The rise in popularity of craft beer in recent years has been matched only by that of cider. You’ve only got to look at the number of new brands on the supermarket and liquor store shelves to see that cider, for so long a forgotten and underrated drink, has bounced back big-time. As an ale-loving ex-pat Englishman with a taste for my old county’s traditional West Country ciders, I am delighted to see this reversal of fortunes.
Although the first known apple trees can be traced back to the delta of the river Nile in Egypt in 1300BC, cider seems to have first evolved in Europe and there were references to it as early as the 9th century. After the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066 cider production was well established in English monasteries, where the drink was sold to the public.
Traditional cider apples are small, hard, very fibrous, and so bitter as to make them virtually inedible. They’re generally so sour even birds won't eat them. The different varieties are divided into groups according to specific characteristics: sweetness for fermentation, sharpness (acidity), astringency (tannin) and aroma/good flavour (volatiles). By blending the fermented juice from different types of apples the characteristic depth of flavour and aroma associated with traditional English West Country ciders is achieved.
With our international reputation as a fruit-growing nation, it is perhaps surprising New Zealand doesn’t have a long-standing tradition of cider-making. Sadly there are hardly any cider apples grown here and perry pears - their pear equivalent - are virtually unknown. Instead, the vast majority of apples grown here are eaters grown primarily with exportation in mind.
New Zealand’s apple and pear marketing organisation ENZA requires growers to produce perfect unblemished fruit of the right size and colour, so there’s a huge surplus of perfectly good, export-overrun fruit from which most local ciders are made.
As a result Kiwi cider-makers tend to produce a very pale, fresh, citric product, somewhat reminiscent of French ciders. Cool fermented, usually with wine yeasts, New Zealand ciders tend to be very clean, sweet, crisp and heavily carbonated. Of late there’s also been a trend towards sweet ciders that are flavoured (and often coloured) with extracts from other fruit and other seasonings. These days there are even hopped ciders, featuring the aromatic flower so prized by brewers.
Although it could be argued they’re a long way from the traditional West Country English ciders I grew up with, there’s little doubt that cider in its many guises now features on the radar of an ever increasing number of Kiwi drinkers.