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ERIC WEST (Intro): Bill Bradshaw—photographer, author, cider enthusiast, and all-around super nice guy—joins me for Episode 3. Based in Somerset, England, Bill has been documenting the world of cider through his excellent photography since 2004. He and I chat about his first book as a solo author—Cider Enthusiasts’ Manual—and how it came about. We also chat about small-scale cidermaking in the South West of England, the push and pull between innovation and tradition in the US and the UK, his previous book—World’s Best Ciders—and the talent of his co-author Pete Brown, cider festivals, cider competitions, and much much more.
Here’s my conversation with Bill Bradshaw.
ERIC WEST: Bill, your newest book is Cider Enthusiasts’ Manual and it’s published by Haynes. Can you tell me a little bit about how this project came about? And how a publisher like Haynes was interested in bringing it out?
BILL BRADSHAW: Well, I had a phone call from a nice lady called Louise at Haynes. And she said we’re looking for someone to write a cider manual. Do you think you would do it? And I said, look, I’m not really an author. I’ve done some writing, I’m not a great writer. But I certainly I feel I know enough to write a basic guide—a beginner’s guide. And she said, well, that’s what we want is a nice step-by-step guide of how to make cider.
And I had some reservations because there are a lot of good books already that are very simple and very self-explanatory about how to make cider. It’s a pretty simple process when you strip it right back. And I didn’t want to do just another one of them and throw it out there and compete on a really average level. I was thinking, can we do something a little bit different? And rather than just do another technical manual, do a manual for beginners and people that are interested and don’t know much.
But it covers much more than just that kind of basic process or science. It’s a lot more—it’s a lot broader, a lot more holistic. It talks a bit more about the history or some of the social or cultural stuff. How it goes with food. Growing apples. It introduces all the different threads you can have when you’re interested in the subject. And basically it is the kind of book I was looking for when I first started looking into cider as a subject and getting interested in it, and it wasn’t out there. You would’ve had to buy a book on how to make it, or a book on the history of it, you know.
WEST: I like that subtitle, The Enthusiats’ Manual. And it’s not just for cider appreciation necessarily, or pairing with food, or recipes. Although you do include those things. But it really is about someone who wants to learn a little bit more behind what the drink is, how to grow the fruit, and how to make the cider. I think that’s a really nice take. And obviously, the photography is top notch. I think that puts you head and shoulders above other similar manuals.
BRADSHAW: I do like the photography. It’s not quite as good as it would normally be. It’s the back end of three cider manuals, all done back-to-back within an 18 month period. The way the deadlines fell was terrible timing for seasonal stuff. I just did what I could from my archive. And I was reasonably happy with it. And even some of the stuff I shot on my phone, actually. Because I didn’t have the camera on me when I bumped into stuff. Which worked out fine. It’s typical for Haynes, let’s put it that way. It’s not as good as it could be, but it’s part of the Haynes aesthetic, it’s fair to say.
WEST: My only experience with Haynes is walking around the auto parts store, for the manuals. I don’t know quite what their catalog is like in the US. For those people who are not sure, this is something that you would normally buy if you were trying to take apart your Jeep Cherokee’s transmission or something, and put it back together. It has all those exploded drawings in it so you can see how go together, pull apart and come back together.
Is Haynes based is Somerset? Is that why the connection came about?
BRADSHAW: No, they just wanted someone to write about cider. And they don’t always get writers in. They’ll often get passionate, enthusiastic people. I don’t know why particularly they would end up like that. But they seem to be happy with that. And they were happy with me doing it. And I guess they did a little bit of research and got hold of me. It’s more of a coincidence than anything. In terms of marketing it, it’s been quite helpful. A lot of local media quite like a local story. We’ve got a really strong tradition of cider here in Somerset, so it’s quite nice to have a Somerset product in Somerset’s mind. A Somerset author and a Somerset company.
WEST: It looks like you pulled together an all-star team of experts to contribute sidebars. I guess you call it your Top Tips Team?
BRADSHAW: I don’t know about pulling them together. These are people I deal with from time to time, really nice people I get on with. I just thought, well what else can I do to make it a little better and make it stand out. Introduce a few of the people that have helped me learn a lot about cider. How can I get them out there a little bit. And get the rest of the world to say, well, who is this Andrew Lea? Who is this Henry Chevallier? Who is this Roger Wilkins person? And then they can take those names and carry on the search, I suppose.
