Once, sipping ice-cold cider at a sun-warmed picnic table was one of those intrinsically summer moments — rewarding and lovely — but then you reverted to your regular tipple in the autumn.
A bit of an image problem dogged the beverage too: Whether it was the aluminium cans or the cheap-looking brown plastic, two-litre bottles, cider wasn’t exactly glamorous. But a combination of boredom and bland corporate food and drinks, saw farmers markets and microbreweries take off and, hot on the heels of the craft beer movement came craft cider.
It’s no bad thing either that cider, unlike most beers, is gluten free. Such is the surge in interest that apple cider and its pear counterpart, perry, are the world’s fastest growing alcoholic drinks, according to industry research firm Euromonitor.
An alleged midlife crisis for Daniel Emerson — wife Geraldine’s words, not mine — is behind the growing success that is Cork’s Stonewell cider. Daniel was doing contract work but looking for a new venture when his parents-in-law bought him a gift of a cider press. Now he’s among four full-time staff (which includes his wife), and that figure rises to nine staff with seasonal work. The company is definitely growing — they produced 300,000 litres last year and are heading for 400,000 this year.
“That might sound like a lot but you have to realise that the overall cider market here involves 66m litres so we’re only 0.5% of that,” Emerson explains.
At the moment Stonewell uses only Irish-grown apples but the sector is expanding so much that imports may be necessary to keep up with demand.
Stonewell ciders use a variety of apples in a blend — unlike wine production, blending apple types is typically welcomed as it gives the cider depth and layers of flavours.
So, like a dedicated wine fan, can a cider afficionado identify which orchard a cider originates from? “I don’t think anyone could pinpoint that,” he laughs. “But it would be possible to recognise the types of apple used.”
Like wine, cider can benefit from the right setting. For craft cider, Emerson recommends chilling the drink — but not killing the flavour with too much ice — and a nice wide-bowled goblet would be just perfect.
Stonewell ciders typically retail for around €3.50 for 50cl in supermarkets or off-licences but they also make a champagne cider for €14 a bottle and a dessert cider with 15% alcohol.
However, the craft cider industry isn’t all sunshine and effervescence, notes Emerson. The Irish duty on cider is €94 per hectolitre (100 litres) but in France this is less than €2. While cider is extremely popular when the sun shines, efforts to adapt for a winter market can be hampered: “There is no Irish definition of cider except from Revenue and if we change the characteristics — by adding spices for a winter drink — then it is no longer cider and attracts a new tax,” Emerson says.
At the more glamorous end of the craft cider market is Longueville House in the Blackwater Valley, near Mallow, Co Cork. This cider actually came about as part of the development of apple brandy.
Irish apples are key here too — they started off with 25 acres of Dabinett and Michelin cider apples which are crushed and pressed in an oak press machine in the cider house on the farm attached to the hotel.
Producer William O’Callaghan recommends drinking it chilled — but with no ice — and says it’s an ideal partner with fish or meat. This award-winning cider (Euro-Toques Food Awards 2013; Cider Ireland award for taste and presentation 2013 Best in Class; and Georgina Campbell’s Natural Food Award 2014), which has a rich amber colour, is also pretty tasty after a walk through the kitchen gardens and orchards. A 12-bottle case costs €45.60 but Longueville House Cider is also sold in local bars — as well as in the US.
Another craft cider growing in popularity is made by Carlow Brewing Company — perhaps better known for O’Hara’s Leann Follain and O’Hara’s Irish Red beers. Seamus O’Hara says they are really only starting out in the craft cider business with The Falling Apple brand.
“This is our first year and we only bottled up two weeks but we’re really happy so far,” he says.
Seamus reckons his product stands well on its own and is better without ice, though he’s not fussy as long as people enjoy it. The Falling Apple is a clear, drier cider and retails for around €3.67 a bottle and is available in off-licences as well as on draught in Dublin and Carlow so far.
Noel Finn, manager at the Franciscan Well in Cork City, agrees that cider is really having a moment and reckons there’s a more even gender mix opting for cider now. “Before it was mainly women — I guess because it was sweeter and more fruity than beer — but now I see guys going for it too.”
Five to try from Caroline Hennessy
Well balanced, elegant and presented in a 75ml bottle, serve this in Champagne glasses to make the most of its delicious natural sparkle.
Aged and bottle conditioned, Fiona’s Fancy is a limited edition with a long, somewhat spicy finish.
A clean, snappy medium dry cider with a fine tannic finish that works brilliantly with food, particularly anything of a piggy persuasion.
This premium cider from an innovative producer is made from Elstar apples, comes in a black 75cl bottle and has a sophisticated dry and crisp finish.
Strawberry Irish Craft Cider Ignore clumsy mainstream efforts at putting fruit and cider together. This is what you want — a delicate blend of cider, apple juice, and strawberry wine. Just the thing with a lemon tart.