LET'S GO BACK IN TIME. ABOUT A decade will do. The local bottle shop and liquor chains were all well stocked - until you went searching for cider. And there it was. Strongbow. Today, however, liquor outlets accommodate umpteen local and imported ciders. Cider is now trendy.
The range includes Bress, Small Acres, Monteith's, Weston's, Somersby, Rekorderlig and Toohey's Five Seeds, to name just a few. And the ubiquitous Strongbow. Boutique outlets champion small-scale producers such as Henney's, Le Pere Jules and South Australia's Lobo.
The trend is not confined to bottle shops. Restaurants, bars and pubs are expanding their cider range, and cider bars are popping up. There's the Cider House bar and eatery in Brunswick. Even Melbourne's most recognised pub, Young and Jackson's, has a dedicated rooftop cider bar, while the Local Taphouse in St Kilda East offers cider alongside craft beer.
In Sydney, the Moonshine Cider and Rum Bar at Hotel Steyne in Manly hosted the inaugural Australian Cider Festival in October 2012. The Royal Melbourne Fine Food Awards kick-starts on Tuesday with its inaugural cider class.
Yep, we're in the midst of a cider revival.
So why is cider popular all of a sudden?
''It is an alternative to other drinks and a valid substitute sitting between white wine, RTDs [ready to drink] and beer,'' says Behn Payten, a cider-maker at Napoleone & Co. in the Yarra Valley. ''And if you don't like beer or RTDs and don't want to look like a bogan and you don't want more than one glass of sav blanc, then cider fills that niche perfectly. Plus, it's great to drink on a hot day and great with food.''
Chilled cider, seafood and a summer's day … that all sounds very Australian, but it's England where there has been a continuous cider culture - cider sales in the Old Dart account for about 15 per cent of the total beverage market.
Here, the popularity of cider has ebbed and flowed. Its popularity certainly waned in the late '70s and early '80s. Payten says in those days, big companies bought out and killed off smaller producers. ''My generation in the late '80s grew up with Strongbow,'' he says. ''You smashed it once, had a rotten time and never went back to cider again. But this generation doesn't have preconceived ideas about cider, and there's more choice for them. We're making better cider but it's niche.''
James Kendell, from Small Acres Cyder in Orange, NSW, says he remembers his Bristol-born wife Gail saying: ''Why don't you drink cider? It suits your climate, your palate, and it's food-friendly. She just couldn't understand it,'' he says.
She hankered for those traditional English farmhouse ciders - crisp and dry with no bubbles.
''In the first few weeks of being in Australia [in 2000], she was complaining about the lack of good ciders, and the few ciders that were here were awful,'' Kendell says.
The drive to become cider-makers was so strong they left corporate jobs, bought the property in Orange and planted an orchard with 20 cider varieties, such as Kingston Black, Dabinett, Stoke Red and Antoinette. In 2007 the cellar door opened.
''We made a Somerset still to reflect that style and county - an earthy crisp-apple style without bubbles. Gail grew up with that and we're thinking, 'Yay, we're bringing proper cider to Australia.' We quickly realised the Aussie palate wasn't ready for it. Just too niche.''
Visitors to the cellar door wanted something sweet and bubbly but the cider did sell, thanks to sommeliers and aficionados. Kendell says that while cider is booming here, it accounts for just 2 per cent of the beverage market.
A big issue affecting the Australian cider industry is label integrity. Here's the rub. Not all cider is made entirely from apples.
Aficionados would be fuming at some of the aforementioned ciders. For example, Rekorderlig is made from the ''purest Swedish spring water''. For Toohey's Five Seeds, you add cane concentrate with apple concentrate that has been imported from New Zealand.
Many so-called ciders on the market are made using apple concentrate from China, provenance unknown. These clearly are not the real deal.
Many drinks labelled as cider are nothing more than RTDs - ready-to-drinks, like pre-mixed bourbon and cola or vodka and orange, and they're recognised as such by the Australian Tax Office.
England-based cider expert Andrew Lea writes on the cider.org.uk site: ''I don't agree with the purists that pasteurisation or the use of apple juice concentrate should necessarily be regarded with disfavour. Excellent ciders can still be made that way.
''[But] I'm not too keen on making high-strength glucose wine with added sugars and then diluting it back with water.''
Therein lies the problem. A lot of cider produced in Australia contains about 50 per cent water, and loads of sugar. This type of cider is cheap to produce and those who produce them are making a killing.
Cider Australia, the association of cider and perry (pear) growers and producers, was convened in 2011 with a charter to include educating ''consumers about real cider and perry produced by the fermentation of juice derived from apples and pears''.
