My first experience with cider is one that will most likely be shared by many others. It involves being underage, overzealous and out of my depth. ‘Tis the reason I avoided it at all costs…until recently when a friend of mine was diagnosed with coeliac disease. Unable to imbibe his preferred tipple of beer (coeliacs are intolerant to gluten, a protein found in some components of beer such as barley malt and wheat starch), he turned to cider to keep his whistle wet. Any time he joins us for a bbq I case out bottle shops for less lackluster offerings than the one I’d had the misfortune of overindulging in all those years ago. And yes, I’d end up partaking in a glass or two as an act of comraderie for my friend who would otherwise be the only one drinking cider. And I have been enjoying it immensely.
It’s quite apparent that cider has undergone a revival of sorts over the last few years, with growing numbers of cider labels popping up in bottleshops and cideries opening in many regions of Australia. Particularly in the Yarra Valley, Adelaide Hills and south of Perth. While the varieties of cider apples grown in Australia is considerably less than in the UK and Europe, this hasn’t stopped cider being made from more widely available eating varieties such as Granny Smiths, Pink Ladies and Galas.
Small Acres Cyder, located just outside Orange in Central West NSW, began as a ‘what if’ experiment by James and Gail Kendall who worked the daily grind as office professionals in Sydney. Bristol-born Gail had longed for the ciders of her home, not satisfied with the commercial offering in Australia. They purchased a 60L beer kit, positioned it in the bathtub to contain the spray during ferment as apple juice turned into cider. With initial experiments proving successful, James and Gail decided to search for the availability of cider apple varieties in Australia with a view to starting production on a much larger scale than their bathtub allowed.
While cider can be made from any apples, there are apple varieties specifically for cider making and others for eating – just as the case is for grapes. Cider apples have higher levels of tannins and acid to eating apples, and depending on the variety make for vastly different cider styles. Generally speaking, cider apples can be split into four groups: sharp, bitter-sharp, bitter-sweet and sweet. The sharps have high acidity and tannins that leave a drying bitterness on the palate, like a Granny Smith but more so. While the sweets have very little tannin and a lot more sugar. Blending the four different groups provides the opportunity to balance out the acid, tannin and sweet properties to produce a good drinking cider.
It turns out that around 30 year ago the makers of the best-known cider in Australia, Strongbow, decided to plant trial plots of cider apples in various locations around Australia. Back then cider apple juice concentrate was shipped out from the UK but Strongbow owners, Bulmers, decided to test if it would be more cost-effective to grow and harvest apples for the cider market here instead of shipping the concentrate. It’s unclear if it was proven that it made any difference to the bottom line, or if financial woes for Bulmers back in the UK around that time put an end to the development of cultivating cider varieties in Australia, but they were never harvested and the project faded from memory. The Kendalls decided to investigate where exactly the plots were planted, and more importantly whether they were still in existence. After learning a plot was planted in Orange they headed to the local office of NSW Primary Industries for a meeting. It turns out that the Orange trial plots had long been ripped up. With that the Kendalls left the meeting pondering their next move. A person working in the office at the time heard of the Kendalls plans and introduced himself in the car park as local cider enthusiast David Pickering.
David and and his wife Wendy were already growing up to 20 different varieties of cider apples and making cider for their own personal consumption. The serendipitous meeting was the start of relationship that continues to this day. James is adamant that without the help of David and Wendy there would be no Small Acres Cyder.
Within two years of their chance meeting, all four were planting out the rows of three hundred apple cider trees on land purchased by the Kendalls at Borenore, just outside Orange, in extreme weather conditions that included horizontal sleet. James continued to commute to Sydney for work (a four-hour drive one-way) until work on the cidery became more than just what could be squeezed in on weekends. Within 18 months both James and Gail had secured jobs in Orange, so they now had evenings to work on the development of the cidery.
In October 2007, five years after the chance encounter with the Pickerings, the Small Acres Cyder cellar door opened during Orange Wine Week with their ten-month old baby asleep under the tasting counter.
