Aspall Cyder - Cider and Vinegar

Starting a Taste Revolution

21st October 2014

Henry's Travels

It’s never a short journey to Australia; remarkable though it is that you can get to the other side of the planet in 27 hours, it’s still a hell of a slog. So dropping in for a mere 5 days was always going to be challenging, even if it meant I could go to my cousin’s 50th in Melbourne on the way home. Oh, and I caught up with great buddies who live in Sydney, and it’s a fine city to hang out in and I had a gorgeous Air BnB rooftop apartment – tcha! Some people are never satisfied eh?

It’s a couple of years since I was last in Australia, and it was five years before that that I visited for the first time. In all honesty, I hadn’t expected much, and whilst that always meant I was going to be more easily impressed, I have developed more than just a fondness for the country. Back then, there was virtually no cider; Strongbow was the market leader with the long-in-the -tooth local brew, Mercury Gold, mopping up what was a tiny market. Then Magners appeared in its race for global domination, closely followed by Aspall and the first local craft brew, Pipsqueak, made by our importers at the time, Little Creatures.

Since then, there has been an explosion of cider both in terms of its popularity and of the brands available. I stood in Dan Murphy’s, startled by the range available, and equally startled by the random nature in which the category is presented on shelf.

It looks a proper mess, with no clear delineation between mainstream, low-end products and what one would consider to be the high-end premium. It looks like it’s all just been thrown together. And that kind of sums the Australian cider market up right now – certainly in the off trade; cider is still such a young category in most consumers’ view that there is no discernible difference between one brand or another other than the packaging – oh, and the price. “Strewth, it’s all made from apples mate” would be the outrageously stereotypical way to put it from an Australian drinker’s perspective.

“Strewth, it’s all made from apples mate”

I take it as my duty to understand the markets that we operate in, so it was with some relish that I stood before 28 ciders – both Australian and international – with my importers, bottle opener in hand. It’s a tough job... (and all that.) With my broader knowledge of the international market, my eye was immediately drawn to the more premium packaged products, many of which I had never seen before. I had been told that quite a few wine makers have been sweating their assets by fermenting and processing apple juice after the wine harvest had been through – so I was excited by the prospects. As for the mainstream stuff, well, we’d taste it because it was there and pass on to the interesting stuff. Well, it was certainly interesting, but on the whole for all the wrong reasons.

Australia grows a lot of apples, but many would agree that these are not necessarily the best varieties for making cider with as they don’t offer much in the way of aroma, body or structure, post fermentation. It was, therefore, interesting to hear from an Australian cider maker I chatted with later in the week, of a growing view with many, that as long as a cider smells and tastes of something, then it is deemed to be of good quality. Well, if the “something” includes any of the descriptors I lifted from my tasting notes such as “cat sick, burnt rubber, medicinal, chemical, rotten peas” then quite a few in the line-up would have succeeded. The disappointing thing in all of this was that the more interesting the packaging, usually the more disappointing the cider.

The mainstream brands that I would ordinarily and snootily turn my nose up at actually did a much better job in terms of straight drinkability and enjoyment. And this begs the question that is so often batted around in cider circles concerning the definition of quality. By the simple fact a cider is made from pure apple juice vs a cider made from concentrate and stretched with sugar syrup, does that automatically make it better quality? Forget how well it’s made… Well, intellectually it’s a debate that seems to run and run; but I for one, faced with the stark choice between a technically faultless mainstream cider, and a pure juice cider that smelt and tasted of any of the descriptors I used above, I would plump for technically faultless every time. I’m not sure I would travel 27 hours to do it, but there are so many other good reasons to make the journey that I look forward to being presented with the same challenge/task many more times in the years to come; and not just in the hope that some things may have improved.