I have read the works of Cicero, Ferguson, Plato, Homer and Gibbon and the answer – as usual in academia – appears to be “it depends”. Instead, I should have read Tom Hickman’s seminal book “Drink – A User’s Guide.” It settles the issue by page 21 when he notes “the Greeks and the Romans spurned beer. It was a barbarian brew which some Greek physicians believed caused leprosy.” 

Instead, the classical Greek and Roman idea of civilisation was drinking very sweet wine which was 15-16% alcohol and scented with flowers, perfume, myrrh and rushes. Given that choice, I’m proudly taking my barbarian beer man card any day of the week. However, there was another choice, cider which he describes as being “unique… neither wine (though made like wine) nor beer (though drunk like beer) and produced in as wide a variety of styles as either.” [2]

Cider is a fermented alcoholic beverage made from fruit, in this case usually apples. In America, cider often refers to non-alcoholic apple juice while hard cider contains alcohol, usually between 2% and 8.5% (typically around 5%). In 1773, American patriots boarded a ship in the Boston harbour and tipped tea overboard to protest import taxes imposed by the tyrannical English regime. What is apparently lesser known is that they also boarded a second ship carrying cider. The contents of that ship were not poured into the sea, instead they took it home to drink. 

In “Drink – A User’s Guide”, Hickman speculates that the ancient Egyptians may have been the first to drink cider. He argues “they grew apple trees along the Nile delta after all. There’s no direct evidence but it would be injudicious to assume they didn’t – they thought of pretty much everything else.” [3]

Certainly the English Saxons in Kent were enjoying many a pint of cider as early as 55BC when the Romans arrived. Hickman describes the Romans as the “Johnny Appleseeds’ of the ancient world” who introduced the drink across their global empire. “Julius Caesar was such an enthusiast that he had cider-apple tree seeds and saplings taken to Rome, though not much came of it.”

By the 19th century, he writes that “the cider drinkers were mostly in the Euro belt between the grape growing south and the grain growing north, on a diagonal from Bavaria to Somerset in the toe of England, with a detour into northern Spain.” Though it is not reflected in history, cider was once the “most abundant and the cheapest fluid” in the fledgling colony of America. Even in the 20th century, temperance activists chopped down whole orchards because virtually all apples were being turned into cider. 

It is a matter of public record that I am not a cider drinker. I follow the approach of my literary and drinking hero Kingsley Amis – his “distilled guide” to “Everyday Drinking”  has no references at all to cider. [4] Conversely, two of my favourite cinematic drinkers – Withnail and Marwood from the quite brilliant movie “Withnail and I” movie – drink enormous amounts of wine, cider, gin, sherry, vodka, lighter fluid and whisky with only a short snifter of ale during the entire duration of the film.  Their standard order at the bar appears to be two large gins and two pints of cider with ice. [5]

Given my combined lack of knowledge about cider, appreciation of cider and an abiding suspicion that Colin the Handsome Yet Softly Spoken Scottish Proprietor makes me do columns about cider every year or so just to mess with me, the tasting notes for the ciders currently available at Malthouse will be even more brief than usual. 

Cider, once hugely popular in New Zealand, virtually disappeared before roaring back onto the scene around 2009. The drink is estimated to make up around 2% of alcohol sales though Statistics New Zealand (somewhat bizarrely) does not currently collect official figures.

The Malthouse cider list includes 8Wired Oaked Dry Cider (“dry, oaky, tart and somewhat funky”), Townshend Laurie Lee Cider (proper English cider on handpull), Crooked Cider (“for those who don’t celebrate mediocrity”), Kerisac Cider (it is from France), Rochdale Cider (from McCashin’s family brewery), Weka Cider (made by Moa), Old Mout (including Feijoa and Cider, Boysencider and Scrumpy), Peckham’s Cider (made by English people in Upper Moutere which is rapidly becoming a hub of good drinks) and Monteith’s Berry Cider.

All this talk of cider calls to mind a 19th century temperance poem which, by some incredible coincidence is also in “Drink – A User’s Guide”. It reads:

Cider I will not sip,
It shall not pass my lip
Because it has made drunkards by the score,
The apples I will eat, but cider, hard or sweet,
I will not touch, or taste, or handle more –

So basically, if you don’t try a cider at Malthouse this week, Doug Sellman wins.

Next time, we drink champagne with Charles Chauvel at the United Nations. 

[1] I did three Classical Studies papers at the Victoria University of Wellington. 

[2] This is the quote I paraphrased for the title of this post. It was much cleverer than my initial draft of “Cider: Fizzy apple juice – I just don’t see the attraction”.

[3] The Ancient Egyptians actually invented the prototype of Facebook by writing on walls and worshipping images of cats. [6]

[4] To put that omission in context, he has multiple references to James Bond, antics with fruit, Bovril, breakfasts for hangovers and sex for curing a hangover. The last one is on page 81 for those following along at home.

[5] Until my research today, I was unaware that the belligerent Irishman in the pub who calls Withnail and Marwood “perfumed ponces” went onto to play the loveable Irish sidekick in the 70+ series of Sharpe movies.

[6] Don’t tell Gareth Morgan.[7]

[7] Colin added footnote [6], oh and now footnote [7].


Beer Writer
Beer and Brewer Magazine


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