Cider in Ireland

Creeping Craft Industry or Bulmers Blowout?

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On a warm day in Dublin, in the back garden of any pub, you’ll see people basking in the sun with pint glasses in their hands. Because these days can be few and far between in Ireland, there's reason to celebrate, and those glasses are likely to be filled with Bulmers Irish Cider and ice. This cider is refreshing, sweet, and easy to gulp down—and it’s spent a long time as the only Irish cider on the market.

Recently, though, the Irish cider market has started to drastically change. The craft cider industry, with small­ scale cider makers producing a variety of unique ciders entirely from Irish apples, is booming. Craft cider is a long way from eliminating Bulmers’ ubiquity on a summer day, but it presents a picture of cider that fits perfectly into the new food story that Ireland is trying to tell: the table is set, the sound of the craic fills the room. Irish cheeses and brown bread are passed around, and the drink that’s accompanying the meal is a crisp, delightfully sparkling cider.

There is high ­quality, expressive craft cider being produced all over Ireland, and the industry is continuously growing. However, most Irish drinkers still think of cider only as Bulmers over ice. Craft cider is a product that supports Irish agriculture and fits the image of the idyllic Irish landscape, but it is fighting against a mass­-produced competitor with a hold on the market, a stereotypical image that doesn’t apply, and a government that isn’t doing its best to help. 

In this series, I'll be exploring the history of apples and cider making in Ireland, the ubiquity of Bulmers, the current craft boom, and what the future looks like for cider in Ireland. Sláinte! 

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On the Branches of History

The story of apples in Ireland echoes the general story of Irish history—first wild and purely Irish, then overtaken by imported, domesticated British varieties. The first record of apples in Ireland comes from archaeological evidence from an excavation in County Meath. The apple pips found at the site have been identified as the Irish crab apple Malus Sylvestris, and carbon dated to more than 5,000 years ago. These crab apple trees grew wild, scattered around the landscape; their branches were covered with thorns and their apples were small, gnarled, sour, and looked almost nothing like the apples we see today.

Specific evidence of the cultivation and use of domesticated apples in the archaeobotanical record is sparse, but these wild apples can be found in many of the ancient Irish manuscripts. In the 7th and 8th centuries AD, the ancient Boetha Comaithchesa law tracts listed the aball (wild apple tree) as one of the seven airig fedo (nobles of the wood), giving the wild Irish crab apple of prominence and reverence in early Irish society. Domesticated apples in Ireland first appear as a common theme in hagiographical texts, where the bitter wild apples are said to be transformed into sweet cultivated apples.

The global history of the domesticated apple, Malus Pumila, starts 1,000 years after the time of those first­-documented crab apples in the fruit forests of the mountains of southeastern Kazakhstan. The seeds were first spread by wild horses, but their territory was quickly expanded by travelers on westward trade routes to Persia and Rome. “The apple’s story is, as Henry David Thoreau observed, remarkably ‘connected with that of man.’... it has traveled the globe and become, through its own prodigality and attachment to people, a species at home almost anywhere” (Janik, 2011, p.8). The Romans really took to the apple, and are responsible for bringing the domesticated apple to Britain. When the Romans arrived in Britain, though, they found that the Celts were utilizing their wild crab apples in a way that the Romans weren’t—they were making hard cider.

Fermentation occurs naturally and spontaneously on fruit (like apples and grapes) that host wild yeasts on their skin. Because of that, any apples that are not refrigerated will ferment and turn to cider. Since refrigeration was not invented until the 20th century, cider would have been common in early apple­-growing societies. Furthermore, the alcohol in hard cider would have killed pathogens that were prevalent in water (which was subject to contamination from bacteria, fungi, and viruses), making cider the safer choice to drink. The British adopted the apples that the Romans brought, planted orchards, and blended the juice from those apples with their wild apples to create a more palatable yet still practical cider.

In Ireland, the history of cider making is less clearly documented. Texts from religious orders and monasteries mention the production of cider along with the brewing of beer, but it isn’t until the 12th century that cider making is documented outside of the religious world—a tribal leader from Ulster was praised in a letter for the cider he made from the apples on his land. At that time, Ireland was just beginning to be conquered by the Normans in the name of Henry II of England, and as that external involvement progressed, the influence of the English on Irish culture grew. In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, discussion of cider making in Ireland was commonplace in writing and civil surveys, and farmhouse cider making was considered as common in Ireland as it was in England. Writers both in Ireland and abroad praised the quality of Irish ciders—a late 18th century commentary describes a cider competition in Dublin “where the judges refused to give the premier award to one of the entrants until it could be proven that no fine white wines had been used in its making as the quality was considered so superior” (Jenkinson, 2012).

