I don’t think any food or drink plummets through quality quite like cider. Its best examples are sharp and auburn, tasting of hay and meadowsweet. In the middle lie the fizzy wee of Strongbow, its jumped-up, overbranded cousin Magners and a slew of similar products like Gaymers and Bulmers. Thrashing at the bottom is gutrot white cider, at once the friend and enemy of many underage and homeless drinkers.
This country has had a continuous tradition of cider-making for at least 1,000 years, and likely longer. It’s hard to be sure because both Roman orchards and the eighth-century monasteries that revived them might have used their fruit for eating or cooking. The Normans have always been enthusiastic cider-makers and no doubt a few came over after 1066. But basic scrumpy-making isn’t particularly difficult, and it seems probable that not long after the apple left Turkey, Iran or elsewhere in western Asia, people worked out how to ferment its juice.
Real cider remains happily bucolic, rooted in druids and wassailing and hymned by the sprites of the orchards. The jug-eared mugs you traditionally drink it from are descended from old English loving cups.
But cider has only recently returned to fashion. It all but vanished in the first half of the 20th century, choked by hops and decimated by Britain’s sad rejection of domestic apple varieties. By the 1960s it was close to a yokelish footnote. Its market has swollen more than fourfold since the 70s thanks in large part to a favourable tax situation. The Treasury takes a little over 30 quid for every 100l of “mainstream” cider, compared to about £125 for beer and just under £170 for spirits. (“Fizzy” cider attracts a much higher tariff.) This was to protect traditional cider-makers and revive a moribund industry, and to a large extent it succeeded.
Companies like Sheppy’s and Aspall had been quietly making cider through the slump, and unlike most of their competitors (Bulmers, Magners, Gaymers), both avoided being taken over. But all cider producers benefited from the system, and 2m new cider apple trees were planted in the UK between 1995 and 2006.
In its final budget in 2010 Labour announced plans to hike the duty on cider 10% above inflation: it shelved these plans after a bizarre and very British outcry. I’m not sure this rediscovered taste for the drink means we cook with it any more: English recipes use cider almost exclusively in pork dishes, though Normandy has been somewhat more inventive.
Sadly, the cider renaissance also helped to spur the growth of white cider, which remains the cheapest way to get drunk. Alcohol and homeless charities are tireless in explaining the social costs of white cider. In April this year the chief executive of Thames Reach likened its use among alcoholics to that of heroin among heroin addicts, and Alcohol Concern has called for it to be banned altogether. All cider has to contain at least 35% apple juice by law, but white cider manufacturers make this up using imported apple concentrate.
It seems astonishing that Magners only launched nationwide in 2006, so ubiquitous has it become. I have to say I find it unpleasantly acidic and gassy, and the conceit of serving it over ice is perhaps the most affected thing to happen to alcohol since Anthony Blanche’s brandy alexanders. But what a clever bit of marketing that was: fill the glass with ice and sell less product for more money. Magners led to the relaunch of Bulmer’s Original and, this year, to Stella Artois’s “Cidre”, which I haven’t tasted but which the great beer writer Pete Brown describes as “not unpleasant … but odd”.
As the Guardian’s wine writer Fiona Beckett points out, by buying decent cider you get “the best artisanal products Britain has to offer for the same price as the dullest commercially produced wine”. Despite 40 years of government-led investment, most of us could still be drinking more of this criminally underrated drink, which at its best easily rivals champagne. I like Westons from Herefordshire, and Healey’s sent me a bottle the other day which was excellent. But there are now enough small cider producers that every half-decent pub should stock them, and there’s only one way to find your favourite.