WEST: One thing that I wanted to ask you about, is that here in the US, a lot of people get into home-scale cidermaking through homebrewing, through making their own beer at home. Is it more, in England, is it more your smallholder who has some trees, or people who are just making cider for just making cider? Maybe people who don’t have experience making beer, or country wines, or anything like that?
BRADSHAW: I don’t think we have, so far as I can tell, the same kind of scenario going on. The brewers tend to brew beer and stick to that. And people with apple trees, or cider drinkers, tend to want to make cider and stick to that. There doesn’t seem to be much of a crossover between the two. You guys in the States are much more open-minded about stuff like that. We’re a bit more stuck in our ways here.
But most people who seem to make cider are, people who have moved into a new house where they happen to have a few apple trees, and they think, well it’s a shame they go to waste every year, let’s try and make some cider. And then they start looking into the type of apple it is, and the type of cider they like, and they go down that route. Or there are people that don’t have any apple trees, but really adore cider. And they’ll just go out and scrump whatever they can. Beg, borrow, and steal apples from anyone and everyone. And find a way to make it by hook or by crook.
WEST: And I know in the UK, it seems like you have the advantage of being able to make a certain volume of cider without having to pay excise tax on it, is that right?
BRADSHAW: Yeah, and it’s such a blessing. It really, really is. We refer to it as the duty limit. If you make under 7,000 liters, you don’t have to pay any tax on it. So it has the effect of keeping the skills alive, the experience of cidermaking alive, without having a financial implication on those small people who probably wouldn’t do it otherwise. If you do happen to own a smallholding with trees, and you have some sheep and some pigs and a couple of cows and maybe a horse, that kind of green, alternative lifestyle. You make your own food, you grow your own meat, whatever. That can become part of your arsenal. The guys that keep that tradition alive. And typically it’s always been farmers. They’ve always made it because their grandpa always made it, and they’ve always had apples trees there, and that’s what they do, it’s another little crop in a way.
WEST: So this would’ve grown out of the farmgate sales tradition, where people would just come and visit the farm. There were some exemptions for people who were selling on such a small scale like that?
BRADSHAW: I don’t know if there always were traditionally. It used to be, I don’t how much you or your listeners know, but the agricultural economy in the South West of England was built almost entirely around cider. It sounds a bit excessive, but farmers used to have to pay for laborers at certain times of year, particularly harvest. To be efficient, you want the best laborers to work the hardest. So part of their pay would be in cider. And the longer, the hotter the days, the more cider would be allocated per day.
And the consequence of that was, that the guys who made the best cider, ended up with the best workers. So there was a real circular pattern. If I want the best workers, I have to make the best cider. And that happened year in, year out. And I think it was finally abolished sometime in the ’50s. It was still going on in the ’50s, but it was abolished before that. It was called The Truck Act.
Basically, people were paid in cider. It was cleaner than the water. Babies were baptized in it. It had a real, deep cultural importance, the cider. And the respect for good trees, good orcharding, and great cidermaking, has really grown from that. And it’s never really gone away. And I think the duty allowance has been created to protect that heritage. And it does seem to work really well. Everyone’s always worried about it going up all the time, maybe this year, maybe that year. But so far, so good.
WEST: It seems like something that you said, that you’ve never really lost that tradition. I think that’s the major difference between England and the US. We’ve had this multi-generational gap, where we don’t really know what kind of traditions to draw on. Aside from someone like Tom Burford or someone in their 70s or 80s who maybe kind of remembers that period, we’ve really lost that connection to our past here. I think that’s one reason why we look so much to the West Country to see somewhere where that art has never really been lost.
BRADSHAW: I think you’re right. That in itself, referring to the US and your loss of tradition, that has its own advantages. You guys might be looking at and saying it’s really sad, I can’t believe it, what a bummer. I look at it and think all of that is well, but you know what, what else does it allow? What has it freed up? And you guys are so open-minded, you’ll try anything! You can achieve anything, because you’ve got nothing important in that regard to hold on to, it’s already gone. You’ll say, well, we’re going to start again. And we’re going to start again, the year 2000, the year 2015, whenever start making cider. And it’s been getting bigger and bigger. I know there have been people doing it much longer than that. But it’s definitely grown large in the last 15 or 20 years in the US.
Some of your ideas work, and some of them don’t. But what I love is that people are trying them. It makes me turn back around and face the West Country. And all of the guys I know and hang about with and get to learn about, and think, well what are you guys trying? Where’s your new ideas? We’re going to get left behind! It makes me want to bang the drum a bit, and say come on! Hence the blog post I did this morning about Tom Oliver and his innovative hopped cider.
