The Cider Critic’s 36-hour cider adventure
Apple County Cider Co
Day two and a bit of a rainy start as we drove across the border from Herefordshire into Monmouthshire. The sky brightened however as we drove down the track to Apple County Cider Co, the left-hand side bordered by cider apple trees, the right with blackcurrant bushes. The orchard was terraced and we had a fantastic view across the valley on our drive in.
I again have to shout some thanks to Ben for coming out specifically to meet us, especially as he had truck trouble but still made it. His rustic shop (an opening in the side of a large barn building), was a collage of fantastic colours from his ciders, deep ambers and golds, interspersed with dark and bold red and black from his fruity varieties. The term ‘rustic’ doesn’t do it justice.
A family business run by Ben and Steph Culpin, Apple County Cider Co was officially created in 2014. However the trees were planted by Ben’s step-father Jimmy back in the 1960s under contract from Bulmers and you can still see some signs in the orchard on your way in. Bumper crops allowed Jimmy to experiment and make some of his own and following encouragement, Ben was persuaded to move back from his London music industry job (is there a theme between cider and music?) to the family farm back in 2008 and become a full-time cider maker.
After just a few minutes speaking with Ben you can really see the passion in his face. He’s fairly modest about his accolades, but collectively his ciders have won ten great taste awards, including two golden forks, as well as an international cider challenge gold, two silvers and four bronzes. I’m sure you’ll agree that’s a pretty outstanding repertoire. Ben was game, so we posed for a photo with his two most awarded ciders, the Vilberie and Dabinett. Love the sign and bell to ring for cider on the right.
First we tried the three single varieties, the Vilberie, then the Dabinett and finally the Yarlington Mill. They’ve all won awards and you can taste why. Could I pick a favourite? Could I heckers. I had to purchase a few bottles of each to take home and try and decide…I am still no closer, but enjoying the process.
Our next taste was of the blackcurrant cider, which Ben makes by adding two hundred litres of fresh pressed blackcurrant juice to eight hundred litres of cider.
What this mixture makes is an outstanding little drink, which I guarantee is nothing like any of the other fruit cider drinks you can buy. You can taste the rich, deep and tannic skins of the blackcurrants which adds a wonderfully mellow tartness.
We left determined to re-visit and do their ‘Orchard Picnic’ which Ben and Steph provide for a reasonable fee and will deliver to the spot you pick in the orchard for after your walk. It includes local gourmet foods and bottle on Ben’s finest.
After a very wet previous day and a rainy start, it was refreshing to see the sunshine as we drove along the banks of the River Severn. The road snakes away from and then back towards the river as you drive South down the Western side towards Awre and the views are both picturesque and inviting.
It may be the warm sun talking but Severn Cider is located in the most idyllic spot. A short drive down a rough track surrounded by cider apple trees, brings you to a wonderful looking house (an old vicarage). Here, in the cider cellar we are warmly welcomed by Nick and May Bull.
Severn Cider have been making cider for three generations and Nick explains with visible enthusiasm for his craft, how the location is perfect for cider and perry making. He describes how the soil structure (the ‘terroir’) and underlying geology are a perfect match and how ADAS soil testing many years ago revealed that they had one of the top three spots in the country for growing cider apple and perry pear trees. The other two being very close by. The surrounding hills and Gulf Stream-fed river basin create a perfect micro-climate. To supplement the apples and pears Nick grows, he sources extra supply from very close nearby for the very reasons just mentioned.
Nick’s knowledge of different varieties of cider apples and their history is overwhelming. He tells us about the Box Kernel which he had decanted a jug of just that morning and has only his second sip with us. The taste is well balanced and smooth, despite not yet being ready. Nick explains how the Box Kernel was thought extinct but he has managed to bring it back, grafting onto root stock himself. The apple is full of history, going back to the days where farm labourer’s wages were paid partly in cider, the Box Kernel kept them coming back and you can taste why.
We were treated to some Hot Spicy Cider next, a welcomed warming taste of clove and cinnamon with a background of rich cider. Sampling at Severn Cider was made to be more of a full experience than a simple sip and buy. Nick and May brought out cheese and bread as well as some of their homemade Onion Chutney, Piccalilli and Orchard Apple Jelly with Chilli, all made with their cider or cider vinegar and all excellent. We’re also treated to some of Nick’s apple cider vinegar pickled onions, which are mellow, crunchy and rich in background spice, just like the Hot Spicy Cider.
Next we try another single variety still cider, the Brown Snout. Before yesterday I hadn’t tasted cider from this apple (and as I mentioned my first taste at Ross on Wye had such a distinct lemon and citrus note to it despite being unfinished) and it is unlike any cider I’ve had before. Severn Cider’s version was matured and ready to drink in comparison and was a well-rounded fruity delight.
We then moved on to the bottled varieties of the Dry, Medium and Medium Sweet, all of which had some similarities, but expert blending had created distinct differences of finish depending on your preference. For me it’s the medium, a balance between the other two ends of the spectrum. We then tasted the perry and you can instantly taste why it is award winning and why Nick had sold out of 500 ml bottles. It is crisp, fresh and almost wine-like. The perry is made predominantly from Blakeney Red pears, the village of origin we passed by just up the road. Nick shows a very small but intricately detailed glass from the 1700s which would have been used by the wealthy for drinking perry. It was our champagne and as Nick points out the method was first discovered and used here, the French taking it up later. He also shows us a very rustic cup made from animal horn which would have been used by the labourers for receiving their daily payment in cider.
News of my visit must have spread, or perhaps it’s the award winning ciders made from 100% fresh pressed juice. Either way, the shop starts to fill up with other customers, but before I leave I have a quick sample of the Somerset Redtreak still cider, which I immediately love. Needless to say we left with arms full, having bought bottles of the medium and perry as well as some of the delicious onion chutney and chilli apple jelly. Oh and a 5 litre ‘bag in the box’ of the Somerset Redstreak for good measure.
As we drive out past the cider barn and I stop for a couple of photos I make the mental decision to return and stay for longer. They have accommodation for large groups, so begrudgingly I’ll have to bring some friends or family to share the cider with, but I can’t think of anywhere nicer to spend a few merry days.
I have to finish with a big thank you to my wife for being my chauffer for the trip and standing for a good few hours in the cold and sometimes rain without the benefit of a cider and perry jacket.
James Finch @thecidercritic