Britain has entered the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, the falling apples are ripe to the core and the cider presses are in full flow. Autumn is a time of change and it is easy to become overwhelmed by Keatsian wistfulness as you stroll through the Herefordshire countryside, taking in landscapes brimming with yellow, red and gold and breathing in the sweet scents.

It is also a time of great change for the National Association of Cidermakers, the powerhouse behind one of the most quintessentially British industries around. 

Martin Thatcher has just handed over chairmanship to Westons’ Helen Thomas, with Aston Manor’s Gordon Johncox becoming deputy chair, while the NACM’s first full-time employees – chief executive Fenella Tyler and head of communications Gabe Cook – are on a mission to educate more consumers about the multifarious joys of cider drinking. 

To get the lowdown, OLN joined the extravagantly moustachioed and fabulously eloquent Cook on a tour of some of Herefordshire’s producers, from Bulmers – the world’s largest production facility, owned by Heineken – to Woodredding, a small patch of land where a retired couple make award-winning cider in their back garden. 

“It’s an ecosystem,” says Cook, who worked as a cidermaker at Bulmers, Westons and a small craft producer before taking on his current role. “You have a whole industry based on the supply of apples to the likes of Bulmers and Westons, and you have agronomists, agricultural harvesters, haulage firms, small guys with one or two trucks – and it’s this network of a rural economy where cider is at the heart of everything. 

“Most of the small producers understand that what Heineken makes is different to what they make. They understand the role of the big producers and the advice and knowledge they bring.”

The Bulmers cider plant in Hereford is a model of industrial excellence. It is slick, sleek, modern to the point of appearing futuristic – a magpie’s dream, with rows of glistening steel contraptions. It is easy to see how it manages to produce such consistent products, given its cutting-edge technology and exacting approach to health and safety and quality control. 

It employs 270 people and supports hundreds of apple growers and various contractors, welders, cleaning companies, delivery firms, filtration aids and so on. 

The workers and people associated with it take great pride in the company and the drinks it makes, and it has a history of giving back to
the community. That died when it was taken over by Scottish & Newcastle, according to workers, but since Heineken bought it out they say it has blended demanding business targets with a welcome sense of its place in the community.

Production increase

It currently produces around 4.8 million hl of cider per year, and that will soon increase to 6 million. “We have invested £58 million in quality in the past three years in a high-speed bottling line and production facility that allows us to react to what our customers want,” says quality control manager Richard Hill. “We are changing the way we use technology to make us slicker. We are improving filtration and how we work on our blending. The initial set-up costs are high but it makes us more efficient. 

“Retailers want to know the auditing process, safety stats, KPIs, adherence to plan – I would say we are doing well on those. We want consistency and to get supply at all the right times.”

On the drive from Bulmers to Westons are hundreds of orchards where people are busy collecting apples. We stop at The Skitteries, which supplies Bulmers, Westons and Thatchers, and meet hired hand Richard Chester. “Cider keeps me in a job,” he says. “It does for a heck of a lot of people like me. The arable situation at the moment is not good, so we are mainly a cider fruit farm.”

He is one of many who takes pride in the cider his rural community produces, and when asked for his tipple of choice, he opts for Wyld Wood or Mortimer’s Orchard, which brings us to Westons. 

It is not considered one of the huge players in the market, but it employs 221 full-time staff, a quarter of whom come from within a 10-mile radius. This year it will press more than 30,000 tonnes from its own orchards, and much more from the apples it buys from farmers it has long-standing contracts with. 

“We took a decision in March this year to use 100% fresh juice for all our ciders and use no concentrate in our own brands,” says Richard Moyse, corporate relations manager. “Spend on cider is up but volume is down. People have got into quality craft cider and the [collective] palate is becoming more educated and demanding.”

Moyse’s boss is Helen Thomas, whose great-grandfather set up the business in 1880, and who is starting her second stint as NACM chair after heading it up in 2007. Over the course of her two-year tenure she has pledged to drive cider back into growth. 

