The Cider Critic spends 24 hours with Little Pomona Cider Co
After a couple of hours in the car, I turned off the main road onto a sunken lane and then up a long hill track, to arrive at Little Pomona on a sunny and crisp November morning, where I was welcomed by Susanna Forbes and a very bouncy cider dog, Joey.
I wasn’t the only visitor that day; Joran from Belgium was on a cider tour of the UK looking for creations to stock in his Cidrothèque. Judging by his list of producers to visit and potentially stock, it’s definitely worth a visit should you find yourself in Brussels.
James Forbes had just finished pressing quince but saved me a sample of the juice which smelled intensely floral with pear notes and fresh grass. The taste was of sharp acidity with hints of lime and kiwi. He had moved on to pressing cider apples and helping already was Alice (@oldtreesofeurope - Instagram) on her own cider tour/journey visiting and working. She had come from few weeks working at Ramborn in Luxumbourg. Also visiting was Rod Graham (@rodbodtoo – Twitter) from the Good Spirits co., a good friend of James and Susanna’s helping with the harvesting and pressing.
So, out of the car and I was straight to work, helping to press Dabinett and Ellis Bitter apples. They use a rack and cloth Voran Vigo press at Little Pomona, where you build layer upon layer of crushed apples wrapped in cloth (using a frame) and separated by wooden racks to make a ‘cheese’ of 8 or 9 layers (which would yield ~100 litres), depending on the thickness of each layer, which took me a few attempts to get right, despite the metal frame as a guide. The ‘cheese’ is then pressed by a hydraulic arm which pushed up from beneath against a wooden block. Amber syrupy juice then flowed into a stainless steel tank which could then be pumped into barrel or tank.
My leaning tower of cheesa...honestly I did get better at it.
At a brief pause before Joran left we sampled Old Man and the Bee (2016) which tasted of rich apple skin and very well balanced tannins with a slight smokiness and slate texture to it. We came back to the bottle later in the day and those tannins seemed to have evolved to be bolder along with more smoke and woody tones on the nose. Amazing what a little warmth can bring out.
We spent the rest of the day pressing, which although very repetitive, was also extremely therapeutic. Seeing the literal fruits of your labour be crushed and that silky juice cascade down the press was very rewarding. We finished filling a barrel which also contained the quince pressed earlier and then moved on to a ~600 litre IBC which we filled. It was a noisy day, breaks from Roddy using the scratter were moments of surprise as we realised the tranquillity of the spot Little Pomona occupies.
Then came the really fun bit... (sarcasm)…cleaning! Real cider may not contain much added water, but it sure takes a lot to wash everything down. The press, the wooden racks, various tanks, pipes and crusher. James is extremely thorough, but that is vital to ensure the natural yeasts have the best chance to do their thing without any unwanted competition.
The evening was spent eating, drinking and being generally merry. James and Susanna were fantastic hosts, sharing their food, creations and stories and all were great company. Our first drink was their Hazy Ways Pt 1 2017, released this year. James explained how cold racking reduced the viable yeast count and slowed down the fermentation. It was racked six times, the last one being into the bottle. It has a very delicate fizz and tastes like juice fresh off the press, there’s a hint of smoky/woodiness to it and the finish teases you; starting to dry the tongue but then giving you some sweetness. It’s a glorious showcase of dabinett apples at their finest.
We followed Hazy Ways with some Martinis expertly crafted by Roddy and containing Little Pomona Vermouth, a James Forbes exclusive creation. I don’t know about you dear readers, but a martini that is three parts Gin and one part Vermouth (I may be wrong on that recipe… it might have been more alcoholic) on an empty stomach is the pathway to merriment. So tasting notes of the beautiful drinks that followed are sadly consigned to the depths of my memory that I can’t access, despite trying. My notes are also somewhat lacking…
We tried a cider from their new Little Pomona Farm Series range which has been developed for ciders and perries crafted from other orchards. Manor Farm Cryo Conditioned Sparkling Cider 2017 is made from Michelin, Dabinett and Medaille d’Or apples and bottle conditioned with a little cryo extracted juice from the same orchard to kick start a secondary fermentationWe then sampled Quatermass Perry 2017 made with pears from Tawnies Farm, I was pleasantly surprised by the melon-like taste; sitting somewhere between honeydew and cantaloupe. Exclusive is an understatement as there was just a demi john, so we drank a quarter of the whole amount in existence.
