Day 3 of my UK Cider Tour starts outs fine. I rolled out of Monmouth on my preplanned route. I did my research and planned to ride on quiet roads and bike paths. Today’s bike path is more of a walking trail with lots of gates along the way. It ends far too quickly.
I just turned off the path onto a dual carriageway with no hard shoulder. This wasn’t in my research. I don’t really have a choice this road is the only way I can get over the river in time to see Ross-on-Wye Cider. I make the call to drop the air pressure in my tires and ride on the grassy verge on the side of the road for the next 3 kilometers. Head down and push hard on the pedals but it is slow going, finally see a turn off, you bet I turned there.
Finally, I’m onto a single lane B-road. I can make up some time here. These roads often have a bit of soil in between the wheel tracks. The weather has been very hot and dry. This means that the soil is loose and sandy. I come screaming down the hill, my GPS beeps turn right, I lean into the corner, my front wheel hits the sand. Then the sound that hurts any cyclist, new bike metal on asphalt. I hit the deck hard. The key is to get back up and get moving before the pain kicks in.
Everything on the bike seems to be working and its only 5km to Ross-On-Wye Cider. By the time I get there my knee has quite a bit of blood on it. I met Mike Johnston of Ross-On-Wye Cider outside one of the sheds. The farm also has a campsite. Lucky for me there are showers, so I can get my leg a thorough clean out. Once presentable, I find Mike helping a local bloke with his shopping list. The shopping list is about 12 different ciders, some bottled, some being decanted straight from the tanks into old coke bottles. Old mate likes a sweet cider but not too sweet, so he gets some of the sweet and a dash of the dry cider.
Mike takes me to the shed to have a taste of some of the ciders. It’s a bit of a privilege to be drinking ciders with Mike and his head cider maker John. They are quite proud of the local wild yeasts that give a classic Herefordshire earthy scent. Ross-on-Wye cider seem to specialize in single variety ciders. Kingston Blacks, Somerset Redstreaks, Dabinettes all have single varieties ciders. They are instantly recognizable on the palate of the apple they represent. However, the scent is unique to Herefordshire and unique to Ross-on-Wye Cider.
The orchards around the shed produce far more apples that Ross-on-Wye use. The rest are sold to Bulmers. In fact the orchard was started to supply Bulmers. These days Bulmers is buying less apples from the region. Bulmers traditionally have been supporters for the industry helping to fund research into improving orchard and cider making techniques. Bulmers were bought by Heineken in 2008. I wonder why Bulmers are buying less apples? More Water? Imported apples? Market decline? let’s hope not. The flip side of the situation, Ross-on-Wye might have some extra apples for next year.
Speaking of big players, just down the road is Weston’s Cider. Weston’s is probably about the 5th biggest in the UK Cider market. I met up with Matthew Langley, Insight and Innovation Manager. We go for a bit of a wander around the factory, it is another order of magnitude bigger compared to the cider houses I’ve been this week. Weston’s are proud of their heritage they have been making cider on this site since 1880. They have a small museum of their history, including old presses and what’s claimed to be the world’s largest (empty) cider bottle collection.
Weston’s is interesting in the way they hold onto their history but at this scale they have to be a modern facility. For example, they still use huge oak tanks from the 1950, these tanks can’t be left to dry out or they will crack. Each one is named and used for aging the organic cider products. At the same time modern hydraulic presses run 24/7 in late autumn.
The plant is on a rolling hill-side. Weston use this to their advantage. Apples are unloaded at the top of the hill into washing pools, they flow into the main section of the cider house where they are shredded on a continuous conveyor belt. Downhill again into the continuous press. Before being piped down to the stainless-steel tanks, enough to ferment about 60 million pints. The cider reaches about 8% ABV in the tanks, many of the cider line are watered down to an appropriate strength.
The week I visited the UK it was struck by a CO2 shortage. It was becoming a concern for all the cider makers on my tour, but Matthew was concerned as many of their products are force carbonated.
My knee was really starting to stiffen up, with the adrenaline fully worn off, pedaling is no longer pleasurable. I make the hard decision to call it a day and I jump onto a train to Worcester.
At the start of my tour I wanted to learn the differences in regional ciders. Someone, from Herefordshire said, “Somerset Cider is made with the heart, Herefordshire Cider is made with the head”. Take from that what you will. For me, Somerset has a signature taste coming from the bitter-sweet and the bitter sharp apples. Herefordshire is all about the scent, dank and earthy thanks to the preference for the local wild yeast.
I closed out my tour in Worcester with Jeremy of Authentic Cider, a cider importer of UK Cider into Hong Kong in a beer garden. Over a few pints we talk about the industry. I realise there are so many more, great local cider makers in the region that I need to visit next time.
I would like to say a big thank you to all the people I visited along the way. The biggest thank you goes to my wife who let me go on this adventure. I’ll have to do this again sometime soon. I picked up a few ciders along the way so keep an eye out for them soon. If you missed Day 1 or Day 2 check them out now