Oliver’s Cider

Words: Trevor Gulliver   Photography by Trevor Gulliver

Oliver’s Cider

Cider is a historical staple in the British Isles


Cider is not Kombucha at Coombeshead Farm, it is an historical staple in the British Isles with its noted areas of production, although I guess that does not apply to Magners. These days, the big brewers own five of the biggest cider brands but this is not about big and little (it is). This is not about apple concentrate (it is). It is not about serried ranks of espalier trellises, uniform orchards and Belgian fences and then the beautiful, aged and huge perry tree “standards” (it is). This is about getting a message across.
Let’s start with apple concentrate, call it the Watneys Way and I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing (I probably might be inferring that it may be). Simply put, fruit bought across a broad range of producers (often locked into long term contracts) is pressed together on big belt presses, fermented to a high degree of alcohol (usually above 12 degrees) and stored, ready for use in a final product. That final product, or perhaps one should say product profile, will be cut with water and/or juice and “tailored” with other ingredients. This is raw material on tap with no seasonality, locality or particular provenance. It must be said that they do, apparently, wash their fruit.
Frozen apples being split and placed in the “cheese” prior to pressing at Little Pomona

I must firstly apologise to the producers down in Somerset and beyond, for many folk this is where scrumpy comes from and, of course, is home to The Wurzels who created the hit (and it really was) 'I Drink Cider'. I have spent more time in Herefordshire recently, so bear with me. Like most vignerons, local cider makers always give a good welcome and are delighted that you have come to see them, just please not at pressing time. You can guess that I’ve met some very hospitable folk who do tend to smile, even when sometimes rolling that rock uphill.
James amongst his fermenting vessels at Little Pomona

Cider is that one thing still waiting for its moment of rediscovery and yet does not seem to know how to do it. Maybe the trending marketplace is crowded with competing products, an “only room for one at the top” mentality? Maybe the owners of the Magners brand have done a really good/bad job. There was never a man with a beard of bees in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, and I was there as a child in the late Fifties when there were definitely leprechauns and candles to light you to bed. Yet cider is obvious and its ours, it makes sense. Orchards are a good thing. Pigs that eat the fallen fruit are a good thing. Spring blossom and picnics are a lovely thing, and the fruit of the orchard (and those pigs) will help see you through a long winter. Why, you can even make a healthy distillate to rub into wounds or apply internally.
So, cider heroes aplenty in Herefordshire, Tom Oliver (a man that definitely does not wash his fruit), Susanna and James of Little Pomona, and James and Helen at Gregg’s Pitt, although I wish he’d use more “cider” than “wine” speak. However, I did let the word "wine" slip inadvertently when tasting - made ‘em happy! Tom’s doing cross breeds with beer makers, delightedly catching me out. Fair enough, and a good glass too... Ice ciders where the fruit is frozen before pressing and fermentation to add more to the blending palette and so on. All good stuff and, importantly, protecting both our orchard heritage and the landscape.

Olivers like their barrels rusticated… but they do have a couple from Ornellaia!

There are new folk in old places too, and old folk still making ciders and perrys the old way across the land wherever there are apples and pears. However, the truth is that there’s something about a cider with a glossy badge on the pump in the pub that smacks of making up the numbers with the bar offer. There’s bottled ciders to be found in certain restaurants of course but again, do they really mean it?
I think that the nub of the problem is not the small producers but the gulf between them and the big boys. Who knows, maybe one of the new breed of anarchist-but-well-funded brewers could enter the fray, not just backing a London “cider hall”, but producing good, honest, locally cropped and fermented cider with a good route to market. Then again, be careful what you wish for! Meanwhile, evangelists like Felix Nash of Fine Cider will be running up and down from Herefordshire and beyond, in their electrically powered vans, just servicing their existing accounts. Well Felix must think that he is rolling that rock both ways!

Méthode Traditionnelle… OK enough frenchyfying, these bottles are all that there shall be of one of their... ‘er cuvees!

I have diligently avoided certain words and we must avoid the seemingly endless chatter about all things “natural” or indeed organic, but “local” works. Good bread is more expensive than Chorleywood homogenisation. In fact, it isn’t; good bread doesn’t go to waste. This should work for cider - knowing the difference and being prepared to pay for it. We need more local heroes with financial support to bridge that gulf between the brewers and their FMCG product, and those who obviously have no intention of selling out down the line! You will see a vintage on some of these ciders and perrys made by the small producers and, why not? It may not exactly ape the vintages of wine but it does demonstrate provenance and the fact that these are real ciders, drat, I said real!
A thirst quenching fresh and petillant perry as an aperitif? Now there’s an excellent thing, it’ll go up against a prosecco any day! NB: For local heroes, see Suzanna Forbes’ book "The Cider Insider” where there’s a good list.