Kendell, who is Cider Australia's inaugural president, says label integrity is on top of the agenda.
''It's confusing for the customer who can't make an informed choice from the label because all sorts of things are being called cider,'' he says.
''Most people say cider is made from apples but there are many products on the market where apples are a small part of the mix but the label says otherwise. It's confusing.
''From a producer's point of view, it's frustrating because those of us making cider from 100 per cent apples, who don't add sugar or don't add flavouring … we're competing with products not made that way at all - and they're made at half the price.''
Payten believes the cider revival is here to stay, albeit on a small scale.
''We're not trying to create a brand to appeal to the mass market,'' he says. ''If you appeal to the mass market, then you're at the whim of fashion.
''We're just trying to make really good cider and some people appreciate that.''
Five top Aussie ciders
NAPOLEONE & CO METHODE TRADITIONELLE PEAR, $22, 500ML
A winemaker by training, Behn Payten is making some cracking ciders, especially his two methode traditionelles, which are made with a second fermentation in the bottle, a la champagne. One is made from apples, the other from pears, and both are outstanding. The latter is slightly cloudy, with plenty of bubbles, and is utterly complex. Smells of deep citrus, with tangy pear not unlike pinot gris; it's zingy, dry on the finish and very refreshing. A wonderful aperitif or with grilled prawns.
SMALL ACRES CYDER SOMERSET STILL TRADITIONAL DRY CIDER 2011, $17, 750ML
James and Gail Kendell pay homage to the farmhouse style of cider made in England's western counties. It has a delicate nose with freshly crushed then bruised apple notes; it's earthy with a whiff of molten candle wax, perhaps from the skins, yet not overly tannic on the palate. As the bottle says, this feels like riesling until the apple character kicks in. It's dry and clean on the finish and, although not complex, is refreshing and even better with braised pork.
ST RONAN'S METHODE TRADITIONELLE APPLE CIDER, $20, 750ML
St Ronan's is a happy collaboration between Yarra Valley-based Eric Driessen, the apple man, and Troy Jones, the marketing man. They make just two impressive ciders, both in methode traditionelle style. The apple cider pours hazy with a slightly golden champagne hue and lovely fine bubbles, with distinct bruised and fresh apple notes. It's complex with some yeasty, creamy and Vegemite notes on the palate. Perfect with grilled buttery snapper.
WILLIE SMITH'S ORGANIC APPLE CIDER, $5, 330ML
Based in Tasmania's Huon Valley, a perfect place to grow cider apples, this organic cidery is the first in Australia, and built at the original orchard planted by William Smith in 1888. The style is inspired by Normandy cider and what makes it stand out, apart from the organic fruit, is the way it's made: the juice is fleshed out in French oak, which adds structure and depth, plus it undergoes malolactic fermentation, which converts hard, tart malic acid into the softer, more round-on-the-palate lactic acid. This is rare in cider-making. It's a very complex drink full of citrus and juicy apples; it's spicy and quite gingery, with the oak present but not dominating. A beautiful balance of sweetness and tangy acidity gives this great length. Enjoy with pork rillettes.
HENRY OF HARCOURT BROWN SNOUT 2011, $8, 500ML
Brown Snout - what a great name - is a Hereford cider apple named for the russet or brown corona around its blossom end. Drew Henry, at Harcourt in central Victoria, grows and turns such apples into this excellent cider. This pours cloudy and is amber-coloured. I love the fragrant fruit flavour of this cider, which is almost caramelised apples; it's robust and even a touch peaty, bitter-sweet and the tannins really kick in at the end. Try with a bowl of mussels cooked in some of the cider with loads of onions.
What drop is that?
The labelling for cider is largely nebulous. According to Cider Australia, the association of cider and perry growers, the definition is straightforward: ''Cider is a drink produced by the fermentation of apple juice.'' Cider-making is more akin to winemaking; it is not brewed like beer and is not necessarily sweet or sparkling.
But what about those drinks labelled as cider but which contain flavours of peach or wild berry, strawberry, lime, mango, vanilla and so much more? They are not ciders. The Australian Taxation Office deems flavoured and coloured ciders as ready-to-drinks (RTDs).
Cider Australia says perry is ''produced by the fermentation of pear juice'' and commonly called pear cider.
A style of craft cider made in the West Country of England, especially Somerset, Devon, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire.
While eating apples such as Fuji, Granny Smith, Pink Lady and Sundowner are often used to make cider in Australia, true cider apples are more tannic and sharp. Their flavour profiles are sweet, bitter-sweet, sharp and bitter-sharp. Ciders suit the Australian climate and palate, and they're a perfect accompaniment to food.