Cider is undoubtedly one of the most misunderstood, under-appreciated, tastiest drinks you can find. It’s easy to make, refreshing, emblematic of Great Britain and it gets you lovely and drunk.
Here’s the thing, though - 99.9% of the cider you drink in the pub isn’t cider, it’s fizzy piss. Magners, Bulmers, Kopparberg, Reckorderlig and their ubiquitous kin are more like alcopops, made from carbonated water and apple pulp and carefully marketed to appeal to people bored of lager but too unimaginative to drink real ale.
Yet there are many hundreds of proper ciders out there. Hundreds of short-run, artisan ciders that are made the traditional way and only available in decent pubs, off licenses, delis or online. All of them are individual to the place they are made and as delicious and complex as any other type of booze. Honestly.
Proper cider is almost always made by a handful of people growing apples in their own orchard, pressing on their own press and selling to savvy aficionados. Unlike ales, which rely on ingredients coming from all over the country (or even the world), cider is made from one ingredient grown within yards of the keg in which it is fermented.
I love the stuff, and so I decided to try and find out which is the best UK cider available. One sunny day in August I invited 3 other pissheads to CAMRA Cider Pub of the Year, the Hop & Vine in Hull, to sample 24 of the best ciders I could find and help me come up with a world-beater.
The judges were:
Dave Lee – Writer/ Filmmaker and restaurant and pub critic for the Yorkshire Post.
Russ Litten – Novelist and cider lover.
Mags – Bradford’s leading beer, racehorse and pie expert.
Keith Wildman – Writer and real ale-loving cider-sceptic.
We drew each of the 24 ciders against another, tasted both and then picked a winner to go through to the next round. The pairings were completely random and the ciders were served as suggested on the bottle, i.e. chilled, over ice etc.
KW: Bit watery.
RL: Very quaffable, though.
M: I’d buy that. Nice that.
Checking the ABV, KW launches into a ridiculously long and utterly unfathomable scientific monologue about varying drink strengths.
DL: How many you had?
RL: Sandford Cider – turns you into Brian Cox.
M: This one’s my favourite so far.
KW: It’s not as nice as beer.
DL: I don’t normally like fizzy cider but this one’s pretty good.
RL: There’s a hint of Elderflower.
M (reading label): ‘Once opened consume within 3 days’. What knobhead leaves open cider in the fridge for 3 days? You’d just neck it.
KW: I don’t like it.
Winner – Sandford Orchards
Orchards of Husthwaite
DL: I have to abstain here. I’ve been to Husthwaite and pressed this cider. It was for an article I was doing about their orchards project. I’m declaring an interest.
RL: Very honourable. I notice you’re still drinking it, though.
DL: Damn straight.
M: Tastes a bit like rose wine.
RL: I think I’d like this more if I was sat outside.
KW: It tastes like being in someone’s house that’s just had a baby or a café in a garden centre. My favourite so far.
Gwynt Y Ddraig
M: Tastes a bit medicinal.
DL: Bit bland.
RL: Lack of character.
KW: I like it. Very apple-y.
Winner – Orchards of Husthwaite
KW: Smells like draft cider but tastes a bit wishy-washy. Be good for cooking with.
M: Bit of a back-handed compliment, that.
KW: Wasn’t meant to be, cider goes great with pork. OK. You could happily drink it till you shit yourself and fall over. Better?
M: That’s more like it.
The Orchard Pig
DL: There’s a vague taste of Brandy.
KW: Notes of toffee.
DL: Bit of tobacco.
RL: Too complex for me. I don’t like having to work it out.
M: I’m bamboozled. Very nice, though.
Winner: The Orchard Pig
RL: Like lemon zest.
M: You’d never guess it was 7%.
RL: A breakfast cider.
KW: The ideal breakfast cider.
M: I’m getting hungry now.
RL: Not keen.
M: It tastes like that hooch, that alcopop lemonade.
KW: Be popular in a chain pub.
Winner: Tutt’s Clump
Even at this early stage it became essential to soak up the intake of booze with meat and pastry-based sustenance. Fortunately Mags had brought a few pork pies with him from his local butcher in Bradford and superb pie-mongers Hull Pie had donated samples of their quite magnificent wares.
KW: What is there?
DL: Beef, chicken or butternut squash.
KW: Butternut squash? In a pie? We’re not in Hebden Bridge.
Pied-up, we moved on.
DL: But no aftertaste.
KW: Tastes like the smell you get when you open a dishwasher tablet.
DL: And is that a good thing?
KW: I’m not making a value judgement.
DL: I’m already struggling to read my handwriting.
KW: It’s a bit middle of the road. Like Spurs
DL: I really want to like this one, it’s made about 6 miles from my house but I find it a bit too dry.
KW: It tastes like a difficult jazz album.
RL: Like the John Coltrane of cider.
KW: it smells a bit plastic-y, like fruit salad sweets. My favourite so far.
KW: I’m not having it with ice.
DL: You have to. It says ‘serve over ice’, it’s the law.
