Real cider is more than sugar-primed commercial fizz

BC’s revolution in a bottle follows many a twist and turn: meaning that beer is now on a roll almost as much as wine. But lately cider too has been knocking at the door, as inquisitive palates have discovered that there’s a whole lot more to real cider than sugar primed commercial fizz, not too subtly disguised with the peach, pear or even raspberry flavour of the month.

Speaking of commercial fizz, let’s not forget that BC’s post sacramental wine industry owes its early beginnings in part not to grapes but to apples, which were made into sparkling juice by the forerunner to Calona Wines. Not only that, but a key player and shareholder in the original company was early BC Premier W.A.C. Bennett, who, although a teetotaller, knew a good business opportunity when he saw one. Unpicked apples were lying around rotting, so in 1932 Bennett and his cohorts kick-started Domestic Wines and By-Products Co.

In truth, though, good cider has been on the rise in BC for a couple of decades or more — ever since Scottish born Al Piggott decided it was time to show people what the real thing actually tasted like and opened Merridale Cider, on Vancouver Island. The Island — and the Gulf Islands in particular — enjoy a long history of fruit production, much of which was shipped to The Growers Cider Company (established 1927).

“Coates comes up from Zummerzet, Where the zoider apples grow.”

Piggot, who was a keen cider maker, purchased Growers’ grinder and fermenters when the plant was closed in the 1950s. He started growing apples and making cider in Metchosin, west of Victoria, before eventually moving to establish a six-hectare orchard in the Cowichan Valley’s Cobble Hill, which is warmer and more suited to cider apple growing.

Piggott capitalised on the timely shift in liquor regulations that made possible farm gate wineries — the driving force behind the modern-era BC wine industry. He figured the same estate grounded principals could and should be applied in cider-making; and went to work accordingly, setting up BC’s first licensed estate cidery. It was Piggott’s passion and determination that sowed the seeds for true craft cider in BC.

His secret weapon was that, unlike most if not all of the big commercial producers, he used real cider apple trees. In fact, I can remember the moment precisely when I tasted my first drop of Merridale. And it tasted just as I remembered from when I was young.

As a child I lived in Somerset, in the southwest of England, which is still very much celebrated for its cider lore. At the time that included the Coates Cider slogan, complete with local dialect: “Coates comes up from Zummerzet, Where the zoider apples grow.”

We lived a few kilometres from Long Ashton Research Station, a pioneering orchard which had originally divided apple production into various categories according to their end use, as well as tracing and preserving numerous heritage varieties used in the UK to make cider over the centuries.

 

 
Kristen Needham, Founder and Cidermaster at Sea Cider.

Just to be sure, Piggott and I tasted a cider apple. It was tough, tart and tannic — not the daily kind for keeping the doctor away but perfect for making true cider.

Piggott made a range of styles, from dry to semi sweet, and even classic, legendary “Scrumpy” — an English West Country staple — which we nicknamed poor man’s Champagne. It was and still is challenging to North American palates used to sweeter commercial styles. However, Piggott persevered, even moving to plastic one and two litre bottles, as well as successfully placing his products in fledgling private wine stores, where they would be exposed to a more discriminating clientele.

In 1999, Piggott sold to Rick Pipes and Janet Docherty, whose vision took Merridale to the next level, expanding the strains of apples grown to some 30 mainly English and French varieties. They also opened the popular Cider House bistro, as well as a distillery to make apple brandy and gin. The new owners built on Piggott’s idea and then some, developing what had started out as a humble cidery into a multi-faceted attraction, though never losing sight of that need for true cider quality. The range of styles is broad, with mainstays including the House Pub Style draught, which enjoys considerable popularity on tap around Vancouver Island.

Merridale caters to purists with choices from a dry take on the pub draught to the Traditional dry sparkler which, in a “coals to Newcastle” moment has won in its category at the Bath & West Show, as well as at Hereford’s International Cider and Perry Competition. Scrumpy also still rules, with an unabashed interpretation that celebrates with assertive flavours and a definite edge. There’s even a Champagne Style Somerset — a crisp dry sparkler that’s a nod to the legendary poor man’s Champagne.

Vancouver Island’s other successful cidery was established overlooking the ocean but on the more sheltered Saanich Peninsular, which is a few kilometres east of Cobble Hill. Kristen and Bruce Jordan established Sea Cider Farm and Ciderhouse in 2007, surrounded by natural gardens, organic orchards with some 60 varieties of apples, and grazing sheep, against a backdrop of pastoral and ocean views.

