Tom Oliver makes cider with a whole lotta love, writes Richard McComb.
T?om Oliver, a Herefordshire cider-maker, was drinking in a country pub near his farm when he spotted a familiar figure stride up to the bar.
The gent, sporting a raggedy grey mane, had just downed a pint of Tom’s cider and was returning with an empty glass.
“I’ll have another one of those,” he said to the barman.
Tom thought he probably shouldn’t say anything, but if he didn’t he knew he would regret it. So he told the chap, former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant: “I make that.”
Plant, who lives nearby in Worcestershire, complimented Tom on his cider and the two chatted for 20 minutes.
Obviously, Plant is a man of discerning drinking taste but you don’t need to be a rock god, or even a multi-millionaire, to sample the heavenly brew of the little village of Ocle Pychard.
It is here at Moorhouse Farm, a few miles north of Hereford, that Tom makes English cider in the traditional way of his family since the 19th century.
But odd as it sounds, the 54-year-old rock tour manager (80s veterans The Proclaimers are still on his roster) had to start from scratch.
The Olivers moved to the farm in 1873, having worked in the wool and cloth trade in Halifax. The business was a traditional mixed farm and hops were the main cash crop for the vast majority of the 20th century.
The rise of mechanisation convinced Tom’s grandfather that cider-making, with the hand picking of apples, was out-moded. Workers no longer needed refreshing with the drink as engine power replaced horse and manpower. The farm’s stone mill went to ruin, equipment was discarded, trees were grubbed up. There was more money in hops for the beer industry.
Tom recalls: “Every single farmer had a hop yard back then, even if they only had 30 acres, because they were a good earner. But then the market changed for hops because other countries could provide hops cheaper.”
By 1999, the demand for hops had effectively trailed off. “It’s just part of the evolutionary process,” says Tom, philosophically.
He found himself reintroducing cider apples, planting bushes and standard trees for varieties such as Broxwood Foxwhelp, Sweet Alford, Kingston Bitter, Yarlington Mill, Sheeps Nose and White Beech.
There are now three acres of cider apples and perry pears at Moorhouse, all in environmentally friendly, unsprayed orchards.
Tom says: “The trees are just starting to look decent. I put in at least 40 different cider varieties and probably as many perry pear varieties.”
The reason for the huge range of varieties is simple: “A mix of different cider apples make a far more interesting cider,” explains Tom. “When you come to blend after fermenting the juices you have a great array of flavours. If you had just one or two types of apple you would have a one-dimensional cider. Variety is the spice of life.”
Tom’s perry pears include some wonderful names – Yellow Huffcap, Harleys Gum, Judge Amphlett, Bartestree Squash – and he is on a constant search for locally grown vintage fruits in cider’s famous three counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. He is supplied with fruit from 29 farms but some of these have only a single tree.
While we are chatting in the yard, a farmer pulls up to tell Tom he’s come across a perry pear tree in one of his fields. Would Tom be interested in having a look? “They’re only going to waste,” says the farmer. Tom arranges to pay a visit.
There are different varieties of perry pears all over the place, sometimes just single trees by roadsides. They can be found in the most unlikely locations. Tom tells me about Tettenhall Dick, which is only found in Wolverhampton.
Tom’s cider operation is run as a separate entity from the rest of the farm, which also has Hereford and Hereford-cross beef cattle and Texel and Texel-cross sheep.
After 12 years, the future is looking good for Oliver’s cider and perry, which is made in the farm’s old hop shed and hop kiln.
“It is my baby and I want to get it to a state where it has proved itself,” says Tom of his drinks business.
“We are nearly there. Who knows what might materialise? I would love to plant more trees.”
It has been a steep learning curve for a producer who describes himself as “first and foremost a drinker.
“As a novice, what doesn’t go wrong?” he says.
“Getting fruit picked in a good condition is very tricky. From the word go, we realised that was going to be a problem. From the start, we did as much picking as we could and paid a premium price to encourage other people to pick the fruit ripely and cleanly. That is the key for us. We are minimum interventionalists. Getting clean fruit in the right condition is very important to us.”
Last year, Tom pressed 44,000 litres of cider and perry juice – his cider is made with 100 per cent juice – working up until Christmas Eve in sub-zero conditions, with an unprecendented three days and nights lower than -10C.
He uses both a traditional rack and cloth press, in which a “cheese” is built up from the apples, and a purpose-built modern belt press.
The latter is quicker but some varieties of apple juice do better on the old wooden press. Perry pears, such as late season Blakeney Red and Moorcroft and over-ripe Yarlington Mill apples also benefit from traditional juicing.
In keeping with his philosophy of limited intervention, Tom uses wild yeast fermentation for his cider and perry, which are left to mature in a combination of whiskey, rum and wine barrels. The results are spectacular, both the single varietals, the blended ciders and the perries.
The pure Moorcroft perry, 3.5 per cent ABV, is sweet and delicious, entirely different to some of the harsh perries I have tried. “It is very peary. I think there is a little bit of rhubarb at the beginning and a little bit of apricot,” says Tom.
You know what? He’s dead right.
To compare, he gives me a taste of Rock perry which is so tannic I fear for my tastebuds.
The contrast with the fruity Moorcroft is incredible.
“They are chalk and cheese,” says Tom of the perries, which tend to command a slightly higher price than the ciders due to the scarcity of the finest fruit. Tom also makes premium bottled-conditioned ciders and perrys, both dry and medium, which have natural sparkle and make terrific celebration drinks. If you were planning a traditional English wedding, with English food and drink, what could be better?
Ideal for Christmas, too.
Shezam, one of the best-selling ciders, is medium dry and lightly sparkling with “a hint of spice with bittersweet apple skins.”
Tom’s favourite though is the single varietal Yarlington Mill.
“I think it is the most beautiful apple. It tastes great dry, medium or sweet. It’s a great smelling, fruity tasting apple.”
* Tom has just launched online sales at www.oliversciderandperry.co.uk