RG 2007 March
| This page is part of The Cidermaking Year by Rose Grant
March , 2007
Cidermakers' holiday time
At this time of year the pressing is over and the cider is still gently fermenting in the vats. Nothing much needs to be done until the pre Easter packaging rush. Then I will need to make sure that the first available cider is boxed and in the pubs to greet our holiday visitors. After that it is all go, as the first spring sales lead into the busy period of the cider thirsty summer. Just now, it is this cider maker's holiday time. I think some of you probably guessed that when emails went unanswered. Having been back a day now, I've been able to put that right.
Frances, my sister-in-law and I have been touring South Africa for the last three weeks. This is not the place for a travelogue and I would not wish to bore you with one. It will suffice to say that having visited the Cape and the Garden Route we ended up in the Winelands region between Montagu and Stellenbosch. Here of course there seems to be a vineyard every kilometer or so and hectares of vines in their neatly manicured rows stretching way into the distance. However, to my delight, every so often we came upon huge bush orchards absolutely laden with apples. The little trees, though closely planted in rows, were pyramidally pruned. Being brightly adorned with so much ripe fruit they put me in mind of Christmas trees covered with colourful baubles. It was a splendid sight. The harvest season was about to begin. In one orchard we saw an army of pickers with aluminium stepladders. Wooden boxes were stacked here and there and small tractors with trailers plying between the rows. Harvest time had come for a particular variety, an early one like our Discovery perhaps.
South Africa is noted for its excellent eating apples, ripened to perfection with generous sunshine from clear blue skies. I could not help thinking what wonderful cider apples could be grown here. Imagine the perfection of the Dabinetts and Yarlingtons! I suppose that because there is so much good wine cheaply available that there just would not be enough demand here for cider. The exporting of eating apples has to be the more profitable venture.
Much though I enjoyed the wine each evening, I found it too heady at lunchtime and prefered beer or cider. The beer was of the bottled lager variety, which as it was served icy cold proved to be refreshing in the mid day heat. I'd looked for local cider in the earlier parts of our tour without success but here in the Winelands I was pleased to see local bottled cider available.
a slice of lime
I came across ciders from two manufacturers, Savannah and Hunters. Both offered sweet and dry versions. I decided to try the dry Hunters ( 5.5 % alc). It was actually quite sweet and had that artificial factory cider flavour we know so well in UK. I did not enjoy it, though to be fair to Hunters, the taste was not improved by the waitress. She had opened the bottle and squeezed half a slice of lime into the neck, presumably some sort of African embellishment. The cider had more of a hint of lime than its own little hint of apple.
Savannah Dry ( 6% alc ) was more like a dry cider should be and a pleasant drink taken cold in the 30 degree heat of the day. It had no noticeable tannin so I suspect that it came from some of the eating/cooking varieties I'd seen in the orchards nearby. Nevertheless it made a welcome change from the lunchtime lager.
PS. After this was written I received an email from one of our ukcider friends in SA to tell me that Savannah Dry is made from Granny Smith apples. QED
We stayed for a two days on a wine farm in Montagu. I had read about it in a magazine and was attracted by the owner's offer of a complimentary carafe of his own wine with which one could enjoy the sight of the sun setting on the mountains behind his vineyard. This was indeed a pleasure and the wine was excellent. Looking at the rows of vines as I sipped their product, reminded me of the special pleasure of drinking cider at our orchard event in May, beneath the very trees from which it came. It was obvious that this being a small vineyard, compared with many that we had seen, that the scale of things would be similar to my own cider business. I got chatting to Richard, the owner, and found we had much in common. He had produced 5000 litres in the current season which was a bit less than it should have been. Unfortunately some of the vines had been affected by a virus that causes the grapes to shrivel.