The rest of the evening is a little ‘Hazy Ways Pt Cider Critic 2018’ but I have to mention Alice’s apple crumble, with quince juice soaked apples… it was divine and the last thing I recall before retiring to my bed.
If you want to know what the definition of idyllic is, it is standing in a sun-kissed glass walled and oak beam framed room looking out at a crisp November sunrise over the Herefordshire countryside with the light just starting to brighten the orchard. That was my morning view on day two. I walked out into the cold morning air and took in the view as the sun lit up the surrounding hills and glistened off the frost covered apples in the orchard.
I could have stayed there taking it all in…had it not been quite so cold. Fortunately Susanna joined me and we walked the orchard, looking at the four varieties of cider apple trees they have: Dabinett, Ellis Bitter, Foxwhelp and Harry Masters Jersey.
They also have a small eating orchard filled with trees of wonderful names, such as: Pitmaston Pineapple, Ribston Pippin, Blenheim Orange and Newton Wonder.
After a healthy breakfast, apart from James who had the remainder of last night’s crumble with cream (although it looked delicious), we headed out to a neighbouring farm to do some riddling.
We arrived at a 14th century farm house and entered a thatched barn to be greeted by ~400 bottles in riddling racks requiring turning. The bottles are of an as yet unnamed 2015 and 2016 creation which is a third barrel fermented and a combination of Foxwhelp, Ellis Bitter and Harry Master Jersey and made in a Brut Cremant style.
The turning task was somewhat easier than the previous days’pressing but each bottle will undergo 124 turns, which James worked out while we all had a go. When you think about the work that has gone into this from the pressing, to the fermenting, to the racking, to the bottling, to the riddling, you start to get a real appreciation for the skill, time and value of the final product.
There is a definite misunderstanding around the quality and pricing of Fine Cider. I hope this article goes some way to improve that. Roddy also provided some actual riddles to accompany the exercise… still won’t give us the answers!
When we returned to base it was time for me to leave so I want to finish by talking about Little Pomona. It took James and Susanna two years of searching to find their idyllic spot on a Herefordshire hill. Back in 2014 they made a small amount of their first cider (an old beer bottle full of which I now own thanks to their generosity). Their first cider to market was Feat of Clay 2015, which was released in April 2017, so they’ve only been on sale for 18 months and yet they are making huge waves in the fine cider world. While talking to me they reminisce of being slightly impatient but their friend Tom Oliver told them to give it time and that is a theme of all their creations; time to let flavours and qualities develop and do their own thing.
They hand pick and selected their apples and their orchards have never been sprayed, so they are organic but without the costly certification. All their products are created using natural yeasts and no chemicals.
During my visit we talked about the future and it’s exciting times ahead for Little Pomona. They are hoping to expand, have a site with an event space and training room overlooking an orchard. Their plan being to develop a hub for North Herefordshire for visiting cider makers and cider tourists that forms part of a gastronomic trail, highlighting great Herefordshire produce. I think you would join me in wishing them every success with their plans and wanting to be first to visit when it’s ready.
They are also developing links with and discovering other orchards; wanting to celebrate orchardists, so the not just the orchards but the people that own them too. They generously gave me a bottle of their soon to be released (Spring 2019) Farm Series Perry, a blend of Butt and Oldfield perry pears from a Gloucestershire orchard called Tawnies Farm with 200-300 year old trees that Gabe Cook (aka The Ciderologist) told them about. It’s been aged in Bourbon barrel before bottling and has a smidge of Little Pomona Foxwhelp to blend the link.
I left James, Susanna, Rod, Alice and Joey as they were about to go apple picking. Despite only visiting for 24 hours I came away having made new friends, learning a tremendous amount and with an ignited passion to want to craft my own cider.
Next stop 48 hours with Ross-on-Wye Cider and Perry…write-up coming soon.
James Finch (@thecidercritic)