It'll be apples: how the cider industry finally got real

Go back a decade and if you'd said cider was your favourite tipple, it's doubtful you'd have been referring to a drink that began life in an orchard.

Mass-produced alcoholic cider has long been a part of the Australian drinker's repertoire, but mainstream interest in 'real cider' made simply using local apples is a relatively new phenomenon.

The latest to join the party is one of Australia's most successful independent brewers, Stone & Wood, which has launched Granite Belt Cider Company. Its debut product is Treehouse Cider, which cider maker Luke Rutland says is "refreshing and clean with a medium dry finish".

Granite Belt will exclusively use apples from Queensland's namesake apple-growing region, just across the border from Stone & Wood's base in New South Wales' Northern Rivers.

Apples and apples

"In Australia there's a strong artisanal cider sub-market emerging," says Stone & Wood co-founder Jamie Cook.

"A lot of them are regional, provenance is part of their story and that's what we're aiming to do with Granite Belt."

As with most of the real ciders currently on the market, Treehouse is produced using 'table apples', many of the same varieties you'll find in your local supermarket.

But Australian cider makers are increasingly experimenting with 'cider apples', which, while unsuitable for eating, are ideal for blending to create a more complex style of cider.

The trend was in evidence at the Australian Cider Awards in September, when Willie Smith's of Tasmania won Best in Show with a limited edition cider called '18 Varieties', made using exclusively cider apples.

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Willie Smith's began grafting cider apples in its Huon Valley orchard about three years ago, according to co-founder Sam Reid, who predicts a big future for ciders made using these varieties.

"Over the next few years I'd expect to see more and more products made from cider apples come on to the marketplace. For me, that's where the real fun begins," he says.

Reid says ciders made using only table apples will always be bit one dimensional in nature.

"A lot of the cider out there at the moment is a bit like lager, to put it in beer terminology," he says.

On the table

In the Adelaide Hills, Hills Cider Company has begun grafting several varieties of cider apples, which co-founder Steve Dorman says offer tannin structures and astringency that table apples generally cannot.

But he says a skilful cider maker can blend different table apples to create ciders that are complete, with a front, mid and back palate.

"You can then use cider making techniques such as barrel ageing to try and extract some of those tannin components out of the oak that you would normally get from the apple," he says.

Behn Payten, of Yarra Valley's Napoleone Cider, argues that table apples deliver a product that is authentically Australian.

"All the varieties we use are table apples, but a lot of them actually have been developed in Australia for our conditions," he says.

"The ciders that we are making are quite different to any other style on the world stage. We've been surprised by the reception our ciders have been getting in overseas markets - because they are different, because they are more approachable."

Complex flavours

Whether table apples or cider apples, what is undeniable is that Australian tastes are evolving to embrace drier and more challenging styles of cider.

"The more you drink cider the more you move away from sweeter, 'lolly water' styles and the more you want something a bit more complex, and generally complexity means a bit drier as well," says Willie Smith's Reid.

"What's been amazing to me is, we've started to see people respond to our Bone Dry cider, which probably a year or two ago, people never would have. People's palates are evolving, which is giving me great hope."

Aside from varietal exploration, cider makers are becoming emboldened to experiment in other ways.

Last year, Willie Smith's released a 9.9 per cent ABV cider that had been aged for seven months in whisky barrels sourced from Tasmania's Lark Distillery. It was likely Australia's most expensive cider to date, with a $60 price tag.

Fine bubbles 

And Hills Cider Company recently bottled a cider called Hop Edition, the country's first hopped cider, which Dorman likens to an India Pale Ale beer, with the tenderness and roundness of an apple cider on the back palate.

Willie Smith's Reid, who is also president of industry body Cider Australia, predicts continued innovation as well as the growth of styles like methode traditionelle, where cider is produced using the same techniques as champagne.

"I think it's a really interesting way to drink cider, you get the nice fine mousse associated with it," he says.

"It's generally a lot more delicate but something to be savoured and enjoyed in wine glasses. It's more like a champagne occasion, which is great for the growth of cider as well."