Chelmsford Summer Beer and Cider Festival has become a bit of a favourite of mine over the past few years since its move to spacious accommodation in Admiral’s Park. One of the highlights of the event is increasingly the cider and perry bar, which this year excelled itself by offering over 100 traditional ciders, perries and pyders (mixed cider and perry) from all over the UK, including products of three producers in Northern Ireland.
I’ve become used to seeing ciders from Scotland in recent times, mainly from Thistly Cross, and these were joined in Chelmsford by Loch Ness Brewery which has now entered the cider arena. And Wales has had a growing reputation for traditional products for quite some time now as producers such as Gwynt Y Ddraig, Springfield Cider and Troggi Seidr have shown. But ciders from the Six Counties have passed me by until now. As such, the opportunity to sample ciders from three different Ulster producers in one place was not one to miss.
The opportunity came about in a large part because of the unlikely but welcome presence in Chelmsford of the Essex Cider Shop, which provided most of the cider for the festival. (I’ve previously written about the Essex Cider Shop here.)
Of the Northern Irish ciders I tried, all from County Armagh, Ireland’s “orchard county” my preferred tipple on the day was Festival Scrumpy from Toby’s Handcrafted Cider from Annaghmore. This was the most like a rustic English cider with good colour and decent depth of cidery flavours. At the opposite end of the spectrum was the medium from Mac Ivor’s Cider of Portadown, a very pale cider with some slight lemon meringue character. Also from Portadown, was Carson’s Crisp, a dry cider from Armagh Cider, was puckering but not acerbic.
All three produce lightly carbonated bottled ciders for general retail sales – today largely in Ireland – but the opportunity to sample their products au naturel is always preferable in my view, wherever possible.
These three Northern Irish cider makers are part of a revival on both sides of the Irish border inspired in no small part by the global success of Magner’s (confusingly called Bullmer’s in its home market). This renewed interest is also extending to preserving and reviving traditional apple varieties, potentially a good omen for a more diverse market in future. You can read more about Irish cider developments at CiderIreland.
Northern Irish ciders weren’t the only ones I sampled in Chelmsford. The ability to buy ciders (and beers) by the third of a pint at many CAMRA festivals today meant that I could work my way through a decent selection without too many ill effects, although the tendency of the staff to draw thirds that were closer to halves somewhat diminished the benefit. Among others sampled was the almost absurdly sweet but viciously tannic Stoke Red Cider, an old favourite from Gwatkin in Herefordshire, while Wobbly Monk from the aforementioned Springfield Cider in Monmouthshire was a discovery from last year’s festival that I was happy to reacquaint myself with, rustic, medium-dry and again uncompromisingly tannic.
It’s early days yet in the revival of traditional Irish cider but on the evidence of the Ulster examples on show in Chelmsford they’re already better ambassadors for Irish cider than Magners. Though they may not have existed without it.