You never forget your first time. Mine was on a Friday night, on a bench in the middle of Dore village in Sheffield. Liz, who looked considerably older than 13, had conned the Co-op owner into dispensing an electric-blue bottle of cider, and three of us swigged from the neck in a manner that would now shock most epidemiologists. It’s the kind of story that makes artisan cider makers wince. Teenage dabblings often taint the taste buds of those who might otherwise have grown to embrace cider as they do wine, dismissing it without a second sip.
Ignoring the smirks, I developed a fondness for cider through my 20s, and during lockdown discovered a cider and perry market brimming with elegant craft varieties. So pleased was I with my online orders that, on a family trip to Herefordshire, I decided to meet the makers.
Paul Stephens plucks a small, roundish pear from a tree bearing more fruit than leaves, and offers it to my three-year-old daughter. She bites it with shy delight, her lips curling at the bittersweet flesh. We’re on a tour of Leominster’s Newton Court Cidery with Paul, whose family have been making cider since the 1940s. “When I first started in 2000 it was in decline,” he says. “People were bringing apples, tipping the fruit up on the front yard, and I was paying them in cider. Then Magners started advertising with lovely images of orchards and sunshine, which started what we call ‘the Magners Effect’, and the demand for fruit grew exponentially. So there was a boom.”
The UK produces 700 million litres of cider, with Herefordshire producing well over half of that. Driving through the county, we are surrounded by orchards (15,000 acres in all), the branches sagging with fruit, rosy in the autumn light. Pubs serve hot apple crumble, butchers sell caramelised cider sausages, villages smell of pulp.
And here, beneath our wellies, the dew-fresh grass is strewn with Winnal’s Longdon, a perry pear that looks as though it’s blushing. For the unfamiliar it’s important to distinguish cider from perry: the former is made from apples, the latter from pears. On first bite this pear has mild sweetness that quickly turns dry, leaving the feeling of fur on your teeth. “Sweet fruit gives a thin, insipid cider,” says Paul. “The drier, bittersweet and bitter-sharp varieties allow for an array of flavours.”
For an hour and a half Paul leads us between the orchards, pulling down branches, cutting open apples and revealing blackberries to the children, who stand on tiptoes to grapple at the fruit. Across the road from the farm we wander around the vats where the cider ferments over winter, smelling like sweet vinegar. Once the tannins have softened, it’s pumped out, back-sweetened, then bottled, labelled and sold direct from the site.
And what about the tasting? In a barn lined with barrels, Paul lays out an Enid Blyton-style spread of baguettes, stilton, creamy butter and homemade onion chutney, before shaking out crisps for the girls, who can’t believe their luck. They clutch tumblers of cloudy apple juice while the resident spaniels, Archie and Alfie, circle them, snaffling crumbs. Sitting atop bales of hay, we sample four types and end up loading the boot with bottles of First Press cider, cider vinegar and juice, just as another customer pulls into the courtyard and stops by a sign saying: “Please Park Here and Honk for Cider”, obliging as he does.
Half an hour’s drive away in the village of Much Marcle, between Ledbury and Ross-on-Wye, is Weston’s cider mill. Covid restrictions mean their tours require face-coverings and advanced bookings – and their play area is shut, so we leave the kids behind. Independent and family-run, but on a much grander scale, Weston’s has been around since 1878. Unlike Newton’s, it offers indoor walking tours explaining the history and technicalities of cider making. Spaced out in old church pews, we watch a promo video then view what is very much a working site, surrounded by beeping lorries and forklift trucks.It may be a commercial giant, but its methods have stayed as true to tradition as possible: inside the vat house we meet Edith, Lucy, Hilda, Dora and Jessie, the 60-year-old oak vats where the cider is matured for between three and 18 months.
Wefinish in the tasting room, where we crack into a delicious can of Caple Road and Old Rosie ciders – the latter is cloudy, unfiltered and smells faintly of cheese – and a cloudy rhubarb cider that reminds me of Haribo. The only other couple on our tour have come on bikes and look disappointed not to be able to leave with the crate of Henry Weston’s Vintage that we load up with.
Before one final farm visit in the afternoon, we stop for lunch 10 minutes away at the Crown Inn at Woolhope. Beaming from behind the bar, Matt is a proper pub landlord, the kind who cheers you up with a pint of his own King’s cider and a bit of cricket trivia. Overlooking a fabulous valley, and bright with sunflowers (and sanitiser), the pub does a hearty slab of chicken terrine, and a shining Herefordshire beef ribeye from a farm in nearby Coddington. Matt lines up a motley crue of chilled bottles, ranging from caramel and honey-coloured to soft lemon, explaining that these are Tom Oliver’s babies.
Oliver’s name has come up in countless conversations so I give him a call. He answers immediately and is a talking encyclopaedia on cider farming. I ask him about the recent slump in demand for cider, and he admits that Herefordshire has been hit hard, but he’s still optimistic. “Authentic and innovative cider makers have seen very promising things with their bottles going into local shops, delicatessens, farm shops and online, so it’s been a lot better than we had hoped.”
Arriving at the Ross-on-Wye Cider and Perry Company, we park on a slope and look down the valley on to scores of neat fruit trees and canary-yellow cornfields. Here on Broome Farm the annual Ross Cider Festival, which has been going since 2001 has been postponed until September 2021. Under usual circumstances there would be a gathering of camping families looking forward to three days of live music, food and, of course, cider. Albert Johnson and his father Mike once sold their fruit to Bulmer’s – which bought up most independent producers in Herefordshire – but now produce their own natural cider and perry.
After taking us on a leisurely stroll through the orchards, Albert lifts the lid on a sealed vat to show me cider in the midst of fermentation, fizzing and puckering at the surface. He’s deeply passionate about moving away from the idea of cider as farmhouse scrumpy “drunk by old men with red cheeks, or tramps” and ferments some in whisky barrels to add flavour. This is adventurous and innovative cider making, and it’s the kind of tour that would be best done at leisure. Broome Farm is a the moment welcoming adults to just two of its suites in the main farmhouse, but families are welcome to camp in the adjacent field (open all year).
On the drive home, I listen to the happy clink of bottles in the boot and realise that I’ve almost forgotten my first time – but this certainly won’t be my last.
• Visit Herefordshire has launched two new cider circuit trails. See visitherefordshire.co.uk for details