WEST: It’s interesting to see these feedback loops as we do become more connected. An example of what’s happened with craft beer, since that’s my background, is that you can go to England now and get American-style IPAs.
BRADSHAW: They’re all over the place now!
WEST: There’s these cross-cultural ideas going back and forth across the Atlantic. I don’t know if similar things will happen with cider, at least maybe not the traditional, real cider. But experiments like the hopped cider, it may accelerate based on that feedback with people on different sides trying different things. It’s exciting! I agree with you, you have to look at it as not necessarily a loss of tradition, but looking forward at the same time as keeping your roots planted in the past.
BRADSHAW: I think it’s really important. Without the connection you’re referring to, where we talk to each other and try and find out about each other a little bit more, it’s never really going to go anywhere. And die a cold, miserable death. And that’s the last thing that any of us want.
WEST: Before we move on to your other projects, where can people purchase your new book? Both in the UK and the US. Do you have preferred suppliers or preferred bookstores you’d like to send people to?
BRADSHAW: For the Haynes manual, Amazon seems to be really popular. I’m happy for people to buy it there. I should always say that if you see it in a bookstore, try and support the bookstores. Because they’re businesses too. They’re passionate about books. So maybe it’s best if you can to get it from a bookshop.
WEST: As far as I know in the US, the only place I’ve seen it is available is Amazon.com. Perhaps it will be available other places here soon, too.
So let’s move on, Bill. I think for a lot of people, they know you, if not through your blog online, they know you from World’s Best Ciders. This was, as you and your co-author Pete Brown were approaching it as, the first real look at worldwide cider culture. Is that a good, short way to put it? Was that the goal?
BRADSHAW: I think that’s fair. To put people in the picture, in 2010 I went on holiday to Portugal. The day before we left, my wife said for God’s sake, go and get a book from the bookshop, you never go on holidays with books. Go and get a book. And I’m thinking I suppose I should, I suppose I should. So I run the down the road, and I went and bought a book. There’s some nice books on beer down there, go and have a look. And I found one, it was called Three Sheets to the Wind. It had a nice cover on. One Man’s Quest for the Meaning of Beer, or something. That’ll do, I’ll take it. And I started reading it on the airplane, and loved it. It was one of those books you love so much, you read it in a couple of days, and then you wish you’d bought two, like your wife told you to. Not just the one, because you thought that you’re never going to read all of that on holiday, I’m too busy having fun. And it was Pete’s book. And I just loved it so much.
I had a real feeling that we’re kindred spirits, and we share a similar sense of humor, and attitude toward that kind of thing. And I got back to the UK, and I thought well I’m going to track him down and see if we can do something together. And finally did, we had a bit of a chat, and we decided we should do something on cider. I showed him some of my cider work. I was trying to get him to do a trip around Belgium with me, looking at Belgian beer, because I’m a massive Belgian beer fan. But he said, well maybe we should just do cider. So we did.
And we met met up, and I started taking him around places I know in Somerset, introducing him to people. Trying to not to influence him too much, but to try and spend some bonding time showing him around my cider world, if you see what I mean. We slowly started spiralling out from Somerset, the West Country and Herefordshire and Wales and France. And then he said, there’s a lot going on around the world of cider. And him already being published, he immediately thought, what other books are there on cider around the world? I was like, don’t be silly, there’s none of those! Well that’s the opportunity, that’s what we have to do! And I said, well I suppose you’re right. But do you think anyone’s going to go for it? And he said, of course they are. He got much more excited about it than me, because he could see that potential earlier than I could.
WEST: To me, I would think about it as wow, how are we going to afford to be able travel around to all these different locations! Could you talk about how that process went? How did you decide where you were going to go, and who you were going to contact? And what regions would be in the book? How did that planning process come about?
BRADSHAW: If I was starting from a standing start, almost like Pete was, I would’ve found it a lot more difficult. But I’ve been photographing cider since 2004, with no real purpose other than I find it really interesting and I’m quite enjoying documenting it. It’s a place to play visually for the photographer. I’d already done a lot. By the time Pete and I decided to do it, it was 2011. So I’d already had a lot in the bag within the UK, and a little bit in the France.
