In cider dealing: Once a cheap alternative to ale, cider now has a broader appeal. Tony Kelly visited a museum devoted to the tipple

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The Independent Culture
What do Strawberry Norman, Upright French, Knotted Kernel, Kingston Black and Ball's Bittersweet have in common? The answer is that they are all varieties of cider apple.

I found this out when visiting the Cider Museum at Hereford. It was near here, at Holme Lacy in 1630, that Lord Scudamore discovered Redstreak apples growing wild on his estate, and English cider was born. A century later the town had already established a reputation for its cider, helped by Daniel Defoe who reported: 'It was in Herefordshire that we could get no beer or ale in their public houses, only cider - and that so very good, so fine and so cheap that we never found fault with the exchange.'

Beer and ale are available in the area these days, but cider is still the local tipple, and on each visit to the area I enjoy sampling whatever new varieties I can find. Good and fine it still is, but cheap is not the first word that springs to mind.

Most of the cider was originally consumed by farm labourers, paid in kind to reinforce their dependency - it is said they brought a half-gallon flask to work which they filled each morning and again after lunch. Apple-picking was thirsty work after all; and as for the health implications, cider is supposedly an excellent remedy for gout.

A local rector, Reverend C H Bulmer, was a noted Victorian pomologist who produced the first scientific catalogue of apples; his son Henry founded the family firm which makes cider to this day. It was at Bulmer's rectory, in the parish of Credenhill, that Bulmer's cider was first made.

The museum, housed inside Bulmer's former works, contains old stone crushers and a 300-year-old beam press from Normandy, where cider-making goes back for centuries. A display takes you through the process by which apples are harvested using ash 'panking poles', then stored under trees for a fortnight before being milled and then pressed inside cloths of horsehair or coconut fibre. As the juice ferments, extra ingredients - rabbit skins, bacon fat, beetroot - can be added for colour, vitamins or alcoholic strength, but classic cider contains nothing but apples.

The original Bulmer's cellars are still intact, lined with champagne cider bottles, while upstairs you can glimpse the King Offa Distillery where cider brandy is produced under licence in Britain for the first time in 250 years. A travelling still from Normandy, taken from village to village to assist in illicit distilling, is almost identical to one that I saw in use (legally) on a recent visit to Calvados country. Calvados, of course, is the model for cider brandy but the name cannot be used outside Normandy.

We may think of cider as English but the museum has a collection of bottles from as far afield as Lebanon, Japan and Venezuela. Closer to home, there are numerous posters advertising Westons, one of the best of the local producers, whose 'wine of the West' is produced in the nearby village of Much Marcle.

Cider, they say, is set to be the drink of the Nineties, rivalling wine on dinner tables. But it has some way to go to catch up with the 1890s, when one-and- a-half million gallons a year were produced in Herefordshire alone.

Cider Museum, Hereford (0432 354207). Open Apr-Oct 10am-5.30pm daily; Nov-Mar Mon-Sat 1-5pm. Special events for 1994 include a farmhouse cider day (28 Sept, 10am-5pm) and a cookery demonstration with cider brandy (15 Nov, 8pm). For details of Bulmer's factory tours ring 0432 352000

(Photograph omitted)