MOVIES & BOOZE: Cider to accompany the sunshine this weekend

Dean McGuinness reviews Longways Tipperary Cider and Longways Sweet Katy Cider

CIDER WEATHER

Normally when I plan to taste a particular beer (or cider) based on what the weather is going to be like, it is only safe to do so if the drink in question works well in rainy weather.  Too many times, I’ve planned to taste a wonderfully thirst quenching and refreshing drink on the basis that the weather will be ideal for it, and the weather turns on the morning of the Movies and Booze show.  Thankfully, today is not one of those times.

To pair with weather that is close to the highest since recording of temperatures began, we have two excellent craft ciders from Longways in Tipperary.  Cider-maker James O’Donoghue spent four years developing Longway’s Tipperary Cider using apples grown on his farm in Tipperary.  This cider has won multiple awards both domestically and internationally.  James has added two further ciders in the last couple of years – the second cider that we will be tasting is Longway’s Sweet Katy – and the critical acclaim has continued with James’ new ciders with multiple awards being achieved with his newer additions to his range as well.

What is cider?

Cider is an alcoholic drink made from apples.  Apple juice is fermented to produce a drink that can be carbonated (fizzy) or uncarbonated (still), depending on the goals of the cider-maker.  Ireland (like England) has a climate that is well suited to growing apples – in fact, for many reasons, cider should hold a place as the ‘wine’ of Ireland.  The emergence of a craft cider industry in the last decade or so provides the potential for this.  However, attempts by mainstream producers to flood the market with less expensive (compared to craft ciders), heavily branded ciders that are often made with concentrated juices, sugars and syrups, or sources of fermentable liquid alternative to apples.  We have a great opportunity to have a vibrant and world-reknowned (craft-focused) cider industry in Ireland (just look across the water to England to see the success of many craft cider makers), but achieving this would be much easier if the government was to support it rather than hamper it as is currently the case with the existing tax system for ciders.  The benefits for the country in terms of employment, exports, profile and net tax revenue achieved (which would actually go up due to increased employment of excise rates for smaller producers were reduced).

If we consider alcoholic drinks from a social perspective, cider falls into the ‘beer’ category, and there is a certain logic to this.  Most ciders are in the ‘under 6% a.b.v.’ category, and in this sense, they sit neatly along-side beers which are typically at about this level of alcohol for most of the volume that is drunk.  At the typical level of alcohol content for cider (usually around 4.5% to 5.0%), the norm would be to consume cider by the pint (or by 500ml servings if we want to be true to our identity as Europeans!) or by the half pint.  When we look at cider in a social setting – on a bar counter, or in terms of the type of glass in which it is served – we are more used to considering it as a variant on beer.  However, craft cider sits in a place between beer and wine, depending on how you look at it.

One of the factors that dictates the evolution of beer styles is the tax that is imposed on the drink by the government of a country.  In Ireland, the tax on beer is high, and the result is that many mainstream brewers reduce the alcohol content of their beers to save money.  This is also true in England – beers as low as 2.8% can be quite prevalent in the U.K. – a function of a historic acceptability of labourers drinking at lunch time combined with high tax rates that are directly based on alcohol content of the beer.  The cafe culture that exists in Belgium and France, where beers can typically be stronger on average, and where beer is consumed in a manner that is more on a par with wine, is partly a function of the difference in excise rates on alcohol in these countries.  It is a curious aside that Irish legislators often believe that increasing excise rates will solve issues of over-consumption (where in fact, the main issue in Ireland that should be addressed, if anything, is patterns of drinking – binge drinking – rather than absolute levels of consumption).  If you follow this logic through, the actual impact could be different – higher excise rates cause mainstream breweries to reduce the alcohol content of their beers, making the beers more ‘sessionable’ (to use mainstream brewer parlance), which in turn leads to people drinking the beers (surprisingly!! – NOT!) in ‘sessions’, which results in the potential for a binge drinking culture.  Could reducing excise rates cause the opposite effect?  The experience of craft beer suggests that a (more healthy) ‘Drink less, drink better’ culture can develop when an excise break is given to smaller brewers, so the argument has validity.  Critical to achieving this is to direct the reduced tax rates towards smaller producers (brewers or cidermakers), as these producers focus on quality rather than quantity, and encourage a culture of drink appreciation rather than is the case with larger producers who focus on their bottom line, and push volume to improve their profitability.  But I digress!

Coming back to cider, when we look at craft cider there can be some further parallels in terms of style.  Some strong ciders exist, and this can mean that the potential for diversity in style has the potential to be similar to beer.  These strong ciders are typically drunk as if they were a wine – a recent trip to a cidery in Virginia in the U.S. involved tasting a range of ciders in wine glasses, and these cider-makers considered this to be the norm.  The variety of styles is country dependent – in Ireland when cider goes above 6% a.b.v., the rate of excise on cider per litre more than doubles, and when it goes up past 8.5% a.b.v., the rate increases by a further 50% (three times the base rate) if the cider is still (i.e. not fizzy), or by a factor of six compared to the base rate if the 8.5%+ a.b.v. cider is sparkling.  The consequence of this is that most ciders (even craft ciders, with a small few exceptions) are below the 6% a.b.v. level.  Even at this level, the rate of duty in Ireland is punitive – in the U.K. the equivalent rate for ciders below 5.5% is around half of this.  However, when we look to other countries, there are some superb ciders that are made to be served in ‘6 oz’ serves (about a quarter of a pint, or a serve equivalent to a glass of wine – this could so easily be a much more vibrant feature of Irish cider-making if the tax rates were to be adjusted to enable this.

All of this to say that the ciders that we are drinking today are at the ‘more normal’ level of 4.5%, but that the government could do much to allow us to take advantage of our natural resources – our climate that is well suited to growing apples – by considering a system of reduced tax on cider.

