Cider production in England is mainly associated with a small area in the west of the country, particularly the counties of Somerset and Herefordshire. Unlike in the USA, but like in France, the tradition is to use special apple varieties which are grown solely for making cider. Many of these varieties are high in tannins, and are not pleasant to eat, but are grown for their juice qualities.
For much of the 20th century English cider production followed two separate paths. Small artisan producers continued to manufacture high quality traditional cider, often known as farm cider or "scrumpy". Although the varieties and methods and flavors were different, conceptually this small-scale production was quite similar to the picture across the English Channel in northern France, in that it was an unpretentious drink produced entirely from locally-grown apples. One key difference is that traditional English cider is often flat, not sparkling or carbonated as it is in France.
However the majority of English cider production took a different path, as one producer - H.P. Bulmer - increasingly dominated the industry. It is worth noting that despite being a relatively small country, for much of the 20th century England was probably the world's largest cider market, and by the 1970s nearly all the cider produced in England was produced by H.P.Bulmer. Over time the company gradually shifted away from traditional cider towards a more commercial carbonated product range with brands such as Woodpecker and Strongbow.
In the 21st century consumer demand for English cider has increased considerably, but it is probably true to say that much of the demand is led by branding and marketing. The connection between the bottle of cider on the supermarket shelf and the apple and the orchard, which is enshrined in law in France, has been largely lost in England. In France, cider has to be produced using 100% apple juice, from apples which have been grown in prescribed regions. In England cider need only contain 35% apple juice, and that juice can be apple concentrate from anywhere in the world.
Fortunately, alongside the increase in interest in branded ciders, there has also been more interest in "real" cider, and there are many small-scale grower/producers working in a very similar way to the new wave of American cideries. This in turn has promoted a resurgence in interest in the old English cider varieties.
Interestingly, whilst mainstream apple growers in England were quick to adopt modern intensive dwarf orchard systems from the 1950s onwards, cider orchards continued using traditional large trees, widely spaced in old-fashioned orchards.
In the 21st century, with demand for English cider enjoying something of a resurgence, growers have started to consider semi-vigorous cider trees, particularly using the M116 rootstock. However true dwarf cider orchards remain the exception. Ironically, if you want to learn about growing English cider trees in dwarf orchard systems, most of the expertise and knowledge will be found in the USA.
Cider apple varieties
Most traditional English cider is blended, using a mix of bittersharp and bittersweet varieties to give a balanced drink with plenty of "body" (from the tannins), and if you are planting a new English cider orchard it is a good idea to plant 5 or more different varieties. For hard-cider enthusiasts in the USA, this use of specialist high-tannin cider apples, rather than mainstream cooking and eating apples, is perhaps the key feature of English cider. There is no direct equivalent in traditional American varieties, although in some respects the use of crab-apples such as Wickson and Hewes Virginia Crab achieves the same goal of giving "body" to the drink.
It is however probably fair to say, as a gross simplification, that the style of English cider is fairly close to American cider - and both are quite different to mainstream French cider. Both English and American cider, at least as seen today, appear to have taken been influenced by modern developments in wine-making, and the more up-market ciders are competing against wine and becoming a dry sophisticated drink - made from apples of course, but where apple is not the dominant flavor. In contrast, the best French cider is simply an alcoholic drink which captures the essence of the apple and the orchard.
Bittersharp varieties: Herefordshire Redstreak, Kingston Black, Stoke Red
Bittersweet varieties: Dabinett, Harry Masters Jersey, Yarlington Mill
Sweet varieties: Morgan Sweet, Ashmead's Kernel
Sharp varieties: Bramley's Seedling, Grenadier, Tom Putt (these are all mainstream cooking apples)
Single-varietal ciders are not unknown though - both Dabinett and Kingston Black can be used to make very good quality single-varietal cider.
Although there is no real difference botanically between mainstream apples and cider apples (they are all the same species, Malus domestica), many traditional English cider varieties ripen very late - typically in November, which is a month later than the mainstream late-season eating apples. Some (but not all) also flower late, towards the end of May in English conditions, when not many other varieties are around for pollination. Disease-resistance is often poor by the standards of modern mainstream disease-resistant apples, although in practice this is not always such an issue for the small-scale grower since disease issues in these varieties tend to just reduce production quantities rather than affect juice quality.
Compared to American cider varieties, many of these traditional English cider apples seem quite small. However there is a reason for this - smaller apples have more concentrated flavors, and also a higher ratio of tannin-rich skin to flesh.
Although the traditions of English and French cider are very different it is obvious from the names that many of the old English cider varieties have French origins. The popular English Dabinett bittersweet cider apple shares not only a similar name but many similar characteristics with the French bittersweet Binet Rouge variety.
Finally, it is worth noting that most English cider varieties have evolved in the cool temperate climate of the west of England, with mild winters (temperatures only rarely falling below freezing), cool summers (average maximum temperatures of about 70F), and cloud skies with low light levels. This is obviously a very different climate to that of most areas of the USA, although parts of the Pacific North West are similar. It is worth bearing this in mind because not all the body of horticultural lore surrounding these cider varieties will be applicable to the very different conditions of American orchards.