The Cider Critic's Adventures in Herefordshire - 48 hours with Ross Cider.
I spent a lot of time pulling this Ross cider article together, I learnt so much in a two day visit that I could probably write an article four times the size of this one, but for now I’m going to start with these highlights.
Driving along the A49 I missed the turning as I did last time, but the wonderful sight of the Yew Tree Inn let me know I’d gone too far and after a quick turnaround I took the lane towards Broome Farm. Ross cider here I come!
A short drive through the orchards (they have 65 acres and 10,000 trees) and I parked up near the farm buildings. Wellies on and several coats (it was very cold as you saw from the frost at Little Pomona in my first part of this adventure), I walked down towards the barn to be greeted by Mike and John, who were just saying goodbye to a couple of other visitors.
We met up with Albert and I was pointed to my digs for the next two nights... the “cider shack”. A wonderful little wooden lodge, with built in solar USB charger and enough duvets to keep a polar explorer warm.
Back down to the barn and I got straight into helping with the pressing of Dabinett apples. At Ross the apples are collected by apple harvester and brought to the barn by tractor and trailer (by Bob), then hand sorted (to pull out any damaged ones), washed, sorted again then up a conveyor belt to be milled. The milled pulp is then put into the stainless steel presses which have a water-filled bladder that inflates and presses out the juice. The pomace then goes back to the orchard as fertiliser closing the sustainable loop. I helped John and Lorraine sort and wash, which is like a grown up version of bobbing apples, where I dipped a plastic crate under the surface to pull out washed apples and then added them to the conveyor to be milled. So bobbing without having to get my face wet and with cider at the end… win win I say. Rob was in charge of pressing... very heavy work, which he seemed to take in his stride.
While John, Lorraine, Rob and I worked we talked about blending, trees, pruning and apples. John’s knowledge is astounding as is his generosity in sharing it, actually so is his generosity in general, he bought me a fantastic meal in the pub later, which I haven’t forgotten and will repay on my next visit.Generosity is a theme with Ross Cider as I came away with 25 litres of the pressed Dabinett juice to turn into my own cider, which is bubbling away nicely at Chateau de Cider Critic as I write this. Also have to say a thank you to Bob who gave me a bottle of his cider to try; I am looking forward to opening that one.
As the night drew in we cleaned up and headed for the Yew Tree, which I had not visited before. Well, the music was brilliant, the food was fantastic (thank you again Hilary), the company was captivating and the ciders.... well now... the ciders were a-plenty! We started in the Ross cider shop and then went back to the pub, and at least tasted the following (the memory got a bit hazy as the night went on): Foxwhelp Single Variety, Kingston Black & Sweet Coppin, Somerset Redstreak, Yarlington Mill (Premium), Premium Sharp and the finishing off with Raison D’Être and some Ross on Wye Pear Spirit (which was distilled for them by Charles Martell).
The Raison D’Être (‘Reason for Being’) is one I had been wanting to try for a while, since I saw it had been released. To me it perfectly sums up all that is Ross Cider; bold, dry, rich and full of oak… and what about the label? A bird’s eye view of the orchards of Broome Farm, sophisticatedly immortalised in ink. Whilst Albert and Becky were busy looking after other punters and reuniting Norman (their latest cider dog addition) with his brothers and sisters, I contently propped up the bar talking with the locals and even sharing a bit of cider with anyone curious enough (or perhaps just being polite enough) to ask what I was drinking. Now I’m not going to claim to have been instrumental… OK I am… but following sharing a wee sample of Raison D’Être with a couple of local gentleman they came back and bought a bottle… and that’s how the first bottle got sold in the pub…true story!
I’m delighted to say I made it back to my lodge (thank you Mike) and had a very toasty night’s sleep, bar the 2am loo requirement in the pitch black and freezing wind, an experience I am in no haste to repeat.
Day 2 at Ross Cider
The pressing crew had the day off, so Mike, Albert and I did some blending. We started with a tank of Kingston Black & Balls Bittersweet and then sampled a couple of tanks of straight Balls Bittersweet, which did have a small amount of another variety in but they didn’t want to mislead by bottling as a single variety. Ross on Wye Cider are really leading the way on transparency! We tasted three different tanks and settled on one with less of a whisky finish, which Mike explained would appeal to more tastes and we had to agree. Mike then filled in the pressing record book, still using pen and paper. They can trace back each batch, when it was pressed, when blended (if blended) and with what and then when bottled.
We then got started on bottling our blend. I say “our” because Albert kindly added my name to the label but to be completely candid, my contribution to the blending was to sample, and like both options… they were both good.
Before bottling started Albert did some Gravity and Zeiss testing to work out the alcohol %. To get the Zeiss reading he used a very fancy piece of kit that looked like a cross between a spotting scope and a lightsabre, but it worked and gave us 8.4%.
