The sun is up early and shining through the morning mist blanketing the wide, green countryside as the judges make their way past the sheep barn and onto the Orchards & Cider Pavilion. The judges are there to evaluate ciders and perries at what is probably the oldest competition of its kind in the world, held each summer at the Royal Bath and West Show just outside Shepton Mallet in Somerset, the heart of British Ciderland. With hundreds of drinks awaiting their consideration, the judges have a long day ahead of them. For the rest of the early crowd, they’re just looking to have a little fun.
The Royal Bath and West Show is the quintessential agricultural fair, a celebration of traditional rural arts and life blended with bits of modernity. Held since 1852, it’s got a little something for every taste. There are animals, of course — dairy and beef cattle, sheep, pigs, and poultry of all shapes and sizes, enormous draft horses and elegant jumpers, plus British specialty dog breeds. There are horseshoe-making competitions, blacksmithing, sheep shearing, hawking and herding demonstrations, and an enormous pavilion dedicated to bees, beekeeping, and honey judging.
Those less inclined to the celebration of country life can watch the judging for the British Cheese Awards while sampling regional cheeses from 20 or 30 different cheese vendors or kick back with a pasty and a pint at one of several rocking music stages. Those with kids can catch a ride on the steam-powered model railway or practice flying drones and model planes in the Imagineering Tent.
The big fun for cider enthusiasts, though, is back at the Orchards & Cider Pavilion. In the center, there’s an exhibit on Kingston Espicopi, the village home of the famous Kingston Black apple. Over in the corner, there’s a fellow demonstrating presses and mills. On the other side is a nursery that specializes in British apple varieties — for cider, cooking, and just plain eating — ready to advise guests on ones they might want to grow or to just talk about apples. Next to a table selling topical books is a chance to blindly taste six ciders and vote for a favorite to win the People’s Choice Award (won this year by Silly Cow Sweet Cider made by Courtney’s of Whimple in Devon).
The judges and their samples are cordoned off at one end, at least on day one. While they’re busy sipping and thinking, the rest of the crowd is hanging out and drinking cider, with a choice of some 20 ciders made by producers in Somerset, Devonshire and Cornwall — all 100-percent juice and completely delicious in a still, West-Country tannic kind of way. There are plenty of tables and chairs for sitting and listening to the musical trio that occasionally wanders through the space or watching the Morris dancers celebrating their ancient rhythms. Most of the crowd just stands around the bar chatting, pints in hand. It seems that no one remains a stranger long here in Ciderland.
Medal winners for both the British Cider Championship and the separately judged Bath and West International Cider Competition are posted on the afternoon of judging, though it isn’t until the next day that the top honors are announced. Meanwhile, there are periodic guided tastings with a cider maker pouring samples of a couple of ciders to the eagerly engaged crowd, sharing his or her thoughts on them and taking questions.
If agricultural fairs aren’t quite your thing, just a few days later you can head west a couple of hours to Bristol and partake in the many cider-centric events leading up to Cider Salon Bristol. Bristol is a hip and happening place. An important port town for many centuries, it’s one of those towns that has absorbed a little bit of a lot of cultures. Now home to two major universities, Bristol’s developed a vibrant nightlife and a thriving bar and restaurant scene. A stroll along the Avon River as it winds its way through the city center is a fine use of a lazy afternoon, and the Bristol Cider Shop at Wapping Wharf is a must-stop destination. More wandering is likely to take you to one of the many other venues featuring meet-the-maker cider tastings or special cider-pairing dinners.
The highlight of the week is, of course, the Cider Salon itself. Craft cider producers from around the United Kingdom share space with colleagues from Estonia, Italy, Portugal, the United States and elsewhere pouring tasting portions of an amazing array of small-batch ciders and perries. The crowd is lively and appreciative. Where else can one try a single varietal Dabinett cider from Sanford Orchards in Devonshire, step to the next table and sample one from Oliver’s Cider and Perry in Herefordshire, then cross the room for a pour of the same apple grown and fermented by Angry Orchard in New York? It’s a glorious way to spend a couple of hours, and it finishes all too soon. Reluctant to let the fun end, cider makers and attendees alike make their way down the street to a local pub and restaurant where the conversations and conviviality continue. It’s Ciderland in a nutshell — good people, good drink, good times.