VISIT: Somerset Cider Brandy

This weekend we visited the Somerset Cider Brandy, which finds itself in the south-west of England, in Somerset. We decided to visit Somerset since we knew that historically apple orchards were extremely plentiful there – in 1894 there were 24,000 acres of orchards. Since then with the Industrial Revolution, First and Second World War apple orchards have decreased significantly. Today Somerset remains a major grower of apple orchards, mainly for the production of farmhouse cider.

What attracted us to this farm was that the orchards, the ciderhouse with its oak vates, presses and barrels and the distillery are all in the same location – all of which are open to the public. We took a walk among the 160 acres of orchards. We took the marked orchard trail, which explained the different apple varieties on site and the quality each apple variety gives to cider. The neatly organised rows of apple trees truly seemed endless. We learned the apples are harvested from early October until Christmas. The farm uses mechanical apple picking that is managed by 16 people (which means 1 acre per person!). Harvesting schedule is done by fruit variety since they bloom at different times. The craft of combining different fruit is what produces the various types of cider.

Industrial cider is produced with concentrate and water whereas farmhouse cider is made 100% from apples. All the cider and cider brandy available at the farm is produced in the farmhouse way, only using apples from the orchards. The making of cider begins in autumn, while the distilling of cider brandy is made in April before the weather gets too hot. After years of fighting, the farm received PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) in 2010, which made the use of the term ‘Somerset cider brandy’ legal and gave it its heritage status like other foods in England such as Dorset blue cheese. The PGI status requests for all Somerset cider brandy be grown without artificial nitrogen fertilisers and to come from 20 specified varieties of vintage cider apples.

We were very fortunate to meet the owner of the farm, Julian Temperley, who has over 20 years experience in making cider and cider brandy. He took us on a tour of his farm in his pickup truck, with one of his loyal shepherd dogs running alongside us. We asked him about the impending changes Brexit will have on his and other local farming businesses. The processes of making his cider and cider brandy won’t be much affected by the policies, but he might have to re-think the branding of the company and his buying clientele might change. We don’t know yet what kind of trading deals will be possible with the EU, but as the NFU president said in his address to Andrea Leadsome, the current stance of “no deal is better than a bad deal” is wrong, it is the same case here.

Coming back from our tour we noticed two big blue buses that deliver cider to Glastonbury festival each year. While Julian is very traditional in his way of making cider and cider brandy (which has won him lots of awards), he is very forward thinking, contemporary and active in the way he promotes and fights for his brand.

A theme that kept coming up throughout the conversation was how much cider was connected with English heritage and history. This fact lies at the heart of the Somerset Cider Brandy since it is the place that revived cider brandy production in England. They were the first to receive a distilling licence in recorded history in 1989. The first written record of cider brandy in English literature was in 1678 in J. Worlidge’s Treatise of Cider. The craft of cider brandy distilling dates back to 11th century beginning in the Basque country, which then made its way through Normandy by trading boats. It flourished through the English Channels becoming especially popular in Somerset which finds itself on this route. Julian’s knowledge of this history is extremely extensive and his dedication to conserving the art of cider brandy craftsmanship becomes key in maintaining this part of English heritage. The farm itself is a historical place, it has been making cider for 200 years and distilling brandy for almost 30 years.

Today, cider consumption is very much part of English culture with the United Kingdom being the greatest consumer of cider in the world. Tesco had to increase its cider range on their shelves in 2001 by 60% to keep up with the demand of premium cider. There has been a growing interest from customers for crafted beer and cider, as people are more aware of where the beverages are coming from, their history and how they’re made.

While cider is experiencing a drastic growth in popularity today, customs relating to it have been alive for centuries in England. For instance the folk tradition of wassailing is a custom of visiting orchards in cider-producing regions in England. The ceremony is done by drinking cider, chanting and singing of traditional songs that promote a good harvest for the coming year. It is believed to invite good spirits and chase away evil ones. There is a wassailing song from Somerset that is chanted as a gift to the tree spirits, recounting the Somerset myth of ‘The Apple Tree Man’:

Old apple tree, we’ll wassail thee and hoping thou wilt bear
The Lord doth know where we shall be to be merry another year
To blow well and to bear well and so merry let us be
Let everyone drink up a cup, here’s health to the old apple tree.

One fruit can contain thousands of stories, create different products and hold significant value in a culture. These are the reasons that inspired us to do this project. If you’re interested in the traditional way of making of cider and cider brandy, we highly recommend you to visit the farm. We would like to thank Julian for talking and sharing his knowledge with us.

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