Willie Smith's pick of the crop: Cider apples, rather than eating apples, make all the difference. Photo: Ali Nasseri
"Cider is a more loose-limbed drink than beer, there's an eccentricity to cider makers,'' says Pete Brown, the British writer who has just finished compiling the first global guide to the drink. ''Whereas beer has always been an urban drink, cider is rural; the best cider has been too far away from big cities to get the big audiences that beer got. It has always stayed a bit hidden, a bit under the radar.''
Not any more. Cider - a drink that runs the gamut from sugary nightclub-fodder to some of the most sophisticated, elegant beverages around - is having its moment in the sun. World's Best Cider, co-authored by Brown with Bill Bradshaw, demonstrates how attitudes are changing, Brown says: ''It's happening around the world. There are different drivers and catalysts, but over the past seven or eight years, cider has enjoyed a revival in Britain, in Canada, America, Australia, South Africa. All these places decided it was time for cider: 'Let's discover this new drink.'''
In Australia, the success of big brands like Rekorderlig and Bulmer's has allowed artisan producers to stake their claim to a small part of the cider market; the sort of progress they're making was demonstrated at the recent Australian Cider Awards. For the first time since the awards began in 2011, all of the top awards were taken by native producers, such as Hills Cider Company of Adelaide and Small Acres of Borenore, New South Wales.
Drew Henry tastes his cider.
Another producer to be recognised was Willie Smith's, based in Tasmania's Huon Valley. Sam Reid, the co-founder and managing director at Willie Smith's and vice-president of Cider Australia, a trade group set up last year to promote the drink, believes Australian cider drinkers are increasingly interested in the good stuff. ''There's a real consumer desire to know they're getting good quality when they're spending more on things,'' he says. ''People are saying: 'I won't accept the status quo, I want quality.'''
And drinkers who try artisan cider tend to stick with it, according to Drew Henry, who founded Henry of Harcourt 16 years ago.
''We're only small but we sell everything we can make,'' he says. ''We have a dedicated following. We're getting more and more people coming to the cellar door, saying: 'I've never heard of [the cider apple variety] Kingston Black, but that's really good, and it would go well with roast beef' … all that sort of thing is slowly starting to seep in, but it's never going to be mainstream. The upsurge in cider is probably a fad, but there's always a small position for high-quality cider.''
Cider represents around three per cent of the Australian alcohol market, but that figure includes a huge variety of products.
Henry, for example, is one of the few producers in Australia to use cider apples rather than eating apples. A lot of the cider drunk here, meanwhile, is produced from concentrate, much of it imported from China. It means that cider's bad reputation has been hard to shift, says Henry.
''Quite often we'll get a family group come to the cellar door,'' says Henry. ''Mum has dragged dad in, he shakes his head, don't want any of 'that muck'. When I give him some of our blended ciders, he ends up buying a dozen, takes them away … he's never had the opportunity to try a dry, champagne-style cider made from cider apples. When you have people try real cider, they appreciate its complexity and character.''
Much of the inspiration for artisan cider in Australia comes from England (specifically the south-west of England) and the north-west of France. Henry decided to give cider-making a go after a visit to Richard Sheppey, a well-respected cider-maker in Somerset.
Willie Smith's, established in 2012, draws heavily on French tradition, says Reid: the cider is fermented with white wine yeast and aged in French oak barrels.
''I wasn't a cider drinker before I started making it,'' he says. ''I got together with Andrew [Smith], my business partner. We weren't big fans of the acidic ones, we were trying to do something different. The French style, with its rounder mouthfeel, high pH level and more body, appealed to us.''
The growth of cider around the world has led to a number of innovations. Among the more interesting is the phenomenon of ice cider in Quebec, Canada. Produced using cold fermentation, it can be as complex and interesting (and strong!) as sweet wine, says Brown. ''It's just a wonderful drink.''
The future for cider in Australia lies in seeing what is going on in North America, Reid says. Like beer, the quality of cider in the US has improved immensely in recent years. ''I took a trip to France and the UK this year, to see what everyone is doing,'' says Reid.
''You never stop learning. Next on the agenda [for me] is a trip to America, which seems more similar to Australia. [American cider expert] Gary Awdey was one of the judges at the cider awards: he's interested and passionate, it's great to speak to people like that.''
Australian artisan cider may still be in its infancy, but the future looks bright. ''The good stuff is starting to get very good indeed,'' says Brown.
World's Best Cider is available from Readings and selected bookshops. RRP $49.99. Published by Aurum Press.
Pete Brown's picks
Bress, Harcourt Valley Cider Bon Bon (Harcourt Valley, Victoria)
This is crisp, acidic and wine-like. But be warned: it goes down much more easily than wine.
Henry of Harcourt, Duck & Bull (Harcourt, Victoria)
Made with cider apples including Kingston Black and Yarlington Mill, this bottle-conditioned drop is tart and dry.
Small Acres Cyder Somerset Still (Orange, NSW)
This is a decent take on an English style, scrumpy. Earthy and interesting.
Willie Smith's, Organic Apple Cider (Huon Valley, Tasmania)
A juicy, citrus-fruit aroma is followed by hints of wood and earth. Clean, crisp finish.
Red Sails, Tasmania Cider Gold (Middleton, Tasmania)
A Breton-style cider, it has a full, dry,rich-fruit flavour and a sensationally smooth finish.