Cityscape caught up with self-anointed scoundrel and New Zealand cider-making legend Paul Donaldson (who helms local cider house Scoundrels and Rogues), following his 5-for-5 award grab at the New Zealand Cider Awards, in order to get the inside word on his kick-ass creations.
We understand you have some experience with award-winning wines in the North Canterbury region. How did you get into cider?
An old school friend found himself in the position of having access to an abandoned orchard, and being a fan of turning things into alcohol I said “We should try cider”. The story on the back label of the Pleasantly Corrupted Cider is exactly the way I made my first ever cider… that is, we raided the orchard, I smashed the apples in a bucket with a sledge hammer, I accidentally froze the pulp while storing it, then I pressed it and fermented it in an old barrel, just 150-litres – that was 2011. It was a lot of fun, and I was keen to do it again the next year. Since then the volumes crept up each year until I thought ‘I can’t drink/give away all this anymore, I’d better sell some’.
Each of your 5 ciders won a medal at November’s New Zealand Cider Awards. What makes your ciders so damn fine, and how proud are you?
There’s a few things that I think have contributed to making ciders that have stood out, and been well received. They are all vintage ciders, made just once a year, from whole fruit from that season, with nothing else added. So the 2014 cider is a bit different to the 2015 cider, but both should still be good. They are all fermented and aged in barrels, and apart from the pear cider, everything is in barrels for more than a year, which I really think softens any rough edges and makes a well-balanced and more rounded cider. I keep all the barrels separate, and blend right before bottling to achieve the style I want in each cider. So I’m shooting for consistently good, consistently different ciders, and because I spent a few years aging stock and working out blends before going to market, I think it’s allowed me to make a product that not only works with the traditional cider market, but also appeals to the craft beer market. I get a lot of people saying to me “I don’t drink cider, but I’ll drink your cider!”
When I entered the 2016 awards, I had no clue what the judges were looking for. It was my first time, and I thought [the ciders] would either go alright, or be panned. Luckily the judges liked them and I got 3 golds from 3 entries (which was actually more golds than any other producer that year). When the 2017 awards came around I felt a bit the same – that new judges might love or hate them. Again I had a great result with 5 medals from 5 entries. To get both consumer and critical acceptance does make me very proud, especially for something I’ve been learning with as I go along. When my dad, who only drinks wine, actually asked if he could have some to take home, I felt pretty good about it.
Cider is like the comeback king. What’s behind its return to popularity?
I think the New Zealand palate is a learning one, and always looking for something good. Much like with beer, 30 years ago it was all mass-produced and minimal craft, and when people wanted more they switched to wine, then as their palates developed and became more adventurous craft beer surged and created interest in a more inventive sector. Cider then followed the same pattern, with even the cheaper ciders you see available now being much more interesting than the lolly water I saw when I was at university. Cider is still in the very early experimental stage, but I am noticing that even in the last 5 years the rise of truly craft cider has been pretty strong, and it seems to be something that gels with the more adventurous and more-well developed New Zealand palate.
What portion of your cider-making fruit is grown by yourself and what portion would you say is raided in the dead of night?
At present I rely on about 30% raiding, and 70% buying in fruit from sources deemed too hard to raid. Several years ago I planted my own little orchard though of around 60 different heritage varieties, and I hope to get a crop off that in 2018. The good thing about the way I make cider is I have only just bottled and released the 2016 ciders, so I have an ability to balance supply with demand – there’s no chance I’ll run out (I think!) before the 2018 harvest.
You only use wild yeast – just how wild is it?
Wild yeast means the yeast that comes in on the apple skins. If you add a commercially-bought yeast to juice it will generally multiply and ferment faster than a wild strain, but will give a cleaner finish with less character. Because I want something a little funky, a little different, when I put the juice in a barrel, I don’t add yeast; I just let whatever is in there already go for it.
You’re stuck on a dessert island with just one of your ciders – which one is it?
I would have to go with the Evil Genius Imperial Cider. While it is big, at 10.9%, I think it’s exceptionally well balanced, with a luscious but not overpowering sweetness, and great tannins. It will improve for years in the bottle, and will be great for bartering with the local tribes.
You’re the ‘Scoundrel’ at Scoundrels and Rogues. How did you get the moniker and how do you ensure you live up to it?
Well… based on the apple raiding, I pretty much self-anointed. I was looking for a name that would stand out in the current cider market, but one that would allow me to get away with some of the results of my self-taught cider making practices. Once I tried the first cider I made, and it was pretty funky, I thought how can I make this sound good? So it became Scoundrels and Rogues ‘Pleasantly Corrupted’ Cider. It was always a reflection of my general personality anyway, so living up to it hasn’t been hard.
Any tips for people looking to expand their cider repertoire?
You can certainly age it. Ciders such as mine improve for years in the bottle. I’ve done tastings where I’ve provided older stock from my cider library (everyone needs a cider library!) and the feedback has been great. In that respect it’s more like wine – it should improve with age.
What’s the best way to enjoy a few ciders over summer?
Ensure the cider has a Scoundrels and Rogues label on it, and that should do the trick. Also try drinking one lightly chilled; too much chilling can dull the flavour. Oh, and do yourself a favour, and don’t put ice in it!