One of my favorite things about my husband Adam is his “when in Rome” mentality when it comes to food and drink. It explains why we once sampled a really unfortunate Lebanese yogurt dessert called achta bil asul (sp?) at a tapas restaurant in Georgetown (Adam: “It doesn’t sound good, but I’ve never had it before. Have you?”); why we once dined at USA Steak Buffet in Washington, Pennsylvania where I overheard a man say to his son, who had a plate filled with nine pieces of Salisbury steak: “Boy, ain’t you hungry?”; why we dined on fried alligator once in Louisiana until Adam whispered the word “reptile” and the appetizer suddenly transformed into a rubbery blob in my mouth. On a much happier note, it explains why Adam was willing to try Strongbow cider when we visited England a couple of summers ago. Strongbow is made by H.P. Bulmer Ltd., which holds a Royal Warrant from Her Majesty the Queen as “Cider Makers.”
Adam and I aren’t beer drinkers. That’s not a popular statement anymore; everybody and their brother brews beer at home and speaks fluently this language of “stouts,” “lagers,” and “IPA’s.” Cider is beer-ish, I’ll give you that, but in its aftertaste it departs from the bitterness of beer and veers towards the sweet familiarity of apple. Adam and I were sold on it the second we tasted it in a little English pub a few kilometers from Heathrow. For someone as stubbornly opposed to beer as he used to be, this change of heart is impressive.
I think there’s a pretty large segment of the American population that has never even tried hard cider. While you’ll rarely see it advertised here, I easily found several British advertisements (and here). In the U.S., cider sales make up less than 1% of total beer sales, but in the UK, 45% of all apples grown there are used to make cider. Of that huge market, Bulmer's makes 65% of the cider sold annually.
According to a Wall Street Journal article published last summer, beer producer Heineken (which now owns Bulmer’s in the UK) has taken over distribution of Strongbow within the United States. Previously it was imported and distributed by the Vermont Hard Cider Company, maker of Woodchuck cider—which sits at the #1 spot in the U.S. Strongbow is #2. There are some incredibly surprising little tidbits in the WSJ article. For one, sales of beer in the U.S. have been declining in the past three years. Second: cider drinking is evenly split among men and women in the U.S. (I had assumed a large female majority). Third: hard cider fell out of favor in this country in the 19th century when it was overtaken by beer, but recently it’s shown a resurgence in popularity. Sales are way up.
Queen Elizabeth II granted Bulmer’s a Royal Warrant in 1955 but—like many of these warrants—I’ve wondered when she ever has time to kick up her heels and drink a glass. That said, just this week the British press sharpened its focus on the royal family, speculating about the Queen’s unusual opening speech to Parliament. There were two oddities at this year’s event: Prince Charles was present with his wife Camilla even though he hasn’t attended an opening in 17 years…and the Queen failed to announce her upcoming travel plans on behalf of the State, as she usually does. Seemingly the 87 year-old monarch is beginning to limit her role, and her son is making plans to fill her shoes. Will the Queen leave the throne before her death or simply trust Prince Charles to take over more of her responsibilities as she ages? Stay tuned. Let’s hope she’s able to rest and take care of herself in these last years she’ll serve as monarch.
Where to buy: The best Strongbow you’ll ever drink will be one you buy on tap and drink in a British pub. Short of that, the bottled variety tastes a little better than the canned if you buy it stateside. If you’re in Chicago, you can get one out at English.