Cider making is a process steeped in heritage and traditions and no event is quite as special as the yearly wassail, a practice which goes way back to Saxon times. Every January (traditionally on the twelfth night) cider makers would wake the apple trees and scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest later in the year. The exact tradition varies from village to county, but for Bignose and Beardy (Phil Day and Steve Stark) in their beautiful spot nestled in the East Sussex countryside, it’s all about community, sustainability and a ruddy good party.
We (I was joined on this trip by Crafty Nectar co-founder James Waddington) arrived at the cidery in the early afternoon to help with the setting up, which was well in hand thanks to the large family of volunteers, from local friends to older scout community comrades. As the sun started to set the ~200 visitors arrived ready to support the event and partake in the festivities. They ticketed the event this year and sold out on the 160 adult tickets. There were family activities including making a bread twist to cook over the fire, and making a shaker or drum for the wassailing procession. They had clay wassailing bowl making, run by Steve’s wife Katharine, as well as a treasure hunt through the orchard.
This was followed by the wassailing procession and noise making, where children with their hand made drums and shakers, and adults with their flaming torches, marched through the orchard shouting and being led by the wassail King & Queen (Phil & Steve’s kids) till we reached the oldest tree, where Somerset folklore says the spirit of the Apple Tree Man resides. There the queen placed bread soaked in cider from the wassail cup on the tree as a gift to the tree spirits and Phil and Steve poured cider on the roots. We all sang the wassail song and shouted hoorah! a good few times to celebrate.
Fantastic food followed prepared by Phil’s wife Sarah Including sausages from a local butcher made with Bignose and Beardy cider, soup and then cake made by Katharine. There was then cider and brandy tasting and general merriment till close, with many attendees buying some cider to continue the enjoyment. The event itself was free, as was the food, cider for the night and tea and coffee…a thank you to all those who have supported Bignose and Beardy throughout 2018. I said it at the beginning but it really is about the people, as Steve said to me; “we planted an orchard and grew a community”, and about giving back; a charity collection raised £200 for the local food bank.
Their story so far…
So what about Bignose and Beardy then?
Well, Phil moved to his smallholding 10 years ago and decided to plant an orchard. So in 2010 he planted ~40 trees of all different varieties, some cider, some eating as well as other fruit. Back in 2013 a few of the mums with children at the local school decided to get the husbands to meet down the village pub with a view to them getting to know each other. Well, Phil and Steve were among them and quickly hit it off. Phil invited a few of the other dads (including Steve) to help him make some cider. They made 50 litres which they kept tasting, forgot about for a bit and gave it time… a theme they still follow today. While the other dads were happy to have had a go at helping with that first batch and continue to offer tasting services, Phil and Steve wanted more and with advice from their mentor Laurence Conisbee (Virtual Orchard) they both invested in equipment, got some IBCs and went in search of more apples.
Oast Farm was one of the first to send their fruit and lots of it, although sadly have now said they cannot provide any more. So last year’s batch of Oast Toast will be the final one. They work with several other farms and have had donations from people in return for cider; all the apples they receive would have otherwise been wasted. In 2018 they were gifted 9 tonnes of fruit to swap for cider, which left them with only 5 tonnes to buy in.
They’re open and honest people, happy to admit they’ve made mistakes along their journey so far but it’s all contributed to where they are today and given time something always comes along. The example they gave me was of a postage charge issue for their Cider Club. When they started they were quoted a price which turned out to be per item, rather than per shipment which made things very expensive. They did a talk at a start-up conference and shared the issue to point out the learning. After the talk someone in the audience approached them and solved their problem by connecting them with a local kitchen supplier with a packaging set up. Although they have been fortunate, it’s not all about luck. Both Phil and Steve have full time jobs and have spent considerable effort along with the support of their wives, families, friends and the community they’ve built, to get to where they are today.
The other theme I mentioned is sustainability and it’s very close to their hearts, Phil explained how they are striving to create a “sustainable product”, with the power coming from solar (panels on the cider barn), apples saved from waste and animals fed on the pomace, it’s all circular. With the plans they have this year to re-circulate water from the press (it’s used to inflate the pressing bladder – like at Ross on Wye Cider & Perry), they hope to close the sustainable loop.
Let's Talk Bignose & Beardy Cider...
I’ll finish by talking about the cider itself and you only have to speak to Phil and Steve for a couple of minutes to realise how humble they are about what they’ve achieved so far and the recognition they’re receiving. The day of the wassail they were mentioned in the Telegraph Magazine (19th Jan p63) but took some reminding from friends and family to mention it. Also, Gabe Cook (The Ciderologist) chose to mention them in his book, let me tell you why...
All their ciders at present are still, unfiltered and 100% juice apart from the addition of sugar to some batches if required. They make ~8 batches every year, all different and unique. I’ve chosen a couple to tell you about.
First I’ve chosen Great Expectations named so due to the apple varieties involved invoking thoughts of Dickensian times. It pours a pale straw colour with notes of ripe apples, autumn orchards and some mild citrus on the nose. The taste is of sweetness and acidity at first, leading into slight tannic dryness and finishing with dried plum and apricot flavours. It’s easy to see why they had to get another box of it out at the wassail.
Second is Pepper Potts which pours a much darker amber colour and smells of caramel and raisins with a hint of spice. The initial taste is woody and smoky which give way to a hint of sweetness and then a spicy and peppery (hence the name) finish. There’s some wonderful tannins in this one and a mild astringency. There’s a reason this is recommended by Gabe, although sadly the batch is pretty much finished.
As I mentioned earlier they make many different batches, so if you’ve not ordered this month’s Crafty Nectar box, get on it…there’s some Bignose and Beardy in there. Also, if you live near one of The Stable cider bar and restaurants be sure to visit and ask for some as Crafty Nectar now supply all the bottles.
What next for Bignose & Beardy?
We talked about the future and over the next few years Phil and Steve are hoping to dedicate more time to their venture and explore new methods and creations. Given the wine-like qualities of their ciders we discussed the Fine Cider market and perhaps a 750 ml bottle may be out sometime soon. We also talked awards as they won product of the year at the 2018 at the Celebration of Sussex Life Food, Drink and Hospitality Awards. I was keen to suggest that this year they enter at the very least The British Cider Championships at the Royal Bath and West Show, so hope to see them there.
They shared with us a very special 2015 Cockhaisy batch that went into locally sourced oak barrels previously used for red wine and it was bursting with deep rich tannins. Perhaps an entry to the International Cider Challenge under their new “wood aged cider” category?
I found it very difficult to condense everything I could write about Bignose and Beardy for this article. They may be small in scale and relatively new to the cider market, but they have such a great story already and are genuinely likable guys.
If you like the sound of the wassail event, then look up their Cider Waking festival coming in the summer. www.bignoseandbeardy.com