I spoke about having made 7000 litres of cider. Richard smiled as he told me that a few weeks back he had a Somerset cider maker staying there, who said that he made millions of litres.( Cider maker's holiday time, you see!) I was humbled though naturally curious, so he looked back on the computer and told me that it was Mr. Thatcher. Oh, I joked, Thatcher's Cider is my main opposition back home! Actually it is more usually Westons that I am up against in the freehouses, but the annoying thing is I can't compete with Thatchers in my own local which is a tied house. It is a bit galling that although the landlord would like to have my cider he can't. The brewery only allows one cider to be sold and it is Thatchers. The opposition one can't oppose is always the most formidable one. I look forward to meeting Mr Thatcher one day. Richard said he is jovial and very pleasant man to talk to. We could talk about how I enjoyed his cider 50 years ago when I lived in Somerset, when he still had black Rotoplas tanks in the yard and his operation was probably rather similar to my own now. I was rather sorry to have missed him in South Africa. We could have had a glass or two of Savannah Dry as a sundowner in Richard's garden!
On the road again
This is an especially pleasant time in the cidermaker's year. The delivery of the new cider has begun and it is really good driving around and renewing my acquaintance with the landlords and landladies that I supplied last year. It has also been heartening to hear from several of them that customers had been asking when my cider would be back. It is so nice to be appreciated! The last week or so of warm weather seems to have kick started the cider drinking season off a bit earlier than usual so I've been busy filling up the B-in-B s and putting them in the back of the Landrover. Then off goes Rose for a drive in the spring sunshine! I feel on top of the world; compensation indeed for the bitter cold of the November cider making.
Being aware that I have twice as much to sell as last year, I know that I need to find more outlets. I therefore have a keen eye for other freehouses not too far from home, as I drive around to my existing customers. I have been able to add an extra two already and I hope to find a few more yet. I will keep the wiki listing for Dorset updated as I go.
cider friendly pubs
After a while one gets a feeling as whether a pub is likely to want, or even to be able to sell, real cider. It seems a lot to do with the attitude of the landlord. I've found some who will try a box, but with little obvious enthusiasm. I know instinctively even before I walk out of the place that there is unlikely to be a repeat order. Then by contrast there are what I call the 'cider friendly' pubs. Usually characterised by already having a worthwhile range of good or reasonable ciders, here the landlord is welcoming and enthusiastic to give another one a try. Somehow I just know that my cider is likely to succeed there. It is the perception of the landlord by the customers that is so important. Enthusiasm is contagious and when that also means that a range of good ciders has been made available, success is assured. These pubs are like jewels!
I've had my eye on two such jewels from last year and was determined to make an effort to get my cider behind their bars this season. Sadly I've just learnt that both are about to be bought up by Enterprise Inns, a huge pub chain. Need I say more, having followed the recent postings about Wetherspoons with increasing dismay. It is really sad that more and more freehouses are being swallowed up or put out of business by these brutes. Enterprise Inns owns 9000 pubs and is forever buying more at a rate of 100 or so per year. I've no personal knowledge of their pubs but I think I can imagine what sort of cider they would be selling.
The sales drive continues
I've now sold my first 500 litres of Cider by Rosie and today I took my first repeat order to one of the pubs. This is a promising start but I need to ramp up to 1000 litres a month, as my tanks need to be empty for replenishment in October. Of course the rate does increase naturally, as the weather becomes warmer and the summer holiday season gets underway, but I know that I still must find more outlets. In the last few weeks I seem to have been on a continuous pub crawl.
If that sounds pleasant to some, then I'm sorry to tell you that the pleasure has worn a bit thin due to much more disappointment than success in promoting my cider. In order to try and save as many expensive diesel miles as possible I tried emailing pubs to see if they would have my cider. This was a waste of time. Only one bothered to reply and that was only after I had actually been to see them. I also tried telephoning and as a result have become aware of what I now call 'the absentee landlord syndrome'. I have come to the conclusion that the standard brief for the bar person when answering the phone, is to say that the landlord has just gone out! There is no doubt now, that it is the face to face approach that gets results. There was nothing for it but to put in the miles, armed with a taster bottle or two of the golden liquid.
