An apple a day…

An apple a day…

Gabe Cook, cider maker and cider ambassador.

Cider maker Gabe Cook talks about meeting HM Queen Elizabeth II and cider trends.

Owner of quite possibly the most-manicured moustache in the brewing business is 32-year-old, Gloucestershire-born Gabe Cook. This cider maker and cider ambassador is on a crusade to enlighten us on all that’s great about the popular apple-based beverage. Yvonne Lorkin talked to Cook to get to the core of the issue.

Ciderology doesn’t just happen – it’s a passion built over time. Tell us about your background and how cider came to be such a huge part of your life?

I originally hail from Dymock, a small, historic village in the heart of Ciderland. Dymock is steeped in cider lore, with records showing cider being part of the rhythm of the land for centuries. A text from the 17th century describes how the finest ‘Redstreak Cider’ in the region was made here. The village even has a cider apple variety named after it, the eponymous Dymock Red.

I first tasted cider as a 10 year old – surreptitiously sipping away my brothers’ Christmas present – and it became my drink of choice as a student. But with traditional cider farms close to my village, I wanted to sample more ‘authentic’ options. This was how I found myself in the cider cellar at Broome Farm, in Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, serving my apprenticeship under award-winning cider maker, Mike Johnson. I ended up living and working on the farm for the best part of a year, residing in a shed in the garden (yes, really). At Broome Farm, I not only learnt how to make cider, but became imbued with a passion for the heritage, culture and traditions of this drink which is so deeply rooted in the region I was born and raised in.

I started to make my own cider and perry from trees on my Granny’s farm in Dymock, as well as using fruit from other local farms, which I know my forebears had harvested a hundred years before. I loved the connection to my heritage provided by grubbing about in old orchards on crisp, autumnal days and loved the satisfying taste of my own creation.

HM Queen Elizabeth II meets Gabe Cook at her Diamond Jubilee tour.
HM Queen Elizabeth II meets Gabe Cook at her Diamond Jubilee tour.

To my amazement I was able to forge a career in the UK cider industry, which saw me make cider for Westons (the fifth largest producer in the UK), and then act as Cider Communications Manager for Heineken, owner of the world’s largest cider maker, HP Bulmer. I even managed to present a special bottle of cider to HM Queen Elizabeth II as part of her Diamond Jubilee tour in 2012.

After travelling to New Zealand nine years ago, I had an ambition to come back and live and work here. So I gave it a crack, first living in Upper Moutere, Nelson where I worked for craft cidery Peckham’s and also Waimea Estates winery. This year I hopped across Cook Strait to make a new start in Wellington.

What were some of your observations about the New Zealand cider scene when you first arrived on our shores?

When I first visited New Zealand, cider occupied a very small corner of the chiller in the supermarket and finding a cider down the pub was nigh on impossible. 

Returning two years ago, it was clear New Zealand had caught on with the global cider renaissance.  Shelf space afforded to cider had grown massively and a multitude of brands were present, home grown and imported, and 500ml bottles had replaced riggers as the primary packaging format.

However, the category was still quite immature and dominated by ‘cider with fruit’. These Scandinavian-style ciders cater largely towards the younger demographic, with highly fruity aromas and sweetness. They can veer too close to the RTD end of the spectrum in my opinion, and are certainly far removed from what I would consider to be ‘proper’ cider.

You could see the first glimmers of products which could be described as ‘craft’, with a couple of offerings from producers made in a traditional style with longer maturation times than mainstream brands. But with relatively low production volumes, they were hard to find.

Are we becoming more cider-savvy?

Cider with fruit undoubtedly is still the driving force in the category. Its versatility, trendiness and mixed-sex appeal gives it a strong basis. But change is afoot. There are more apple cider brands on the market, emphasising use of 100% NZ grown apples. 

We’re seeing the foundations of a craft cider ‘scene’ in New Zealand now, with producers in Auckland, Hawkes Bay and Nelson all producing ciders that have strong craft credentials: quality raw materials, long maturation and good blending. These appeal to the more discerning consumer, someone who might otherwise opt for a craft beer or boutique wine.   

The average New Zealand customer is still fairly ignorant about cider however, so there’s a lot more education to be done. Time, and exposure to quality offerings will help build awareness, and I certainly intend to do my part.

Tell us about the New Zealand cider producers you admire.

I am slightly biased, as they’re a former employer of mine, but Peckham’s Cider down in Nelson are making some truly exceptional offerings. This small operation is based on the same Moutere Clay soils that produce some of the finest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in NZ, as well as NZ hop varieties such as Nelson Sauvin, highly sought after in the wake of the craft beer revolution. 

They grow traditional English style cider apple varieties that provide more complex flavours than your average Golden Delicious by containing high quantities of tannin. The result: rich, textured and bold ciders.

Zeffer, from Matakana, are the largest craft producer in NZ and have an array of different brands catering to different tastes and occasions. My favourite is the Hopped Up Pippin – a great infusion of NZ hops added to a tangy cider base.

An up-and-comer on the scene is Auckland based Forbidden Brewing Co. They recently won the Cider/Perry category at the New Zealand Brewers Guild Awards for their Simply Apple Cider. Keep an eye on them. 

What’s your mission as New Zealand’s official ciderologist?

To educate and inform Kiwis on what cider is. There are broad spectrums of product types out there, suiting different consumers on different occasions. But most crucially, I want people to know just how good cider can be. New Zealand is famed for its craft beers and award-winning wines. There’s no reason why its cider can’t be held in the same regard and I want to champion this.

Cider and food pairing – do you have favourite combos?

Cider is massively unheralded in this area, but it matches brilliantly with so many different foods. The classic pairing is cider with cheese. And there are as many different styles of cider as there are cheeses, so the combinations are endless.

A salty, blue cheese balances perfectly with a medium sweet, but fresh, tangy cider; whereas a deep, rich, vintage cheddar was made to be cut into big chunks, put on a piece of crusty bread and swallowed down with a rich, complex, tannic cider.

Cider and curries rock. The natural acidity of the cider cuts through the richness of the curry, cleansing the palate, but also has the body to complement the robustness.

Which future trends can you see ahead for cider retailers?

I envisage more imports of cider into the country, as the consumer seeks to try new brands. These imports will come largely from the highly developed UK market, but we’ll see more Australian brands on the shelves too.

I’d like to see continued growth of a strong and vibrant craft cider scene. There are so many talented fruit growers and brewers/winemakers in the country, that I can foresee some truly exceptional products being made in the next few years that will firmly put NZ on the global cider map.

You can keep up to date with Gabe’s tips, picks, tastings and travels on .

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