In England in the 18th century, high demand for cider and increasing industrialization threatened cider production. The cider that farmers made was unfiltered and unpasteurized, and it did not transport well to meet the demand at markets in the cities. To solve that problem, cider factories started opening, but the quality of the cider they produced was very low compared to the small-­batch farmstead cider. “Cider became associated with the lower classes and drinking to get drunk. Anyone who could afford to purchase a healthy drink chose ale” (Neumann, 2003). In Ireland, cider continued to be farmstead-­based until it was nearly wiped out during the famine. Industrialization hadn’t taken hold in Ireland like it had in England, so there were no large­-scale producers to continue operation when the farmers were suffering or leaving the country.

A cider revival occurred in the late 19th century, thanks to government investment. Instructors skilled in cider making were employed by the government to travel to farms, bringing with them apple crushing machines and presses, to advise on the varieties of apples that should be planted, apple harvesting, processing, and cider making; many farmers started to brand their ciders, and there was a huge variety of farmstead cider available throughout Ireland. Thanks to this investment, farmers were taught to recognize and preserve traditional cider apple varieties, and the diversity of the orchards increased, setting the stage for the craft cider boom that is taking place in Ireland today.

 

Ireland's Favorite Cider?

If you walk into any pub in Ireland, you’ll likely find two things: Guinness and Bulmers. It’s true that the variety of offerings is growing in most pubs, but, as far as cider goes, Bulmers holds 94% of the market in Ireland. If you walk up to the bar and say, “I’ll have a cider,” you will be presented with a pint glass of Bulmers over ice. The cider itself is sweet, carbonated, and almost orange in color. For most Irish drinkers, Bulmers is meant for thirst quenching on a sunny day, and thus is highly seasonal (and its sales are dependent on a good Irish summer, which can be hard to come by).

Despite its nationwide presence, Bulmers is working hard to fight against that notion of seasonality and increase its year­-round sales. In fact, sales of the Bulmers flagship cider plunged 13% in 2015, and the C&C Group reacted by increasing their marketing spending by 20%, saying that “The poor Irish summer meant big challenges for brands that benefit from ‘refreshment’ and a tailwind for products with a heavier taste profile” (Bodkin, 2015). Many of those competing products, surprisingly enough, happen to be small­-scale craft ciders. The move towards artisanal, local, craft products has been happening in Ireland since the economic collapse in 2008. Industrialization, centralization, and large­-scale imports and exports were the lifeblood of the Celtic Tiger era, and they led to an unsustainable market economy. After that paradigm broke down, it made sense that the Irish economy and industry refocused inward, looked to smaller producers, and saw a resurgence of craft products.

The number of craft cider producers in Ireland doubled between 2012 and 2014, and now represents more than 1% of the market—a seemingly small percentage share, but considering the craft cider industry was nearly nonexistent in 2008, a number that is making the C&C Group nervous. These craft ciders are competing with Bulmers and other commercial ciders by differentiating themselves; they offer a wide variety of flavor profiles and styles, suiting the consumers’ desire for refreshment with light, crisp, sparkling ciders and proving useful year-round as a drink to pair with meals with meatier, even ‘funky’ still ciders.

In an attempt to compete with a booming craft cider industry, the C&C Group has taken to promoting the ‘authenticity and heritage’ of Bulmers. On the Bulmers’ website, the flagship cider is described as “Ireland’s favourite cider,” that is “patiently vat matured to develop a pure, crisp, refreshing flavor and natural character. A time honoured tradition that is part of its authentic heritage." Beyond that claim, the company has also launched a TV campaign for the brand, promoting time as an important ingredient in the Bulmers process. Belinda Kelly, the Marketing Manager for Bulmers, explains, “Bulmers has always been true to itself and is an authentic Irish brand from a world that features orchards, the vats, apples, and time. This new campaign is a return to our roots and to the time it takes to craft an original." Without the influence and competition from a growing craft sector, would Bulmers have focused on its ties to Irish heritage? Sure, it has been the face of Irish cider for more than 100 years, but is it really an ‘authentic’ Irish cider? 