The next problem was to find the freehouses. I am beginning to get a feel for this. Sometimes after driving miles to a pub, the character of which, judged from publicity material etc, had made it seem like a freehouse, then alas comes the sad sigh from the landlord. "I would really love to have your cider, but we are tied". It is often impossible to tell what the chances are until this point is reached.
lack lustre pubs
I have however learnt to spot the obvious tied houses. There is sometimes a little plaque to one side of the door that says something like 'Enterprise inns', for example. These plaques are often quite diminutive as though the almighty parent company did not really want to acknowledge ownership of their lack lustre establishments. I've also found a lot of brewery owned pubs that had no obvious acknowledgment at all. The fashion now seems to be not to have the brewery's name on the pub, as used to be the case. Who can remember the days of Strong & Co of Romsey with their 'Heart of the Strong country' signs? There was no such shyness in those days. There is nevertheless an absolute give away clue to the brewery owned pub today. If you see a pub that has lots of black sign boards with gold lettering enclosed within a lined margin, then that pub almost certainly belongs to a brewery. Even more obvious is the range of beers on tap, but by then it's too late. You are inside the wretched place and can see the accursed Strongbow tap glaring at you from the bar!
But it has not been all bad. Something good just had to come out of all this traipsing and disappointment, and it did. I've found two little gems. Two little privately owned country pubs that took me back to those unhurried times when you could have a peaceful drink in homely surroundings. No sound of traffic outside, no themed-up decor or pretentious overpriced food and above all, a welcoming and cheerful landlord or landlady actually serving from behind the bar. I'm sure a lot of you come down this way on holiday and would be happy to make little detours off the beaten track for a peaceful pint and a bite to eat, so I will let you in to two of Dorset's best kept secrets.
The first is The Vine Inn at Pamphill near Wimborne. Pamphill very much gives the impression of being off the beaten track, though it's only 2 miles from Wimborne. The Minster can be glimpsed through the trees. The village is very peaceful and unspoilt, being well away from the main road. To me it seemed rather Hardyesque, consisting mainly of thatched cottages which surprisingly were along roads that are still unmetalled. There are pleasant walks in the open countryside around the village, which is also close to the National Trust's, Kingston Lacey estate.
The little Vine Inn sits on the side of the hill and is entered via some steps leading down into the beer garden. Both bars are reached from the garden. The public bar is tiny and very cosy indeed. Once inside this snug little space with its cushioned wall seats all round, you are greeted by Linda from behind the bar. She is the lovely lady who has been running this little gem for the last 24 years. Like The Square and Compass, this pub has been in the same family for generations. On one wall an old black and white photo of Linda's grandfather and the extended family bears testimony to this. Linda believes in selling real ale from lesser known local breweries and real cider. Today I tried Goddards ale from the isle of Wight. Last week it was from The Hidden Brewery in Wiltshire. Linda's guest ales are a constant surprise and delight for her regulars. Her cider drinkers seem happy too. She has Westons cider and perry and now also has my own. Simple but tasty pub food is also available. To my mind this is what pubs should be all about!
My second gem was found in a village closer to home. It is another little freehouse called the Oak at Dewlish. This really is in the middle of nowhere. Dewlish is approached along several miles of winding road after turning off the main Dorchester to Blandford road at Milborne St Andrew. Quiet is an understatement, I did not meet another car. I parked by the front door of the pub, just as though it could have still been 1950, and went inside to meet the landlord. "A bit quiet here, isn't it?" I said. "Oh there's no passing trade out here" he replied.
There were several locals at the bar enjoying the beer and I then discovered to my surprise that this out of the way pub had 6 real ales on the go! John the landlord explained that people may not pass the pub but they certainly do come to it. I could see why. John and Diane Trebilcock are most friendly and welcoming hosts who obviously enjoy what they are doing. They take a pride in their pub and the range of real ales and ciders that they provide. They were pleased to add my cider to those of Westons already there. I stopped for a drink and some lunch and sure enough people did start arriving. It was not long before they wanted to try the new cider, which I'm glad to say was met with approval. The atmosphere seemed convivial and just as a country pub should be. I expect that it gets a good deal busier at week ends.
So, it is on with the sales drive. I have unearthed a few other possibilities that I hope to be able to report on positively in due course.