And as the ideas began to develop, and things sped up, I started to branch out and find out who else is doing similar stuff in other countries. And connect with people, like Dave White, Dave from Old Time Cider, was one of the first guys to really start chatting with me. He was saying that we’re going to try and get you over to the US. And he put me in touch with people like Mike Beck and Steve Wood. I did meet Steve before that, but I think he took me more seriously after Dave had spoken to him, thankfully.
WEST: Dave’s blog was the first time that I learned about your project.
BRADSHAW: That was great for me, for both of us, really. In terms of the cider and where to go, we just looked at it logically and said, where is the cider? Where is the market for the book? You have to look at both angles, and meet somewhere in the middle. The original idea that Pete and I wanted to do was more of a cultural book about cider cultures around the world. But the publishers weren’t having any of that. They wanted 1,000 Best Ciders Around the World and nothing else. And we said no chuffing way, mister! That’s kind of boring, and anyone can do that, and by the time it’s published, it’s out of date. Because a third of those ciders, half of those ciders, might not be made anymore. So we met somewhere in the middle. I think that was the best for both them and for us, actually. Because it gave the book both a commercial aspect for it to sell and to be interesting for people. But also it gave it a little bit of depth. People like you or I that might want a nice coffee table cider book, to actually feel like they’ve finally got one.
WEST: I noticed at the time when you were putting the book together, I think I saw a package from Japan. Were you receiving ciders from all around the world at your home in Somerset? Were you putting together tasting parties to try them out?
BRADSHAW: It was really hard in the respect that you have to try and get people to believe you. If you try and put yourself in the shoes of, I make a lot of cider, you get an email, hi, I’m writing a book on cider. Any chance you can send me some samples so we can photograph it and put it in the book? That’s pretty much what we were saying. Some people you never hear from. Some people say, can you tell me more? And other people just say, absolutely, there it is, straight away. And some of the most important ones, from the smallest producers that make great cider, you just never hear from. Still haven’t heard from to this day. So then you got to scratch about, trying to find a decent photo to use, or try again to get in touch with them.
And there’s the language barrier. We had a lot of trouble with Austria. My German is non-existent. And Google Translate really doesn’t help. But I just did. And we’d been laying the foundations for a year or two at that stage. Both Pete and I had committed to it. Even though the publishers hadn’t. Even though there was no money definitely saying, yes, we’re definitely going to do it. They said, look, we’re interested, but we’re not going to do it yet. We’ll let you know. So we carried on, blindly hoping that someone would definitely commit to it one day, which they did.
WEST: I was flipping through the book right now. When I first got the book, it was like you did with Pete’s book, I just devoured it. I went through it in a weekend. And I didn’t come back to it for a few months. I couldn’t quite put it into words, that experience of looking through it the first time. But then when I came back to it, I realized that these guys did a really good job of picking ciders from the US. And I know they couldn’t have spent that much time here. They had to do all this research on all these other regions.
How do you feel that, in terms of what was included in the book, do you feel that you did a pretty comprehensive, thorough job of what should have been in there, and what shouldn’t? Even though you had difficulty reaching out and making contact with some cidermakers?
BRADSHAW: Firstly, we had a lot of help. Pete and I did two big trips to the US where we tried as much as we can. We made a lot of notes, we took a lot of photos. We came back to the UK and we compiled the list. And we talked about the list. And we had a few extra here, or a few not-enough there. And we sent it off to people like Dave White, and said, Dave, what do you think of this list? And he’d say, I don’t know about this one, I don’t know about that one. And we’d have an argument or discussion, saying we want to include this because, and we don’t want to include this because.
And it wasn’t so much about…the World’s Best Ciders title is a little bit misleading. It’s not the best ciders per se. Some people look at some of the ciders and go, that’s not the best cider. It might be the best cider for someone, we were just trying to make it very democratic. That was the one thing that Pete and I really wanted to put through, is not get too snobby about the ciders. We’ve got to have a little bit of the commercial stuff in there, too, because they are good gateway ciders for bringing new cider drinkers into cider. They go straight to those commercial ciders and into the more artisan, craft cider. So they have their place, and they’re important. So it was really important for us to have a really democratic, wide mix of ciders.
And we did that process with specialists in each country, having tried as much as we could. Less so with France, because there’s no one in France that seems to care about cider for some reason! But we had Eduardo [Coto] in Germany and Spain, we had Konstantin [Kalveram] in Germany. A friend of mine in Australia and New Zealand, they were helping out too. You write a list, you put it out there, it changes a bit, and then you put it out there a bit more, and it changes. And then you show it to Pete, and he gives it back. It was an organic process, it grew like that quite naturally.
