Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
As I’ve immersed myself into the UK beer industry over the past eight months I’ve benefitted from having a much better perspective of what’s happening both within and around it. An advantage of this is being able to observe beer’s neighbouring food and drink industries, be it coffee, spirits or street food, for example.
One part of the drinks industry that has slowly begun to fascinate me is cider. I’ve tried some very good ciders over the last few months and this has made me wonder why cider isn’t witnessing the same boom as craft beer is right now. Simply put, where all the craft ciders at?
Currently, for me at least, the UK cider market seems to be firmly divided into two separate categories. The first is the fizzy, ubiquitous, mass-market cider that dominates this sector. Products such as Strongbow and Kopparberg are a mainstay in this category, but brands that have arrived more recently such as Orchard Pig fall on this side of the fence for me too.
On the other hand you have, for want of a better term, “real cider”. These are the often cloudy, sometimes strong ciders championed by CAMRA, which are usually seen at beer festivals and in pubs either on handpull or poured directly from a plastic bladder inside a cardboard box. From my perspective the public tends to treat these ciders with caution, often referring to them affectionately as “scrumpy.” They are only really appreciated by hardcore cider enthusiasts.
These ciders are often strong, a have a reputation for getting you very drunk and then causing a ferocious hangover. However some of the ciders in this category are anything but, they are some of the most elegant and delicious ciders you’ll try in fact. Ciders from the likes of Tom Oliver, a man with such a reputation that he pretty much inspired the cider revolution happening in the US almost single handedly. However, when faced with an Oliver’s cider at the bar it does little to distinguish itself from others that could quite well be rocket fuel masquerading as a tasty beverage.
"I'm not worried that cider isn't where beer is right now, because it's coming." - James Galbraith, Cidre L'Atypique
Simply put cider this good deserves better. There needs to be more British cider that takes itself seriously in terms of both flavour and the way in which it presents itself. By carving out space in the market this way, craft beer managed to separate itself from the mass-market lagers and traditional real ales by both tasting and looking different. I’m surprised that cider hasn’t carved a similar niche yet.
That’s where new British brand Cidre L’Atypique comes in. This brand was the brainchild of James Galbraith, who I met for the first time back in the summer of 2015. He was eager to talk to me about L’Atypique, his new cider brand that he was beginning to launch in the UK – his first customers all pretty much being craft beer bars and bottle shops. Shops that didn’t really have a cider offering that was equal to the beers they stocked.
“I'm not worried that cider isn't where beer is right now, because it's coming,” Galbraith says. “I don't necessarily think it's being "held back", it's just a case of giving it the time and space to be right.”
Galbraith, whose background is in the bar and restaurant industry, never intentionally meant to get into the cider business, but like many things in the drinks industry it just sort of… happened. While on holiday in Normandy, in the north of France around eight years ago, James discovered he was staying near a local cider producer, or cidricole. Galbraith went for a walk and discovered a 150 year old, fifth generation cider producer and it was here he had his first cider epiphany.
“I've had two cider "moments" in my life, where I've tasted something so good that things can never be the same again, this was the first,” Galbraith recalls. “I waited a few years before I did absolutely anything about it, then in 2013 I started bringing it over as a hobby and seeing who would be interested in trying it.”
But for Galbraith it wasn’t as simple as just bringing it over. There is already a healthy offering of imported French ciders in the UK, so he had to make it stand out, and that’s where he created the L’Atypique brand, which is simply French for “atypical.” Galbraith dispelled the traditional French imagery used by the cidricole he'd discovered and redesigned the packaging for the corked and caged 750ml bottles using strong, modern typography. He even threw in the word “craft.” And if beer has been taking advantage of being craft for so long, well why shouldn’t cider join in?
“Nothing is engineered about L'Atypique. The fruit is organic, the processes are completely natural, there's no sugar added.” Galbraith says of the brand. “It's not in a cork and cage 750ml to make it look fancy, that's just how it's done and how it has always been done.”
"The quality of cider that's being produced in America is staggering." - James Galbraith, Cidre L'Atypique
L’Atypique certainly doesn’t look like a typical UK cider brand, or even a French one. When I first saw it I immediately thought that this could be the point of difference that British cider is missing. The product stands up too, the champagne like “pop” of the cork adding ceremony before Galbraith pours the highly effervescent liquid into simple tumblers, instantly dismissing that initial ceremony.
The range is split into two categories, with a more “rough and ready” cider and perry, matched with the “reserve series” that have been bottle refermented using a method that adds a slightly more luxurious, champagne-like feel to the carbonation. There’s even a rosé version of the reserve press, which uses beetroot to add a hint of blush without imparting a great deal of extra flavour.
After a few sips of each of the variants I immediately realise that the perry does very little for me, but the cider impresses. The taste is less of apple juice but more of the tartness of fresh, green apple skins with the unmistakable wet hay characteristics from the yeast. If this was beer, you wouldn’t hesitate to refer to it as a farmhouse ale.
The reserve and the reserve rosé are more refined and champagne-like but I keep finding myself drawn back to the regular cider, with its funky, barnyard quality. It’s refined and yet still has a knees-in-the-mud rawness that gives it depth and character. And with all of them at only around 4.5% alcohol you can confidently enjoy a whole bottle to yourself and still have your wits about you to afterwards. It does, of course, also taste better when shared.
L’Atypique reminds me of the “hard cider” movement I’m seeing in the US at the moment. Ciders that have just a little more edge and elegance from the likes of Oregon’s E.Z. Orchards or the Ciderhouse collection from New York State’s Angry Orchard.
In fact it was in the US where Galbraith had his next “cider moment.”
“The quality of cider that's being produced in America is staggering and I think there's so much to be learned from them,” Galbraith says. “What struck me most was they seem to be completely unattached from any form of tradition.”
Perhaps it’s this sense of tradition that’s holding us back in the UK. It feels like we’re only two or three great brands away from cider taking its place alongside craft beer. The products are already there, they can just do a much better job at marketing themselves than say, sticking it in a plastic bladder inside a cardboard box. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with this, traditional cider and the way its presented will always have it’s place, just like cask ale. What I’m saying is that the consumer simply deserves that extra choice.
As for Galbraith, he’s just taking it one step at a time. “The more we show people what a quality cider can be the more quality cider we can sell… Then the sky's the limit.”