Thankfully, we can still enjoy two excellent ciders from cider-maker James O’Donoghue.  The ciders for today are both at 4.5% a.b.v., and they exhibit a range of flavours to demonstrate some of the diversity that is available in craft cider in Ireland.

Cider-Making –

Cider is made from apples, and in this sense, it is more akin to wine than beer.  To make a beverage with alcohol in it, you need to start with water-based solution that contains sugar.  In the case of beer, this is ‘wort’ – water that dissolves starch from malted barley and other grains, and converts these starches to sugars.  In the case of wine and cider the source of base liquid (called in the colloquial in the industry ‘juice’) is (funnily enough) juice.  Apple juice is the base for making cider, and by pitching yeast into this apple juice, the natural sugars contained in the apple juice are converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide.  Of course, the apple juice brings with it its own wonderfully estery (fruity) and tannic flavours, depending on the variety of apple, that combine with the flavours that develop during fermentation.

 

Apples can be divided into different types.  Normal eating apples (or ‘culinary apples’ – like ‘Golden Delicious’) are the ones with which most people are familiar.  Dessert apples are the slightly bulkier apples that are used in making apple pie and other apple-based desserts.  Cider apples are a class onto themselves – they have a more ‘woody’ texture, and are extremely fibrous if one was to try to eat them like one would eat a normal apple. These qualities make them unsuitable to eating as you would a normal apple, but ideally suited for cider-making.  The texture of the flesh of cider apples makes them particularly suited for juice extraction, and the apples themselves are a ready source of fermentable sugars and flavours such as tannins and acidity.

Cider apples can be further divided into ‘Sharps’, ‘Sweet’s, ‘Bittersharps’ and ‘Bittersweets’.  Sharps are high in acid and low in tannin and ‘Sweets’ are low in both acid and tannin.  ‘Bittersharps’ and ‘Bittersweets’ are correspondingly high in tannins.  The variety into which a particular variety of cider apple falls leads to the flavour profile that can be achieved in cider made from this apple when it is used as part of the juice blend.

Apples are harvested typically in the autumn or late autumn, and when harvested, they are crushed to produce juice.  In this respect, the cider industry is more akin to the wine industry – making (fermentation) of cider is heavily focused around the harvest, and for most of the rest of the year, the cider is aging.  Fermentation of cider can take 4 to 12 weeks (quite a bit longer than is the case typically for beer), and aging of cider happens over an even more extended period of time.

Cidermaker James O’Donoghue has been growing apples in Tipperary for many years.  These apples were originally grown for supply to a well-known cider-maker, but as is often the case with craft cider-makers in Ireland, James decided to develop the skills for cider-making to be able to make his own cider from his own apples.  Having studied in England (no cidermaking courses in Ireland, unfortunately), James built his skills and applied them to making his first cider.  Numerous trials went into his first cider, and the process took four years before he was happy with the cider that he produced.  This attention to detail and obsession with quality has been rewarded by numerous awards – both in Ireland and internationally.

The two main cider apples that James grows are Dabinett and Michelin – and both of these feature in the blends for the ciders that he is currently making.  However, James is also doing experimentation both in growing different varieties of apples – his orchard boasts a wide array of different apples including Katy, Discovery, Ellstar, James Greaves, John ‘o’ Prince and Bramleys – and these apples have been used in different ciders that are either in development.  The second cider – Sweet Katy – is built around a dessert apple – ‘Katy’, which makes it a bit more unusual in comparison to classic craft ciders.

 

Longways Tipperary Cider –

Drink Style                          -  Medium Dry Cider

Alcohol by Volume          -  4.5% a.b.v.

Cidermaker                        -  James O’Donoghue

Made in                                -  Tipperary, Ireland.

Longways Tipperary Cider has won multiple awards including awards at Blas na hEireann, the Great Taste Awards, and the Cider World Awards in Germany.  Attention to detail and dedication to quality has been rewarded by the critical acclaim for this cider.

A blend of Dabinett and Michelin cider apples goes into this cider.  These varieties hold top place for most popular and highly esteemed cider apple varieties of today.  Dabinett is a bittersweet – giving lower acidity but notable tannins.  It provides a soft astringency in ciders in which it is used.  Michelin is a medium bittersweet, and is currently the most widely planted variety in cider growing areas.

Longways Tipperary Cider delivers distinct apple notes that combine with floral aromas – rose and honeysuckle.  This is a classic craft cider – deliciously refreshing, and delivering apple esters on tasting.  The flavour delivers an initial restrained sweetness which quickly develops into a dry finish with tannins lingering gently on the palate.  Longways Tipperary Cider is incredibly moreish, but it has all of the credentials of a classic craft cider in terms of structure and length of flavour.  Apple juice flavour sits on top of the tannic mouthfeel that lingers into the finish.

 

Longways Sweet Katy Cider –

Drink Style                          -  Medium Sweet Cider

Alcohol by Volume          -  4.5% a.b.v.

Cidermaker                        -  James O’Donoghue

Made in                                -  Tipperary, Ireland.

Longways Sweet Katy cider is a touch unusual in that the base apple for this cider is a dessert variety.  This ‘Katy’ apple is combined with Michelin and Dabinett to blend in some tannic structure into the cider, and balance the flavour which is notably more sweet than its relative – Longways Tipperary Cider.

Sweet Katy Cider is has a slightly more gentle apple aroma.  Texture on the mouth is fuller, with more residual sugar giving an almost candy-sugar finish.  This delicious sweet apple flavour is perfectly balanced with a suggestion of tannins and a touch of astringency to balance.  The sweetness lingers into the finish, giving a rich, mouth watering fruit juice finish to the cider, and a tang of apple that cuts through the sweetness giving a crisp finish.