The Cider Critic’s 36 hour cider adventure (Chapter 1)
The Cider Critic’s 36-hour cider adventure
As a birthday present back in April my wife took me on a mini cider adventure that would see us visit five producers in three different counties (Herefordshire, Monmouthshire & Gloucestershire), in less than two days. This (longer than the usual blog) is my attempt to summarise what I can recall (we tried a lot of ciders!) from the experience.
Our first stop was Westons Cider Mill at Much Markle. Now I like a few of Westons’ ciders, but my main reason for visiting was to see what cider and perry production looks like on an industrial scale. Thanks to Rebecca (@ciderqueenbee) we got tickets for a tour and after a quick snack in the café we began with our very informative guide called Tom.
I had already got a view of the size from the drive up to the car park, but when you actually step foot out into the yard area, you realise how massive an operation it is. Westons have been making cider for nigh on 140 years, and you really get a sense of the history, as the original 400-year-old farmhouse still sits proudly in the centre of the site, with all the modern additions springing up around it. As you walk outside you suddenly feel very small next to all the stainless steel tanks and stacks of barrels. Another nod to their history sits behind the shop in the form of their “Old Rosie” traction engine, which is still rolled out to various events and is also the namesake of one of their best-known scrumpy ciders.
After a short video and a taste of the Wylde Wood ‘bag in a box’, we walked through a room filled with bottles, and not just Westons’ creations either. Tom picked up a very old bottle of perry (I believe from the 1960s) which interestingly was still full, although probably a little past its best. I could have spent a good hour just walking back and forth along the wall of bottles taking in all the varieties and spotting how the labels have changed over the years.
I’ve been to Westons once before during the Autumn Big Apple event and saw lorry after lorry delivering apples to the site. So I wasn’t surprised by the scale of the crushing and pressing room, but the presses really are an extraordinary sight to behold. Very different to the traditional press sat outside the café. This part of the site was shut down during our tour as harvesting was long finished last year. All the juice is now fermenting away in stainless steel tanks and oak vats.
We walked through a large outbuilding housing their Organic Wylde Wood cider in huge oak vats, only then to be greeted by even bigger ones, one of which holds 42,000 gallons of their vintage! Would you believe that when it’s emptied, they get in and clean it via abseil...not sure I’d fancy that job?
All the tanks and vats are named, some after football teams, some after counties; I lost count of the number. Capacity-wise though, in total they can store 120.2 millionlitres. I know some of the #realcider crew will shout about added water and sugar and I know some of their fruity creations probably contain syrups, but what I found most interesting of all is that despite their growth and scale, Westons are still using traditional methods. They crush and press all their fruit, which is all sourced from within 50 miles of the site. They use a lot of oak for maturing their ciders and they don’t rush it; some of their products, like the vintage, stay in the vat for at least 6 months. At the back of the site, tanks, pipes and barrels sit right next to the orchard.
No tour is complete without a few tasters and it’s fair to say I wasn’t shy. I came away with a case of the Wylde Wood, Caple Rd, and their new Raspberry Roller, which my wife really liked. She has newly become a fan of ciders with a touch of fruit (not your mainstream Nordic stuff mind) and their Raspberry, with an aftertaste of cucumber, wasn’t as sweet as some of their others.
Visiting Oliver’s Cider and Perry
If Much Markle wasn’t a great enough village name, next stop was Oliver’s in Ocle Pychard and I have to share big thanks to Tom for opening up the shop and coming down to meet us on a day he’s not usually open. I don’t need to wax lyrical here about Oliver’s cider and perry Tom’s reputation as a cider maker precedes him and his creations have received international accolades. There’s a reason Felix Nash Fine Cider Merchant provides Tom’s creations to high-end London restaurants.
I didn’t intend to take up too much of Tom’s time given his hectic schedule, I had an idea of what I wanted to purchase (having been before and tried a fair share), but still managed to chat away for 45 mins about the current cider market and the future.
