As perhaps the world’s only ciderologist, Gabe Cook travels the globe for all things cider - brewing it, tasting it, judging it, commentating about it.
While he sports an impressive ‘mo’ almost as big as his personality, he’s about more than a cider on a sunny afternoon. Cook is very passionate and articulate, particularly around artisan production and sustainability. He’s qualified too, with a Masters in Sustainable Development Advocacy focused on the cider industry. He completed his thesis on cider’s role as a lure for regional tourism. We quizzed him about his career and all things cider.
What’s a ciderologist?
As a Ciderologist I'm attempting to redefine the way we think about cider. There are any number of wonderfully knowledgeable, articulate and entertaining beer and wine writers, sommeliers, critics, suppliers and consumers. But poor old cider doesn’t have any of this…..yet. I am on a mission to demonstrate that cider can exude as much quality and finesse as any wine and strut as much character and brazen attitude as any craft beer.
Being a Ciderologist is all about extending knowledge and passion for this wonderful drink through a variety of means - from hosting education classes and tastings and to presenting and writing on all things apples!
Cider is on the rise all over the world, not just in the traditional areas of Northern Europe. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be involved in a growing global industry.
Tell us about your background and how you became passionate about cider?
I come from a little village in the heart of Ciderland - the West of England. Here, there is a heritage of cider making going back nearly a millennium. I grew up surrounded by this tradition, with old orchards and cider makers aplenty. After enjoying cider with family and friends, then graduating and travelling, I went to work on a small, local cider farm. Here I spent the best part of a year living on the farm (in a shed in the garden – no, really), learning the craft of cider making.
But I came to realise that cider brought together all of my interests - landscape (I’m a geography grad), local history, nature, science. It also helps that I enjoy drinking the stuff! So I knew cider was the path for me, and I’ve been making, talking about, and judging it, ever since.
How do you find the perfect cider? What do you look for?
Much like life, cider is all about balance. There are any number of different styles of cider; as there are for wine or beer. You can’t really say Sauvignon Blanc is better than Pinot Noir, or that an IPA is better than a Porter. They’re so different in terms of aroma, flavour and mouthfeel, and everyone has a different preference.
But, there are exceptional interpretations of these drinks, and some not so good. For cider, it’s all about structure and balance. You want to have a range of different aromatic and flavour components all working together harmoniously to make a fabulous drink.
Why are you visiting New Zealand?
First and foremost I’m here to have a holiday! I used to live in the Moutere Valley, Nelson, so I’m back in the region catching up with friends, visiting some of my favourite places and basking in some sunshine. It’s a pretty good time, weather wise, to be out of the UK!
Whilst out here I’m doing some work, also. I’ve helped lead a tour of US Cider Makers around both islands, visiting top NZ cider makers and orchardists. And last, but not least, I am here to be the Head Cider Judge at the New World Beer and Cider Awards in Wellington. I judged at this competition back in 2016 and enjoyed it so much I’m back again!
Do you think New Zealanders are becoming more keen on selecting cider as their drink of choice?
Cider has grown so much in volume over the last decade that the range of products available to consumers is considerably better than it has ever been. I came to NZ as part of my OE in 2006 and there was barely a cider on the shelf. Now there are entire bays dedicated to the fermented apple. Fantastic!
Undoubtedly, New Zealanders are increasingly turning to cider as their first preference, but there is a long way to go. For many, the preconception of cider is of being sickly sweet. And they’re not wrong – there are many mainstream, super sweet cider offerings. But it doesn’t have to be this way. You can get amazingly dry and bold ciders, too. It’s all about experimenting and trying new products from different producers.
Wine and food matches are fairly standard – what do you match cider with?
Cider and wine share a number of the same aromatic and flavour profiles, so you can approach food and cider matching in the same way that you would with wine. But cider does have amazing matches bettered by no other drink. Try a big, fruity, sweetish cider with blue cheese and you will be in heaven. Cider matches excellently with curries. Try a bold, tannic cider with a Chicken Bhuna or Lamb Dansak. Awesome. Luckily, cider is also a brilliant match with bbq food. As well as being a thirst-quencher the fruitiness, will match perfectly with the pork sausages.
I hear you’re a big advocate of sustainability – tell me about that?
I did a practical MA in sustainability, looking at real life, sustainable solutions to challenges that face businesses, public sector organisations and charities. That experience gave me an appreciation of the challenges currently facing the world, and an insight for what might happen in the future. Sustainability is a word that covers so much, that I think make people misunderstand it, or are turned off bit. Some think it just means being environmentally friendly. Well, that’s one aspect, but it’s also about places and systems being economically sustainable. Most crucially, it’s about people. It’s about culture, tradition, communities, mental health, social justice etc. It’s about trying to create a sustainable society.
Rather neatly, cider can be an incredibly sustainable drink:
• Profitable for the producer who can invest then in their community
• Although not truly wild habitats, orchards are a more sensitive environment for wildlife than a monoculture of wheat, for example, and those trees are marvellous carbon sequestrators (taking carbon out of the atmosphere and locking it up)
• Orchards are wonderful, communal and fun environments, and cider is a fun and communal drink (when enjoyed in moderation!)
You’ve spent a bit of time in the great outdoors of New Zealand – where is your most favourite place you’ve visited so far?
That’s the toughest question of the lot! There are so many beautiful places here, of course. I thoroughly enjoyed Wellington – such a brilliantly vibrant and cosmopolitan city. Equally, the wild ruggedness of the South Island West Coast is always something to be marvelled at.
When I lived in NZ, I spent most of my time exploring the Top of the South, and it’s up here that my favourite places lie. Top of the list is the Marlborough Sounds. Such epic beauty and isolation. To be able to just pop out on the water for a kayak and fish, and then go back to the bach for a bbq and a cider with friends is about as good as it gets, right?
The New World Beer & Cider Awards 2018 are held in Wellington each year. Nearly 600 beer and ciders from NZ and around the world will be swirled, sniffed, sipped and rated over two days of judging by a 16-strong expert panel. More than a dozen pallets of gear will be moved into place, and he stewarding team will pour thousands of tasting glasses to a carefully orchestrated plan, working to serve each one in prime condition.