For many aficionados, English ciders represent the pinnacle of the cidermaker’s art. Indeed, the British Isles have a robust cider culture. The United Kingdom has the highest per capita cider consumption in the world. There are pubs that specialize in the stuff. Cider apples have been grown in parts of England since the era of the Roman Empire.
England has its share of sweet, mass-produced ciders — often made from apple concentrate with added sugars. But the real draw is the dry, traditional cider made with 100 percent pressed apples — some from orchards that are hundreds of years old. The apples used are mostly heirloom varieties grown specifically for making cider.
Not meant for eating, these old-school cider apples are prized for their extremity. They may be disturbingly sweet or sour. Some have a puckering astringency. But this intensity of flavor delivers ciders of great depth and complexity. Cider makers blend juice from different varieties to achieve just the right balance of tart, sweet, bitter and astringent.
Many of these apples — with names like Bulmer’s Norman, Chisel Jersey and Brown Snout — evolved in the climate of the west of England — ideal for growing great cider apples. Mild winters, cool summers and cloudy skies combine to produce apples with high tannins and acidity needed to make balanced, complex ciders with good body and structure.
England’s best-known cider region is in the southwestern counties, known collectively as the “West Country.” Ciders there are made with a high percentage of traditional cider apples, making them rich in bitter tannins and sharp acidity. The region is especially known for its rustic, cloudy farmhouse ciders — called “scrumpy” — which are typically only available at the place of production. But a number of bottled ciders from the region are currently available in the Twin Cities.
Perry’s Somerset Cider Mill has been making cider in the same farmhouse since 1920. This family-run cidery is overseen today by the fourth-generation descendants of founder George Perry. There are currently three Perry ciders available here that range in profile from dry to sweet. The attractive bird-themed labels make them easy to spot.
Puffin is the driest of the bunch. An initial red-apple sweetness quickly gives way to bitter tannins and sharp acidity. Tart green apples and lemon peel mingle with low, earthy, barnyard notes and a faint whiff of hay. It tastes like the farm in a most pleasant way.
Medium-sweet Barn Owl is fashioned on the traditional, unfiltered Somerset farmhouse ciders. It is coarse and rustic, yet complex with layers of flavor from fruit and fermentation. The start is sweet, redolent with juicy red-apple pulp and skin. Bright acidity comes in the middle to moderate the sweetness without overwhelming it. Low tannins leave Barn Owl with a smooth, off-dry finish.
Grey Heron is a cider to appeal to sweet-lovers, but with a balancing tannin bitterness that keeps it from being cloying. It offers a complex cornucopia of fruits. Red and green apples, apricots and honeydew melon flavors carry through from start to finish. They are joined by a faint floral note and light minerality. I prefer drier cider, but this is delicious nonetheless.
If you, too, like your cider dry, Dunkertons Organic Dry Cider from Herefordshire, England, is the one for you. Mouth-drying bitter tannin and lemony acidity are at the forefront here. Honey-like sweetness brings just a bit of balance to support flavors of fresh red and green apples and savory herbs. Background hints of barnyard and smoke add pleasing complexity.
On the sweeter side is Dunkertons Organic Black Fox Cider. This one is sturdy and satisfying without being heavy or cloying. It’s reminiscent of the French ciders from Normandy in many ways: red-apple sweetness with hints of honey and brown sugar in the mouth, but drier in the finish with lingering tannin bitterness and light lemony acidity.
Cornish Orchards Heritage Cider from Cornwall brings a roller-coaster progression of flavors. It takes you on a ride from sweet and fruity through tart and acidic to tannin bitterness. It’s full-bodied and fruity — a complex mélange of red apple flesh, orange and lemon citrus and juicy melons. A dry finish leaves your palate feeling refreshed and ready for another sip.
The medium-sweet Cornish Orchards Gold Cider displays intriguing interplay of sweet and tart. The initial impression of sugary, ripe red apples gradually merges with more acidic green apples mid-palate. These combine with notes of honey and low cinnamon spice. It goes out semisweet with touches of green apple and low tannin bitterness.
Another cidermaker worthy of mention is Aspall Cyder, located in the eastern English county of Suffolk. It’s infused with history and tradition. The Chevallier family started making cider at Aspall Hall in 1725 when Clement Chevallier planted the first trees, which he had brought over from his native island, Jersey. The orchards are anchored by a moat-ringed manor house dating to the 1400s.
Aspall is available here in four varieties: dry, organic, demi-sec, and Perronelle’s Blush, the latter made with a dash of blackberry liqueur. Aspall Dry is light and vinous, with fresh apple flavor. A sweet start gives way to a gently tart, dry finish. It is a spritzy, Champagne-like drink that would be a nice refresher for a weekend afternoon on the patio.
Aspall Organic, with a higher percentage of the astringent Bittersweet apple varieties, harks back to the ciders that would have been made on the estate in previous generations. Rougher around the edges and a touch sweeter, its earthy underpinnings make it my favorite of the lot.
Demi-sec and Perronelle’s Blush are the sweetest of the bunch. Apple juice added post-fermentation gives them more apple flavor than the others. The blackberry liqueur makes the blush particularly sweet and fruity. It would be a great dessert cider.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at email@example.com.