With sales skyrocketing in the summer heat, Time Out celebrates one of England's finest traditional drinks: real artisan-made apple cider
The challenge ‘Drink REAL cider on ice’ is chalked up on the blackboard at Chimes, an English bar and restaurant in Pimlico. They suggest Henry Weston’s Special Vintage and, even poured over ice (which is really a no-no for cider lovers), the Herefordshire cider is, as claimed, special. At first sip it doesn’t seem to promise anything other than coldness, then the taste receptors are flooded by a sourish yet full-fruited wash of apple and alcohol. It is a big, mouth-filling experience and one that is missed by the thousands of people across London who are downing pints of sugary yellow liquid on ice following a marketing campaign that has made one Irish cider ubiquitous. It may not be the worst cider in the world – to my mind that award probably goes to Strongbow – but it remains a factory product, made from concentrate rather than actual apples, brimming with additives, artificially sweetened and pumped full of gas.
There is no concentrate or artificial carbonation in real cider. It is made by a process that is both simple and ancient. Large scale cider-making came to these shores with the Normans in 1066, who introduced cider apple varieties like Pearmain and Costard (from the selling of which the occupation costermonger derives). Apples are harvested in August and September and broken down into a pulp that is then pressed. The juice is put in steel vats – or oak barrels at smaller traditional cideries – and left to ferment over the winter. During this completely natural but violent chemical process the fruit sugars turn to alcohol, which can reach levels of 20 per cent, obliging the cider makers to water down the mixture to bring it under the legal limit for British cider of 8.7 per cent (not too much water as apple juice must constitute 90 per cent of the liquid). The only extra ingredient allowed is sugar for sweet cider. Raise a pint of cider to your mouth and effectively you’re tasting the English countryside. Yet thousands of us prefer the taste of an Irish factory.
But look carefully and you’ll find small and unexpected places across London where the fizzy interloper is being resisted.
Chimes, a little corner of England
Chimes owner Phillip Morroun first encountered cider the way most Britons do, as the cheap and ferociously potent alcoholic drink of his youth: ‘I went to college in Guildford and spent most of my time in a cider house in Godalming.’ Hooked as a student, when Morroun went on to launch the restaurant and bar in 1983 he took the unusual decision to make cider the house pint. ‘We wanted a traditional English restaurant and bar selling a very traditional English drink, and you don’t get any more traditionally English than cider.’
For the following quarter of a century Chimes has been a vaguely rustic establishment with – strangely, perhaps for an English restaurant – a slight French feel, where long time cider-lovers and novices alike have gathered to drink the fermented juice of England’s national fruit. ‘And it is a fruity drink,’ says Morroun. ‘People who are new to cider are often surprised by how fruity. They drink dry cider and say “It’s sweet”, but when the astringency hits the back of the throat they realise it’s dry all right.’
Weston’s, based in Ledbury, Herefordshire, is the largest of the English independent producers and has supplied the restaurant with flagon, bottle and draught cider for over 20 years. It also provides Morroun with the unique Chimes Traditional Medium Dry it makes from a special selection of Herefordshire apples, a mild yet tangy take on the style. If you’re looking for something more powerful, Weston’s Old Rosie Dry Scrumpy, a rough farmhouse cider from apple orchards of Worcestershire and Herefordshire, is cloudy without being sludgy and smacks of horse muck and hay before delivering a sharp, citrussy flavour.