Identity Crisis

Emma from Blue Barrel Cider finds herself pondering Blue Barrel’s identity and questions what is it that gives cider its identity.


Cider making differs across the board from large national commercial ciders through to smaller full juice craft cider producers, the latter of which we fall into.
But even with these broad categories cider takes on a very different journey from producer to producer.
With some, like ourselves it’s very hands on seasonal work, orchard focused, hand picking fruit, doing everything from pressing through to bottling & finally getting it on the shelves.
For others it’s a business venture where its not uncommon that the person heading it has even stepped into an orchard let alone been involved in the pressing. Cider juice can be bought via phone call from the other side of the country, then sent to a contract bottle company before being sold through cider distributors. One cider producer proudly told Leo they no longer even needed to touch an apple due to their investment in some new automated efficient on-site mechanisation.
Where am I going with this?
Despite my personal bewilderment to the concept of making cider and having little or no contact with an actual apple, I can’t dispute that the final product, no matter what it’s journey is still cider in some format. It may vary in juice content but ultimately it is a product made of fermented apple juice.
So what is it that gives cider its unique identity?

Apples, Terroir & Climate

Picking local fruit and fermenting it to cider is about as sustainable and local as you can get and is certainly the main USP for producers like Ross on Wye who harvest fruit from their family orchard or Artistraw Cider who hand pick from their own and other traditional standard orchards nearby.


Terroir has a huge influence on a cider’s identity. Apples of the same variety can vary in flavour even if planted on different sides of an orchard. Minerality of the soils as well as climatic factors such as frost pockets & south facing slopes, down to the age of the trees, & the length of the tap root, all these impact on the final profile of the cider.
So if we continue to pick apples from 2 sites, 2 hours apart, to produce a cider using Nottingham apples to sell to our Nottingham customers and pick and press apples from Oakington to produce cider sell to customers in Cambridgeshire.
Are we East Anglian or East Midlands cider makers?
It’s not uncommon for producers to use apples & juice from outside their vicinity. Some producers buy in surplus juice from the West country to make up their annual supply, others have access to orchards from further afield which they travel to annually for the apple harvest.
DuckChicken make great cider using hand picked fruit they harvest from orchards in nearby counties, which they bring back and press & ferment in London.
Picking fruit across different regions doesn’t just happen in the cider world, wine is often made using grapes from multiple regions. Take Chardonnay wine, despite originating in the Burgundy region of Eastern France, Chardonnay is now made across the globe from England to Australia. A Chardonnay’s flavour profile can differ from a fresh light wine when grown in cooler countries to an oily, fragrant, golden wine if grown in a warmer climate.
The same can be said for cider. We have seen an upsurge of small cider producers outside the traditional cider making region of the three counties from the highlands of Scotland to the sandy shores of Cornwall which has resulted in a recent rise of traditional cider orchards being planted across the UK. Cider apples planted in the Highlands of Scotland will undoubtedly produce a different cider to those planted in the dry warmer regions of Cambridgeshire for instance.
New producers are often choosing the tannic driven heritage apple varieties often associated with traditional cider counties to create what used to be described as a ‘west country’ cider style. We have also seen the rise of acid led cider styles using desert fruit which we know as Eastern style ciders. Nightingale is testament to this, as one of the leading new cider brands creating award winning cider using local desert fruit from their family farm.
Like wine the provenance of the apples is often placed at the forefront when selling a brand. Dunkertons, for instance still proudly state on their labels that their cider is ‘Founded in Herefordshire’ despite moving their operations to Gloucestershire.
If it’s not just about where the fruit originated...
Is it where it spends its final journey? 

Fermentation & beyond

The One Juice experiment which took place last year, where 5 prominent UK producers took the same juice and fermented it back at their cidery resulted in dramatically different results. Ciders not only pick up natural yeasts from the surrounding environment which can contribute to the final flavour, but how the cider is stored and fermented will differ from maker to maker. Whether it be oak barrels, wild or cultivated yeast, pet nat, keeved, bottle conditioned, there’s a multitude of ways cider is created which gives it it’s unique character. 5 ciders created from the same juice from one barrel, fermented in different ways in different locations
to create 5 different results, highlights that using the same apples from the same terroir can produce
5 different ciders.
 The fact that 3 of these producers wild fermented their cider in wooden barrels, 
yet still created 3 very different ciders, brings me to my final point.

The cider maker

The ciders mentioned above were all made by passionate highly skilled cider makers who all used different techniques to create a delicious cider. What made them unique were the planned interventions or planned lack of intervention made by the different personalities involved.
Whether it was left to wild ferment or had the addition of Brettanomyces yeast, whether it was stored in Rum, Islay or ‘Blue Oak’ casks or whether it was keeved, bottle conditioned or pasteurised. All these elements, all these decisions taken by the maker at various stages of the fermentation process imparted a change to that juice which gave it it’s final identity.
I started this article as a cathartic process to help me sort out our own cider identity.
Our orchard won’t be making 7000 litres for some years and there’s little doubt we will be continuing to return to Nottingham to collect apples and wild pears which we have been harvesting for 10 yrs + because quite frankly it’s a great source of abundant free fruit that would otherwise go to waste!
So are we rural or urban, Nottinghamshire or Cambridgeshire cidermakers?

Whatever our label I’d say that cider is a reflection of the people who make it. It’s the individual story & passion which goes into it and creates the final product.
Our ethos has always  been to use apples that would otherwise go to waste & we now have the added luxury of our own cider orchard which we grafted and planted from scratch.
What goes behind our cider is not just a drink, it’s a way of life.
For us it’s the seasonality of this lifestyle: the grafting, planting & managing trees, the orchard management & creation of  wildlife habitats, its rescuing surplus fruit, handpicking apples at harvest, volunteers & community pressing days, it’s the cider making decisions from barrel choices, wild ferments, added yeasts and all the myriad of blending options, the sampling, tasting & sharing & finally its being part of the wonderful cider community.
I often reminisce how we accidently fell into cider making, that chance day when we decided to host a community apple day & ended up with all that juice.
Now I can’t imagine doing anything else.