Whilst in Herefordshire for CraftCon I was invited to visit Once Upon a Tree for a tasting of their forthcoming co-fermented ciders and to hear their story. Well, as in most cider stories, it started with an orchard, Dragon Orchard, but unusually this one also started with a winemaker; Simon Day. Simon grew up on an English vineyard, helping his dad in the winery and vineyard from a very early age. He honed his craft working at wineries around the world and it was whilst he was working at a winery in Jersey that he found his inspiration for Once Upon A Tree. Frequent trips were made from Jersey to St Malo where Simon discovered artisanal ciders being served in all the local restaurants instead of wine. The tradition and heritage of cider was revered by everyone - unlike in the UK at that time.
So, on Simon’s return to Herefordshire he established Once Upon A Tree with his neighbour, Norman Stanier, third generation owner of Dragon Orchard, to produce a range of fine ciders suitable for pairing with food. Ciders to enjoy everyday with dinner and also be chosen by top notch restaurants.
2007 was their first vintage, they were producing under 7,000 litres and made a Dry, Medium and Kingston Black (single variety), which all went and won 1st place in the International Cider Awards at the Cider Museum….talk about a flying start! The only way was up and 2012 saw Once Upon A Tree win best drinks producer at the BBC Food and Farming Awards.
Original workers tokens to collect their daily cider payment.
The history of Dragon Orchard goes back to the 1880s. Norman’s great grandfather, Harry Taylor, was employed as Yeoman to the Squire to manage the planting of all the new orchards in Putley. A hundred years on in the 1980s Norman and his wife set up a Community Supported Agriculture project where people and communities could invest in a share in the trees to support the growth of the business, attend events and enjoy the crops. This got them through the lean times, and now cider is once again on the bar and on menus which means more fruit goes into Once Upon A Tree ciders and less is sold to Bulmers.
Operations have now moved to a larger modern cidermill where rustic sheds have been replaced with modern steel. As I walked through the office and laboratory I am taken aback by the size of some of the tanks in the shed. The final row of four 23,500 litre tanks strike an imposing presence. A side of the building is lined with riddling racks, including a very impressive gyro pallet which does all the riddling hard work. There’s also oak barrels, crossflow and sheet filters, as well as a bath pasteuriser for some of the cider. Step outside and the three tonne pneumatic press, hooked up to a washer and sorting line, sits large and proud.
The move to new and modern digs has not diluted the company ethos at all, central to which are the environment and sustainability. They are a LEAF Marque farm, which means they are part of an assurance scheme that shows their fruit has been grown sustainably with care for the environment. For example their waste pomace is fed to their pigs and surplus sent to a local anaerobic digester to generate renewable energy. Walk the orchards and you will immediately notice the numerous bird boxes (natural pest control), including owl boxes; 25 pence from each bottle of Wild Flight is donated to the International Centre for Birds of Prey.
Let’s talk ciders and Once Upon a Tree have a few firsts to their name. Firstly ice cider, where, with the help of industrial freezers, the pressed juice is frozen and then thawed slowly over a period of three to four weeks, concentrating down 5 times. So 1,000 litres of juice will only produce 200 litres of cider. The fermentation can take a long time to start, but once it gets going close control has to be maintained to stop the process at 7% abv. They’re also the only company in the UK to produce a pear ice wine, which is, as its name suggests, a ‘wonder’. If you haven’t tried either I would highly recommend them both.
Second is co-ferments; last year saw their release of a 2017 Dabinett and Pinot Noir, bottles of which are now incredibly hard to find, and frustratingly I didn’t get to sample it. However all is not lost as they made another batch last year which I was able to sample. It smelt so juicy, was silky smooth and full of rich berry fruit coupled with crisp but already mellow tannins. Keen to experiment further they are also crafting a Dabinett and Cabernet Sauvignon, which was more wine dominant in flavour with cherry notes. They also have a Dabinett and Cabernet Cortiz which was different still with really earthy characteristics.
What about the ones you can get your hands on now I hear you say? Well I came away with a bottle of their Wild Flight and Blackberry ciders. Wild Flight pours a gold colour with a slight amber hue. The smell is woody and full of dried apple skin. Initial taste is full of bubbles and light sharpness, this flows into slight acidity and finishes wonderfully dry with mellow tannins. A great example of why the Dabinett apple is so good as a single variety cider.
Second the Blackberry, which is a delicate rosé colour and smells of ripe berries and red fruit. The fizz is really gentle and the taste is delicate but it’s full of apples and what tastes to me like redcurrants. There is a nice level of acidity, some youthful tannins and then a slight dryness. It is very rosé wine like in its balance.
Feeling experimental and aware that cider cocktails are going to really take off this year, I thought I’d give you a bank holiday cocktail recipe to try. I’ve taken a very famous cocktail and substituted the Crème de Mure (blackberry liquor) for blackberry cider and created the slightly less alcoholic “Once Upon a Bramble”. The blackberry cider pairs extremely well with the gin and dash of lemon to create a refreshing drink with a hint of sour. Full recipe below if you want to give it a try.
Once Upon a Bramble is: 50 ml Gin and 25ml Lemon Juice shaken over ice then added to a glass two thirds full of crushed ice. Top up with chilled Blackberry Cider and garnish with a lemon slice and sprig of mint.