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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What Brands Tell Us

I have long been waiting to indulge my cider Jones, an itch I started scratching last night at Bushwhacker's Cider.  My experience has heretofore been limited almost exclusively to local ciders, and I wanted to see what the famous regions of the world had to offer: the Basque and Asturias ciders of Spain, Breton and Norman ciders of France, and English ciders.  Sally and I enjoyed a wonderful tannic French pour and then had two Basque ciders--Bereziartua and Petritegi.  The former was sharply acetic--a cider so transmuted during fermentation it was difficult to identify the nature of the source fruit.  The Petritegi was pure funk, a lambic-like cider that had a bit of acidity, full apple flavor, but a lot of cheesy wild stuff.  I loved it.

Afterward I went over to select some bottles for sampling at home and came across an amazing diversity of presentation.  These three bottles come from the three famous cider regions and all cost about the same (seven bucks and change).  These aren't cherry-picked especially--they do a good job of representing the style of their home country's packaging, though each in a slightly exaggerated way.  Have a look and then we'll talk about how they appear to American eyes:

Moving right to left, we have the Basque, French, and English ciders.  What do they tell us?

Credit: Todo-Jaunjo
1.  Spain.  If cider were beer, Spanish cider would be Belgian beer, and Basque cider would be lambic.  It's a very old-school beverage, rife with wild microorganisms that contribute tons of acids and funk.  If you look closely, you can see the lees floating in the bottle--I inadvertently roused them during the photography.  The label itself is a quirky, homespun affair that brings to mind both artisanal handcraft and also a bygone time.
That font is fantastic and reminds me of children's books and the circus.  If you zoom in a bit, you can see the blocky small print, which looks like something that got added on later, perhaps when the company got its first computer in 1988.  And if you look at the funny sketch, you see not just a whimsical rendering of pouring cider, but a particular way of decanting known as "throwing the cider." 

This may be a titan of cider-making, producing millions of barrels a year (though I highly doubt it), but the label says: we are a small, rustic cidery and we make things traditionally and by hand.  The cidery wants you to see the local farm where the apples were pressed, so smell the wood and vapors of the fermenting room, and to imagine the wizened, whiskered master cider maker as he tends his casks like a doting grandfather.

2.  France.  Next we go to France, and find the mirror opposite of the Basque presentation.  It has all the hauteur of a French wine bottle, with a refined color scheme, cursive font, and detailed information about the type of cider and apple varietal.  The company has even hung the crest of nobility around the neck.  You can't see it in this photo, but the neck is wrapped, champagne-style, in foil and covers a caged cork.  This company does not want you to see in your mind's eye anything to do with a farm.  Their product is as polished and sophisticated as any Burgundy, and deserves a place next to the Cassoulet.

3.  England.  I actually have no idea what to make of this bottle, which is like one of those foreign names that means something obscene in English.  To American eyes, it looks like a bottle of Olde English 800 or perhaps a fortified wine like Wild Irish Rose.  Both the Basque and French bottles are wine-bottle sized and corked and colored for effect--Gold Rush is in a clear beer bottle, topped unceremoniously by a plain black crown.  And Gold Rush?  That has specific associations in the US that maybe it lacks in the UK--greed and overindulgence, the kind of thing that buttresses the sense of cheap, strong hooch.  It's a simple label, but not good-simple; one has the impression that someone spent four minutes laying it out.  (I suppose the cursive "cider" is meant to suggest elegance, but it's too slapdash to convince.)

I would actually love the insight of a native to describe what the gents at Olivers Cider were going for.  It's lost on these Yankee eyes.  Fortunately, the barkeep at Bushwhacker's recommended it or I would never have even have really seen it, much less bought it. For what it's worth, the bottle is fairly typical.  I also picked up a bottle of the acclaimed Burrow Hill, and although the label was slightly better, it came in the clear beer bottle topped by a metal crown.

Unlike beer, which has a similar status in each nation that brews it, cider's varies.  You can see how the countries themselves see their product in these labels.  Spain's is an artisanal tradition, a cultural expression that is unique to place.  For France, cider is part of the exalted culinary tradition.  And in England cider is--well, that's less clear.  But certainly neither something people take instantly to be either an artisanal handcraft nor a mark of high culture.  I will report back next once I've tried all these and let you know what the insides of the bottles tell us.


  1. Cider has (at least) two faces in the UK:

    1) beer alternative for getting hammered on on a night out if you don't like beer. This is the realm of the fizzy bottle of Magners, Kopparburg, Strongbow, etc. They're mostly about branding. Bottles in the supermarket, or keg & bottle in the pub...

    2) artisan product, sometimes also "for getting hammered on", often "real cider" (CAMRA has a role here) and usually drunk in the pub delivered via hand-pump or sometimes even just from the bag-in-a-box on the counter. These ciders are almost always still, no (or very little) carbonation present. "Real cider" is defined by CAMRA here:

    You could say artisan bottled cider is a 3rd, and much rarer, face? Often found at farmers' markets, direct from the producer, and a handful have some success with retail chains.

    I'm not at all familiar with your "Gold Rush" - but it sounds pretty "new wave" based on the description on Rate Beer: - a UK/US collab cider?!

    I wouldn't say the branding is typical of the UK at all. It looks a bit too neat, the bottle looks too small. Then again, I'm not sure what is typical... branding here varies greatly from what I've seen.

    Here's a couple of my local producers:

    Cider drinkers are often looked at askance here, as being a bit hippy/wild/drunk - a bit "country" sometimes, or "yokel". Cider is not considered by many to be particularly artisinal - more like either "chicks piss" for the big-brand fizzy stuff or some sort of weird moonshine with respect to the traditional stuff.

    (I'm an Aussie who's lived in the UK for 6 years, these are merely my observations and are probably inaccurate;)

  2. You lump in Basque as Spain, but they are also in France. They want to be independant, so I'm not sure it is fair to lump them in as "Spain."