Aspall Cyder - Cider and Vinegar

Chicago Delights


Date
11th March 2014

Category
Henry's Travels


Chicago in February is cold even in a normal winter. 2013 / 14 has not been a normal winter and stepping out of O’Hare International Airport to -20ºC was quite a shock to the system. It’s a brutal temperature, compounded by winds blowing off Lake Michigan that chill extremities to harsh pain in a couple of minutes.

So it seemed a bit strange to be there in such weather to discuss all things cider; or at least all US things cider.

CiderCON is an annual event in the US cider calendar where producers, importers and distributors from across the country meet up to discuss definitions, compare notes on techniques, look at new methodology, review the apple harvest and have a general catch up with friends and colleagues in the industry from across the States. And it’s growing fast – 2014 was double the size of 2013.

February – by consensus – is the quietest time in the cider calendar, so affording a better opportunity for smaller producers to converge. And the weather was ok in a kind of experiential sort of way.

I only attended one day of the conference; I heard Angry Orchard, Sam Adams’ fast growing cider brand, talk about the necessity of camaraderie across the industry, big and small working together for the greater cause – a theme I always advocated during my stint at the head of the UK National Association of Cider Makers. I heard Pete Brown give his ever entertaining talk about World’s Best Cider, as well as Paul Bartlett current chair of the UK Cider Association giving an international view of the cider market. My day finished with a panel session discussing routes to market; clearly, local producers find this as challenging as international players.

I’ve mentioned previously how America is hot for cider; to date, this has been quite a prophetic statement along the lines of the revolution is coming. In Chicago this February, you could feel that that coming is most certainly now here.

I’ve mentioned previously how America is hot for cider; to date, this has been quite a prophetic statement along the lines of the revolution is coming. In Chicago this February, you could feel that that coming is most certainly now here.

Anything is possible

There was a real buzz about the place; what I love about the US cider scene is that anything is possible; in the UK, too much of the craft cider debate centres on what you can’t do to be a ‘cider’; in the US, there is no pre-conceived idea of how a cider should look, smell, taste or “be”. As Kevin Zielinski, the charming owner of E Z Orchards described it, he had “no fear” when he came in to the industry, partly because there was no tradition to adhere to. That meant he could take risks that perhaps an English, French or Spanish cider maker would not.

Quality - a common theme

So many of the ciders here are a very long way from mass market, and the mass market that there is don’t have the desire to play at the tertiary end as some UK producers will, so arguably bringing the whole category in to a cheap and strong debate that we really shouldn’t be needing to have.

The quality theme was echoed by a number of producers I met at the subsequent Cider Summit, held at Navy Pier on the Saturday after the conference. Cider Summits are held across the US at different times of the year. Many producers gather to show their wares to consumers and trade alike. They are growing hugely in popularity and Chicago is the biggest.

There was such an array of products – over 90 ciders to taste in all. There were some crackers there; the breadth was extraordinary.

There was such an array of products – over 90 ciders to taste in all. There were some crackers there; the breadth was extraordinary.

A mixed bag!

There were beautiful to downright awful; too many spoiled disasters explained away as “Spanish style” for my liking. There are still some combinations I struggle with, the addition of hops to cider being one. I know I’m a bit of a purist, and I will confess to having tried a hopped cider that I found almost agreeable – I finished it if that’s anything to go by. However, there was one hopped cider at the summit that would rank as one of the most disgusting cider experiences I have ever had, and that one from a producer I hold in high regard. Clearly, this debate has some way to run.

But not just ciders to taste, producers to talk to. Many seemed extremely pleased to meet me as for nearly a decade now, Aspall has been the only import cider they considered worth drinking and apparently was always an inspiration; humbling stuff, but far from feeling elated by our efforts so far, I left Chicago inspired to try some new things, to keep challenging myself and the business to be in the thick of the cider debate in terms of style and technique.

I love spending time with American producers, and I love drinking their ciders. They keeps us honest, and provide even greater reason to get up in the morning. Even if it is -20ºC.