The Material World : How cider got its sparkle

In the past six years, cider sales have increased by 43 per cent. In the same period, beer sales have fallen by ten per cent
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Indy Lifestyle Online
What goes with "New English Cooking"? An old English drink. Flying winemakers and designer lagers have had to budge up to make room for cider on the wine lists of fashionable London restaurants such as St John and Union Cafe. At Alfred's, on Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1, you can drink Biddenden Strong Kentish cider at pounds 2.50 a bottle or its alarmingly powerful cousin, Biddenden Special Reserve (as strong as claret, at 13 per cent proof), which costs pounds 3.75.

The word cider is derived from the ancient Hebrew shekar, meaning "strong liquor". That is about as much image as cider had until recently. A few years ago, an advertising executive said, "Cider doesn't really know what it is. On the one hand it's almost a kid's thing, given to adolescents as a shared family drink. On the other hand, everyone has a story about when they drank three pints of scrumpy on holiday in the West Country and woke up four days later." The marketing men sorted cider out in the Eighties. The way forward, they decided, was a move away from bucolic things into the positive, youthful terrain of lagerland. In other words: build brands.

Red Rock sprang on to the bar top via the television, on which Leslie Nielsen did his Police Squad stuff in knockabout lager-style commercials. In the cinema, Diamond White's surreal ads didn't even mention that the product was cider. Although Diamond White is now in more pubs than Holsten Pils, "a lot of people think it's some wine concoction," says Mike Holt, brand manager at Taunton, the UK's second biggest cider producer.

Taste was a problem, however. Lager is successful because it tastes of very little. "Ours are much fuller, more flavoursome products," says Mike Holt. "You can drink lager until the cows come home, but a typical cider drinker will have just one or two pints." A self-limiting product is bad news for volume sales, so the flavour of mass-market ciders was reduced, leaving Red Rock (for example) as far removed from Biddenden's traditional products as Watney's Red Barrel is from real ale. Traditional cider is cloudy, unpasteurised, flat and alive; mainstream versions are clear, fizzy, pasteurised and often made from liquid apple concentrate.

The strategy worked. Cider charged ahead in the late Eighties, and consumption is still growing: in the past six years, cider sales have increased by 43 per cent, according to a Mintel report last month. In the same period, beer sales have fallen by ten per cent.

Traditional cider is now making a comeback, too. Not a moment too soon for Ted Bruning, editor of The Good Cider Guide and currently on a fact- finding tour of Normandy. "We've got one of the world's gastronomic treasures on our doorstep, on a par with Scotch whisky and Alsace wine. But until now it has had no honour in its own country." Bruning has been monitoring the revival and calculates that in the past six years the number of small- scale producers has risen by nearly 35 per cent. Sales at Biddenden have increased by 78 per cent since 1990, to half a million litres a year. In search of proper recognition the Three Counties Cider Association from Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire has approached the EU for "appellation" status. Bruning views the future as brightly upmarket. "I see elegant bottles with a cork. You can put a pound on the price of anything if it has a cork." Getting blind drunk remains a hazard for heavy drinkers of cider. Doctors in the West Country are familiar with this condition. Apple pips produce small amounts of cyanide when left in the brew, which attacks the optic nerve, leading to loss of sight. The process is reversible, however, if you move back on to Hofmeister for a while

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