In February, we were lucky to go to Portland for the annual Cider Conference (CiderCon for short). Certainly we felt lucky to be wearing windbreakers and raincoats in February, probably driving native Portlanders crazy with our talk of how nice it was. The best part of being in Portland, though, came from visiting with the conference’s featured cidermakers from England: Tom Oliver of Oliver’s Cider and Perry, Barny Butterfield of Sandford Orchards, and Neil Worley of Worley’s Cider.
For two years now, the conference has ended with a general session devoted to international cidermakers. Last year’s featured cidermakers were from Spain. This year’s featured cidermakers were from England, specifically the counties of Herefordshire (Oliver), Somerset (Worley), and Devon (Butterfield).
I have brief notes from the ciders we tasted in the final session, but I have actual quotes from the cidermakers and the moderator, well-known cider photographer Bill Bradshaw. This sounds like an odd approach, I know, but it was the best way for me to remember this session and what it was like being around these guys; and what it was like was being around the most good-natured, funny, and smart guys you’d ever meet.
But understand the context of that statement: these guys were brought over as exemplars of cidermakers. And for cidermakers in the States, British craft cider represents the absolute best of cider: the best apples, the best tradition, and the best ciders. It could be entirely reasonable to expect a British cidermaker to be stuck up, standoffish, serious, and superior to U.S. cidermakers in every way. But they weren’t, not one bit. Further, they were generous and giving and had a genuine interest in the growing U.S. cider market, seeing in it innovation and collaboration that isn’t the norm in the U.K.
If you have an interest in the conference, Mike and I would love to talk about it with you and to relive the great memories we brought back from the conference. And if you’re considering going — do it. We always recommend CiderCon and the 2017 conference will be in Chicago yet again, so close to home. Without further ado, the ciders and commentary from the final session of 2016 CiderCon.
The first cider we tried was Tom Oliver’s Traditional Dry. It’s a perfect cider. It’s made from traditional bittersweet and bittersharp cider apples — not from the dessert apples that we make cider from over here in the States. It’s got a significant tannic backbone that contributes some astringency. It was aged in oak, and has a bit of a leathery taste. Here’s what Tom Oliver had to say about it: when making cider, “always use the water from the pond where the cattle drink,” and, “always use rats — dead ones — for yeast nutrient.” For anyone who’s alarmed: he was clearly kidding! But traditional cider does have a history of making some odd, animal-based additions. Sandford Orchards cider was a new cider to us at the conference. We attended Barny Butterfield’s presentation earlier in the conference — what a storyteller. But Barny’s done an amazing thing by purchasing and renovating his town’s traditional ciderhouse so that his county’s cidermaking traditions can continue. Sandfords’ ciders were more approachable, and The General was the best of them that we tasted. It was a filtered and force-carbonated cider that had a puckery bitterness and a pronounced sherry flavor. It had a bright, light aroma and we felt oaky tannins on our tongue. When it came to the secrets of his ciders, Barny told us that, “we find slugs do just as good a job” as the cattle ponds and rats. His advice: “mix it up.”
The third cider we tasted was from Neil Worley. We met Neil while visiting the pigs at E.Z. Orchard and got to spend a lot of time talking with him about cider economics, pigs, and heating with wood. Neil’s cider used a technique known as keeving, which is a method of retaining sugar during fermentation, although the sugar levels in the bottle will decrease and the carbonation levels will increase over time. Again, Neil’s cider was made from traditional bittersweet and bittersharp apples. My tasting notes seemed to start declining at this point but I did make a note of an exchange that Neil had with a conference attendee. Her question/statement to Neil was, “I taste some acetic acid in here.” (Acetic acid is a vinegar acid.) Neil waited a beat and then said, “you’re wrong” — to a lot of laughter in the room.
Then we came to the final cider of the tasting, Tom Oliver’s Gold Rush, which is a collaboration with Ryan Burk, formerly of Virtue Cider and currently of Angry Orchard. My notes picked up again here, probably because this cider was like nothing I’d ever tasted before: it had a light and cheesy aroma and an even cheesier, funkier taste. Goodness. While certainly drinkable, it’s not for the faint of heart, nor for the cider-drinking novice. You’ll note “#4” on the bottle, and I believe that Oliver and Burk are currently working on collaboration #6.
At this point, the session turned into a Q&A and I was able to capture a few more choice gems from the cidermakers:
- Speaking about traditional cider apples with tannins and their anti-microbial, anti-bacterial properties: “they allow us to get away with murder.” (I think that was Tom Oliver.)
- “All these wonderful flavors like burnt rubber, iodine horse . . .” are due to half-filled totes of juice left out in the sun to ferment (Oliver, again).
- On hopped cider: “It is a poison chalice in England.”
- And Barny Butterfield on French cider: “I think the quality of French cider is . . .discoverable.”
- Finally, in a testament to their humility, “There’s no magic to cider. If you have an apple that gets squashed, it’ll ferment.” (unattributed to a speaker, but certainly attributed to poor note-taking after drinking four ciders and spending half the session laughing).
Just a few more pics from the conference:
Tom Oliver was playing trivia for a few bottles of his cider at the end of the conference. His final question was, “who thinks that my Traditional Dry or Gold Rush is the best cider they’ve ever tasted?” Mike yelled out, “The Beatles!” And somehow, Tom Oliver awarded his last bottle of single-variety Kingston Black to Mike. He wrote on it, “drink slow.”
And finally, a photo of Aaron Klocker and Adam Theis from Milk & Honey Ciders in MN, who make a very fine cider themselves. There was a huge Minnesota contingent at the conference. We all tend to be too busy to talk to each other back at home in Minnesota, so it was a good time to dream together about the future of cider in Minnesota.