FOOD & DRINK: Searching for the big apple

Where can cider drinkers find the unmistakeable taste of real fruit? Kathryn McWhirter sorts the hard core from the watery pretenders elsewhereand the sweetish quipped sweetish appley crap if he hadnt made
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Why does so little commercial English cider taste of apples? The answer is that the big cider companies water it down, so that roughly half of what you're getting in a typical litre bottle is added H20 - something I found out recently when I organised a long (and mostly dismal) tasting. Some of these products were supermarket ciders, others from the two cider giants, Bulmers and Coates-Gaymer-Taunton. There were also a few examples from smaller commercial firms - Inch's, Merrydown and Westons.

Why, I asked Tim Weston of Westons Cider in Herefordshire, were his ciders so good compared with so many of the others? They really tasted of apples, whether sold as Westons or under the Sainsbury's and Waitrose labels - the two supermarkets that passed my taste test.

"We don't water them as much," was part of the answer. I enquired elsewhere. "It's said that the big cider firms' biggest bill is their water bill," quipped Ian Marsh, who runs the English Farm Cider Centre. "It's horrendous - they are selling people very far short. There should be some kind of explanation on the label that these branded and own-label ciders are not made from pure apple juice."

Pure cider apple juice, even in the hottest summers like 1995, contains only enough natural sugar to make a cider of at most 7.8 per cent alcohol. The big cider companies add glucose to their apple juice before fermenting to boost the alcohol considerably (the legal limit is 12.5 per cent of alcohol). Then they cut the over-alcoholic brew with water to the desired alcoholic degree - usually between 4.5 and 6 per cent for standard brands. More cider, more profit, less flavour. "It thins the product up quite dramatically," said one cider technician. "We also add sugar and acid (malic or citric acid) to restore some of the taste balance."

Apart from "more apples per glass", Westons also say they use mostly fresh apples, and very little apple concentrate. According to other people in the industry, well over half of English cider is made from reconstituted concentrated juice, some imported from abroad, often made from eating and cooking apples rather than the more characterful cider apples. Cidermakers have had to resort more and more to this. There has been a massive surge in cider drinking in the last five or six years, and although Bulmers in particular has recently planted a lot of new orchards, trees currently in production can't meet the demand.

The big companies blame the supermarkets for the decline in taste. "The supermarkets beat down the prices, and we have to use the cheapest raw materials possible, often very poor quality. The supermarkets are our biggest customers. Without them we'd go to the wall."

People buy this poor-quality brew, says Ian Marsh, because they aren't aware that cider can taste better. "If there's only chips on the menu, people will eat chips."

Some of the ciders I disliked were simply bland and feeble because of the water; some tasted slightly "cooked" or "caramelised" from use of concentrate. But there were faults, too, that I haven't met in wines in such profusion for years, except in very backward parts of the world. "Sour and sulphurous!" my notes exclaimed;"eggy!"; "horseradish!"; "vinegar!"; "unclean!"; or just plain "stinky!". Saccharine often added its own bitter touch, quite distinct from the pleasant bitterness of the cider apple tannin. "If a supermarket wants the cheapest of cheap ciders, saccharine is a cheaper sweetener than sugar," admitted one producer.

I thought the cider from the Coates-Gaymer-Taunton group shocking - with the exception of Gaymers' dryish, Addlestones Premium Cider (Tesco pounds l.45 for 50cl, 6 per cent alcohol), which is aromatic and appley. Bulmers' ciders are sometimes pleasant, sometimes bland or poor - the best being King's Acre (Asda pounds 1.99 per litre) and the widely stocked Symonds Scrumpy Jack (Tesco and elsewhere pounds 1.99 per litre), though that is no longer the star that it used to be.

Merrydown ciders are pleasant, much better made than they used to be, Inch's poor to middling. "Strong" and "premium", have no meaning, legal or otherwise. And the modern, "chic", higher-priced white ciders in their little bottles often taste even worse than the standard brands. They have had their colour (and sometimes just about all the remnants of flavour) industrially removed.

It was a delicious change for the taste buds to open the best of Sainsbury's new range of up-market ciders - made (anonymously) by Westons. Sainsbury's Natural Orchard Strong Organic Cider (pounds l.49 for 50cl, 6.5 per cent alcohol) was one of the very best ciders I tasted, standing up well to the most prestigious farm ciders: just off-dry, beautifully balanced and full of lovely, rich, fresh fruit.

Also good though not quite as flavourful is the Sainsbury's Old Hereford Strong Dry Cloudy (pounds l.39 for 50cl, 7.3 per cent). Among Sainsbury's cheaper ciders, only the attractive Sainsbury's Low Alcohol Cider (55p per 33cl, less than 1 per cent), and the sweetish, appley Sainsbury's Vintage Cider Medium Dry (pounds l.99 per litre, 7.2 per cent) come from Westons, and it shows. Sainsbury's Cider Fair runs until 28 April, with five per cent off all ciders.

You can also buy good, straightforward Westons cider (anonymously) at Waitrose, especially the simple, fresh Waitrose Traditional Farmhouse Dry (pounds 1.49 per litre, 6 per cent), Medium Dry (pounds l.39, 4.5 per cent) and the fresh, appley Waitrose Low Alcohol Cider (49p for 33cl, 1 per cent). Waitrose also stock the scrumptious Westons Draught Scrumpy Old Rosie (Waitrose 79p Waitrose for 33cl, also Oddbins pounds 3.99 for 3 pints, Majestic pounds 4.29, 7.3 per cent) - a very distinctively flavoured, cloudy, off-dry cider, really rich, full and complex, with an attractive touch of tannin.

Oddbins stocks a good range, the best of which apart from the Old Rosie mentioned above are the excellent, oaky and richly appley 1992 Henry Weston Reserve Special Vintage Oak Conditioned (99p for 50cl, 5 per cent) and Westons Traditional Country Cider Medium Dry (pounds 2.35 per litre, 5 per cent).

Otherwise, Westons ciders tend to be stocked in small shops here and there. Look out for the basic range of Westons Stowford Press (pounds 1.95 to pounds 2.15 per litre, 4.5 per cent), Westons Scrumpy Supreme (pounds 2.16 per litre), and the lovely, rich Westons Double M (pounds l.42 for 330ml, 8.2 per cent), named after the Westons' home village of Much Marcle (more in the news in recent times as a burial place for two of the Frederick West murder victims.)

The alternative to Westons, for southerners, is your local cider-maker. Standards vary down on the farm, too, from dire to delicious. The best place to find a wide selection is Ian and Helen Marsh's English Farm Cider Centre, Middle Farm, Firle, East Sussex, on the A27 between Lewes and Eastbourne (01323 811411). They sell 200 different bottled and draught ciders from all 14 cider-making counties. Taste warily before you buy from the 80 ciders on draught; it is difficult to keep draught ciders in good condition.

My pick would be Iver Dunkerton Organic Single Variety Court Royal (pounds 2.95 per litre bottle, 8 per cent), a wonderful, rich, medium-dry, still cider from Luntley near Pembridge, Herefordshire; John Hooks Kingston Black from Street, Somerset, sweeter and intensely appley (pounds l.09 per pint, on draught only, pounds 7.55), and the fresh, dry, appley Burrow Hill Dry Farmhouse Cider from Kingsbury Episcopy, Somerset (pounds 4 per gallon). You can simply taste that they are not selling you half a bottle of H20.