Britain is well placed to take advantage of rising global demand for cider but the sector is held back by lack of investment in research and development and a lack of awareness of what the market really wants, according to Neil Macdonald, Orchard Park Farms owner and founding partner of cider maker Orchard Pig.
Macdonald, a member of the National Association of Cider Makers' pomology committee, formed his views from a Nuffield Scholarship, which took him around the world including to France, Italy, the USA and Australia between 2014 and 2016.
"We have been planting cider apples like they're going out of fashion. The long contracts on offer make it look like a complete gift," he told growers at Agrovista's Cider Technical Seminar in Ledbury, Herefordshire. "There was huge growth in 2006-12 but that has fallen away significantly in the UK over the last three years and that is continuing, though the on-trade is growing.
"The UK is still a vastly bigger market than the rest of Europe and accounts for 45% of global sales. France's industry has been in decline for longer, while Spain has been static. There is little or no bittersweet apple production outside these three countries."
Overall, global growth is still steady, but where and by how much varies, says Macdonald. "Outside Europe there are still fast-growing markets, but from a low base. The big growth areas are the US, Australia and to some extent South America - it goes well with warmer weather. Some of the biggest consumption in the US is in Texas, though production is in the north, from dessert apples."
The United States Association of Cider Makers' CiderCon event "started six years ago with 40 people and this February will have 2,000 delegates", he said. "It's now 'the' global forum for cider production." The University of California is "a centre for research", while cider orchards "are going in the ground, but slowly, as growers don't want to move away from dessert, they don't have the facilities to deal with volumes, haven't got the mechanical harvesting mindset and cider makers are paying them plenty for what they already have".
The Melinda consortium of some 6,600 growers in Trentino, northern Italy, "does growers' thinking for them, including when to spray, buys consumables centrally and is effectively their bank", said Macdonald. "They have 48 grades of apples, each with a different return to the grower. You are paid on the basis of what makes money for the group. As cider apple growers, should we be paid for what makes the cider maker money? Is that tannin or sugar? Can we do co-ops and would it mean the same here?"
Trentino's Fondazione Edmund Mach is active in apple breeding, with 10,000 cultivars in the ground, he added. "We aren't doing nearly enough on breeding."
Meanwhile: "Some of the best growing techniques I saw were in France. They regard every orchard as a permanent experiment. One grower does something different in every row. They value research and development, which is paid for by a EUR3-per-tonne levy. There have been conversations about doing something similar here. I hear so many times 'I can't give up £1-2 per tonne for R&D'. But without that your margins will get worse and worse."
For those considering exporting, Macdonald said: "You need to consider many things - the culture, climate, including financial climate, and level of trust. We start with a big competitive advantage. UK apple varieties are the envy of the world, but we need to break down what consumers actually want and pay growers accordingly."
This may become imperative given the domestic market situation, he points out. "We are getting a higher percentage of dessert apples in cider, so our niche is getting more niche. The category still in growth is the small artisanal bittersweet ciders, but people still need easy-drinking ciders to get into the category.
"Meanwhile, there is an oversupply of apples and bittersweet concentrate in the UK. One maker has five years' worth of concentrate and doesn't know what to do with it. We are heading for apples on the market with nowhere else to go. The big players are in decline and the UK market won't suck up those apples, so we have to find export markets - for example, as a specialist liquid to the US."
He also warned growers: "If it's repeatable, it will be done by robots sooner or later. We already have driverless tractors. Think about future-proofing your orchards with dead-straight lines that machines can work along."