One of the first days of spring and over 50 cider making members of the South West Cidermakers Association (SWECA) descended on a very impressive Scout Hall at Sixpenny Handley on the Dorset/ Wiltshire Border.
Maybe a little away from the main cider making area but there were at least a couple of Wiltshire makers present. Our host was Bill Meaden of Cranborne Chase Cider – a Dorset producer who operates from his father, Simon’s, farm a couple of miles south down the lanes.
The beauty of the twice a year SWECA meetings are that they are a chance to get together with a wide range of other producers and share latest news and best practice. The range of producers is very democratic. John Thatcher from Thatchers, Bob Cork from C&C represented the largest commercial producers. The larger West Country artisan producers included David Sheppy of Sheppys, Barny Butterworth of Sandford Orchards, Perry’s, Rich’s, and Hext along with many newer and smaller producers. Producing only 3,500 with Stones Cider I certainly was not the smallest!
The great thing is that everyone is willing to talk to each other about what they are doing, how they do it and how they could do it better. The presence of industry experts like Andrew Lee, Peter Mitchell, Keith Goverd and Liz Copas enriches the event.
The range of topical subjects covered in this meeting was amazing. The latest rises in Duty in the Budget – totally over the top but got hardly any publicity. Clarification about HMRC duty on fruit ciders. Some producers seem not to accept that under the HMRC regulations these are ‘made wines’ and pay punitive duties of nearly double normal cider. You can either control the amount of duty buy lowering the alcohol – which is why most fruit ciders taste like bland alcopops – or pay through the nose. It is probably just as well that the HMRC do not seem to have had the resource to have police this over recent years but you can sense that those producers who play by the rules (in the main the SWECA members) are frustrated by those who do not pay a blind bit of attention to them.
We heard about the importance of ph levels in the fermentation of cider, the importance of bumble bees, what we are doing at the wonderful Bath and West Show (I am running the SWECA bar) and how to set about exporting.
This meeting also included the Annual SWECA cider competition where each member attending brings along a bottle of what they feel is their best cider – though not being the most organised many producers just fill a bottle with what they can find that morning. I was delighted to get second place in the dry class – the first time we have had a placing in this competition which is nice as it is a ‘producers’ competition.’
After lunch we moved down to Bill’s cider mill. I had first visited three years ago when researching my book Dorset Cider. Bill is still only in his mid-20s and is one of the exciting younger cider makers who are driving the industry forward. He has experience both as a welder – very useful – and as a head brewer at a local brewery. However, with a combination of back trouble and the growing demands from the cider he is now focused as a cidermaker producing 27,000 litres last winter. When I first visited Bill was pressing on a home fabricated pack press in an open fronted modern farm building. The huge development was that the old press and mill had been moved to the other side of the yard and a large belt press introduced. An impressive step forward which has allowed him to scale up.
His cider is also impressive. Many of his apples come from a local orchard on the Neighbouring Rushmoor Estate of mainly Brown’s Apple. When this had been planted, it was intended for apple juice but as it is probably the second most balanced apple for a single variety cider (after Kingston Black) the apples are now being put to the best possible use. He buys in a wider variety of apples from the orchards of Simon Baxter at Long Bredy near Sherborne. The ciders I have tasted over the years are clean and fresh tasting. I was particularly impressed with a new bottled cider he has had produced.