed to include 35% juice, and this could be from concentrate. As a result, the taste of natural cider began to fade from the UK palate.
In recent years, however, that has begun to change. Small-batch, 100% juice, naturally fermented cider has been making a comeback. Cider is gluten free and relatively low in ABV compared to wine and it is often a locally sourced and produced product, giving it strong green credentials.
This explosion of interest in cider has also led to a renewal of interest in less traditional cider growing areas of England. There is no doubt that Devon, Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset, the traditional region of cider growth, remain at the heart of the industry. The West Country is known for its strong and cloudy scrumpy ciders, though it also provides a wide range of dry and medium-sweet versions. But there has also been development in many other cider growing regions, each with its own particular soil and climate conditions, such as Yorkshire and Norfolk.
Hopefully there will be plenty to celebrate this summer, so to help guide you through the world of modern English cider, here are some of the best vintages to be looking out for in 2021.
Kent Cider Yowler
The gentle and delicate apple aroma and lovely rich amber colouring in this delightful drink are reminiscent of a summer’s day wandering through Kent’s orchards. The unusual name of the drink derives from the ancient traditional wassailing ceremonies that were once common in Kent. These ceremonies were intended to welcome good spirits and a bountiful harvest to the orchards. Yowler is a sparkling drink and the slight fizz adds extra refreshment to a flavour-packed tipple.
Dunkertons Black Fox
Extremely refreshing, this honey-coloured and sparkling cider from the Cotswolds region tends towards the tart rather than the sweet. That makes it ideal to accompany very sweet desserts or spicy food, as the sharpness of the drink helps to cleanse the palate. Black Fox is packed with flavour, and is smooth and rich on the tongue. It is no surprise to learn that the drink has picked up a host of prizes including a Gold Award at the Taste Of The West competition. This is definitely a cider to savour and enjoy all year round.
Lyme Bay Jack Ratt Vintage Dry 2019
This is a classic Devon cider that uses traditional apple varieties such as Dabinett and Kingston black. A full bodied drink, Jack Ratt presents as an extremely clear, rich-gold liquid that possesses a sharp aroma. It is slightly dry yet tingly on the tongue and packs a strong apple taste. Smooth and tangy, this is a highly refreshing cider that is versatile enough to accompany a meal or a night out with friends.
Hendersons Toffee Apple
This is an unusual but delicious cider from Kent that is impressively sharp and smooth and offers a distinctive taste. The delicate aroma hints at toffee but doesn’t overwhelm the apples, and the blend of sweet and tart that it offers is sheer perfection. The initial smooth sweetness of the drink develops into a lingering sharpness, which has hints of bonfires and autumn days. A thoroughly indulgent cider, this is definitely a drink that goes well with desserts.
Orchards of Husthwaite Galtres Gold Apple Cider
For more than three centuries, Husthwaite has been the main orchard village of North Yorkshire, but in recent years it has been revitalised with the introduction of local apple varieties. It has also become a major centre of fund generation for local community use. This cider offers a cloudy, gentle amber visual impression, while the taste is unusually floral yet smooth and warm at the same time. You will find that this refreshing drink has the perfect balance between sweetness and sharpness.
Ampleforth Abbey Cider
This is another traditional North Yorkshire cider, and has a slightly cloudy appearance. The tawny gold liquid in these bottles is produced using the first dessert apples of the season, which features a combination of Discovery, James Grieve and Grenadier for a memorable blend. A bittersweet cider, it hints at dryness along with the sweetness, and although it is relatively strong on the scale of English ciders, it is a light drink with a very silky texture. An impressive palate cleanser, this cider also goes well with food or is ideal as a standalone drink.
Cranborne Chase The Smuggler Dry
This is a typically Dorset cider and offers a lovely combination of sparkle, tartness and sweetness. It is an extremely drinkable, pleasant and refreshing cider that provides a gentle aroma of apples, while the taste of crisp fruit lingers delightfully on the tongue. The sparkle in combination with dryness also makes it ideal as the perfect thirst-quenching drink on a warm summer’s day.
Norfolk Raider Wingman
A still, cloudy cider that comes from Norfolk in the east of England, Wingman is slightly sharp in taste but not excessively so. Made from dessert apples, it offers a smooth initial taste, but when swallowed gives a sensation of sharpness at the back of the mouth, which makes it highly refreshing. Rich and smooth, this cider is full of tangy flavour and is best served slightly chilled.
A medium dry, and lightly sparkling cider that is produced in the heart of the Somerset Mendips, Lilleys Select is rusty gold in colour. The aroma and taste of the local apples is strong in this drink, while its light and refreshing taste makes it perfect as a summer drink, especially on hot days. You can really savour the sparkling flavour in every mouthful.
Sandford Orchards Devon Red
Named after the rich, red Devon orchard soil, this cider offers a light, pleasant and refreshing taste experience. The soft, mellow, yellow liquid is packed with the aroma of apples, which evoke the feel of long lazy days in the sunshine. Thirst quenching, this is a bittersweet cider with a tang that stays long in the mouth. Easy to drink either with or without food, it is a delightful and relaxing drink.
Napton Cider No 4
Both slightly cloudy and golden yellow in colour, this refreshing and memorable cider has a tinge of effervescence but retains a pleasing touch of sharpness. Best described as on the dry side of sweet, the apple tang lingers in the mouth for a while, and there is a warm aroma to this flavourful cider, which helps to make it an ideal summer drink, particularly when served with desserts.