The most interesting and unexpected development in the drinks market in Britain last year was a resurgence of Cider as a popular beverage.
Cider (also sometimes spelt as cyder) is made from fermented apple-juice. Transatlantic readers will realise that this is what is known as hard-cider in the U.S.A. where their apple-juice cider equivalent is wholly non-alcoholic. On the other hand, British and Irish cider can even be as much as 10% abv. And just to complicate matters, locally-produced rural versions of draught cider or scrumpy often come in at almost every strength known to man.
For far too long Cider in Britain seemed to be lingering-on as something between an almost soft-drink aimed at ladies or thirsty cross-country hikers. While at the same time it was often considered the preserve of park-bench 'winos' or students unable to afford the cost of stronger alcoholic spirits.
Then suddenly early in the 21st Century Cider seemed to take on a new role. Helped without any doubt by a massive promotional spend by the Irish firm Magners and some well-cultivated marketing by the two major British drink groups — Diageo and Scottish & Newcastle — Cider was being accorded a status akin to wines and superior ales. This was reflected in both advertising and in descriptive writing in both trade and popular marketing.
Almost overnight drinks writers were using terms that traditionally belonged in wine-writing. Packaging too became very much in the style of wine, and cider was marketed with a new upmarket appeal and many of the approaches used to describe wine. There were even new emphases on terroir and the apples used in its manufacture. There were Premium varieties of Cider. And, of course, there was a stress on the organic nature of cider-making.
And as part of this revival of apple-cider came a recognition of an almost equally olde English beverage, Perry or cider made from pears not apples.
Cider in Britain has almost always been a West Country drink, from counties such as Hereford, Gloucester and Worcester; and further south Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. Wales stepped-up its own cider manufacturing. And on the east coast side of England, cider was being made in Suffolk.
But let there be no doubt about it, the Cider boom, which will continue if climate-change results in hotter summers in Britain, was due to Ireland's Magners brand and the idea of serving it on ice with almost the ceremony once accorded to Whitbread's white ale. It certainly is a refreshing drink, and even lager-swilling football supporters have been seen starting with a pint of cider to quench their thirst before starting on an evening's drinking.
But what has most impressed your wine correspondent Lovat Stephen has been the way Cider is now felt to be deserving of the approach accorded to wine and premium beers. This has led to higher promotional spends by large cider-makers such as Bulmer's, Gaymer's, Thatcher's, Weston's and Strongbow. In the larger supermarkets such as Tesco, Sainsbury, Waitrose, Morrison and Somerfield, cider is displayed almost on a parity with beer.
Cider in Britain has also benefitted by excellent lobbying of government by the National Association of Cider Makers (NACM); and even by support from the magazine and newsletters of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). It must be admitted that the annual gathering of the Parliamentary group of Members of Parliament with cider in their constituencies, often held on the enclosed verandah overlooking the Thames at the House of Commons, is a well-attended occasion greatly enjoyed by this correspondent anyway. The Prince of Wales and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall whose home is in the West Country often provide welcome 'photo-opportunities' with a tall glass or mug of cider (or perry) when touring their part of the country.
The English cider centre which is accepted as housing the National Collection of Cider and Perry is at Firle, near Lewes in East Sussex, not strictly in the West Country. Here some 250 different ciders (100 in casks, the rest in bottles) are on view. Those running it have noted an increase in public interest, but are cautious about claiming that the boom will be permanent.
Although your correspondent has been studying both the availability and the taste of Cider in his part of London, he has not yet visited this Collection. He feels perhaps it will be better to wait until a true hot summer is on to voice any opinions on the "new wine" which is cider, and how it is faring in 2008.
So far he has made a point of tasting Magners over time while comparing this with the familiar home-based English and Welsh ciders. Magners only began making cider in 1935, whereas firms in Britain date from much earlier - including such as the family-owned firm of Weston which started in 1880.
Meanwhile he looks forward to trying out the specialist flavours of single orchard ciders and varietals based on particular brands of apple. For example, farmer Denis Gwatkin has established a lead in individual publicity for his Yarlington Mill cider and Blakeney Red perry from his remote farm in Herefordshire's Golden Valley.
A major producer, Gaymer's, is marketing several single orchard ciders in their Orchard Reserve range. The Orchard Reserve coming from Stewley orchard in Somerset, is joined by Stonesbrook, from the banks of the river Brue near Lydford and Newton's Vale from the foot of the Quantocks.
Other small-farm ciders can be found at Farmers' Markets which are also gaining ground in the Metropolis. In London's Pimlico he enjoyed a Boxing Dog Strong Cider from Mr.Whitehead's Cider Company based on Hartley Park Farm near Selborne in Hampshire. This was a Medium-Dry Cider in a half-litre bottle at 7.5 % ABV.
He also has a soft place for the same company's Midnight Special Perry at 5 % ABV. A back-label explains that Midnight Special is a unique blend of dessert and culinary varieties, with no added sugar, preservatives or additives. The label warns that there may be some haze or sediment in this unfiltered perry from the natural fermentation. Open and pour carefully to keep it there.
Another interesting indicator of Cider's new upmarket status is the advertising space in the leading British trade magazine off licence news featuring of all countries Swedish cider and perry. Herrljunga describing itself as the 'champagne' of ciders boasts annual sales of 5 million litres. While another Swedish maker launches one product with a dreadful pun "Pear-licious Cider" being Kopparberg pear-cider at a declared strength of 4.5 %. "Enjoy!"
And a recent article on Perry in off licence news says British Perries to try include Brothers' Pear Cider, Weston's Original Perry, Thatcher's Perry, and the perry from the Wye Valley Brewery. Perry has certainly profited from Magners initiative and ICB has invested in sponsoring its St.Helier brands of apple and perry in ITV football advertising space.
Lovat Stephen looks forward to his own further research into cider and perry. He feels that whatever the weather is like in the summer of 2008, there is no doubt that in Britain today Cider and Perry is big business already. As a member of the Thomas Hardy Society he has long-enjoyed references to the cider-making in that author's novels. He particularly delights in the return to the naming of the apples and pears used in the various ciders. He enjoys rolling off the names of traditional fruit varieties: at Dunkertons farm in Herefordshire where we have Perry pear tree species Tom, Judge Amphlett and Brandy, with apple varieties such as Fox Whelp and Sheep's Nose.
Roll on good summers, if global-warming is here to stay!