“The cider industry has changed and developed dramatically since I was last chair in 2007,” she says. “The industry had committed to initiatives to support and encourage market growth and the mood then was full of hope for the future as cidermakers from across the UK presented brands of long standing alongside many new innovations.

“Between 2007 and 2009 the cider market continued to grow. We developed better training programmes, invested in apprenticeships and continued to innovate. We planted new orchards and expanded our mills to accommodate the increased crop. We continued our industry ethos of a British industry supporting the British rural economy.

“However, in 2009 the duty escalator was introduced, which created a challenging trading environment for cider producers. Excise duty has now increased by more than 16% and we therefore need support from the government to turn this situation around.

“There are sub-sectors of the cider market which are in strong growth, such as traditional premium, super-premium and craft cider. We will therefore be working hard to champion these sub-sectors to help bring long-term growth back to the category. Cider is now a familiar and important part of consumers’ drinking repertoires, with almost half of UK consumers now drinking cider regularly, consuming more than 1.4 billion pints a year. But we need to introduce even more people to this exciting and vibrant category.”

But she adds: “The most important messages shared in 2007 are all still as relevant today. Our long-term, sustainable industry is still down to the way we work, pulling together for the greater good of UK cider producers as a whole. Investment in our communities remains at the heart of the cider industry and the nearly 2,000 people we employ across our rural communities are critical to our success.

“A further 9,000 jobs, from companies and individuals providing us with goods and services, exist because of the cider industry. I hope to bring to the role my experience of growing Westons into the company it now is, employing 230 people and producing a wide range of premium ciders which represent the breadth of the category.”

Historical agreement

One shot in the arm for the cider industry could be the end of EU efforts to scrap the duty break enjoyed by producers making fewer than 7,000 litres per year. These producers do not pay duty as part of a historical agreement designed to preserve the industry’s heritage and prevent the taxman from having to traipse through every farm gate in the West Country. 

“It contravened EU legislation because no alcoholic drink should be given special consideration,” says Cook. “Everyone effectively turned a blind eye to it, but it was brought to the European Commission’s attention and the EU told the UK government the special dispensation was illegal. This caused concern and consternation among smaller cidermakers. The NACM led discussions with the Treasury to find a method by which small producers could still receive some kind of dispensation not based on volume. Discussions are ongoing.

“Now we find ourselves in a situation of Brexit. Fenella Tyler went to see the Treasury for first conversations. It seems the Commission won’t try to force the government to make that change prior to Britain coming out of the EU, so hopefully it will be something that falls by the wayside. 

“It’s integral to the industry to have big and small producers. We want to support small cidermakers and these orchards with history, value and biodiversity would be under threat.”

One such small producer is Woodredding, where retirees Brian and Fran Robbins make 3,000 litres a year from a 1.2ha plot in their back garden that was once a Bulmers orchard. They have a 200-year-old cider press teeming with natural yeast and gleaned knowledge of how to make quality cider by consulting people such as Cook and Herefordshire cidermaking legend Tom Oliver. “We first made 231 bottles in 2007 as a hobby and it went a bit silly from there,” says Brian Robbins. 

Its Yarlington Mill cider won a Supreme Champion award at the Royal Bath & West Show in 2013, and the couple have scooped numerous other awards. The cider they make is complex, balanced and delicious – pressed by hand by them and their friends on the press perched on a hill overlooking Herefordshire in all its natural glory. It is not far from the Bulmers plant, yet it is a world apart. 

Unlike Strongbow, you would imagine the cider to vary from year to year, and that is no bad thing. Both have their role. Strongbow is far and away the UK’s bestselling cider, sold in all the multiples and c-stores across the country. “We sell to the cider shop in Ledbury and through food festivals and farmers’ markets,” says Robbins. “We make enough to help it pay for itself. It’s not a viable income but we enjoy it.”

It’s an ecosystem, backed by the NACM, and one that has a healthy future with sharp minds such as Thomas, Thatcher and Johncox in charge.