Its popularity has waxed and waned, however – the 20th century saw the rise of mass-produced cider, often made from diluted concentrated apple juice and bulked out with water, sugar, preservatives and other additives (cider legally requires a minimum of just 35% apple juice). In contrast to the meteoric rise of craft beer, cider has struggled somewhat with an image problem – all too often seen as a cheap, low-quality, sickly sweet drink.
Happily this has changed in recent years, with a wave of exciting new producers that champion the sophistication of the category, creating seasonal, small-batch, naturally fermented ciders made with 100% apple juice that easily rival wine and beer when it comes to nuance and complexity – and often in the process doing sterling work when it comes to reviving lesser-known British apple varieties and conserving the country’s many ancient cider orchards.
Cider is now made across the UK but traditionally there is a rough geographical divide when it comes to style. Producers in the west of the country (Somerset, Devon, Herefordshire, Monmouthshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire) make ciders from bitter, tannic cider apples – either in a blend or as a single-varietal drink. There are hundreds of cider apple varieties, many of them evocatively named, from Kingston Black and Somerset Redstreak to Foxwhelp and Dabinett. Ciders made in the West Country style tend to be full-bodied and richly fruity, with complex tannins.
While the West Country has historically long been associated with cider, there’s an equally robust cider-making scene in eastern counties such as Kent, Sussex, Suffolk and East Anglia. Here, mainly sweeter eating and cooking apples are used (think varieties that you’d find in the supermarket such as Cox and Gala), resulting in crisp, sharp, acidic ciders. As well as this, cider has also traditionally been made across Europe, from Brittany in France to Galicia in northern Spain.
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There are many ciders to explore across the country, but here are a few of our favourites…
Best ciders to try
Dukeshill Whisky Cask Cider, £16/six x 330ml bottles, dukeshill.co.uk
Matured for six months in single malt scotch whisky casks, this is a lovely cold-weather cider, lush and warming, with notes of oak, honey and subtle spice.
The General cider, £35/12 x 500ml bottles, sandfordorchards.co.uk
This vintage cider from Devon’s Sandford Orchards scooped gold at 2023’s International Cider Challenge, aged for six months in oak and using a blend of evocatively named apples including Tremlett’s Bitter, Dabinet and Yarlington Mill. It’s a rich, autumnal cider with baked apple, spice and dried fruit flavours. Lush with a long finish, it would make a lovely sipper alongside a roast pork dinner.
Biddenden Ice Cider 2021, £13.30/50cl, Biddenden Vineyards
Made by freezing freshly pressed apple juice, this ice cider has intense sweetness balanced by lively acidity and gentle tannins. Delicious with a cheeseboard.
Sassy Cider Rosé, £3/330ml, Harvey Nichols
Made with 18 different apple varieties, this Normandy cider is delicately refreshing, with fresh red fruit and apple flavours, and a hint of funk.
Hogan’s Peaty Deep & Smoky Cider, £3.75/500ml, The Whiskey Exchange
We loved this full-bodied cider and its rounded, seductively smoky, earthy character – an essential bonfire or campfire tipple.
Galipette Rosé Cidre, £2.50/330ml, Waitrose
Made with red-fleshed Pommes à Chair Rouge apples from Normandy and Brittany, this pretty pink cider makes for a lovely low-ABV alternative to rosé wine, with lots of tart summer berry flavours. Do also try their Brut Cidre, a winningly juicy cider with lots of lively apple flavour, a crisp, clean character and gentle bubbles.
Wignac Cider Rose, £3.49/330ml, The Bottle Club
A French cider made in the Ardennes from 100% apple juice, this gets its pretty blush hue from a touch of pure grape juice. It’s juicy and tart, with bags of apple flavour.
Henry Westons Vintage Rose Cider, £2.20/500ml, Tesco
Blush-hued ciders have become increasingly common on the drinks scene and this example is a great choice for everyday drinking. Smooth, gently sweet and sparkling, it’s best enjoyed extra chilled, preferably in a sunny garden or park.
Secret Orchard Exmoor Mellow, £27/case of 12, secretorchardcider.com
This award-winning outfit makes small-batch, minimal-intervention ciders using apples sourced from orchards across Cornwall and Exmoor, and each batch is divided according to its geographic origins. Exmoor Mellow is a lovely example of a West Country cider, easy-going and full-flavoured, with mellow funk and subtle spice.
Westons Old Rosie Cloudy Cider, £6.25/2 litres, Ocado
Crisp, dry and gently tangy, this crowd-pleasing cider is one for those who prefer traditional scrumpy-style varieties. Widely available, it’s a great option if you’re looking for a decent cider in a hurry.
The Cotswold Cider Co No Brainer Classic, £22/4 litres, cotswoldciderco.com
Fans of still, cloudy, scrumpy-style cider will enjoy this highly gluggable, bone-dry number. At 6% ABV it’s dangerously easy-drinking for something you’d likely have by the pint – those looking for a little less punch can try the sparkling version, at a more sessionable 4.8%.