 

The Craft Boom

The new Irish craft cider producers are no strangers to talking about their heritage and authenticity, but in the context of the scale and methods of producing craft cider, those terms might actually make sense. The first obvious difference between these small-­scale producers and the giants like Bulmers is that, in order to be considered “craft cider” in Ireland, the cider must be made using real apple juice (never from concentrate), from 100% Irish­-grown apples. The trade association Cider Ireland—makers of what they consider to be “Real Irish Craft Cider”—defines clearly that they are not “any fermented sugar beverage with a splash of apple” (Cider Ireland). The language that the association uses to describe their products may look similar to the latest Bulmers marketing campaign, but they are making a strong effort to distinguish themselves and reclaim the words that have been adopted by their larger competitors:

“Craft cider, like craft beer, is a term used by many but defined by none. It is generally accepted that ‘craft’ means small, independent and traditional. We are independent producers making cider in the traditional way and while we are small, tiny, compared to the big boys, we would obviously like to grow. We are also, however, limited by the fact that we make cider from Irish grown apples—there are only a certain number of apples available to us in any given year, so we will always remain small compared to those producers who import apples, or use juice from concentrate." 

Cider Ireland currently represents 15 Irish cider producers, and the total number of “craft” producers in the country has reached more than 20. Because these producers are only using Irish-­grown apples to make their cider, many of them are marketing their agricultural ties (and even the apples themselves). Bottles of Longueville House Cider, from the Blackwater Valley in Cork, are marked with the description, “We only use heritage, heirloom cider apples, namely Michelin and Dabinett apples grown in our orchards." Highbank Orchards, who produce an organic-­certified cider (also from their own orchard, which sits on their family’s 17th century farm), say, “As artisan producers, we do know our apples." Craigies Irish Craft Cider, which sources apples from dedicated growers but does not have its own orchards, writes, “From seed to tree and from soil to season, our aim is to express the unique characteristics of Ireland’s magnificent apple orchards." Stonewell Cider, a cider maker in Kinsale, produces a range of ciders that they call, “Truly artisan products which capture the flavours of the Irish apple harvest. All of this language serves to evoke the idyllic Irish landscape, the traditions of agriculture in Ireland, and the knowledge and expertise that these producers apply to their products.

Although there are overlaps in the language that big and small cider makers are using to promote their products, consumers seem to be buying into it more with the craft cider sector. Craft ciders are selling in significant volumes, and their market share is growing steadily. In 2015, a new “Irish Cider and Food Day” festival showcased the wide variety of Irish ciders throughout the country at bars, hotels, and restaurants. The turnout was bigger than expected, and the buzz created from the festival was well­-deserved feedback for some of the newer, less established producers.

This positive growth isn’t without its drawbacks, though. As demand for craft cider grows, the volume of apples that the cider makers need increases. The 40 grower-­members of the Irish Apple Growers Association, whose harvests are limited to the number of trees producing apples (which can take up to five years for new trees), are seeing more and more of their harvest go to the cider makers and fewer Irish apples being sold for eating. Still, apple growers are excited by the craft cider industry and the opportunity it presents for a fully Irish value-­added product. Emma Tyrrell, of Craigie’s Irish Craft Cider and Cider Ireland, says, “Irish craft cider makes for a dry, food­-friendly alternative to ‘sugary, mass-produced alcopop style ciders; a gluten­-free alternative to beer; and a low-­alcohol and locally produced alternative to wine." Because of the limitation of Irish orchards, it’s unlikely that craft cider will expand beyond its quality and mimic its industrialized competitors, and the cider makers and apple growers seem to be willing to support each other up to that limit. 

 

Taxing Growth

The threat of reaching the limit of Ireland’s apple orchards’ production is real, but there is a far bigger hindrance to the craft cider industry that is already in play. Cider in Ireland attracts the second­-highest excise tax in Europe, due to a system separating the taxing into categories (or “bands”) based on the alcohol content of the cider. This tax system does not apply in the same way to microbreweries producing beer, as the Minister of Finance has granted craft brewers a 50% rebate on excise duty. In the case of beer, this has allowed the smaller breweries to compete with the infrastructure and scale of larger producers on a more even level.

However, because cider is fermented rather than brewed, the rebate does not apply (despite similarities in the scale and local focus of the two products). Currently, a microbrew craft beer that measures 6% alcohol by volume (ABV) is taxed at €67.65 per hectoliter, but a cider with the same 6% ABV is taxed at €94.46. At 7% ABV, the duty for craft beer is €78.93, and the duty for cider is €218.44. At 8% ABV, the duty for craft beer is €101.48, and the duty for cider is €309.84.