KW: If it said ‘jump off a cliff while drinking’? It’s a communist cider.
M: I don’t think it’s very distinctive.
KW: It’s a girl’s drink.
DL: And a pint of Burrow Hill once stained my favourite t-shirt at Glastonbury.
DL: Ooooh, its got a cork.
KW: This looks promising.
M: It looks pretentious.
RL: Kidder out of One Summer would drink this.
KW: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall would love this.
DL: He probably does, he lives in Dorset.
KW: I knew it.
Winner: Lulworth Skipper
DL: I’ve had this on draught. They sell it in the Crown and Anchor in Brixham.
M: Good, but nothing special.
DL: I like it. It’s clean and unpretentious.
RL: I’m struggling to know what’s happening anymore.
[Russ asks for another pie]
M: Sweet taste but a reet dry feel.
KW: What’s this one? It smells of pubs.
M: And Wormwood Scrubs.
RL: It doesn’t quite live up to its billing.
DL: Perfectly serviceable, I reckon.
M: Rustic, sharp.
KW: It smells of pantries. I am transported to a strange pantry as a child.
RL: There is a washiness to it in the aftertaste. Good otherwise.
DL: I have to abstain again. I’ve written about this cider as well and I’m on record saying how much I like it. Made by real monks in a real abbey. Well, in their cider mill.
M: My god, that’s good.
RL: There’s no denying that tastes amazing. 8.3% as well? Jesus.
DL: Can we all stop blaspheming please when drinking this one?
KW: I don’t like it.
DL: I’m not voting on this one but I have to say it’s an incredible cider.
[Opens like champagne]
RL: A party cider.
KW: Looks like it’s from M&S. It’s got a musty smell.
M: Bit like Bisodol.
RL: You’d find it at a cricket match. In the corporate tent.
KW: A hamper cider.
DL: I really want to like it. I like the homespun label and the name’s great - Doris Stokes Medium. Nice reference.
KW: Smells of bourbon creams. Smells of coffee mornings.
RL: Bit sharp for me.
DL: That’s a bit harsh. It’s just a bit dry for a medium.
DL: Our only Irish cider.
KW: Not good.
M: Melons, man.
DL: Too light, no body.
RL: Still better than Magners, like.
KW: I can tell by looking at it I won’t like it.
KW: Smells like Lilt.
DL: Cornish. You could see it working with the surfer crowd.
KW: Fruity fizz.
DL: Hard to choose a winner. We don’t really like either.
DL: I like it. On the dry side but tasty.
KW: Pleasant, inoffensive.
M: Not as nice as it likes to think it is.
RL: I fancy a pie.
DL: One of the few in the competition that you can get in supermarkets.
RL: Little bit too fizzy, but heady.
M: Goes to show that there are a lot of far better ciders out there that never make it into the supermarket. We’ve had far better than this.
DL: A relatively popular cider. I reckon it’s about the best you can buy in supermarkets.
RL: Again, it shows that there are a lot of far better ciders but you have to hunt them out.
DL: This is ace.
KW: Much better than the other one.
M: One of the best ones we’ve had.
DL: Goes to show. Something made by some bloke who, by the look of it, prints the labels with his PC is better than the best cider you can get in supermarkets.
RL: Proper giant killer.
KW: The Yeovil Town of ciders.
M: Shite pun for a name, though.
The Quarter Final
We now paired off all the round 1 winners and set about tasting them all again. I would normally add a few comments to clarify the following decisions but by this stage my notes were becoming, quite frankly, illegible. See?
We took another pie break and then made the following difficult decisions:
Winner: Orchard Pig
As we got down to the final 6 ciders one thing became very apparent; we had a rough split of ciders that can be found in selected small supermarkets and limited availability artisan ciders. None of the brands available in the big supermarkets had survived. Surely a sign that ciders are at their best when they are not subject to the uniformity demanded by Asda and the like?
Sadly, my notes on the semi-final amount to little more than single, barely-decipherable lines. Like the marks made by a cat with inky claws on a moleskin scratching post. What I can gather is that:
Orchard Pig beat Sandford, Ampleforth beat Dunkerton’s and Yarde beat Charnwood (this was a very close run thing – honourable mention for Charnwood)
In true Olympic fashion we now had to choose a top 3 from the remaining ciders. Each had their own distinct charm and each had now beaten three other ciders to reach this stage. A tough choice but in the end we went for:
And the winner by universal agreement was,
1. Ampleforth Abbey (8.3% ABV)
We all agreed that Ampleforth is sweet without being sickly, tastes extraordinary (almost like a dessert wine) and, at 8.3%, leaves you in no doubt that you’re having a good time drinking it.
We then took our leave of the Hop & Vine and headed out into the streets of Hull in search of further Bacchanalian delights. Or, in Keith’s case, real ale.
Big thanks to the Real Cider Company for supplying many of the ciders, to Holiday Inn Express Hull for putting up Mags and Keith, to Hull Pie for the pies and to the Hop & Vine for letting us sit there drinking our own cider.
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