Their first cider, Somerset Still, won Best in Class at the first ever Australian Cider Awards held in Adelaide in 2007; a very classic farmhouse style cider sold mostly to British expats. James and Gail heeded the requests from Australian fans looking for something a little sweeter and the following year launched Norfolk Still, described as the ‘Sauvignon Blanc’ of their cider range. It appears the sweet-loving taste buds of Australians were still not satisfied so James and Gail developed a Moscato inspired cider aptly called Appscato and bubble-lovers were rewarded with a bottle-fermented cider called Sparkling. Cidre Rouge, best likened to a French style Rose, and Perry, made from pears instead of apples, followed.
Within two years they had outgrown their orchard and cidery. Rather than invest capital in their own equipment that may take years to see returns and realising that to continue to keep up with demand they couldn’t possibly keep doing everything themselves, they decided to look locally for help. They didn’t have to look far. An apple press was practically around the corner. Now instead of taking three weeks to press their apples by traditional rack and cloth method, their apples are squeezed of juice in a matter of hours. A local winemaker down the road had spare capacity so they shifted fermentation off-site, with the added bonus of an automated bottling and labeling line. Hand labeling is almost a thing of the past (Sparkling is still hand labeled). Both their neighbours now grow cider apples for Small Acres.
In a case of happy circumstance and bloody hard work, the Kendalls have made a successful business from a ‘what if’. But it doesn’t stop there. This year, instead of developing another variety of cider, the Kendalls decided to resurrect the Australian Cider Awards.
A couple of weeks ago Dean and I decided to make the journey to Orange to attend the Presentation Dinner held within the sanctuary that is The Old Convent. Since the nuns moved out in the 1960s the convent (which actually consists of a chapel, a schoolhouse and a nunnery) sat empty. In the 1990s Josie Chapman bought the property and began extensive renovations on the buildings transforming them not only into a place for them to live but reception rooms for functions, a renowned Sunday-only trading café, and cottage accommodation.
The evening of the Australian Cider Awards saw the classroom that had seen local children learn their p’s from their q’s became the setting for cider-lovers Australia wide to differentiate dry from sweet. Each of the ciders and perrys entered into the Awards that had been judged earlier in the day by wine and beer aficionados Max Allen, Willie Simpson, Kirrily Waldhorn and Neal Cameron were open for tasting. It was befitting that a group of judges whose specialties differed in drinks made from grain and grapes were able to join consensus on a drink such as cider which, like wine, is made from fruit, but unlike wine is drunk just like beer.
With over 90 ciders and perrys from Australian and overseas cider-makers, there was no shortage of drinks to accompany the pork belly with caramelised apple hors d’oeuvres and the three-course dinner cooked by Josie that included twice cooked cheese soufflé with apple and walnut salad, confit duck with asparagus & baked kipfler potato and vanilla pannacotta with poached pear, eaten elbow-to-elbow in the beautiful old chapel.
As the high achievers from each class were announced (Small Acres Cyder garnering a Bronze for their Somerset Still, Norfolk Still and Appscato), all eyes and ears were awaiting the announcement of Best Australian Perry (Napoleone & Co Cider, Pear Cider Traditionelle, Yarra Valley VIC), Best Australian Cider (Matilda Bay’s Dirty Granny, Fremantle WA) and Best in Show (Henny’s Dry Cider, Herefordshire UK).
With cider continuing to grow in popularity in Australia, it’s fitting that the now annual Australian Cider Awards are on hand to guide those of us with perhaps less than affectionate memories of cider drinking into a more refined realm. I now have some great recommendations for my cider-drinking friend with my personal favorites being the Napoleone & Co Pear Cider Traditionelle and Small Acres Cyder Appscato.
Are you a reformed cider drinker? Have you tried cooking with it? I did carrot fritters with cider once that turned out quite lovely. I’d really like to try this pork chops and kale with cider sauce.