At this time, craft cider output is not keeping up with the trends in craft beer production and independent whiskey distilling—both products that fit the same desire for local Irish products, traditional methods, and celebrating heritage that the cider makers have noticed in their consumers. Cider Ireland has produced an extensive Economic Feasibility Assessment of the craft cider industry, and the results point to this excise taxing system as the most serious barrier to the industry’s overall success:

“Irish craft cider­makers are operating in a market environment that is not consistent with global trends and opportunities. Craft cider production holds significant untapped potential for job creation and export generation in a dynamic, indigenously-­anchored subsector that strategically aligns with Ireland’s growing offers in the high quality food and drink sector, and high value-­added tourism and agriculture."

Under European Union law, the Irish Minister of Finance cannot simply adjust the duty on fermented products to make it lower for craft cider. But, cider is currently taxed in two bands: over 2.8% ABV and over 6% ABV. This existing system was inconsequential when the only cider being sold in Ireland was produced on an industrial scale. Bulmers, because it is not made from 100% apples, has a steady alcohol content—the use of water to dilute the apple juice concentrate and the addition of sweeteners post­production means that the producers can control the ABV to keep it below 6%. Craft cider, though, with its higher apple content and lack of added sweeteners, naturally ferments to at least 7% in a good vintage. For that reason alone, craft cider producers are put at a disadvantage when fighting to gain market share, compete against mass­-produced ciders, and even break into some of the growth of the craft brewing and small­-batch distilling industries.

Cider Ireland’s assessment, while certainly an impassioned statement for promoting their members’ livelihood, highlights the importance of supporting a rurally­-based, indigenous industry in a country that is still trying to rebuild from an economic crisis. They predict that, if the excise bands were changed and the craft cider industry were able to grow at the rate of craft breweries, it could result in the creation of 100 new jobs in apple production and 70 new jobs in cider production. Furthermore, they have found that the proposed change to excise rates would lead to an estimated revenue decline of just €36,000; and that revenue loss would be offset by growth in craft cider manufacturing within 12 months of the change.

As it stands now, craft cider is an expensive drink for consumers to purchase. It costs more than a pint of Bulmers at a pub, and it can be nearly double the price of a pint of Guinness. That price tag scares away consumers who might otherwise be interested in trying a new craft cider product, because consumers are more willing to trade both down the quality chain (from craft cider to mass produced cider) and across the drinks range (from cider to beer). There is a market for craft cider in Ireland, but it is being inhibited by high cost. If the excise rates could be adjusted in a way that would allow growth in the craft cider industry, it could become an important part of the Irish government’s push to promote the quality and bounty of Ireland’s food and drinks. 

 

Fáilte Cider

The Irish government’s focus on promoting food and drinks is part of a larger goal of encouraging tourism both to and within Ireland. Throughout the country, the idea of “Irish cuisine” is relatively new, because so much of what was eaten in the past is tied to negative feelings about the famine and British colonialism. Now, with the economy relying on the agricultural and tourism sectors to reinvigorate it, the story of food in Ireland has become a source of pride. The picture that is being drawn about Irish cuisine is not coming from haute cuisine, but rather from the products and dishes that Irish people are making, cooking and eating every day—a sort of “gastronomic nationalism,” according to John Mulcahy, who says, “Ireland can be reinvigorated and redefined through each person’s need to eat several times a day." As a cohesive idea of Irish cuisine is developing, it is becoming a real draw for promoting tourism in Ireland around the world. Irish cuisine is closely tied to the landscape, farms, and people that produce it, and each part of the story is reflective of Irish history, culture, demeanor, and all of the things that make Ireland unique.

Fáilte Ireland, the National Tourism Development Authority, has been a huge part of the success of this new notion of Irish cuisine, and is implementing measures to attract tourists to Ireland for an ‘authentic and local’ food experience. Fáilte Ireland, working along with Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board), has the vision that food tourism in Ireland “will be recognized by visitors for the availability, quality, and value of our local and regional food experiences which evokes a unique sense of place, culture, and hospitality." Fáilte Ireland is providing tools to food producers and community organizers, such as Ireland’s Food Story Toolkit, food trail development guidelines, informational packets about Irish food heritage and how to develop food festivals, and market insights and business tools. The organization also has identified ‘Food Champions,’ who serve as ambassadors for their particular industries and regions.

Throughout all of this, though, very little has been said about the craft cider industry. Food Champions have mostly been representatives from restaurants, dairy, fishing, and brewing. The craft cider producers, pointing to their deep connection to Irish agriculture and heritage, believe that their products can form a crucial segment of the tourism offering.