However you do it, it’s not going to please everyone. Some people say there weren’t enough from here, or there were too many from there. Well that’s true. I’m thinking one day, if we ever do a second edition, I’d like to completely start again, and just put in 300 ciders which we haven’t even included before, if we can. But who knows, who knows.
WEST: To me, World’s Best Ciders is a very important, almost amazing document that you guys were able to put together. So anyone who is being overly critical of your choices is missing the point, perhaps.
BRADSHAW: Well, I think so. And I’m happy for them to be upset. Because I know how much work we put into it. If that’s what they want to get upset about, that’s fine. We were given 3 months to do that book!
WEST: Amazing that you were able to put this together in that timeframe.
BRADSHAW: Well, it’s ridiculous. For 3 years, we were saying to the same publishers, come on, come on, come on. And they’re going, no no, it’s too early, it’s too early. And we’re going, yeah, but this is a seasonal drink. So it’s once a year, particularly in Europe, less so in the States, but in Europe it’s a seasonal drink, it’s once a year, that’s it. And then if you want to catch the fruit, and the process, that’s it, that’s your chance. Two of those years were terrible harvests, really bad over here.
And then also it’s a world guide. So we’ve got a Northern Hemisphere and a Southern Hemisphere. And you want do to it all in 3 months? And don’t pay expenses? It’s ridiculous when you look at it like that. Like I said, we were working on it, fingers crossed, for 3 years, thinking it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, it’s got to happen.
WEST: Well, let me ask you this then. Which cider region have you not traveled to personally, that you got interested in while researching the book, that you would most like to go to next?
BRADSHAW: There isn’t one that stands out. I didn’t go to Canada, Pete did Canada. Pete fell so in love with Canada. And you can tell when he wrote the book. If you read Canada and the ice cider thing, that was his miracle…oooh, oh my God, ice cider!
WEST: I’ve only been to Quebec for less than 24 hours, but I think I had the same reaction. It’s amazing how they’ve taken these very commonly grown apple varieties and created this ultra-premium product, this whole industry around it. I think it’s fascinating. And the product is quite good, too. I don’t want to short-change the actual ice ciders, because they are very good. But I did have that reaction as well.
BRADSHAW: I’d love to go to Canada, I’d love to do that. I’d love to go to Australia, because they’ve got this massive wine industry that’s not going as well as it was. A lot of the wineries are struggling a little bit. There’s a lot of skill there, there’s a lot of fruit there, there’s a lot of knowledge there, there’s a lot of kit there, even. And a lot of the breweries, the beer guys, are trying to say, well hang on, let’s try and make some cider. And a lot of them are chucking out fairly average, low-grade cider. But on the back of that, there’s an interest from the fruit community, the ex-wine community, to say let’s use some of these apples and those wine techniques and make some cider. And I’ve heard of some really interesting stuff happening over there, and I’d love to try that.
I’d love to go to Japan. Because no matter what it is in Japan, it’s bonkers. They’ve got a shorter history of making cider, but they’ve been doing it, I don’t know, nearly a hundred years or so. I’d be keen to try some over there. They’ve got the slopes.
WEST: One of the regions that’s intrigued me is Eastern Europe, particularly Poland. Some places seem to have very historically important apple orchards. With the Eastern Bloc falling apart, and people trying to get regulations changed, trying to get younger people interested in drinking craft, smaller scale products, that’s going to be an interesting part of the world where ciders are going to be coming from soon.
BRADSHAW: I couldn’t agree more. In the UK, we’re going to be bombarded from every side with great stuff. Really good stuff. I’ve tried stuff from the States, and I’m just like oh my God, this is so good! And you turn around and think, the East, there’s loads of stuff happening over there. I met a guy recently from Estonia who’s making really half-decent cider, apparently. I haven’t tried it, but a few other people I respect have tried it, and said that’s pretty bloody good.
But there’s places like India, right up in the hills, where they grow apples and make cider. And China, there’s got to be cider in China, but that’s just really hard to find out about. They’re strangers, the Chinese, but there’s millions of them.
WEST: A surprise for me is actually Turkey. Turkey is a very large apple grower. I guess they have some things with their religious history that may prevent them from producing a lot of cider. But there’s a lot of apples being grown around the world, a lot of potential hotspots for cider.
