Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Straddling the fence at Westons

One thing I am aware of as I sit here in bog-drenched Somerset is that much of the work I have done in recent years has been very Somer-centric and, when I look at it on the IAMCIDER Travel Map quite frankly- its embarrassing.

So, I decided to concentrate a few days of effort in Herefordshire last autumn in the hope of redressing the balance. Its a very different scene up there, the cider tastes quite different to the various local tipples down here in Somerset and so it immediately catches my taste buds.

Incidentally, its all too easy to glorify only the tiny artisan producers scattered far and wide throughout the cider world, something I've done for years (and occasionally still do to be fair) I've come to the conclusion you can't ignore the industry, the small and large producers are very much part of the same family and need each other for them both to thrive. More opinion on that here.

One of the largest producers in the area is Westons of Much Marcle who have been making cider on the same site since 1884. Looking through the edit of photos I shot there on their final week of pressing, I'm struck by just how the photos really pick up on something I've always thought about Westons; love them or hate them, they seem to have one foot firmly rooted in the past whilst gazing firmly into the future; the vintage ads and the digital displays, a 30 tonne apple delivery next to a pair of old boys with 15 sacks, 60 spanking new 200,000 litre steel tanks (12 million litres!) sit on the same site as some of the oldest and largest wooden vats I've seen in UK or anywhere else. Its a dichotomy that seems to run throughout their entire family run business and as I've always said, they seem to straddle the fence between tradition and industry really well. I'm sure more one side than the other occasionally but nevertheless its an approach that does them well and something I wish we would see more of in Britains industrial cider scene. Many brands will have you believe their roots are firmly panted in their traditions, but how many of them are really? Marketing is very powerful and the truth is in the taste. I'm sure we can all tell the difference between genuine traditional cider and a pseudo traditional style. It takes more than a frequent nod to our past. Westons benefits from being a family run concern, its not all about business. As with my family run businesses they have another influence- the right thing to do. The 4th generation MD Helen Thomas sums it up neatly 'what we do today has an impact on what we do tomorrow' They have about 2.4% of the take-home cider market, 4% of the on trade and are expanding every year to keep up -export being a large area of growth. When the apples start coming in, its a 24hr a day job. Although they are evolving constantly heritage is important to them the old vats can't be replaced and they have cider in them all year round. Helen told me 'quality is everything, if we lose that, we lose everything.' Something I and every artisan producer would agree with yet many industrial producers seem to have already made their choices... You need to play the long game if you still want to be here in 100 years.

They have a fantastic resource there - the Scrumpy House. Its a small and simple restaurant area that serves lovely food freshly prepared by onsite chef Chris Murphy. He took the time to chef up a few dishes for me to photograph that I'll include in an upcoming post about cider and food.

The futures looking rosy for Westons, they've planted all their available land with cider fruit and have - there is simply no more land that they own that can be planted with fruit. They now have 228 acres of mixed standard and bush orchard and have entered into 20 year contracts with local growers which bolsters their acreage by another 1500. And if you should have any spare - they are currently looking for as many perry pears as they can gather.

They've recently rebranded their Organic cider to Wyld Wood. I've been aware of this cider for a while now as for may years I've thought it the best 'gateway' cider thats most readily available nationally. When it say 'gateway' I'm not referring to old farmers standing about in a field with a glass of it cheers'ing each other as they lean on a rickety old gate - I mean its a great way of introducing people to a more traditional style cider. It bridges the gap between industry and farmhouse rather well and as its available all over the country, its in a strong position to covert 'fizzy' cider lovers to something more 'real.' (NB inverted commas- the ongoing debate about whats 'real' and what 'isn't' marches on.) If you havn't tried it, I suggest you do so you can make your own minds up. A simple blind taste test carried out on unsuspecting boozers in my kitchen this Christmas confirmed that their bottled Wyld Wood tastes a little bit 'farmhousey, yet still clean and fizzy.' There arn't many industrial cidermakers that you can say that about. I don't like all of their ciders, but I believe in giving credit where its due...

Anyway - thats enough for now - more on Westons later as I'm starting to look at cider and food. I was blown away by just how good the food is and well it matches with their cider.

On the photography, I feel I should apologise for the sheer volume here... believe me or not - I have actually edited them down quite heavily.

I hope you like!


  1. Nice words and pics as always, Bill.
    Funny you should be on about food and cider, I posted this link to my Twitter feed earlier today I am @handmadecider