Dorset’s Traditional Cider Makers Say You’re Drinking Chemical-Laden Muck

Cider’s popularity has boomed in recent years, but for traditional brewers, that chemical-laden liquid you knock back in the beer garden is an insult to real craftsmanship.

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May 3 2015, 2:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Chiot's Run

It wasn't so long ago that cider drinkers were considered to be a rough, thick-fingered bunch consigned to overgrown corners of the West Country: Bucolic brawlers who passed out on haystacks after marinating their livers in "scrumpy." Nowadays, slick-haired Londoners and flower headband-sporting festival goers are just as likely to be sipping cider as those "born and bred among the orchards," as Thomas Hardy once described them.

The popularity of commercial cider in the UK has surged during the last decade, and while the tipple hasn't yet returned to the status it enjoyed during the 1700s when, according to Henry Chevallier Guild of Aspall Cyder, "English cider was held in higher regard than French, Spanish, and Portuguese wines," sales continue to increase.

READ MORE: West Country Cider Is a Relic From Another Century

"The introduction of Magners 'over ice' in the 90s [is] credited as the turning point for the cider market," explains Angela Ham of C&C Group, which manufactures Magners. "Since then, the market has continued to develop and we have seen a number of key trends emerge such as fruit cider and New World ciders, along with the growth of premium cider with the rise of crafts."

According to Hans, such thirst-inducing marketing ploys and the development of "fruit ciders" (read: the strawberry-flavoured liquid your student union bar put on tap as a "Summer Special") has caused the number of pints of cider sold in the UK to rise from 800 million to 1.3 billion in the last ten years.

Lulworth-Skipper-Cider-Dorset

Dorset's Lulworth Skipper Cider. Photo courtesy Martin Inwood.

Big name commercial cider producers may have cashed in, but their industrially brewed strains—made with chemicals, added sugar, and even concentrated juice—might as well be bog water to Britain's hardcore craft cider-makers. These guys abide by a strict set of principles when it comes to producing cider, using nothing but 100 percent apple juice (and the occasional sulphite when absolutely necessary).

Each year, 20 craft-cider makers get together to champion the drink in its purest form at the Powerstock Cider Festival in Dorset. I went down to find out what they really thought about the industrial "muck" currently flooding the mainstream market. Is artisanal cider benefitting from the popularity of big brands, or is the reputation of "true" cider being tarnished by hurriedly produced, watered-down, synthetic slop?

The festival plays out in Powerstock's village hut, a wooden-clad building no more than 20 meters long and six meters wide. By 7:30 PM the place is rammed with hundreds of ruddy-cheeked, half-cut country folk. Nothing was being poured over ice here (the sacrosanct of drinking artisan cider would never allow such treachery).

READ MORE: Berlin's New French Cider Bar Wants to Get Cows Drunk

The range of ciders on offer is impressive, from those fermented in old whiskey barrels to draughts exceeding 10 percent alcohol content.

"The public are being misinformed by the industrially produced varieties like uber-sweet syrup and concentrate ciders, which by law only need to have 30 percent apple content. The rest is water, chemicals, false aromas, and additives," Oliver Strong of Dorset Nectar tells me. "Industrial cider production methods are damaging the reputation of true cider. Craft ciders like ours are as close to 100 percent natural juice as possible, what you drink from the bottle is what the apple created. We never get headaches in the morning after drinking our ciders."

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Powerstock Cider Festival in Dorset. Photo by the author.

John Lawrence of Lawrence's Cider, whose tipple won first prize at the festival, agrees: "The use of chemicals and various artificial preservatives is very much frowned upon in craft cider circles."

A number of Dorset's small-scale producers also criticise big brands for adopting the image of the artisan cider maker, despite embracing industrial techniques.

"What the large companies have done is steal our thunder by calling their water-based drinks 'craft,' 'real,' and 'artisan'—they are none of these," says Tim Beer from Marshwood Vale Cider. "We need to get new laws passed to get them to label their muck [for what it really is]."

Despite this opposition to large-scale production, some of Powerstock's producers acknowledge that the established presence of large brands has led to an increased—and apparently short-lived, according to Mark Rogers of Twinways Cyder Co—interest in craft ciders.

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Two cider drinkers at Dorset's Powerstock Cider Festival. Photo by the author.

"About five to six years ago, there was a benefit from the awareness that Magners et al. brought with their advertising campaigns and the increased presence in aspirational bars and at festivals," explains Rogers. "This led to a brief interest in the craft sector."

Winston Chapman of Monkton Wylde Cider also notes that drinkers jumping on the commercial cider bandwagon can progress onto artisan varieties.

"Commercial cider is not real cider but an alternative," he says. "It does not damage the idea of true cider because it's a different product."

But even if you do manage to find "real" cider in the city, clutching a lukewarm pint in a crowded pub garden will never match the enjoyment of drinking scrumpy at its source.

"You can't beat the magic of real cider, particularly if it's sipped within an apple's throw of a traditional West Country orchard," says Chapman. "Perhaps on a cold January night when you are about to go out and wassail the apples trees to scare the evil spirits away and ensure a good crop for the coming year!"