The blend was 50/50 with a bit of added sugar and currently fermenting cider, to bottle condition and add a bit of sparkle. It went into 750 ml bottles to be part of their premium range as it been fermented in oak and then racked into 220 litre plastic tanks. I was able to have a go at sterilising the bottles, filling them and capping. It was hard and repetitive work, but surprisingly quick with three of us.
After the day’s work Mike kindly invited me to share dinner with him and his friends Martyn and Lindy as the Yew tree Inn doesn’t serve food on a Saturday evening. We dined well on leftover chicken and leek pie along with venison stew, which was provided by Martyn and Lindy. We shared Gin Pear Perry and Flakey Bark Perry and after Martyn and Lindy had left, Mike and I drank Dabinett single variety and talked till the hour was late.
Day three at Ross Cider
On the third day I walked the orchards and talked with Mike, Albert and Becky, accompanied by cider dogs Norman and Summer. During my short visit with them, I had the privilege of getting a very close snap shot of Ross cider and there were three themes that stood out to me, that I think highlight not only how exceptional they are, but that also resonate with the real cider community in general.
1. Ross Cider History & Heritage
Mike’s family have been on the farm for three generations; his grandfather was a dairy farmer (the cider barn is the old cattle shed) and Mike’s father was the same, but also started planting some orchards. When Mike returned from his travels he expanded the orchards and took up contract with Bulmers. Every set he planted for them, he planted a few for himself. As I mentioned they have 65 acres and 10,000 tress, with the biggest variety being Harry Masters Jersey. In reality they probably have another 7 acres (so 72 total) and each year they make approximately 65-75 batches of cider, of varying sizes, and strive to have as wide and diverse a range of quality cider as possible. They always have an extensive range of ciders and perries, some fermented in plastic, others in oak. Many single varieties as well as blends, such as the Birdbarker, which came in September 2016 (the Perry came later) and is their best seller. I think you’ll agree that is quite a range.
This year Bulmers have paid to cancel the contract and that has brought with it a new chapter to Ross Cider’s history…
2. Collaboration & Innovation @ Ross Cider
It’s very much a trio at the moment with John as the cider maker and pruner (and his band play in the pub), Albert doing the communications and bottling decisions and stocking, whilst Mike does the bottling and most other things. However, following the theme of a new chapter, perhaps there may be changes of the balance in the future…with Mike wanting to retire and looking to Albert to take on more and perhaps all of it at some point. Albert already wants to plant more varieties, perhaps including a sapling orchard.
When it comes to their ciders, although there is a definite focus on single varieties, Mike and Albert also appreciate that apples can be even better when blended, and it is this collaboration they want to encourage with their customers. They hope that drinkers will try the single varieties, decide what they like and then experiment by blending themselves and seeing what they can create and they hope to encourage this in the future; watch this space.
The Yew Tree Inn is another collaboration leading to success. They have the lease for 10 years and 6 of those remain. However, there is change afoot as Mike’s sister who currently does the amazing food is stopping at the beginning of 2019 and so they are looking at alternative ideas, such as light bites and pizzas to go with the ciders. If you haven’t visited, I wholeheartedly suggest you do. Live music on a Friday and their monthly cider club is revered for its guest producers, informative talks and of course, tastings.
I have always been fascinated by the variation and originality from one producer to the next and Ross cider and perry embody this not only by the differences from their neighbours but also from within themselves. Mike’s favourite apples are Dabinett (as a grower and cider maker), Harry Masters Jersey (as a grower, but hard to press) and Yarlingon Mill (as a cider maker). Albert on the other hand favours the Brown Snout due to its really identifiable characteristics, but at the moment they have no trees on the farm and the neighbours’ trees they used to use have all been grubbed up when their Bulmers contract ended. So probably next year they will graft over to new varieties including Brown Snout and Chissled Jersey.
As mentioned above, they celebrate the individuality of the apples they grow through the many single varieties they produce, but each one is different when compared to drinks made with the same varieties elsewhere. The location, the terroir, the methods, the wild yeasts, the time...all these things and more contribute to the individuality of Ross on Wye cider and perry.
Ross Cider - The Future
Next year will be an interesting one for Broome Farm. As well as the recent more determined foray into fine cider with Raison D’Être and the changes afoot at the Yew Tree Inn (Albert and Becky now reside there), there is also the impending retirement desire from Mike and the invention Albert is already bringing; look out for the new label design coming soon.
I always come away from visiting wishing I had more time to talk, taste and learn. I shall definitely be along to next year’s cider festival, so hope to see you all there. If you were to ask me which producers to look out for in 2019, Ross cider and perry are on my list. There are really exciting times ahead for them.
Merry Christmas and a happy new year to all.