I wish I liked cider. It ticks the same boxes as other passions I have: artisanal, local, historic, rooted in terroir, produced by dedicated enthusiasts, enjoyed by dedicated enthusiasts. I’m delighted that there are hard-working campaigners eager to promote the joys of cider, people pushing the attractions of a drink that has been part of the English countryside for a millennium and more, and I’m thrilled that more cider producers seem to be starting up, and more drinkers are turning to cider. But I won’t be buying any myself.
I don’t know why I don’t like cider: why do we like, or not like, anything? Taste is a mystery. I don’t actively dislike cider, the way I dislike, for example, chewing gum, or artichokes, or hot custard, or limoncello, or Mrs Brown’s Boys. Cider just leaves me underwhelmed. I would vastly, vastly, every time I do drink cider, rather have a pint of beer: any beer. I knew from the moment I first tried beer, when I was 14, that I loved it, and I have had many, many “wow!” moments with beer, when the flavours, the experience, the exquisite coming together of sensory inputs, produce a rush of dopamine that almost blows your brain out of your ears. I have had (though by no means as often) similar rushes with red wine, with white wine (I remember a Pouilly Fumé from Tracy that I drank in a hotel in Ireland …), even with whisky. Never with cider. I have never even, with cider, come as close as “That was good, I’ll have another one of those.” With beer, that happens all the time – all the time.
I can see that there will be plenty to appreciate in cider: the variety that comes from dozens – hundreds – of types of cider apple, the changes caused by terroir, not just the soil, but the different strains of yeasts that live on the apples, the variations from year to year, the skills of the cider maker, the alterations brought on by age … it’s no different from beer, or wine, or whisky. And if you’re a cider lover, I’m very pleased for you: it’s tremendous, I’m sure, exploring that world, making discoveries, revisiting old favourites. I’m genuinely sorry I can’t join in.
Don’t say, cider enthusiasts, “Oh, you’ve never been exposed to great cider.” Many years back I had a girlfriend whose brother lived in the small Devon village of Tedburn St Mary, which had, at that time, two farms making highly regarded cider. We decided to take four gallons of Tedburn cider back to Hertfordshire for a beer festival we were helping to organise. You turned up at the farm, and there, in a huge, darkened barn, were rows of aged oak butts filled with maturing cider, dry as sandpaper, slightly cloudy and greeny-gold. The farmer would happily sweeten the cider if you wished, but we decided that we wanted it to be as authentic a West Country scrumpy experience as could be found, so we went for the straight-from-the-barrel version, despite being slightly worried that the palates of Herts cider drinkers might not be up to appreciating Devon’s acidic, throat-stripping best. We should not have worried. The Tedburn cider was roaringly popular, and we could probably have sold twice as much as we did. But while many loved it – I stayed on the beer. We had also brought back a couple of firkins of bitter from Palmer’s brewery in Bridport, Dorset, and after two weeks maturing in my shed, they were quite superb.
Tastes change: I’ve told the story here before of how my daughter, at 14, told me she would never drink tea or coffee, and how by the time she went to university she was not just consuming large volumes of both, but was actually drinking proper ground coffee, not the vile “instant” version (rather annoying, frankly: means I have to keep a close watch on household coffee supplies, lest we run out and I can’t get a cup of hot Java myself when I need one.) And you can educate your own tastes: I deliberately cultivated a liking for whisky when I was in my 20s, because I felt it was something I should like. (Pretentious, I know, but hey, I was in my 20s …) Here’s the thing, though: I now like malt whisky, but pretty exclusively Islay and the other west coast peat monsters. I like red wine, but really only shiraz and zinfandel. I like white wine, but outside sauvignon blanc, and chenin, you can largely forget it. That says, to me, because I have firm favourites, I’m not really enthusiastic about wine, or whisky . With beer, on the other hand, I am open to everything and anything. And with cider – it’s a “meh” from me, regardless of whether it’s from a tiny artisanal producer deep in the Normandy bocage, or a massive factory in Herefordshire. I’ve not liked cider for more than 50 years now: I do not believe there is a cider maker on my road to any personal Damascus.
Don’t hate me, cider drinkers, though I know it’s hard to understand why someone can’t like something you love. Somebody on Twitter yesterday asked the question: “What’s the thing that everyone else seems to enjoy but you just don’t get it?”, and replied to their own tweet: “My answer: children. Sorry, parents.” And I thought: “OK, intellectually I can grasp that you find children a turn-off, and you’re not able to see what the pleasures are, and you are, of course, entirely right in being true to yourself and affirming that. But while my intellect understands that you don’t like children and you can’t understand why others do, emotionally I can’t relate to that at all.” I remember the exact moments when I was happiest: three in the morning, in the summer of 1999, when my daughter, then only a couple of months old, had been given her middle-of-the-night feed by her mother, and as my wife went back to sleep I lay in the dark bedroom with a warm, tiny, quiet, contented, milk-filled baby lying on my chest, her little froggy legs splayed out, as I waited for her to begin snoozing too, so that I could gently return her to her cot. In that room, at that moment, listening to my child breathing, I felt at the centre of a universe of love. Now that former baby is 21, a lively, smart, sassy, popular young woman, and I am hugely proud of her, and I greatly look forward to seeing what she will do with her life. I have seen the pain of those who wanted children and could not have them, I thought for a long time myself I would not be a father, and I know how very lucky I am that I have a child. So if you say: “I just don’t get the attractions of being a parent,” my reply, I think, is: “I just don’t get the attractions of cider. But I’m certainly not going to tell you that you’re wrong.”