Pulpt Flare, £2.35/500ml, Tesco
A sparkling blend featuring Chisel Jersey apples, this has crisp apple aromas and a fresh sweetness balanced by well-judged acidity.
Little Pomona Table Cider, £10/750ml, littlepomona.com
Released in rolling seasonal batches, this is designed to be drunk with food and you can expect juicy fruitiness, a little funk and pleasing tannins – natural wine lovers will have a particular affinity with this. Listen to Little Pomona founder Susanna Forbes chat all things cider on the olive magazine podcast.
The Newt in Somerset The Winston Sparkling Cyder, £35/568ml, shop.thenewtinsomerset.com
Packaged in an imperial pint bottle in honour of Winston Churchill’s fondness for the same-sized bottles of champagne, The Winston is a rather classy cider. Made using the traditional method (like champers) and matured for two years, it has delicate mousse, crisp green apple notes and refined dryness. Drink as you would a glass of fizz (it’s got a similar ABV of 11.5%) – this would make a fine aperitif. Keep an eye out also for the Newt’s excellent Fine Rosé Cyder. Released every summer, it’s made with crimson Red Love apples that tinge the cider a pretty blush pink. With delicious strawberries and cream notes, it’s the perfect warm weather tipple.
Sandford Orchards Katja Prosecco-Style Cider, £54/six x 750ml bottles, sandfordorchards.co.uk
A fresh and elegant fizzy single-variety cider made from Katja dessert apples, with summery green apple and strawberry notes.
Pilton Somerset Keeved Cider, £3.99/330ml, piltoncider.com
Made using a traditional method of naturally sweetening cider called keeving, this elegant, toffee-hued cider has lusciously mellow, stewed apple flavours. Would be delicious with a cheeseboard.
Learn more about cider…
Founder of The Fine Cider Company, Felix Nash, deep-dives into cider, including the history of the drink, the perfect cider season and the ultimate pairing with food.
What is the origin of cider?
Just as there’s a garden in New South Wales that has the first Granny Smith apple tree, and a garden in Nottinghamshire that has the first Bramley, all domesticated apples can be traced back to the apple forests of the Tien Shan mountains in Kazakhstan.
The fruit from these forests was carried along the Silk Road and into Europe. In the 17th and 18th centuries apple juice became prized by the English gentry and was used to make fine ciders. As John Evelyn, a diarist of the time and a peer of Samuel Pepys’ said, cider was “the native English wine”.
It was drunk from cider flutes, decoratively etched and engraved, and the best vintages could fetch 60 times the price of common cider. There were even blind wagers, pitching the finest ciders against the best wines available, in which cider often won.
What is the best season for cider making?
The cider-making process begins in spring, with blossom season. After the blossom is pollinated the fruit grows and basks in the summer sun and ripens through autumn and winter.
The apples are then pressed for their juice, which becomes cider over the winter months. As the weather varies year to year, so do the apples, and each season’s cider is slightly different in the same way that vintages of wine are different.
What type of apples are used to make cider?
Today there are known to be over 7,000 apple varieties in the world and many 100s if not 1000s of them are cider apples
These varieties are not good for eating or cooking, but are perfect for cider-making. Just as the small array of apples we know from the supermarket are named, so cider apples have names such as Foxwhelp, Dabinett, and Yarlington Mill.
They’re like wine grapes, each with its own character.
Some are acidic, others mellow, some wonderfully tannic.
What are the different types of cider?
There are many different styles of cider: still and sparkling, dry and sweet. Often the method of production in a certain region has arisen from the properties of the local apple varieties. Where fine cider is concerned, sparkling will be naturally sparkling rather than carbonated.
The methods to make cider sparkle naturally go back to the 17th century, before even champagne, when the first glass was created that could take the pressure that sparkling drinks exert on a bottle.
It was invented in western Britain and the French titled it ‘verre Anglais’. Aristocrats then began to experiment with making cider and wine sparkle, using cork from Portugal to seal bottles.
What is pear cider?
The true name for pear cider is perry. And just as there are apples for making cider, there are pears for making perry, for example Thorn and Blakeney Red.
Perry pear trees can be over 200 years old and the perry from their fruit exquisite: it was once called the ‘English champagne’ by Napoleon.
What to serve with cider?
Cider pairs with food perhaps better than any other drink. The marriage of its succulent acidity with the fats in pork is well known, but the same rules apply to a wealth of combinations: cider and cheese, cured meats, shellfish, even game.
I like to drink ciders as though they’re summer wines. Being lower in alcohol, they are wonderful with lunch and into the afternoon. They’re made slowly and should be enjoyed slowly.
For the perfect pour, chill them, but remove them from the fridge 5-10 minutes before drinking, as you will lose taste if they’re too cold. And never use ice, as this will simply water-down the taste.