Sea Cider offers a variety of styles to accommodate a broad range of tastes. The tasting room offers a flexibility of pours, served along side well conceived artisan platters of local meats, specialty breads and cheeses, and homemade dips.

The cidery’s arrival coincided with the rise in interest in food and wine pairing, so it made sense to offer a parallel tasting experience, to suit every taste.

Drier styles that seem to pair well include Kings & Spies, with crisp, savoury apple notes quite reminiscent of English cider, as well as the appealingly tart, certified organic, bitter-sweet wild yeast fermented Wild English, and dry, slightly spicy and quite complexity of the German-inspired, organic, Flagship. Also organic, Pippins sports a crisp, clean personality that pairs well with foods such as smoked salmon, while blackberry infused Bramble Bubbly is an off-dry, rosé-like sparkler that pairs with lightly spiced Asian dishes.

With no shortage of creativity at play, Sea Cider’s ever-popular Rum Runner (aged in rum soaked oak barrels) might have you reaching for a Cuban cigar. Quite tawny port-like, sweet Pommeau cries out for a good blue cheese such as Stilton or Bleu de Gex, while mead-like Cyser, made with fermented organic honey, yields a more complex, sweet and almost smoky toned drop.

 

 

The craft cider revolution has taken a little longer to reach the interior of BC, but signs are everywhere that interest in cider is widespread. Followed the arrival of free trade and the subsequent blossoming of the wine industry, Okanagan apple orchards started to disappear at a rapid rate. However, in some areas, thanks to cider, they’re seeing a small resurgence.

The Similkameen Valley boasts one of the highest rate of organic certified farms in the country, which likely accounts for the flourishing of its fruit orchards alongside the burgeoning vineyards. The Similkameen hasn’t experienced the widespread removal of apple orchards in the same way as the Okanagan.

Take a turn off busy Highway 3A at Cawston to discover tiny, perfect Twisted Hills Craft Cider. Here, nestled right in the heart of their orchard, cider maker Kaylan Madeira and partner Jo Schneider are producing some excellent, true apple ciders made from cider varieties. In fact, even though it’s still early days, the couple have already garnered some significant awards in major competitions.

Dry styled Pippin’s Fate, made with bitter sweet apples and which sports an appealing acidity, is a superb quencher on a hot day. Kingston’s Twist (which is a blend of cider apples and dessert table varieties) appeals to those looking for a less dry cider, while Tangled Rose (which blends organic cider apples with organic Santa Rosa plums) could easily pass for an off-dry rosé. The couple also make a sparkling pear and apple cider. They grow their own organic fruit, and do everything from pressing to labelling themselves. Production is limited — and stocks don’t last long — as their ciders are already much sought after in Vancouver and elsewhere, far beyond Cawston.

In the Okanagan, often as not, wine and cider still very much overlap. Naramata Cider Company, a recently established offshoot of Elephant Island makes estate-grown cider from table apples as a fitting complement to the winery’s excellent vinifera grape and fruit wines.

A challenge for craft cider makers in the Okanagan is the lack of true cider apple varieties. Located in Vernon, on a third generation orchard, BXPress makes a wide range of styles but only one, the crisp and dry Prospector, is made mainly from cider apple varieties. The name is inspired by the celebrated ‘BX’ or Barnard’s Express that once ferried freight and people north to the Cariboo Gold Fields with horses reared on the property. And the Prospector is a fitting tribute to those early, rugged pioneers.

Naramata Cider Maker, Del Halladay.

One of the most successful sparkling apple ciders is made by BC Tree Fruits, a co-operative of over 500 Okanagan growers, established almost 80 years ago and very much harking back to those early days. The name ‘Broken Ladder’ is a clever nod to the often precarious wooden ladders that were once widely used by pickers.

Broken Ladder (which, interestingly enough, is made by Oliver winemaker Bertus Albertyn) adds up to a kick in the pants to big, commercial sweet cider producers. Made with six different kinds of eating apples, it contains no sweeteners or other additives. Not surprisingly, apple is what you get on the nose, followed by a light, refreshing palate. It’s crisp and clean, if not very complex, which it doesn’t have to be. But it is an interesting nod to those long-ago days when someone decided fallen apples could be put to good use.