The Tale of Two Somerset Cider & Cider Brandy Orchards
Those of you who follow me on Instagram will know that, at the beginning of last month, I spent a couple of days in Somerset with Visit Somerset, exploring what the very best of their food and drink producers had to offer. I’ve done a little story highlight on each one we visited – do check them out – but today I want to focus on what Somerset is arguably most famous for, and something I had absolutely zero appreciation for before the trip: cider. We visited two very different Somerset cider farms with very different products, methods and a very different ethos, so I thought it would be nice to do a bit of a compare and contrast (look at us going back to school!) as I take you on a tour of two Somerset cider farms: Thatcher’s, and The Somerset Cider Brandy Company.
We started at Thatcher’s, arguably one of this countries better known cider producers. They’re open to visit and they have a pub where you can eat good, Somerset pub grub and sample all of their ciders which they have on tap, as well as book into tours of their factory to see all the different steps of the cider making process. However, for our first stop after checking out the shop (it was raining so we did our introductions in there!) was somewhere a little bit special they’ve got hidden away down a nondescript country lane…
All these different, beautiful apple tree snaps are from Thatcher’s collection orchard. Planted by John Thatcher in 1995, the idea was to create part library gene bank, part living museum of all the cider apple varieties that you can grow in the UK. There are 458 different varieties of cider apple planted in the orchard, with two trees of each, as opposed to the 26 different varieties that Thatcher’s grow commercially. While yes, it is just a rather awesome and fascinating thing to have, it is also an essential resource when they’re researching new ciders for the brand. If you visit Thatcher’s you’ll find a few ciders you’ve never seen before in their shop – these are guest ciders that they’ve created by experimenting with the apples from the collection orchard. Some of the more popular guest ciders have become part of the core collection, where growers have had to take grafts from the collection orchard trees to plant up on a bigger scale to meet demand.
As I mentioned, visiting Thatcher’s you can book on a tour of where the cider is made and bottled. Visiting during the harvest, we started where the apples are sorted for leaves and twigs and things, and crushed to make juice before being aged and matured in big oak vats. Apples are brought in from all around the surrounding areas – obviously producing on the scale they do (they’re even big on the Australian market, soon launching a new special packaging just for them!) they can’t grow everything themselves, so they contract out to local farmers who were busy bringing in apples as they were harvested. They’ve got an eye on sustainability at Thatcher’s – not only are they using biomass to generate electricity to power the bottling process and their offices using waste from the cider production process, but they also take care to sign long term contracts with their apple farmers – yes to ensure consistency of taste and product, but also to provide security to farms in their local community.
You know that bit of the Thatchers Cider advert where Martin Thatcher and his chief cider maker taste their cider from the vats to see if it is just right yet at 12:30pm every Friday? Yes, that actually happens. If you’ve ever been on a proper tour of a winery (join me on one here and here) you’ll realise how similar cider making is to wine making, rather than being similar to beer production, which you’d think would be the more natural bedfellow. At Thatcher’s they age a lot of their cider’s – especially the traditional vintage ones – in massive oak vats. They’re 150 years old and they have 11 of them, the largest holding a massive 135,500 pints of cider! Not much cider is made this way these days – there is even just one special person they have to call when one needs repair or just a bit of a service, as it is such a dying tradition.
As I mentioned, visiting Thatcher’s you’ve also got The Railway Inn on site, a great pub where you can go for a good local pub lunch, but more importantly where you can go to sample all of their current ciders on tap. As we’d just arrive off the London train they were kind enough to put together a spreads of Somerset-centric cold cuts for us (think hams, cheese, potato salad, sausage rolls, crisp local apples and delicious local apple juice) which were a great bolster for our later cider tasting.
Now, I want to make one thing clear from the outset, something that I knew when I agreed to go on this foodie trip to Somerset: I don’t like cider. For me, cider has always tasted like gone off apple juice, and while there are an odd few I do like (I opened a free bottle I can’t remember the name of the other week to cook with that was excellent but a limited edition already past, and when the team at The Stable got me to try cider flights, there was a few there I would drink) it is never something I order or except when offered. However, I approached the Thatcher’s tasting of their entire current range with an open mind, and I’ve found the one. Rose is Thatcher’s latest cider, introduced over the summer to give something a bit fruitier without being a non-traditional, non-apple fruit blend. It’s sweet, refreshing, very drinkable, and, something I’ve both polished off all my samples of and purchased again – you can buy individual bottles in Waitrose, and four packs of cans in Sainsbury’s. Honestly, if you like apple juice but you think you don’t like cider, give it a go.
Now, for something similar, but also totally different. Where Thatcher’s are a family brand that just happens to have become a household name and gone global, The Somerset Cider Brandy Company produce Somerset cider for a very different purpose. Focusing entirely on traditional British cider and French distilling techniques they’re the only producers of apple cider brandy company in Britain, producing a beautiful, high end product which takes a lot of time and care to produce. Oh, and one of their aged cider brandies was served at the most recent (Harry and Meghan) Royal Wedding if that is something you follow.
While they don’t have a pub and everything made shiny for visitors, you’re totally welcome to visit and see where the cider brandy is made. They have a shop where you can try before you buy (they produce both traditional, oak aged apple cider brandies that taste similar to those bottles you’ve got from Normandy, and delicious, lighter versions and ice ciders perfect to sip as an aperitif – I was totally charmed by these and would really recommend getting a bottle of Kingston Black if you have a chance to visit!) and I’m always a big advocate of visiting the places where your food and drink is produced and meeting the people involved.
Apple Cider Brandy is made in pretty much the same way as cider, except the cider is distilled before oak ageing in their incredibly big copper stills – these came from France, they simply don’t make them this big in this country – to produce the finished product. And yes, they really are the only people doing this in the UK. With the wash of deregulation that came along with the Thatcher government distillery enterprises like this became possible (it was previously the sort of thing people hid in their barns for their own consumption, overlooking the fact it was in fact illegal) and if you consider that some of their brandies are aged in the barrel for 15 years, starting production on this sort of scale is a big investment for a cider farmer, not just of money, but in time, both to produce the end product, but to work on refining it to become a luxury product ready for the market.
At the farm they’ve been harvesting apples since from around September, and they’ll be going right through December, and the stills will be going continuously, 24 hours a day from January through until May to turn the cider produced into cider brandy. Another interesting fact about cider production I learnt at Somerset Cider Brandy that I did not know (rather embarrassing, actually, considering that I’m from Kent where apples are almost as big a deal as they are in Somerset) is that you absolutely should not pick apples from the trees. You need them to fall onto the ground, and to bruise for them to become optimum apples for cider – and therefore cider brandy – production. With the bruising their starches will better become sugars, and also on the ground they’ll be better protected from the winter frosts that are starting to roll in in the mornings.
Walking through how apple cider brandy is produced, and seeing it aged in oak barrels the same as those used to age wine again, and chatting about the different blends of apples in each bottle again I was reminded how similar cider production is to winemaking, and it now makes more sense to me how some Kentish vineyards like Biddenden started off as cider producers before planting up for winemaking.
Thatcher’s and The Somerset Cider Brandy Company are two very different Somerset cider producers both in ethos, style and presentation but they have the same main aim at the heart of their businesses: producing a fantastic product from Somerset apples routed in Somerset, which can represent their county and their community far and wide. I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Somerset and it is a beautiful, rural county. If you’re hunting for a foodie staycation to enjoy in the new year and you’ve done Cornwall one too many times (you can find all the posts from my trip in the spring here) I don’t think you can do better.