For those unfamiliar with craft cider and perry, I thought it would be helpful to write down a few thoughts on tasting. Firstly, it is important to remember that craft cider and perry is 100% juice (or very nearly) and so has a lot more flavour than is to be found in the industrial version (which is well under 50% juice). OK, so some industrial ciders have fruit flavours added, but that is not the same thing at all! Craft cider and perry is much better compared to wine than to the fizzy sweet alcopop drinks.
The flavour derives from two main elements – the fruit used and the fermentation process.
Cider apples tend to have a coarser texture than most apples, which makes them easier to press. Otherwise, what distinguishes them is how they vary in tannin, acidity and sweetness. There are four basic types of cider apple:
Sweet – Plenty of sugars, but very little tannin or acidity. These types of apples (e.g. Morgan’s Sweet) are not common. Some dessert apples with little acidity might also fit into this category (but beware that some sweet dessert apples are quite sharp too).
Sharp – Quite acid. This category can include most cooking apples (Bramley is VERY sharp) and dessert apples (where the sharpness is balanced by sweetness). The main sharp variety we use at Mosser Cider is Tom Putt, but we also use some mild cooking apples and some flavoursome dessert apples (particularly various russets).
Bittersweet – Sweet, low in acid, but high in tannins (which give the characteristic “gum-drying” effect). This is the largest and most important category. At Mosser, we grow Major, Tremlett’s Bitter and Dabinett, and have recently planted Brown Snout and Harry Master’s Jersey.
Bittersharp – like a bittersweet, but also with a fair amount of acid. We have just planted a Kingston Black.
Generally, good cider is made by blending these apples to achieve a good balance between the various characters. Some varieties, particularly bittersharps, can be used without blending, but (unlike much wine) blended cider is usually better. Craft cider tends to be either of a “West country” type, with plenty of bittersweet apples or an “Eastern counties” type, where dessert apples predominate. The West country ciders can be argued to have more body and depth from the tannins, whereas those of the Eastern persuasion will say that their ciders have more fruitiness and less earthiness. At Mosser cider, we try and get the best of both worlds by using about 50% bittersweet apples in most of our cider. We sometimes also add a few perry pears to the mix (see notes below on perry).
When tasting the cider, look for a fruity aroma coupled with the depth of tannins when you drink it.
Much of the flavour in cider derives from the fermentation process, rather than the fruit itself. Craft cider is often fermented without the addition of any yeast (a “natural fermentation”). This does not mean that there is no yeast – just that it comes from the apples, the air, the cider press or barrels (if wooden barrels are used). Frequently, though, a wine yeast is added rather than leave things to chance. We use both methods, sometimes with a white wine yeast that reduces acidity as Cumbrian apples can be a bit sharper than elsewhere (but also with more flavour). Industrial cider is fermented using a “turbo” yeast suitable for fermenting sugary syrup to a high alcohol level so that it can then be watered down to whatever dilution is required – flavour is not a consideration. The different yeasts result in different flavours which we can blend to get the required result.
Our cider is fermented cold, so it takes a long time (a year or more) before it is ready. However, it does result in a finer and more complex flavour which develops over time. After bottling it will continue to develop for a while, but eventually (after perhaps 3 or 4 years) it will start to become a bit sherry-like, so drink it within two years of bottling unless you want cider sherry.
Generally we ferment our cider fully – i.e. dry – and do not add any sugar or other sweeteners. The use of some pears in the blend removes a bit of dryness (see below).
Perry is cider made from perry pears. It is not the same thing as pear cider which is (usually) industrial cider made from dessert pears (but mostly sugar syrup etc…). Perry pears are naturally very high in tannins which lends an entirely different character to the drink. We have been able to gather perry pears from mature trees the National Trust property at Acorn Bank (helps to keep the garden looking tidy). As well as making a little perry, we use a small proportion (less than 25%) in some ciders to provide extra tannin and sweetness. Perry does not ferment completely dry as it contains some unfermentable sugars (sorbitol). If you have never drunk proper perry, give it a try!