From crabapples pressed during the Roman conquest to Kentish orchards planted during the reign of Henry VIII, British cider making is one of the country’s greatest heritage assets. So much so that artisanal producers are now asking to be protected from modern commercial ciders with added water and fruit flavorings which they say damage the reputation of traditional products.
They say major supermarket brands such as Strongbow, Frosty Jack’s and Kopparberg cider may contain more added water than apple juice. They are calling for new regulations as part of the government’s review of liquor duties.
John Lawrence, founder of Lawrence’s Cider in the village of Corton Denham, on the Somerset-Dorset border, said: “Real cider should be made from 100% apple juice, but a lot is made from apple and water with a high alcohol content. This gives cider a bad name.
Lawrence harvests at least six varieties of cider apples from local orchards, including Tremlett’s Bitter and Yarlington Mills. They are pressed and the pure juice is fermented and left to mature for six months. Lawrence makes up to 7,000 liters a year, the threshold at which liquor tax is paid. Under current rules, cider must only contain a minimum of 35% juice. The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), which also promotes real cider and perry, also known as pear cider, is asking the UK Treasury to increase the minimum fruit content to 50% as part of its review of liquor duties.
Gillian Hough, director of campaigns for real ale, cider and perry at Camra, said: “Consumers need to know that when they buy cider or perry it is a quality product. which contains more juice than water.
Jim Callender, founder of the Real Cider website, said the drink is part of the national identity. “It’s like England in a glass. It should be protected the same as champagne,” he said.
Callender said major producers promote their drinks with bucolic imagery, but they often contain sweet syrup and flavorings that aren’t used in craft ciders. “It’s commercial cider syrup,” he said.
Cider makers are also concerned that some producers are importing concentrated apple juice from Poland and China, hurting demand for the country’s apples. The National Trust warned earlier this year that orchards are disappearing from the UK landscape, with an area the size of the Isle of Wight lost since 1900.
Craft producers would like to see more British apples used in mass-produced ciders. Big growers already say they are supplying strong demand for the nation’s apple orchards, planting new areas and working with farmers to protect them.
The UK cider industry is worth more than £2billion a year but sales have plummeted during the pandemic. The 2022 annual cider report compiled by Westons, which is based in Much Marcle, Herefordshire, and produces 100% juice ciders, found that consumers are increasingly buying premium and craft ciders while sales of cheaper white cider have dropped.
Cheaper white ciders have been controversial because they have been associated with alcoholism and homelessness. One of the most popular brands, Frosty Jack’s, sells for £3.90 for 2.5 liters and contains 7.5% alcohol. It also lists water as the first ingredient.
The National Cider Makers Association told the Commons Health Committee that it was “one of the first signatories to the Portman Group’s Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Beverages and that its members fully subscribe to it”.
Strongbow, the country’s most popular cider brand, also lists water as the first ingredient. It is understood that Heineken, the owner of Strongbow, supplements its English apples with imported apple concentrate which the company says is needed to ensure a sweeter taste.
A spokesperson for Heineken UK said: “In Herefordshire we operate the largest cider makers in the world. Each year we use several hundred million UK apples from over 8,000 acres of orchards in and around Herefordshire to make our ciders. The company said the water content of its product was commercially sensitive.
Aston Manor, the Birmingham-based cider producer and owner of Frosty Jack’s, said: “Between 2014 and 2019 we planted 1,000 acres of new orchards in Herefordshire, adding over 350,000 new trees to the landscape.” The company said Frosty Jack’s was a “mixture of apple juice concentrate and locally grown fruit”. Kopparberg did not respond to a request for comment.