Cider's popularity in the off-premise category has been clear for years, but the key to its on-premise growth lies in understanding the range of styles and flavours on offer. By Madeline Woolway.
“It’s my belief that on-premise leads the off-premise. Experiencing drinks in the on-premise first gets people moving towards them in the off-premise,” said Sam Reid, co-owner of Tasmanian cider producers, Willie Smiths.
This is a widely held belief in the liquor industry and, although there isn’t as much data for on-premise sales, if off-premise growth rates are anything to go by, cider is a promising category for venue operators.
“It’s definitely growing in the on-premise,” said Reid. “My thoughts are that restaurants have been a bit slower to catch on to good quality cider – they tend to focus more on their wine lists. But we’re starting to see that pubs are making sure they have good quality craft cider in their range, so I think that will filter into restaurants as well.”
Willie Smith's Apple Shed. Images: Supplied.
Karina Dambergs, co-owner of fellow Tasmanian cider producer Red Brick Road Cider, agrees.
“Cider is definitely experiencing growth in pubs and bars, but I think it’s a bit slower in restaurants,” she said. “I think it ties into that particular understanding of cider. I wonder if we just haven’t found the right format for restaurants yet.”
However, some new styles have started to bridge the divide. “At Willie Smiths we’ve started to engage with some of the best restaurants around. They’re looking to get hold of our 18 Varieties cider, which won best cider in Australia in 2015. Sommeliers are starting to hear about that, which is really pleasing,” said Reid.
Willie Smith's growlers.
Beyond the eating apple
“Broadly, there are three styles: cider made by winemakers, cider made by brewers and cider made by purists,” said Dambergs.
“The winemaker styles tend to look like white wine, they’re filtered, bright, clear, sparkling and they’re quite fruit driven. The brewer styles are more on the cloudy end of the spectrum, there’s a bit more complexity and colour in that range. Cider purists are tapping a bit more into some of the traditional techniques and the ciders can be anything from clear to cloudy.”
The majority of craft cider available in Australia at the moment is still made using eating apples, said Dambergs, however some craft cider makers are beginning to experiment with cider apples.
“Ciders made with eating apples tend to be a bit softer and more approachable,” she said.
“Different styles are becoming available because people are getting cider apples, and even declaring a lot more about the apples that they’ve used. For example, we make single variety ciders – we made one with Cox’s Orange Pippin apple and promoted it by stating the type of apple we used.”
Reid adds that the increasing availability of cider apples is providing even more styles.
“There are more producers using cider apples now, although they’re relatively new in Australia. They provide a broader spectrum of flavours.”
Along with the increasing availability of different apple varieties, the range of cider styles in the Australian market has grown.
“We’re also starting to see a lot more of the fruit ciders, like a cherry and apple cider,” Dambergs said. “They’re made with fruit that would probably go to waste anyway, because they’re too small or too marked for the eating market. It’s a really good way for growers to value-add and appeal to the maturing cider market. They’re a really good transitional product from the more commercial styles, which are made with flavourings and colours.
“Whereas two or three years ago, I would have said it’s all driven by sweet cider, now the majority of styles are medium sweet and producers are making more of an effort to balance sweetness with other things, like fruit weight, a bit of acidity, or oak.”
There are also some experimental classes in cider shows, which Dambergs often judges.
“There are some dry hopped ciders, which is a thing in the States, but hasn’t traditionally been seen elsewhere. Some producers are playing a lot with different yeasts. They’re still using apples, but they’re also getting some different characters in there.”
Willie Smith's tasting paddle.
Neither wine nor beer
While producers are keeping abreast of the maturing cider market when it comes to style, many ciders are still served like beer – either in a bottle or beer glass. While this suits some styles, others are better served in a wine glass. The category’s youthfulness is somewhat to blame for this confusion.
“Even as producers we don’t have a complete handle on [glassware], probably because the category is still quite new and is evolving quickly. There are definitely different options. We recommend our Scrumpy be served in a wine glass – it’s been aged in oak barrels and is a still cider, so it’s more like an apple wine in some ways,” said Dambergs.
Reid suggests an open dialogue between producers and venue operators to work out how individual ciders are best served. Willie Smith’s 18 Varieties cider, which is made with 18 varieties of traditional English and French cider apples, is another example of a style better served in a wine glass.
“It’s a premium style cider, which we recommend you drink out of wine glass and share with friends. There are definitely more and more premium style ciders that suit restaurants – you’ll see them behind the bar rather than on tap.
“It depends what style you’re working with. Something like a Kingston Black cider apple variety, with more texture, body and bold flavour to it, would work in a bigger glass – you can take a swig of it,” he said. “But then you get some more delicate French styles that work better in a wine glass, which is how the French drink their cider.”
Willie Smith's apple shed.
The same goes for temperature, which Dambergs said comes down to preference.
“At the moment most of the Australian market seems to like cider quite cold. That ties into the ‘Bulmers on ice’ campaign from a few years ago, which really kicked off a lot of the movement in the category. Plus we like drinks quite cold in Australia anyway,” she said.
“But, if you go a little bit warmer than fridge temperature with some of the more complex styles you’ll see more flavours coming out of them.”
As more styles become available, there are also more options for food pairing.
“Most of our ciders work well with food. We make dry style ciders that are all quite textural because they’re bottle fermented. They’re great [food pairing] options where traditionally wine wouldn’t work so well. Ciders can work really well with cheese. If you have a more funky cheese, like a smear ripened cheese, where the character can clash with wine, it will work with cider because they have similar characteristics,” said Dambergs.
Although there are some instances like these, where cider works in place of wine, sommeliers can essentially approach cider pairing the same way they would approach wine pairing.
“Again, it comes down to the individual cider. Talk to your local producer, if you get a chance to try a cider from cider apples you should definitely take it, some of those ciders can go incredibly well with food,” said Reid. “Concentrate styles have a lot of sugar added to them and they don’t pair particularly well with food.”
“It’s about understanding the different styles out there and finding something that works with your menu. Then once the staff have that knowledge, it becomes about recommending it to people,” adds Dambergs.
“There is no regulation about what can be labelled as cider, so that makes the category a bit challenging. Commercial and craft cider are like chalk and cheese, the category relies on people tasting things to understand the difference. Not everyone will like every cider, that’s why we make a range of styles.”
With cider ahead of other categories when it comes to off-premise growth, and the variety of styles continuing to develop, it’s only a matter of time before it stakes its claim on restaurant menus.