Lion’s win as Champion Brewer raised debate and eyebrows last month.
Lion won with four gold medals, including one for 'Fruit or Flavoured Cider or Perry’, won by Isaacs Berry Cider. Cider makers questioned the medal going to a bulk cider made with concentrate and fruit flavouring. Brewers questioned whether cider should be there at all.
This isn’t the first time Guild members have questioned the relevance of cider to the Guild’s awards. Some brewers argue cider is fundamentally different to beer. Other brewers happily make cider and say it is a valid part of our drinking tradition.
Guild President Emma McCashin, of McCashin’s Brewery, makes beer and cider. Speaking on behalf of McCashin’s, rather than the Guild, she explains why cider is in the Awards:
“Back in 2011, Justin Hall from Redwood Cider and I made a submission to the Guild executive that cider should be included in the Guild Awards. Needless to say, there was some rigorous debate over the issue, including whether cider was in fact 'brewed’. In the end the exec said if we could find a sponsor to cover the costs, and help find suitably qualified judges, they would add it to the awards. And it has been part of the awards since then.”
Beertown surveyed brewers and cider makers on the issue. The responses fell into three groups: No! (typically from brewers); Yes! (from brewers who make cider too); and Maybe! (from cider makers).
“You can’t be called a champion brewer if a cider makes up one of your gold medals. Cider is not beer and these are the Brewers Guild awards”: Mike Neilson, Panhead.
Mike has a definite interest in the matter – Panhead was runner up to Lion for Champion Brewer, and all four of Panhead’s gold medals were for beer, against Lion’s three beers and one cider. So did he hold this opinion a couple of months ago?
“Yes, I always have.”
Doug Donelan, of New Zealand Hops, has long challenged cider’s part in the Guild. “I have made cider, drink cider, reviewed it and been published on it. I do have a couple of beefs with it though, firstly it’s not brewed and secondly it rides on the coat tails of beer, pretty simple.”
Many craft brewers include cider in their range, and say cider is a traditional part of beer culture.
“The skills, knowledge and equipment needed to brew beer and cider are similar so there is a lot of crossover. And of course we were a cidery before we became a brewery. If I look at the Nelson breweries, the majority of these make cider as well as beer” – Emma McCashin.
“I’ve been making cider for 20 years, it’s always been part of who I am. I started making cider, then I started making beer and it all started to fit together,” says Invercargill Brewery’s Steve Nally.
“Overall I think it’s a good fit with the beer. You drink it like beer, the history of cider making is very artisanal, and there’s a lot of history behind cider which was very similar to beer.”
Bach Brewing’s Craig Cooper says craft cider is hard to find in New Zealand, where cheaper ciders made with concentrated apple juice predominate. He believes competition is one way to recognise and promote traditional ciders.
“The cider market here in New Zealand has developed at the entry-level, very sugary-sweet manufactured cider, and there hasn’t been much development at the real cider end. Anything that challenges people to do it better is good, and competition does lead that. I don’t think the cider category should be killed within the awards, I just think there’s ways to make it better and the more craft cider that’s out there the better.”
Specialist cider makers have mixed feelings about the Guild Awards. Some share the concerns about concentrate-based ciders dominating, and others question the quality of the judging. But several enter the Guild awards, accept the medals, and appreciate the publicity.
“It’s an awkward relationship”, says Paynter’s Cider’s Paul Paynter. “You’ve got a brewed product versus a fermented one, but the big brewers are the kings. You’ve got DB, Lion and lots of other people playing around with cider, so it makes a lot of sense they include it their industry body, even though it’s an unnatural fit.
“One of the challenges with the Brewers Guild awards, and cider makers talk about this quite a bit, is they get the tasting notes back and they are bemused by the comments from beer judges. The comments on the judging sheets can be a little quirky. There’s some challenges getting the judging right for sure.”
Alex Peckham, of Peckham's Cider, agrees that the Brewers Guild awards often rate concentrate ciders as better than real fruit cider.
“We don’t enter our ciders into the Brewers Guild awards, because cider is not beer (it should be treated more like a wine) and the cider part of the awards have seemed to us very random, with low juice, industrially concocted, chemically enhanced products beating well-crafted full juice vintage ones.”
Alex says this is part of a broader problem – cider labelling. Products labelled as cider might be made with genuine cider apples using traditional techniques; made with concentrate, sugar and fruit flavouring; or an RTD with ethanol mixed with water and artificial flavours. Many consumers don’t know the difference.
“The vast majority of New Zealand ciders – including ciders marketed by many craft brewers – have been influenced by this liberal environment and are made by fermentation of concentrate to make a 12%abv apple wine, then knocked back with water to the required abv. Inevitably the competitions end up pitting these 'New World’-style ciders against full juice ciders often made with true cider apples. In England this hasn’t been an issue as the industrial ciders have not tended to perform well against the craft ones. Here in New Zealand this has not been the case.”