These are really exciting times for the UK drink industry and it’s the artisans we have to thank.
There was a time not too many years ago when the word “artisan” in the food industry almost became a victim of its own success in the UK and America, through its over-use. Timothy Egan, in The New York Times (2013), voted ‘artisan’ as the “most annoying” word, calling for its retirement; not surprisingly, it had been hijacked by “all the wrong people selling all the wrong products”. I have to confess to cringing on a few occasions in the noughties here in the UK because I felt the word was batted about too often and this seemed to devalue it somehow. Around the same time, the food and drink magazine ‘Artisan’ changed its name to Fine Food Digest, which I found interesting. The dust has settled a little now since those contentious times, thank goodness.
In all though, the etymology of the word is irrelevant to me, because my focus is on the artisans (in this case, drink producers) themselves who have had the courage to turn their passion for their product into a way of life, whether a craft cider, beer, spirit or wine.
For those of us who are lucky enough to taste the difference and hear the artisan’s story, this heady amalgamation of sensory experience is hard to resist. It’s not solely about the product and its taste, it’s about the whole “package” (and I don’t mean the packaging). The word consumption doesn’t apply here because the product is not a resource, it is special. We have searched for, and discovered, it. We want to connect with it in some way— to understand something of its ‘roots’, its evolution and its maker/s; and to value it for its uniqueness. Though it may be too nice to share, this won’t stop us from telling our friends and followers all about it.
Our thirst for artisan drink is something even the big supermarkets are having to respond to, as Simon Cairns, the Head Drinks Buyer of the Co-operative Group confirms:
“People are … really engaged. They’re looking for products which are more distinctive, more interesting. We’re seeing this trend in terms of products which have more provenance or have an artisan background and that’s great for us [UK drinks industry] as an industry … and more exciting for us.” (BBC Breakfast 20/12/2016)
So, who are these artisans? Well, let me introduce you to one I met recently …
Polly — Find & Foster Fine Ciders, Devon
Polly’s journey began in Tuscany on a study tour about adding value to produce. She had just quit her job as a Technical Assistant in Agriculture because being in an office stifled her. On the tour Polly got interested in traditional orchards through chatting to a tour-member from Herefordshire. On her return to the UK, she became interested in The People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) who recognise what wildlife havens traditional orchards are. PTES report that we have lost 90% of traditional orchards since the 1950s, but what Polly discovered in her local area inspired her.
“There were lots of amazing old orchards close to me,” she says. “I started researching the different apple varieties and this is really important for genetic variation – something I became interested in through my postgraduate studies. It is about not letting the old trees die out.”
From orchard surveys PTES have assessed to date, 46% of traditional orchards in England are in poor condition. This is something Polly observed first-hand and she believes it is probably a symptom of the perception that there is no way of making them economically viable.
With her passion for sustainable agriculture, her love of being outside in orchards and a desire to do something fun, Polly started to research ways of utilising apples from traditional orchards around her and preserving these special habitats. She approached the owners of four orchards nearby and offered to maintain their orchards in return for their apples, and so began ‘Find & Foster’.
Rather than making traditional cider, it was the naturally sweet sparkling cider known as keeved cider which really sparked Polly’s enthusiasm.
Keeving cider is perceived as a difficult process, so much so that one cider guru advised Polly to abandon the idea. The process is very reliant on late reason fully ripened apples with certain characteristics, low and sustained temperatures, and very slow fermentation. The outcome is either success or failure, but Polly was undeterred and unfazed, having done the research and through utilising her agri-science background and chemistry knowledge. She knew she was working with the right apples.
“The kind of apples you find in old Devon orchards,” she explains, “are the exact apples you need for keeved cider. They are interesting varieties, with no chemicals near them [traditional orchards aren’t sprayed with fertilisers or pesticides] so they are nicer quality, and their low nutrients [due to no fertiliser being used] make them ideal for the slow fermentation which keeving requires.”
Polly is really pleased with the results. She describes her keeved cider as,
“…naturally apply and sweet because it retains all the natural apple sugars. It’s also gives really complex flavours of yeasty earthiness because you have to use wild yeasts.”
Apples aren’t a collective to Polly. It is as if each one is a wonder of nature to her. She handles them great care and is keen to explain their unique traits. She loves the pineapple taste of one particular variety and goes on to explain all about aromatic compounds. The fact that some apples are as yet unidentified in terms of variety doesn’t deter her as she knows whether they are suitable for keeved cider through their taste, aroma, sugar and acidity.
The main challenge for Polly will be the word ‘keeved’ itself, which means little, if nothing at all, to most consumers. She wants keeved cider to catch on in the same way that pét-nat (pétillant naturel, described by Swig artisan wine importers as ‘Champagne’s cool-kid, naughty sister’) wine is. Pét-nat has a small but devoted fan-base and can be served by the glass in select wine bars in London. Polly and her friends love it because each bottle is totally unpredictable. It is bottled while still fermenting, which keeved cider can also be.
“It’s fun,” she says, “when you open a bottle you don’t know what to expect. You don’t know how fizzy it is going to be or how long fermentation took in the bottle.”
Polly is a minority, as there are very few cider producers in the UK making keeved cider. Somerset’s Pilton Cider, Worley’s Cider, and Gregg’s Pit Cider & Perry are three good examples. Keeved cider is rarely given media attention probably because of its scarcity, although many months ago it was great to hear Pilton’s keeved cider getting a glowing mention by food journalist Nigel Barden on Simon Mayo’s Drive time on BBC2.
So, we watch this space with keen interest and are routing for Polly and all the artisans who are making a very distinctive impression on the UK drink industry.
As for us, the consumers, whatever we are craving, whether aspiration, inspiration or sensory perfection, we are thirsty for more of these artisan drinks. True, we don’t really see the hard graft and sleepless nights of artisans, but maybe that doesn’t really matter though, because we get to taste the best bits and join the journey!
Polly has sold out of all of her 2015 keeved cider through farmers markets and apple days, however, Polly’s 2016 keeved cider will be released in Autumn 2017. You can follow Find & Foster Fine Ciders on Twitter and Instagram
If you are an artisan cider maker who makes and sells keeved cider in the UK, please let me know and I will mention you in this post. [Our keeving kit stocks will be topped up ready for the 2017 apple harvest.]
From the team at Vigo Ltd