With nothing added but time, after 5,000 years, cider says summer like nothing else
Published 14/05/2016 | 02:30
Henry James surely caught it just right, when he remarked: "Summer afternoon - to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language." As Ireland bathed in the unexpected glow of prolonged sunshine yesterday, it was a sentiment found in full flight everywhere from park benches to rooftop spaces and busy beaches.
Every Irish person has their own distinct vision of the perfect sunny day - a time and place that best sums up the joy of easy living. For many, it's that evening drink outside a seaside pub, anywhere from Bundoran to Tramore and Skerries to Dingle, watching sailboats framed in the setting sun. And as for the ideal potion to accompany this flawless scene, cider is increasingly the tipple that says summertime like nothing else. All around the country this weekend, gallons of this amber nectar will be quaffed as we clink glasses and hope for more: "Without a doubt, 2016 will be a cracking good summer."
Not so long ago, cider suffered from a definite downbeat image, seen as a cheap alcoholic option in garish aluminium cans or over-sized plastic flagon bottles. Back in my boarding school days, we called it 'jungle juice' and tapped our cigarette ash into it on the fallacy of generating extra potency. How I managed to pass the Leaving Cert remains a mystery to this day. The sea change for cider came with those seductive TV adverts from Bulmers in the early 2000s, showing beautiful people partying happily outside gorgeous country pubs, resulting in a rocketing sales graph.
Marketing people called it the 'cider over ice effect', as pressed apples in a glass suddenly became the hipsters' favourite accessory. Ireland consumes more cider per capita than anywhere in the world - an encouraging statistic that prompted Corkman Daniel Emerson to establish Stonewell Cider six years ago.
Leading the craft rebirth of this ancient potion with an old French cider press and apple mill donated by his father-in-law, Daniel's first foray into the brewing game used local apples from an orchard at Nohoval, near Kinsale.
"When we started in 2010, there was really only Bulmers out there, and we saw an opportunity to bring a high-quality alternative to the market," he explained. "Around the same time, the public began looking at the provenance of the product, how it was made and where it came from - all of which was certainly novel in the cider field. In a way, the recession helped us, in that adversity was the mother of invention because many bars and restaurants were looking for a product to differentiate themselves during a time of very difficult trading conditions."
The fact that Stonewell wasn't a run-of-the-mill product found in every bar helped create a mystique and momentum, added to by an enthusiastic social media following. "Plugging into the Irish foodie circle on the Twittersphere and new media was a crucial part of getting us established," he adds.
Stonewell Cider is now the largest artisan drinks maker in the country, having grown from producing 6,000 litres in its first year to well over 300,000 today. Along the way, it's picked up a hatful of awards, including the National Irish Food Awards, the Food Writers' Guild, and the UK's Guild of Fine Food's Great Taste Awards, which declared it 'exquisite'. Stonewell is now flying the Irish craft-brewing flag in Asia, Estonia, Canada and across the EU. With restaurants in 2016 increasingly offering a craft beer list dedicated to accompany menu specialities, Stonewell now produces five cider varieties.
"We have three classics - medium, dry and low alcohol. The other two are extremely specialist: a 15pc tawny, like a cider port, and a sparkling prestige, designed as an effervescent alternative," Danny said.
Cider has come a long way over the last decade to become a far more versatile drink with a much greater variety of flavours, he says.
"It is no longer something sugary and sweet that comes out of a tap. Cider is now a very sophisticated drink created in many different guises from the humble apple."
Ever since the Romans discovered the joys of fermented apple juice in the Britain of 55BC, everyone from Julius Caesar to Shakespeare and Napoleon has enjoyed a snifter of scrumpy after a hard day's writing or warring.
It travelled to America with the pilgrims on board the Mayflower, and went on to become a regular fixture on White House menus during the presidencies of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
In Ireland, our love affair probably pre-dates most civilisations, with pips from the wild crab apple, Malus Sylvestris, unearthed at an archaeological excavation in Meath and carbon dated back 5,000 years.
The fruit of the apple tree is recorded in Celtic mythology as a symbol of rebirth and youth. Little wonder the Brehon Laws of the 7th and 8th centuries designated it among the 'seven nobles of the woods' in the company of ash, oak, hazel, holly, Scots pine and yew.
The fine for cutting down an apple tree was five milk cows in those ancient times - a truly princely sum that underlined its importance. So, later today or tomorrow, as you linger in the sun outside your favourite local, and somebody asks, "What'll you have?", pause a moment and think of that humble apple and the long, historic journey it made to reach your glass. Sláinte.