The tasting room is full of the heady smell of fermented apples and alcohol, and the sound of good-natured conversation and laughter. The tasters, who are in various states of inebriation having been drinking now for a good couple of hours, are huddled around worn wooden tables upon which sit multiple plastic cups filled with amber liquid of varying levels and hues. Marking sheets, with scribbled notes denoting flavours, balance, and sweetness, litter the table and, after taking a mouthful from their cups, each taster marks a number on the matrix – giving the cider they have just drank a definitive mark out of ten against key pre-defined characteristics. This is the judging room of a U.K. regional cider festival and the tasters, who are all cider-makers themselves, are assessing the best ciders of this year’s event. After judging, the marks will be totalled, and the awards bestowed to fortunate winners who will use the award to differentiate their product as high quality craft in an increasingly crowded market.
I open with this vignette as it highlights an inherent process not only in craft cider making, but arguably in the creation of much food and drink knowledge – that of abstracting and codifying an embodied subjective experience into a normative framework, in this context one of quality. This post, then, offers a cursory exploration of how cider-makers learn their craft through embodied practice, as well as a brief reflection on the critical interplays between food, bodies, the senses, and knowledge.
Manual labour is a central tenet to many a cider-maker’s narrative about the ingredients required for a good tasting cider, and it is in such embodied practices that craft is often located. The maker’s body is present at each stage of the process – hand-picking apples, hand-washing them in cold water, inspecting each apple individually for blemishes, and pressing the pomace all involve hard physical work. “A bad back” is a common answer to what defines craft cider (and a cider-maker). Mechanised processes that absent the maker’s body are therefore, not surprisingly, deemed problematic insomuch as they are seen to detract from the taste of a drink made and defined through a labour-intensive practice. In concert with this is a valorisation of slowness: quality is perceived to diminish with the increased speed of production mechanisation brings, with one maker telling me a rival’s cider had become less flavoursome or, in his words “lost its oomph,” since its maker had shifted towards new technologies. The pace of production matters, with cider-makers echoing the established popular argument that slow food equates to care and quality – and enhanced value.
Further elevating a cider is an apple-rich flavour, which not only comes from the slow and manual production process, but also emerges from the absence of “added extras” in the form of artificial yeasts, sulphites and, perhaps most importantly, sugar. It may appear obvious that cider should taste of and comprise apples, but I have observed heated debates amongst makers regarding the exact percentage of apples required to constitute cider as “cider,” and the use of apple concentrate is disparaged. Many attempt to make their cider as “pure” and “natural” as possible, with the consistent truth among makers being that the higher the apple content and more “natural” the fermentation process, the more flavoursome the cider. It is not just the bodies of the makers, but also those of the apples and other matter that do the work of making cider.
Cider can thereby be seen as a nature-culture hybrid, with the nonhuman raw materials – whether they are apples, natural and artificial yeasts, or the trace elements found in wooden fermentation barrels – acting to produce flavour and aroma. Such substances are vital components in the process and act upon and create affect and effect in makers just as much as makers’ bodies act upon their raw materials. The “oomph” of a quality craft cider emerges from these interactions between the human and nonhuman that occur during the slow production and fermentation process. Craft cider-making is thus as a collaboration of multiple bodies, rather than an imposition of the human body onto nature.
The value makers place on manual labour, slowness, and natural production also enables them to diametrically oppose their cider as craft – and their own bodies as craft-makers – to that of the global manufacturers, who are regarded as producing a sugary sweet alcoholic drink distinctly lacking in apple flavour. Craft cider is not a discrete self-defined category, but one that is contingent and constructed in relation to an “other,” in this case global drinks manufacturers. In this sense, cider is just another example of the ways in which artisanal foods are formulated in relation to agri-capitalism. But I also want to stress the role that the flavours and scents of craft cider, and especially their inconsistencies, play in creating such otherness. Industrial ciders are seen by craft makers to be homogenous, tasteless, and toosweet because they are (understood to be) made from apple concentrate with added sugar by fast and careless processes that mechanise and compress the interactions between human and nonhuman bodies, rather than with naturally fermented apples that are carefully “guided” over time .
Such celebrations of the inconsistencies found in craft do not align well, however, with external normative frameworks, such as Protected Geographical Indications (PGIs). At first glance, these look to resonate strongly with cider-makers’ values in that they aim to provide a counter to the seemingly “placeless” and homogenised products of agri-capitalism by celebrating place-based products and culturally distinct production practices. But they do so in a manner that necessarily abstracts and codifies specific characteristics of a food or drink by emphasising its place-based particularities – which are, by their vital nature and as cider-making shows, unpredictable and inconsistent. As indicated in the judging room, the process of abstracting characteristics of cider, which are subjectively made and experienced through taste and smell, into a codified quality framework is not a process without its challenges. Makers acquire their knowledge of cider through trial and error, which inevitably involves drinking, tasting, looking at, and smelling a lot of cider. This, in turn, results in the development of a palate and an embodied lens through which different elements of a cider can be assessed and valued. Makers’ bodies and their senses are therefore at the forefront of not just making cider, but also knowledge about cider; an embodied practice that can be cast as another form of collaboration between human and nonhuman bodies, with the human body obtaining knowledge of the materials of cider, such as apples, yeasts and alcohol, and these vital substances acting upon the maker’s body to produce embodied knowledge.
These entanglements between human and nonhuman bodies do not occur in isolation, but are, of course, in dialogue with other forms of knowledge about cider and its making. It is through these wider interactions that makers (re)produce maker-centric quality frameworks about desired (and undesired) tastes and attribute codifiable qualities, such as sweet, dry and apple-rich, to the substances being sensed. As makers use their bodies to guide the nonhuman to produce flavour and then abstract their own subjective embodied experiences to create codified knowledge of what constitutes a quality craft cider, they arguably, in turn, shape the experiences of other bodies, i.e. those of consumers, who are taught how to discern quality and sense the “oomph” of craft cider. Bodies, in all their human and nonhuman forms, and the interactions between them, are thus central to both the making and assessment of craft cider.