It was especially interesting after being at Westons to discuss the business from the small artisan perspective. Those producing less than 7,000 litres don’t pay tax; go above this amount however and it’s a flat rate of £40 per hectolitre (100litres). Start adding fruit juice or hops and it doubles or quadruples depending on the alcohol by volume. This is stifling expansion within the artisan cider and perry industry and is a blocker to them breaking into the draught pub market. This explains why in the very nice pub we ate in later, they only had Westons in and only the Stowford Press on tap, despite being smack bang in the middle of cider-making country.
Tom has been making cider since 1999, following a break since his grandfather’s time. Prior to that, it had been made for centuries on the family farm. Tom comes from a very diverse background, not just in cider making and farming but also in the music industry.
We discussed the economics of craft cider for a bit and Tom is very much of the view that the current prices of cider and perry are too low for small-scale producers to make enough from it. They can’t compete with the bigger producers or retailers. But let’s be honest, they make a totally different product and shouldn’t be competing but being celebrated as preserving a rich part of our heritage and culture.
The problem is that the general public isn’t aware of what’s out there in the small-scale cider and perry arena. There presents another problem though, in that the small-scale producer can’t afford to create the publicity, and some may not want to, happy to sell their quota mainly locally. I won’t go further on the debate as it’s for another time, but it really does make you appreciate the work, time and effort that goes into these creations. Tom’s recognition is well deserved, I for one would be willing to pay higher prices and if you haven’t had the pleasure of trying his creations, then you need them in your life. If you’re a perry fan, you must try his Keeved Sweet it is so delicate and fruity, a real masterpiece. If cider is more your thing, then I would highly recommend his Yarlington Mill and Gold Rush #5 (soon to be #6) – both deep, complex and full of bold flavours.
Ross on Wye Cider and Perry
Where do I start here?
Never have I been made as welcome as we were by Albert and John at Ross on Wye cider and perry. After a bit of an adventurous drive up some tight lanes we turned in and parked up right in the orchard. We met Albert at the farm (Broome Farm) and within 1 minute I had a cup of medium cider in my hand. We had short walk around the farm, saw some fantastic perry pear trees in full blossom, which had been planted by Albert’s dad Mike, years ago.
We then met John, who’s cider making expertise is as exceptional as his dreadlocks…seriously I have never seen longer dreadlocks ☺ We had a look in one of their maturation sheds where many malt whisky oak casks and IBCs full of cider and perry were working away. We had a lengthy chat about their history, the many different varieties and creations they are working on (too many to mention in this article), but for context, their pub the Yew Tree Inn (5 mins down the road) is also a cider shop, which stocks over 70 varieties of their ciders and perrys…now there’s a challenge.
We then strolled back to the main barn where there were boxes and boxes of bottled ciders as well as a few more IBCs fermenting away. You can instantly see that cider and perry making is a way of life here. The open comfortable setting, a permanent bar in place (they hold their annual cider festival in this building) and several couches and chairs with other visitors sipping and chatting. The atmosphere is somewhat intoxicating, you could easily lose hours just sat, surrounded by fantastic cider and great company; I found their stories fascinating.
If you can’t tell already, this is when I started to get well on my way to merry. Albert and John are both very passionate about what they do, you can tell as soon as you meet them. But they proceeded to bring bottle after bottle of their favourite creations to share with me. I am in no way complaining, they took me on a mini taste journey, but I sure was glad I had a designated driver with me. Especially when I saw the first bottle of their Dabinett cider which was 8%. It had spent 12 months maturing and then bottle conditioned…so some serious time to create, but well worth it. It had serious depth to it, oaky and full of rich apple taste. It certainly didn’t taste like 8%.
The other stand out taste was from the Yellow Huffcapp Perry which had been aged in an Islay Malt Whiskey cask and smoky is an understatement, I could honestly still taste it on our way to the Bed and Breakfast after several other ciders. Before we left Albert treated us to a sample of his ‘not yet ready’Brown Snout single variety, he said it was lemony but it was just like a lemon meringue pie in a cup, I cannot wait to taste the finished article of that one.
As you can see I came away with a box full of wonderful samples to try, I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the Birdbarker (named after the very friendly resident border collie) cider and perry with my own four-legged friend; Indy. Every year they have volunteers camp in the orchard and help with the harvesting, milling and pressing. I hope to come back later in the year, to be one of those volunteers and write a much more in-depth article about the experience.