From the country's cider capital
Last Saturday night my house became the home of cider. I had mentioned to friends that I was reviewing Nelson ciders, and when a team came for dinner, Pete brought a great array of local brews for a serious taste test.
My motivation came from Redwood Cellars, which has decided that Nelson is New Zealand's home of cider and has entered into a joint venture with DB Breweries to make the stuff. There must be something good going on here.
Producing cider adds value to apple orchard returns and uses up small or ugly fruit. But in the same way that you can't make vintage wine out of any old grape, you can't make fine cider from any old insipid apple.
Fortunately, Nelson has the raw ingredients to make great cider: loads of sunshine, soil that grows excellent fruit trees and apples, and talented people who know how to make something eminently drinkable, often mixing them with other fruit.
So which are the best brews? My friend's selection was such a complement to my excellent cooking that I have to question why cider's share of the alcoholic beverage market is so small, at 0.6 litres per capita per year. This compares with 75 litres for beer and 21 litres for wine.
On Saturday, we did our best to improve those figures.
First up was Old Mout (rhymes with fruit), made by Redwood Cellars, with lots of varieties to choose from. Scrumpy, at 8 per cent alcohol content, had a lot of grunt and was an in-your-face or man cider, and the lovely pink Cranberry and Cider was possibly the "girly" equivalent.
I particularly liked this one, because it's not too sweet and not too fizzy. In fact, it is just right. The feijoa and classic apple ciders were deemed to be perfect for summer, especially after mowing the lawns. Roll on summer.
There was debate about the design of the Old Mout labels, which I think are reminiscent of DYC vinegar bottles, but the others said they were elegant and stylish.
However, we all agreed that the Peckhams Cider bottles were classy. Peckhams is a newcomer to the local scene and the story goes that when Caroline and Alex Peckham couldn't find a decent English cider after moving to Nelson, they brewed their own and turned this hobby into a successful business.
My friends, who had by now morphed into experts, using lots of adjectives, said this cider was drier and less fizzy than others and had a delicate but still crisp taste.
Cider's sweetness means that it can be drunk like a fruit juice, but at between 5 per cent and 8 per cent alcohol, it certainly isn't suitable for children.
I read that in the 14th century, the church banned cider-making monks from baptising infants in cider.
Today, the New Zealand cider market is growing at 13 per cent per annum, and the product is so good that I hope we don't waste it on children's baths.
Our favourite tipple was Rochdale Cider, made by McCashin's. This pleasant drop is a traditional take on cider and was described as "sound and decent", "big and bold" and perfect at any time.
Also by McCashin's, in association with berry grower Sujon, is Frute. With delicious berries added to crisp apple cider, it makes me think I am drinking something that benefits my health – antioxidants and all that.
Sprig and Fern also has a brew that contains a mouth-watering blend of boysenberry, strawberry and blackcurrant, with an apple cider base.
You can buy this for drinking at home or go down to their bars, where they will stew you a hot toddy version. Perfect on a cold winter's evening.
Discovered last summer is Pomona Cider, made by The Monkey Wizard Brewery in Riwaka. My brother, a non-local on a research visit, deemed it to be the local cider king.
He has done a lot of sampling in his time and he told me it deserved the supreme title because it is made with hand-pressed Cox's apples, is not pasteurised or filtered and contains no artificial ingredients. Which is what it says on the bottle.
If you don't want to wander around breweries or go to the supermarket and collect bottles to take home, head to the Free House. This wonderful place stocks local ciders, and last week it had Freckled Frog Feijoa Fizz, made by Mussel Inn.
They describe this as a fun, frivolous 100 per cent feijoa cider (contains no apple) and a worryingly easy quaffer.
There are many local ciders that I haven't yet sampled, but although my Saturday tasters were still going strong, the Nelson Mail dictates that my column should not exceed 800 words, so I have left an opening for a follow-up article on this subject. With the offerings sampled to date, I am willing to place money that Nelson will easily achieve its goal of being the cider capital of New Zealand.