One of the things you just touched upon was the availability of US ciders. Are you surprised that there are not more UK ciders available in the US? And vice versa?
BRADSHAW: I think the doorways are opening up. And I think it’s opening up in the US faster than it is here. You guys are much more on it, you’re thinking hey man, let’s get some ciders in from everywhere else. I went to Bushwhacker when we were doing World’s Best Ciders, and I walked in the room and there was this fridge about 20 feet long, and it was just full of all my favorite ciders. I can’t get half of those in England! Here I am in Portland, and there’s Tom’s cider, there’s Julian’s cider, there’s this, there’s that, there’s great Spanish cider, there’s some nice French cider. You’re just much more switched on over there about that kind of thing.
Over here, it’s more of a financial, is-it-worth-it decision for the landlord in that respect. Or the importer, or the distributor. And often people don’t like to pay a lot for their drinks over here, particularly cider. It’s got quite a cheap reputation. That just changes the whole consciousness of people about how much you are likely to get in terms of choice. And how much you’re likely to pay for it.
WEST: So World’s Best Ciders has been reviewed positively by a number of publications. You recently traveled to London to pick up some nice hardware, a nice award for the book? Can you talk about that a little bit?
BRADSHAW: Unbelievable! I got an email saying we’ve been shortlisted for the Fortnum & Masons food and drink award. Fortnum & Masons, for those of you who don’t know, is where the queen buys her tea. It’s really really posh. Really really prestigious. It’s the place for the posh stuff in the UK, that’s it.
And I thought, well, that’s nice. There’s no way we’re going to win, but that’s nice, great. And then we get phone calls, are you going to come up, are you going to come this. Well, I suppose I should, I’ll speak to my wife, make sure we can fit it all in around childcare, because she works as well, and we’ve got a little one. And I thought, you know, I should just go to this party, because my wife Lisa puts up with a lot of my cider passion, travel. She refers to herself as The Cider Widow, because I’m always off doing something, or trying to do something to do with cider. I thought the least I could do was take her for a really nice, fun night out in London, based on the cider. Probably going to be pretty low-cost and loads and fun, so that’d be a good one.
So we went, got together with Pete. He was really itchingly nervous, because he really wanted to win. I honestly hadn’t really thought too much about it, because I honestly thought, well, there’s just no way we’re going to win. Fortnum & Masons and cider don’t make sense together. It’s really prestigious, cider is a different kettle of fish, and all of the judges are wine writers. The two other books we were up against, one was a world encyclopedia of champagne, and the other one was a wine book which was done really really well called The Knackered Mothers Wine Club, which is apparently really really good. So there’s no way, but that’s cool, I don’t mind, I want to go for a nice night.
Within about 15 minutes of being there, they’d announced that we’d won. And we were just like, what? We were right at the back of the room, chatting amongst ourselves, and we were just over the moon. It’s the first time I’ve got on stage with Pete where he hasn’t been able to say anything. He was just giggling to himself, hopping from one leg to the other, holding this shiny golden award. So we had a really good night.
WEST: It’s exciting that you’ve brought someone so intelligent and well-spoken like Pete into the world of cider. Because I think he’s helping open some doors for people who may not have been interested in cider. I think that’s a huge asset for your collaboration.
BRADSHAW: Totally. I wish I had a tenth of his brainpower, I really do. He’s so smart. And he kind of coughs, and a little blog post comes out, and it’s a really good blog post. It’s not effortless, that’s not a fair thing to say. It’s a lot of work. But it’s so well crafted, and he’s got these insights, he can just see a thread of things, that’s where I need to go, that’s what’s going to be interesting. And I’m just bumbling along going, yeah, yeah, yeah! I read stuff he writes about that I was there on, and I think, Christ, that’s true! And I didn’t even think that. He’s just got this great insight. We’re a good team like that.
WEST: I feel like he’s able to make some strong emotional connections, evoke certain emotions in ourselves as we read his work. That was one thing with World’s Best Ciders. I was hoping for more of those cidermaker profiles, to get his take on different people. I know that that was maybe truer to your original vision for the book, and you had to change things.
BRADSHAW: It totally was. Because of it, we have a lot of material that we haven’t used. That we’d still like to use one day. We don’t really quite know how. Sometime when we do the odd public talk somewhere, it’s not a performance, but it’s almost a performance. Pete will stand up and do a reading and explain what was going on and describe the mess, the mayhem, the fun, the interest, the disappointment. And I’ll try and show photos that back that up on the day. Some of them are a bit more serious than others, some of them are loads of fun. But we’d like to do something with it one day…we don’t know what we’re going to do with it. Like I said, if we ever get a second edition, we might be able to squeeze a bit more of that into it, I don’t know.