If you’re thinking: “Hey – you can’t compare not wanting children with not liking cider,” it may well be a category error. But if so, it’s a common category error. Among the other responses to the “What’s the thing that everyone else seems to enjoy but you just don’t get” tweet were “Yorkshire pudding”, “reality TV”, “Formula One”, “dogs”, “Rauchbier”, “football”, “massages”, “gin”, “the Beatles” and “the National Trust”. I suggest that there are at least three different categories in that list. Dogs, like children, are something that you either have an emotional involvement with or you don’t: I suspect it’s a hard-wired reaction based on your genetic make-up, and nothing is going to change someone who is indifferent to dogs into a dog-lover, or someone who is indifferent to children into the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. You have a response in your hindbrain that kicks in with secretions of pleasure hormones at the sight of a furry coat or a dimpled cheek, or you don’t, and nothing will change that.
The next category consists of things you could learn to appreciate, and like, if you were given enough exposure. I began watching football – soccer, Americans – long enough ago that I grew to understand when the difficult was being done in front of me with panache, with verve, with rare skill, and to enjoy it, and to sometimes get those “wow!” moments that every sports fan savours. Alongside the memory of that bottle of Pouilly Fumé in the Irish hotel sits a one-two at Loftus Road in the mid-1970s between a thundering Dave Thomas, socks down, running in from the left wing, and a stationary Stan Bowles in the centre circle, a play that everybody knew from the moment it began would end with the other team’s bam totally boozled: Thomas, as he ran through, flicking the ball to Bowles, Bowles knocking it without hesitation straight back into the path of the sprinting winger, who struck the ball on the hoof past a flailing goalkeeper, while the opposition defenders froze, knowing they were in danger but not sure from which man the danger would come. It was four or five seconds of beauty and joy to treasure always. In contrast, I don’t get American football at all, or basketball, or baseball, or ice hockey; but I am entirely happy to admit that this is because I haven’t an idea what is going on, and I can’t tell when what is happening on the field is good or bad. If you made me watch enough games, if there was someone pointing out to me exactly why this move was good, that move showed great skill, and that move was poor, then I believe I would probably eventually “get” baseball, or ice hockey, the way I certainly “get” soccer. I quite like rugby, because I’ve watched it enough to grasp some of what is happening, but I saw the Rugby World Cup on TV once in the clubhouse at London Irish, when the audience was filled with people who played rugby professionally – former international players, even – and the ejaculations and mutterings during the game showed they were seeing, understanding and appreciating far more than I was, because their knowledge was far greater than mine.
The third category sort-of overlaps with the previous two: if you don’t like the Beatles, it may be because you don’t have a hard-wired response that reacts with pleasure to what the Beatles do; or it may be for the same reason that you probably don’t like Indonesian gamelan, or modern jazz: it’s too far outside your familiarity zone for you to understand it. Or your dislike may be because you have emotional reactions to the Beatles that are unconnected to their music – you hate Baby Boomers, Baby Boomers love the Beatles (and the National Trust), so … I used not to like Frank Sinatra, because he represented all that teenage me thought square, old and dull. But as I heard more Sinatra, so I started to appreciate what a tremendous performer he was, his phrasing, his timing, as immaculate as Django Reinhardt’s guitar. Persuading a Beatles hater to change their mind by pointing out all the extraordinarily clever stuff going on in “A Day in the Life” might work, provided that emotional reactions, or lack of emotional reactions, are not getting in the way. On the other hand, familiarity is not always necessary to appreciation. Some people hear, for example, gamelan for the first time and love it straight away: to use an expression from George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, it speaks to their condition. Nor does familiarity automatically breed appreciation: I love traditional Irish music, while my wife, born in Dublin, hates it …
Finally we get to Yorkshire pudding, gin, Rauchbier – and cider. Do you not like Rauchbier, or gin, because you are unfamiliar with them, because you have not had the chance to learn their subtleties and attractions, or because whatever others see in them simply doesn’t speak to your condition, you don’t have the wiring to tune in to the attractions of juniper, or smoke? I know I like bitter flavours, I love blood orange juice, which contains bitter anthocyanins, much more than I do ordinary orange juice. Tart, sharp, sour flavours on their own – not so much. If you don’t like Rauchbier solely because it’s way over there outside your experience zone, then you can learn to like it: I wasn’t keen on the products of the Schlenkerla brewery when I tried them first, but I learnt, after repeated exposure, that these are very fine beers indeed. If smoke really is not your thing, however, if you’re never going to get wise to a smoky Weizen because your pleasure receptors are simply not wired to light up at the reek of burning wood, then you could drink Rauchbier every day and still never find in it what those who love it find. And that’s how it is with me and cider. I just don’t like it. Sorry.