A strong craft cider industry would appeal to tourists from key markets that the Irish hospitality sector has already developed, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, which are all countries with their own thriving craft cider industries. It could also draw in tourism from new markets where cider consumption is booming, such as Russia, and countries like Brazil, India, China, and South Africa, where cider is viewed as a novelty, indigenously European product of high quality and unique character. If the craft cider producers were to receive the same level of support from Fáilte Ireland that the craft brewers and other industries have received, they could draw tourists out to Ireland’s orchards, give their products a wider audience, and even tell stories of the history and lore surrounding apples in Ireland—providing a multidimensional, truly Irish experience. 

 

Irish Wine

The biggest reason that the craft cider industry in Ireland is underrepresented might have to do with its very identity, and that of cider in general. It’s easy to categorize cider with beer, because it has a similar alcohol percentage, is a beverage meant for drinking in pubs, and is considered a refreshing, quaffable, casual drink. In a strong beer culture like Ireland, where Guinness is king and microbrews are making a strong case for themselves, consumers might not even think to order a cider in that context. If they do, the ubiquity of Bulmers and the fact that it’s so standardized makes it easy for consumers to order a pint over ice and have it meet their expectations.

Craft cider, though, is somewhat of an unknown. From producer to producer, the style and flavor of craft cider can completely change. Con’s Irish Cider describes its product as “sharp, tannic, with a slightly bitter bite." The tasting notes for Cockagee Irish Cider describe it as having “delicate fresh apple aromas and rich fruit flavors, a robust and full-bodied complex cider with a soft natural sparkle." Descriptions like those can be off-putting to consumers looking to try craft cider for the first time, especially if they expect it to be sweet and fizzy like a pint of Bulmers.

In order to separate itself from microbrews and Bulmers, the craft cider industry needs to fill a unique niche in Ireland, and appeal to customers who are looking for a more sophisticated, food­-friendly beverage, preferably year-­round. Looking at the production of craft cider, a clear parallel comes to mind:

“Cider, like wine, is an annual occurrence, using an annual crop which varies according to the weather, just as the quality and quantity of a grape harvest varies. In that way, Irish cider may be considered to be a true Irish wine, made from an indigenous, natural ingredient." (Cider Ireland)

Calling craft cider “Irish wine” is a bold statement, but it’s an argument worth pursuing. Ireland, with its rainy climate and northern geography, is poorly suited to grow grapes, and the few grape vineyards that do exist are small, mostly clustered around Cork, and largely for personal use. In fact, the only consistently available Irish wine made from grapes comes from David Llewellyn, who makes wine as a side project to his craft cider and orchard business.

Craft cider producers are already describing their products and processes with language borrowed from the wine world, talking about vintages and terroir. Highbank Orchards writes that their “fertile Kilkenny limestone soils are uniquely suited to produce delicious apples and apple juice organically." Dan Kelly’s Cider describes their products as “complex, much like wine, with the apples used to produce them varying depending on the local climate and soil." Simon Tyrrell, of Craigies Irish Craft Cider, says, “We make vintage cider. We’re not into consistency. We’re interested in what was the expression of that terroir that year." 

Vintage and terroir are concepts that apply just as easily to apples as they do to grapes, because both are grown and then fermented directly into their final product. Taking that parallel a step further, some of the Irish craft cider makers are providing their customers with suggestions for when and how to drink their ciders. Cockagee Irish Cider tells their customers to “serve chilled in a stemmed glass (never over ice in a pint),” and calls their cider “an ideal Irish and local alternative to Prosecco, Champagne or Cava." Highbank Orchards, expanding on their idea of cider representing the terroir of their orchards, says that their ciders are “developed to go with food, not as summer drinks or apertifs." Finally, taking away any doubt that the parallel exists, James O’Donoghue of Longways Cider says, “We make wine with apples” (Bigar, 2016).

Irish craft cider makers see the opportunity to distinguish themselves as a high­-quality, uniquely local interpretation of a product that Ireland does not produce. With the flavor profiles of these craft ciders, and the expression of Irish apples that these cider makers are able to produce, why shouldn’t Irish ciders replace imported wines at the dinner table?

This industry has been growing rapidly despite the fact that it faces a successful industrial­-scale competitor, pays taxes at rates higher than other products on the market, and has received little help from a government and tourism board that are working to celebrate and promote local, artisan Irish products. Craft cider makers will continue to produce high­-quality ciders and support the Irish apple growers, and if they can find a profitable niche, they will prove that they deserve a prominent place in the new Irish food story.