From the crab apples pressed during the Roman conquest to the Kent orchards planted during the reign of Henry VIII, the making of British cider is one of the country’s finest heritage assets. So much so that craft producers are now demanding protection from modern commercial ciders with added water and fruit flavourings which they say are undermining the reputation of the traditional products.
They say leading 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 alcohol duty.
John Lawrence, founder of Lawrence’s Cider in the village of Corton Denham, on the Somerset-Dorset border, said: “True cider has got to be made from 100% apple juice, but a lot is made from apple concentrate and water with quite a high alcohol content. It gives cider a bad name.”
Lawrence harvests at least six varieties of cider apples from local orchards, including tremlett’s bitter and yarlington mill. They are pressed and the pure juice is fermented and left to mature for six months. Lawrence makes up to 7,000 litres a year, the threshold at which alcohol duty is paid. Under the current rules, cider is only required to contain a minimum of 35% juice content. The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), which also promotes real cider and perry, also known as pear cider, is calling on HM Treasury to raise the minimum fruit content to 50% as part of its review of alcohol duties.
Gillian Hough, Camra’s real ale, cider and perry campaigns director, said: “Consumers need confidence that when they are buying cider or perry it is a quality product that contains more juice than water.”
Jim Callender, founder of the Real Cider website, said the drink was part of the national identity. “It’s like England in a glass. It should be protected in the same way as champagne,” he said.
Callender said the major producers promoted their drinks with bucolic imagery but they often contained sugary syrup and flavourings which were not used in craft ciders. “This is commercial cider syrup,” he said.
Cider makers are also concerned that some producers import concentrated apple juice from Poland and China, undermining demand for the country’s apples. The National Trust warned earlier this year that orchards are vanishing from the British 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. The big producers say they already provide strong demand for the country’s apple orchards, planting new areas and working with farmers to protect them.
Britain’s cider industry is worth more than £2bn a year, but sales slumped during the pandemic. The 2022 annual cider report compiled by Westons, which is based in Much Marcle, Herefordshire, and produces ciders with 100% juice, found consumers are increasingly buying premium and craft ciders while sales of cheaper white cider have fallen.
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 litres and contains 7.5% alcohol. It also lists water as its first ingredient.
The National Association of Cider Makers told the Commons health committee it was “one of the first signatories to the Portman Group Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks and its members fully subscribe to it”.
Strongbow, the country’s most popular cider brand, also lists water as its first ingredient. It is understood that Heineken, Strongbow’s owner, uses in addition to its English apples some imported apple concentrate which the company says is required to ensure a sweeter taste.
A Heineken UK spokesperson said: “In Herefordshire, we operate the world’s largest cider makers. Every year, we use many hundreds of millions of British 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 which owns 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 “blend of apple juice concentrate and locally grown fruit.” Kopparberg did not respond to a request for comment.
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