Way before I learned to appreciate a glass of wine, cider was my drink of choice. I’d get particularly excited when friends came back from Normandy with 750ml bottles of the local cider bearing the label methode traditionallee. Clear. Crisp. Delicious.
When Bulmers launched their cider in Ireland, I was a big fan. Over ice, it was perfect for that rare sunny afternoon in the beer garden. Not as crisp as the Normandy stuff but it did the job.
Living in the UK for a while, I limited myself to Magners (Bulmers by its export name). I found commercial English ciders too sweet. To find any sort of craft cider, I had to search out a village fair or festival. Craft beer might have broken through the supermarket barriers onto supermarket shelves, but craft cider lagged.
Coming to Hungary, I wondered at the notable lack of local cider given the number of orchards I saw. When I asked, I was told that it was seen as competition for wine and you couldn’t get a licence to produce it here. Fair enough, I thought. It turns out though that whoever told me that was mistaken. There is such a thing as Hungarian cider. It’s rare. But it’s here. And it’s been here since 2017 when a British-Hungarian couple bottled their first bottle of MadDog craft cider.
When Keith Mahoney and Andi Gál got together, they shared, among other things, a love of cider. As they couldn’t buy anything other than canned British and Irish standard off-the-shelf expensive imports, they decided to make their own.
They had the apples. Their traditional cider press was made by a Hungarian craftsman. They had the knowledge – or most of it. Andi is a horticulturist by trade and back in the early days had set her sights on producing wine. She had the basics. Keith has a keen palate developed over years of sampling proper English ciders. And he went and spent some time working for a craft cider operation in Somerset, the heart of English cider-making. Most of all though, they knew what they wanted – something they’d like to drink themselves. They simply had to make it.
Cider is not apple-flavoured beer. It’s not brewed, it’s fermented. It’s natural apple juice with a kick. Apple is in the name. The word cider comes from the Old French cisdre or sidre, meaning a beverage made from fermented apples. Cider is always made from apples. Yes, you can use the same process with pears but you don’t get pear cider; you get perry.
Unlike pálinka, where you can use any sort of fruit in just about any state and get something palatable, the best cider requires healthy, hand-picked apples. But Hungary doesn’t grow cider apples, i.e., sour apples with a thicker peel that sound remarkably like what I grew up knowing as cooking apples.
Keith and Andi get their apples from an orchard near the village of Boconád in Heves county, the centre of their operations. This year they’ve used Jonagold and Idared. Next year it might be different. In any case, there’ll always be a mix, as getting the sugar-acidity balance right is important. From a kilo of apples, they might get 0.7 litres of apple juice and about 0.5 litres of cider. To produce 15,000 litres and bottle it in 33cl bottles, that’s a lot of apples.
Quality cider takes time to make. The apples are usually harvested in November and left for a week to settle. Once they’re milled (i.e., ground into a pulp), the juice is extracted using their custom-made press. The juice is then fermented in containers. As the temperature drops, the fermentation stops. When it heats up again around March, the fermentation process starts again.
After a couple of months, the cider is racked (i.e., transferred into another container) a few times to get rid of the lees (i.e., the fruit solids and dead yeast leftovers) and get a clean, clear liquid. Then the flavours are added – in MadDog’s case this year it’s blackcurrant juice and a ginger purée. Separately. Not together.
They bottle as and when the orders come in. And label the bottles, too. This operation is the quintessence of hand-craft. It’s mainly Keith doing the physical stuff, but Andi, with a full-time job to hold down, is on hand when it comes to bottling and labelling. And, of course, is the face for Hungarian TV.
But is there a market?
Several Budapest-based outlets carry MadDog. One has gone a step further. Jack Doyle’s Irish Pub and Restaurant, with its international, cider-appreciating clientele, has commissioned its own cider from MadDog and it’s popular.
But are Hungarians so besotted with palinka and craft beers that they’ve no interest in cider? Or is it that they simply don’t know about it? And by ‘it’ I mean the real stuff, not the mass-produced, commercial brands available in pubs and supermarkets across the country.
If Andi has anything to do with it, Hungarians will soon “want to drink craft cider; they’ll want to pick it from the supermarket shelf”.
And her wish is about to come true.
Three years ago, the Spar supermarket chain launched its Hungariacool competition for local producers. Each year, they select ten products produced in Hungary. They offer workshops in finance, marketing, and product development to the winners as well as the all-important sales channel. The competition is stiff but the payoff is worth it. This year, MadDog was selected as one of the 10. And now, if you’re in an Interspar, you can buy their classic apple cider, their apple-blackcurrant, and their apple-ginger. It’s gluten-free. It’s vegan. It’s laced with antioxidants and flavonoids, so it has to be good for you, doesn’t it? This year’s batch is running to about 8% alcohol. What’s not to like?
First published in the Budapest Times 13 March 2022.
PS I wondered about the name and forgot to ask but maybe it was influenced by the Noel Coward song, Mad dogs and Englishmen.