Homemade cider makes a comeback

Locally produced cider is back in fashion, and it’s not only farmers and rural gents responsible. Lee Williams speaks to three enterprising young cider companies borne of backyards and a love of the sweet stuff

It’s a grey, drizzly Saturday in October on a small farm somewhere near the border between Dorset and Devon. There’s a nip in the air and the leaden skies hold the threat of rain and oncoming winter.

But despite the lonely setting and dreary weather, something is happening at a nearby barn, which has gathered a lively crowd of people. A band is playing ‘scrumpy and western’ music. Children are running around. A table is laden with food. In everyone’s hand is a glass of cider.

It’s cider pressing day at Winston’s Farm near the village of Monkton Wyld in Dorset, and local farmers and residents of the village have gathered around the barn to watch this year’s crop of apples take the first step on the road to next year’s batch of cider.

The pressing begins and everyone gathers around a huge trailer full of apples. Men and women pass buckets of the fruit between the trailer and a machine that turns it into pulp, which excited children carry to a 35-year-old cider press which extracts the clear, sweet juice.

Thanks to a resurgence in homemade cider production, this is a scene that is being played out all over the country. The South West Cider Association reports that its membership has risen from 40 to 68 small-scale cider producers in the last five years. Meanwhile, the Welsh Cider and Perry Association last year recorded a massive increase of 36% in cider production from its small-scale producers.

“The cider project gave us an excuse to get out in the countryside searching for apples. It’s an incredibly rewarding pastime”

This increasing popularity means it’s not just farmers or retired landowners who are making cider anymore; it’s increasingly becoming the domain of young professionals. For example, Alasdair Keddie is a 39-year-old IT consultant living in Bournemouth, where he has a handmade cider press in his small back garden. He began making his cider, Dorset Sunshine, two years ago with his friend, Steve Kirkland, as a way to get outside more often.

“I was spending too much time in an office in front of a screen,” says Alasdair. “The cider project gave us an excuse to get out in the countryside searching for apples. It’s an incredibly rewarding pastime. You get to experiment with engineering and biochemistry, then you get to drink the results.”

Now Alasdair sells Dorset Sunshine to local pubs as well as festivals. In 2010 he made a modest 100 litres. This year he is hoping to make 10,000.

Twenty-eight-year-old Dan Davies and his 30-year-old brother, Adam, began making cider two years ago, with a press in their backyard in Knighton, Wales. In the beginning, they would cycle around local villages putting up signs asking for apples, now this year they’ve built a new, larger storage shed and are looking to increase production of their Skyborry Cider to 4,000 litres.

The pair is in it for the long haul, having just planted their own traditional orchard. “Maybe in ten years’ time, on my 40th birthday, I’ll be celebrating with some cider or perry made from fruit out of our own orchard,” says Adam.

Dorset-based Bill Meaden already owns his own orchard of 55 trees, which provides 80% of the apples for his product, Cranborne Chase Cider. His interest in the process stems from a desire to preserve countryside traditions and cider heritage.

“I want to get into perry next year because there’s a pear tree in a nearby village that is about 400 years old. It could be really rare – the last such tree that anyone remembers – so I’m really keen to keep that going,” he says.

These are different kinds of people with different motives for making their own cider, but they all share a common aim – a desire for a more natural lifestyle that benefits themselves and their environment, involving locally sourced, organically made produce with a clear provenance and low food miles. It involves a close connection to the local environment and its traditions, and a preservation of something of the past amid our increasingly modernised lives.

And it tastes good. As Alasdair Keddie says: “As a nation we’ve become used to getting oranges from California, asparagus from Peru. It’s genuinely unusual for people to experience a world class, locally sourced product.”