WEST: Continuing on with that theme of the world of cider, can you talk a bit about your experience going to different festivals? I know that we first met at Franklin County CiderDays back in Novemeber And you’ve been to many other festivals throughout Europe and elsewhere. Both as an attendee and as a judge. Can you talk about some of those festivals? What are some of the highlights for you of those different places where cider people get together?
BRADSHAW: On one hand, when I’m off duty and I’m just going because I want to go to a cider festival, it’s just really nice to have such a wide choice of styles to choose from. The Welsh Festival, they’re all Welsh ciders, and they’re all really good. You can to the South West, down in Devon, and you get a lot of Devon-based ciders. So wherever you go, we have a lot of regional competitions. And you can really taste the difference in the UK. If you go over to the East, where they don’t as strong a tradition of cider apples, they use a lot of dessert fruit, it’s got that New World flavor that a lot of your ciders have over there in the US.
WEST: This is like, Kent or Sussex?
BRADSHAW: That’s right. East Anglia, all around there. And that’s the same throughout the world. If you go to France and try the French ciders, you have that big French thing going on, that really fruity, fizzy thing. Because they’re quite strict on the way they make it. And if you go to Spain, it’s very similar again. A lot of the ciders, they all taste different, but there’s quite a narrow flavor range. Not like in the UK, where it’s just wide, wide open. Because the traditions have all grown up a bit differently.
That’s what’s really interesting. But the stuff that interests me the most, the stuff when I’m on duty with a camera, is the cultural aspect. The way people enjoy it. The way they interact with each other, the process of the day, the traditions. Like a wassail, they are just so magical, they’re just so good. And I want everyone in the States to come over and watch a wassail and get stuck right in and let go. Because they’re just so much fun!
WEST: That was one of the things that I wanted to compliment you on. From the things that you post to your blog, everything from the emotional highs of a wassail or a festival, to the lows of some of your aerial photography of the flooding in the Somerset, and the photos you took at Frank Naish’s funeral. Here in the US at least, we’re getting a window on your part of the world. And if it weren’t for you, we wouldn’t be getting that. So I just wanted to thank you on behalf of all cider enthusiasts who don’t live where you do, for what you do for us.
BRADSHAW: That’s cool. I just want to show it off to everyone else, really. I think it’s really interesting. I think it needs showing off. If I can help make the cider world a little bit more informed and together, just by doing that, then I’m really glad to do it. If it has a value to me—and it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s valuable—but because it has a value to me, I know it has a value to other people too. I have no idea who most of them are. I meet them from time to time. But I know if I put it out there and I tag it, they can find it. Again, it’s this exchange of ideas. It brings some attention on to the importance of the culture we have. Because it tells us who we are. And that really matters to me. It sounds a bit wanky, but it’s true.
WEST: I totally understand. And it seems like one of those big parts, at least locally in Somerset, is the Royal Bath & West Show. Could you talk a bit about that experience? For us here, it seems like that’s the big event. Is that true?
BRADSHAW: Yeah, it’s huge. If you make cider in the UK, and you want to compete on a national level, that’s where you go. That’s the one. It’s the oldest one in the UK. Some people say it’s probably the oldest in the world. It might be, it might not. It’s got to be one of them. And it’s become the most important because it pulls people in from so far. From all over the country, people come and compete in that. There’s five or six hundred entries. That’s a lot of judging to do. And it’s growing a little bit every year.
They’re trying to grow the international section, and they’re asking me to try and help grow that. It’s got its own issues. Because how do you judge…the international section is open, right?
WEST: So all around the world, from outside the UK at least, everything is lumped together in the same…
BRADSHAW: It can come from Ireland, it can come from Japan, it can come from Argentina, Denmark, Idaho, wherever. They all get banded in together and judged together. Now you tell me, how do you judge a Spanish cider against a French cider and an American cider? And put one First, Second, and Third? It’s really hard. That’s my issue at the moment. It’s a little bit behind in that respect. It’s been kind of been left. It’s like, well let’s start one of these, and leave it at that. That’s fine. But if you want people to take it seriously, you need to subcategorize it a bit. I’m trying to help them develop that at the moment. I think we’re going to do that.
