In February I was in Chicago for the US Cider Conference. It was massively exciting, because craft cider in America is where craft beer was twenty years ago. It's impossible not to draw some parallels between the two drinks.
Because of the way the two scenes have grown in the States - with all the energy and hunger of new discovery and a bold ambition to push flavour into new places that sometimes, just occasionally, outpaces the brewer/cidermaker's level of skill - they are much closer than they are in the UK.
Sure, over here CAMRA represents both beer and cider to some extent, but at the craft end of things the two scenes seem quite separate - almost hostile to each other at times, as I have discovered since I began straddling both.
In the US, craft beer and craft cider walk hand in hand to a much greater extent. Many ambitious young cidermakers have a craft brewing background. The growth of dry-hopped cider is only the most visible example of this.
But cider still has a way to go, and that's what makes it so exciting.
One session we had at the conference was titled "Defining cider style by flavour." It as based around this booklet:
by a guy called Dave Selden, who runs a beer blog and creates these stylish publications for a range of drinks. I enjoyed hanging out with Dave at the Cider Summit - a public event the day after CiderCon finished - talking among other things about how you define style.
This is something that obsesses Americans more than anyone else. In beer, before there was a debate about the definition of craft beer, there was a debate about beer styles that was just as tedious and pointless. I ridiculed it and said my final word on beer style back in 2010, but anyone who thinks there are nearly 200 different styles of beer (or is it even more now?) has far too much time on their hands.
On the other hand, I have to agree that cider needs more style definition than it currently has. The whole point of writing World's Best Cider was that no one had looked at cider from a global perspective before, comparing the different traditions that exist around the globe. With a few exceptions, everyone has been defining cider within their own cultural frame of reference. The good thing about the Americans getting involved is that they instinctively look everywhere they can for inspiration and education. America already has a better range of international ciders readily available in craft bars and good bottle shops than you'll find in any other country. A little bit of that rigorous analysis of style - not too much mind - might be very useful.
So back to the event where we were using Dave's new cider booklet to try to analyse style by flavour.
It was an open session, with each table sharing several different ciders and trying to agree on what they were like. The booklet gave us a flavour wheel and a bunch of other classifications for pinning down what was in the bottle.
It was improvisational, spontaneous, and very enjoyable. One cider was described by one table as a 'porch' cider, because it was the kind of thing you wanted to drink on a rocking chair while watching the sunset. The guy from Angry Orchard was clearly miffed when few people agreed that the cider he had brought to show was 'French farmhouse' in style. (To me, it was nowhere near tannic enough and had a hint of Spanish-style sourness.)
The highlight of the session though was when we got to one table who, after some conversation, pronounced that this cider should be classed as 'Imperial', with little explanation as to why. Immediately, various other tables rolled their eyes, sniggered and said, "Huh, brewers!"
It was a perfect moment: highlighting the various different factions that exist within craft cider; craft brewers parodying themselves by showing how utterly meaningless the 'imperial' classification is when divorced from its context; and revealing that none of us really had a clue about what to call this decent, drinkable but unmemorable cider.
By the end of the session we had picked various faults in the tasting wheel (which can be easily fixed). We were no closer to a framework of cider style by flavour. I wasn't sure that Dave's approach was right, but the session had convinced me that my own attempt to devise a set of cider styles was hopelessly inadequate - a mishmash that defines some styles by their region of origin, others by production methods or ingredients, and still others by flavour.
Back to the drawing board for all of us then. But taxonomy has never been so much fun.