Drink: Cider houses rule

The apple drink has long moved on from its shady reputation and now small-scale Irish producers are raising standards to a new level of sophistication

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Cider deserves a little more respect than we give it. So says Cider Ireland, a body set up to represent the rapidly growing band of artisan Irish producers. Cider has come a long way in a short time. Not too long ago it was seen as the preserve of teenage binge drinkers and down-and-outs. More recently it became the darling of the mainstream drinks industry, showing rapid growth year after year. Advertising campaigns successfully encouraged us to drink pints or large bottles with plenty of ice, and cider was sold as the perfect summer drink.

However Cider Ireland maintains that there is more to cider than this; it is a sophisticated drink that can be consumed throughout the year and not just in hot weather. It also argues that good cider can be a very good accompaniment to food.

Cider has a very long tradition in Ireland, going back thousands of years. Some counties, such as Armagh, Kilkenny, Waterford, Tipperary and Cork have a reputation for growing apples, but according to Mark Jenkinson of Cockagee, cider-making was widespread in Ireland long before beer and whiskey became popular. As with wine, we can buy mass-produced inexpensive cider designed to appeal to the widest possible audience. Both are usually fairly bland and a little sweet.

Some mass-produced ciders are made using apples, others from concentrate, often imported. However, as with wine, there are a large number of exciting hand-made ciders produced in various parts of the globe. And following the explosion of interest in microbreweries in Ireland, we now have a small group of artisan cider producers trying to woo us onto cider with more flavour and character. Some are apple growers who need to earn more from their crop, and others are entrepreneurs with an interest in cider.

At a recent Cider Ireland tasting in Longueville House – themselves creators of very good cider and an excellent apple brandy – there were more than a dozen producers showing their wares. They included a surprisingly diverse range of flavours and styles; if you thought all cider tastes the same, then you should try a few artisan versions. Some leave the cider to ferment very slowly at cool temperatures, others allow a secondary fermentation in bottle. They can be made from a single vintage, which will vary from year to year, or be a blend of younger and older ciders.

A good cider producer will usually work with a combination of apple varieties and usually, but not always, cider varieties. There are four categories: sharps, bittersharps, sweets and bittersweets. As the names suggest, each brings something to the blend.

Some producers will also use dessert apples or Bramleys, the traditional Irish cooking apple, in their mix. A few, such as the Elstar, experiment with a single variety. We are used to drinking sweet or medium-dry cider, so most of the artisan producers include these in their range. There is no shame in this. As with all quality drinks, balance is everything, and a very crisp cider with a little drying tannin benefits from a twist of natural sugar. All of this means artisan cider offers a wonderful diversity of flavours.

As for drinking it with food, a glass of cider with a dish that comes with Normande sauce, which incorporates both cider and cream, is very good, as is anything that has cider in the recipe. But it also goes really well with ham, pork pies and savoury tarts. It can even have a place in fine dining; Michelin-starred restaurant Chapter One currently offers the Craigies Dalliance on their drinks list. Sommelier Ed Joliffe says customers love it as an aperitif, but he also recommends they try it with chef Ross Lewis’s dish of stuffed pig’s tail. “It has the structure and acidity to provide a perfect contrast to the rich pork flavour,” he says.

All of this doesn’t mean that cider can’t be drunk on its own.

I fully accept the argument that cider can be drunk all year round, and have also started trying out different food combinations. However it remains one of the best thirst-quenchers of all. There can be few nicer things than a glass of chilled cider on a sunny day.

Cider Ireland is a recently formed group that includes most of the artisan producers. Members must use 100 per cent fresh Irish apples (juice concentrate and pulp are not permitted) and cannot add any flavourings or colourings to the must. If you want to join a unique home-produced revolution, now is the time to buy an Irish cider. See ciderireland.com for details. jwilson@irishtimes.com

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