A Sheppy’s apple farm.
A Sheppy’s apple farm.

The cider side of apples

The launch of craft cider in India marks the beginning of a new revolution for a historic brew

While cider is a millennia-old drink in the Western world, in India it is a relatively new introduction popularized by the microbrewery revolution. Last week saw the launch of Sheppy’s Cider in India, which will take this initiation a step forward, introducing tipplers to the complexity of craft apple ciders. The introduction of different premium brands will open up the Indian market to the variety of apple and other fruit-based ciders that are lighter alternatives to spirits, suited to the hot weather and versatile enough to be adapted into cocktails.

While there have been attempts to brew cider primarily as a means of tackling wastage in apple-growing areas like Himachal Pradesh, the initiatives have remained on a minuscule scale. Their overall impact as an alcohol category has been negligible. With the growth of craft breweries like Doolally, Biere Club and Arbor Brewing Company in Pune and Bengaluru through the 2010s, cider entered the Indian tippler’s vocabulary in the metros. However, there has always been a greater focus on different varieties of beers and cider remains a token offering in most bars and tap rooms. The variety and quality of this cider is also debatable with apple concentrates and flavourings replacing a natural fermentation from the fruit, resulting in oversweet variants. Good quality cider still comes via imports from the West with brands like Magner’s from Ireland and Strongbow from England. There is clearly a gap in the market triggered by a growing interest in craft brews and spirits.

Managing director David Sheppy.
Managing director David Sheppy.

Rohan Nihalani of Morgan Beverages spotted this gap and realized that the market was ready to try something more authentic. “I spent nearly a year in the UK, trying around 2000 ciders at trade fairs across the country, till I finally narrowed down on Sheppy’s Cider," says Nihalani. One of UK’s premium craft cider brands with a 200-year-old history, Sheppy’s has over 16 varieties of cider in their portfolio, ranging from dry to sweet. “We were a traditional farming family that always made cider and somehow, over the generations, the cider business expanded and the farming reduced," says David Sheppy, the sixth generation cider master and managing director of Sheppy’s Cider, who was in Mumbai recently. Sheppy’s is based in Somerset in West Country, England’s largest cider producing area. He describes the region as one that was historically associated with good quality apples.

“In fact the earliest cider in this area was used as payment for the staff on the farm. They would get an allowance of cider as part of their weekly wages," says Sheppy. He says that while many farmers gave up making cider, the 50-100 farmers that continued together contributed to the growth of craft cider as a significant industry in the UK. “As the cider industry has expanded and become more sophisticated and developed ciders with longer shelf lives, it moved outside out of its local context into major towns and cities," he adds.

He says cider went through several highs and lows with surges in its popularity in the 1970s. The increase of duties in the 1980s led to a slump and then, as newer styles of cider and craft breweries entered the market, the drink regained its popularity. Today, the UK is the largest consumer of cider in the world and in the long drink category, it is second only to beer. According to a Nielson report, the UK’s cider industry hit sales of £1 billion (around 9,000 crore now) for the 12 months ended July 2017.

In India, Sheppy’s has launched with the Classic Draught Cider (it will be sold at retail outlets at 390 for 330 ml bottles) and will follow it up with a special edition called Sheppy’s 200 Reserve (originally launched to mark the company’s 200th anniversary in 2016) in the coming months.

Hard apple cider. Photo: iStock
Hard apple cider. Photo: iStock

The bitter edge

Wild apples are supposed to be the earliest fruit that existed and archaeological evidence of this is found in different parts of the world, from Western Europe to Egypt. In fact, the early apples were so bitter and tannic that they were not eaten but pressed into juice and left to ferment into alcohol. Amy Stewart writes about these apples in her book, The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create The World’s Great Drinks, “The apple best suited for cider and brandy is what we would call a spitter: a fruit so bitter and tannic that one’s first instinct is to spit it out and look around for something sweet to coat the tongue." These cider apples are far removed from the sweet and crunchy variants that we are accustomed to eating. According to Stewart, “The DNA of apples is more complex than ours; a recent sequencing of the Golden Delicious genome uncovered fifty-seven thousand genes, more than twice as many as the twenty thousand to twenty-five thousand that humans possess." And while every apple was not fit to eat, more often than not they were amenable to making cider.

Cider remained a popular alternative to other alcoholic beverages and was widely consumed all over England. In the US, where large apple orchards were planted by the early settlers, cider became the go-to beverage—sometimes even supplanting water, which often carried diseases—and was consumed by everyone, including children. In the US, there was a distinction between cider, which was simply a cloudy non-alcoholic juice made from apples, and hard cider, which was the fermented variety with an alcohol percentage ranging from 3.5-12 % ABV. In the 19th century, as grain was cultivated more widely and therefore cheaper, beer emerged as a cheaper and more viable drink than cider. Among the apples, the culinary apples began to take precedence as a more viable commercial crop over the acidic cider apples. As a result, cider production fell and became relegated to a cottage industry, localized in its scope and consumption. A further downslide in England’s apple market between the 1980s to the early 2000s led to lower quality ciders with less apple and higher levels of water and sugar. However, many apple farmers, especially in the West Country region, continued brewing cider, perfecting their techniques from generation to generation and emerging as 21st century craft brewers.

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