WEST: It does seem like that the Royal Bath & West Show does celebrate the agricultural traditions there. So maybe it would not be fair for everyone in the world to be competing against one another. But perhaps the international cider categories could reflect that diversity from around the world. I looked, and you were judging 50-some ciders in that international class, is that right?
BRADSHAW: It was like 40-something, 50-something, it was around there.
WEST: I know here in the US, we often have things arranged into flights. And people are judging maybe 10 or 12 ciders at a time. How do you keep track of 50 different ciders as you’re judging them?
BRADSHAW: Well, you do them in batches. What we did this year, is we went through all the Spanish cider, and we eliminated some. You go through 11, and you narrow it down to 3. Then you go through all the French ciders and do the same. And then all the Irish ciders and do the same. All the American ciders, we do the same. And then you eliminate stuff slowly and bring it back down. It’s so different for everyone, everyone has such personal tastes.
WEST: Do you find that you’re pinching yourself sometimes? Because you’ve raised yourself to this place where you are the one saying what’s a good cider and what isn’t? It seems like a dream for some people.
BRADSHAW: It is, it totally is! Don’t get me wrong. But it’s so unfair. Because you have to be this line-drawer, where you go OK, none of these guys are going to get a prize. Because we can only award a First, Second, Third, and a Commended or a Highly Commended. It could be 50 there. Say 15 are really really good. Or even 10 are really really good. But you can only still award a First, Second, and Third, because there’s no subcategories. It’s not like they’re all dry, or they’re all keeved, or something. It’s really hard to find some common ground in a fair way. So that’s why I really want to change it, improve it, and make it a bit fairer. So maybe we’ll do a New World style, or a Spanish style, a French style, that kind of thing.
WEST: That is something that people are grappling with all over. Trying to figure out styles of cider. The late Michael Jackson pioneered a lot of that work with beer. But cider is not quite like beer in a lot respects. It’s also not like wine either. So the styles are evolving. The conversations that we’re having and other people are having around the world, things will evolve. It will be interesting to see what happens with that international category over time.
BRADSHAW: Yeah, I think so. It’s definitely going to stay. It’s up to the committee to make sure it stays and grows in a proper fashion. It’s only fair. People are going to send their finest juice half-way around the world, that you make an effort to judge it fairly. Give them some decent feedback. Give it it’s best shot.
It’s a great festival the Bath & West. Everyone should go. You guys in the States, you should come over one year, you’ll be honored guests. And if you come on the right day, and we find out you’re there, we’ll just rope you in on the judging whether you like it or not!
WEST: I think some of us would love that opportunity. It seems for us here in the States, the comparison is a big state fair. Where there’s all this agricultural stuff happening. But then there’s cider too! It’s the best of both worlds.
BRADSHAW: This year we had, I don’t know what they’re called, or what the organization is, but we had some guys over from the States who organize state fairs. And they were really interested in how we could integrate the cider with the agriculture. And keeping it normal and not just getting everyone really wasted, that kind of thing.
WEST: Keeping it family friendly, I suppose?
BRADSHAW: That’s right.
WEST: That’s interesting. I know that some state fairs do have beer and wine judgings. But none have one specifically for cider that I know of, here in the US.
BRADSHAW: Absolutely. I think it was really good that they’re doing it. I think that’s the kind of thing that you’re likely to find more of. Your state laws are much more difficult to overcome than our national laws, it’s much more complicated. But I think it could be done.
WEST: Well Bill, one thing I want to ask you before we go. Do you have any cider or travel plans, or any sort of projects in the future that you can let us in on?
BRADSHAW: Not at the moment. I’m just taking a break and dealing with the fallout. There’s still stuff happening based on the books, and judging, and that kind of thing. Rather than planning new stuff while this is all happening, I’ve got a family, I’ve self-employed as a photographer, I’ve got to make sure I earn. I’m just letting that happen. I’ll think about it a bit more in the future and let you know!
WEST: Excellent. Bill, thanks for taking time to speak with me today to share your thoughts on the world of cider. Thank you so much.
BRADSHAW: OK, no worries. Thank you, Eric. Take care.
WEST (Outro): It was a great pleasure to talk with Bill. I hope you enjoyed our conversation too. Please visit Bill’s website at iamcider.blogspot.com and spend an hour or two reading through his past posts. Bill’s also reasonably active on Twitter as @IAMCIDER. That’s twitter.com/iamcider. I strongly encourage you to seek out his books at an independent bookseller near you.