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From Long Meadow to Bramleys: Irish ciders are a piece of art, yet not popular enough among Indian folklore

Cider can never really be high on alcohol because apples, even at their sweetest, are low in sugar.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Oct 06, 2019, 09.00 AM IST
apple cidar_agencies
Cider is not high on alcohol because apples, even at their sweetest, are low in sugar
Armagh, Northern Ireland’s famous orchard country, is experiencing what is locally called an “Indian Summer”. It is one of those rare autumn days when it has not rained, the sky is a bright blue and there is a mild nip in the air through a warm day.

We have driven into the salubrious countryside just outside Belfast, where the smell of apples is all around. It is harvest time in Armagh, one of the world’s most prominent apple-growing regions. The farms are open to guests and many offer freshly-baked apple pies and refreshing sips of cider before curious tourists go walking beneath the apple trees, escorted by farmers.

We do just that at Long Meadow, producer of one of Armagh’s most famous artisan ciders. Owner Pat McKeever shows us his plantings and the tart green Bramley apples that still hang low on the branches waiting to be picked, pressed and stored. The juice will ferment over long winter months to give fresh, high on acidity, dry but also fruity cider.

Long Meadow makes several types of cider from different varieties of apples it grows — Sweet Katy, Worcester, Golden Delicious, but also the Bramley apple that is the star. Seven years ago, the Bramley from Armagh won the PGI (protected geographical indication) status enjoyed by other celebrated food and drink items such as the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, which must originate from a certain region and follow strict production methods.

The Bramleys go into the best Irish cider—the apple’s sharp and tart taste does not make it too suitable for eating. There are 140 producers in Armagh who grow roughly 40,000 tonnes of Bramleys, much of which goes into mass produced cider but some into highly sought after artisan ones.

Apple cider1
Irish folklore has that the first apple tree in the northern climes was planted by Saint Patrick, who brought Christianity to the region.

At Long Meadow, these ciders range from those with smooth and mellow taste to sharp and refreshing, ones mulled with spices, as also a limited edition production that I taste where the cider is aged in oak for about a year to allow for a complex, dry yet refreshing finish. The apple is not overpowered by the oak. Artisan ciders such as this are works of art.

Traditional Drink
Autumn may be largely associated with beer festivals such as Oktoberfest, which ends on the first Sunday of October in Bavaria, and was once appropriated by the Nazis as a Greater German folk festival. However, in many parts of Europe and America, it is cider that is the more traditional drink.

When the Romans invaded England in 55 BC, they found cider already being produced by locals there, writes Amy Stewart in her book The Drunken Botanist on plants that go into liquors. The wild apple tree that originated in central Asia had already reached Europe.

Irish folklore has that the first apple tree in the northern climes was planted by Saint Patrick, who brought Christianity to the region.

cider 2
Much of the artisan cider made 100% from apples without additives is not very sweet either.

All through literature and music, not to mention religion, we see the apple celebrated as a fruit of love and knowledge. Eve’s temptation notwithstanding, there is stunning poetry around it too, including WB Yeat’s memorable lines from The Song of Wandering Aengus:

“And walk among long dappled grass, And pluck till time and times are done, The silver apples of the moon, The golden apples of the sun”

Lately, tradition has got trendy too. In the US and the UK, where sales of many liquor categories are falling or stagnant given that millennial consumers do not seem to binge-drink like their parents, the cult of cider is growing. In the US, the cider market grew more than 8% in 2018, to reach $500 million dollars over the previous year, according to a report by market researcher Nielsen.

One reason is that cider is low on alcohol, and its fresh taste cuts across gender and age. Cider can never really be high on alcohol because apples, even at their sweetest, are low in sugar. Yeast converts sugar into alcohol. The alcohol content in cider thus is just 4-6% alcohol, making it the perfect thirst quencher for grownups on a warm day.

Much of the artisan cider made 100% from apples without additives is not very sweet either. Large producers sometimes add extra sugar and yeast for a second fermentation (that also gives the drink bubbles in some versions) but reputed artisan producers avoid this.

“Do you have cider in India?” Long Meadow’s Pat McKeever asks me. “Not really”, I tell him. “Good heavens! Then what do you do with apples?” he asks, puzzled.

India seems to have not taken to cider as yet — there are a few imported ones but there is little tradition of fermenting juice in most apple growing regions of the country. With global tastes shifting, however, this could be one way of dealing with surplus production and allowing farmers the benefit of a higher-value end product.

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Farmer Sneh Yadav of Tijara Organic Farm, the driving force behind the Delhi Organic Farmers’ Market that showcased 28 varieties of apples in September as part of an apple festival, agrees that cider could be an attractive commodity.

“Food processing facilities are urgently needed to prevent wastage since we cannot store products for a long time and vegetables and fruits like apple lose flavour after a while even in cold storage,” she says. “Traditionally, we store apples in the form of jams, dry apples and juice but we have to make other attractive items like cider with changing tastes of younger consumers. Besides, there are health benefits to fermented products like cider.”

India may or may not take to cider but on your next travel abroad, you can try a sip or two of the drink.

(The writer looks at restaurants, food trends and culinary concepts)
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