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Terroir Distilled: Somerset Cider Brandy Co.

Apple tree on hill

Somerset attracts clichés like plagues; time-chiselled, dog-eared, worn, warped, ubiquitous. We all know them – know them before we know Somerset; we discover them at our mother’s knee; in the pictures of our formative books. The cud-chewing, red-nosed yokel pulling at an unmarked keg, vowels so broad you could bridge the Severn with them; somnambulant, sluggish, wasp-flecked summers; drystone-chic, cider-sticky benches, round cheese and haybale romance.

Or the other cliché: Somerset the myth. Lost Britain. The Logres of the Round Table and the Green Knight. Of druids and mystics and hippies. Of Glastonbury Tor and Glastonbury Festival. The heady, hyper-real phantasma of England’s fairytale dream. A hobgoblin in every hedge and a witch in every copse.

The bucolic charm of Somerset is a third cliché, but this isn’t the rolling, manicured green of the Cotswolds, nor the open, magisterial opera of Devon or Cornwall. Somerset; flat, a Gordian tangle of looming, clutching hedgerow, enfolds its gnarling greenness upon you; choking single track roads with dark bramble; squeezing the piebald sun-shafts and throwing a verdure cloak over field vistas studded with rare, pyramid hills.

Half an hour from the M5 is Kingsbury Episcopi. It’s known for a festival, but not the sort you’re thinking of. Rather a Mayday festival for pole-capering, terpsichorean nostalgia, craft stalls, hobby horse races and eccentricism. There’s a nineteenth century stone lock-up on the village green. Built for chucking drunks into, and now a grade II listed building, which just goes to show that we’ll celebrate any old tat as long as there’s a sniff of history about it.

Trudge up the winding Burrow Way from the Methodist Church, past the white walls and thatch of the Rusty Axe pub, and you’ll find a red and yellow sign for the Somerset Cider Brandy Co and Burrow Hill Cider Farm. Dusty, cluttered, creaking. It feels like the end of the world. Or rather, it feels like the world’s abandoned beginning. This is farming pre-tourism; lived-in and vital. A farmer’s farm, far from cutesy petting zoos, immaculate tweed and the crispness of gurning supermarket photos. The buildings have a dog-tired, skeletal look; unwalled sheds propped up by peeling posts; a teenager’s room jumble of presses, plastic vats, buckets, barrels, plant-pots and rusting machinery. Stinging insects buzz and hum; constant as an afternoon lawnmower. A hand-written sign on weathered outhouse boards reads “Ring Bell for Cider.”

Cider brandy

No drink is more misunderstood, ridiculed, tortured, uncared-for, underrated and undervalued than cider. The perennial bridesmaid to wine and beer in the history of the English drunkard; hamstrung and laboured with its own set of false clichés, barmy truisms and wrongful baggage. Cider is the sweetish token gesture by the eight beer taps at your local. It’s the brown bag at the bus stop, the three-litre oblivion bottle. The messy-haired enthusiast’s reeking home-brew, naturally carbonated by caterpillars burbling bubbles from the bottom of the glass. The apple; ordinary, workaday bastion of the fruitbowl, never quite took on the prestige and glamour of the grape, nor carved a niche as the clothcap, get-the-round-in, five-on-Fridays staple of dank corners in urban boozers.

Cider got a second wind (or perhaps a third, fourth, fifth or sixth wind) when Magners launched its over-ice campaign, back in the gilded summers of my first legal drinks. It became nailed down as the festival grog; the summer sipper. Sit on the grass in someone else’s field and laugh yourself stupid on a cocktail of apple-bevvy, Kings of Leon and whatever’s being passed round, that was the cider message. (Though I didn’t get the full memo, being The World’s Most Boring Man). But whilst the craft revolution cleared mainstream shelf space for artisanal gin, hipster beer, trendy bourbons and single malt, cider stayed more or less as was. Strongbow. Bulmers. Magners. Thatchers. One or two of the Thatchers spin-offs if you were lucky, and a handful of ghastly supermarket own-brands. Cider was just glad if you noticed it at all.

We’re forty-five minutes early to Burrow Hill. Almost slovenly by my standards, but far too keen for the tardy geophysicist, who has been dragged away from a pub balcony, and slopes off through the apple trees in a pseudo-huff. My friend and I wander past the cider bell and into the shop, where the attendant seems shocked that we are a. here, and b. not wrinkled locals shuffling in for a few cartons of still dry from cask. ‘Shop’, incidentally, is a nominal term. Think a hybrid of a barn, a medieval vault and a set from Harry Potter. “You’re a bit early for the tour – there’s another party coming. But you can take the orchard walk. It’s twenty minutes, just follow the arrows.”

Nowhere that grows fruit or grain is as pregnant with mythology and gravitas as an orchard; and no fruit as weighty or venerated as the apple. The fruit of Eden isn’t named, but an apple is what it became. Orchards were the playgrounds and honeytraps of Greek Gods; the war of Troy began with an apple, and apples were the fruit that Heracles was sent for on his labours. They belonged to Aphrodite; to pass – and catch – an apple was a gesture of romance. Apples poisoned Snow White and Sir Patryse, revealed gravity to Newton and were a homonym for evil to the Romans. They are life, death, wisdom and love. Avalon, where Excalibur was forged, and Arthur taken to be healed of his wounds, is The Isle of Apple Trees. Apparently it’s somewhere in Somerset. How you’d recognise it is anyone’s guess.

orchard

We follow the sporadic arrows through perfect lines of trees with names like old cigarette brands. Kingston Black, Stoke Red, Dabinett, Redstreak, Yarlington Mill. Burrow Hill grow over a hundred varieties here, with forty of them of particular significance, and Kingston Black above all others. You could eat a different variety of apple every day for over three years in the UK and you’d still have cultivars left over. But these are not eating apples. These are tarter, bitterer, more tannic. It’s fine. These are better for cider than culinary apples. And you wouldn’t make wine from dessert grapes either.

Every modern apple for eating descends from a wild tree on the Kazakh slopes some several thousand years ago. At around the time of Christ it bred with the Roman Malus Silvestris and the cider apple sprung from its union. It was the antecedent to every one of Burrow Hill’s seventeen thousand trees, and they all fall into one of four categories: sweet, sharp, bittersweet and bittersharp, but there the resemblances end. If you didn’t know what an apple was you could walk through this orchard and never see the same fruit twice. There are vivid greens, and purple-blacks. Streaks of red and dapples of russet. There are clusters of ping-pong balls, and giant, bulbous loners. Trees where the fruit grows in the high branches, and trees in which all of the apples are within a hand’s plucking. They stand at equal distances apart; regimented; a one-legged battalion, all grown tall – the old way – no fruit-packed, high-yielding bushes here. It hasn’t rained much, but the shallow, rocky, light-brown soil squashes softly underfoot.

apple trees

We discover the recalcitrant geophysicist in a half-planted field. She immediately accuses me of scaring off a kite, and attempts to lure a timorous horse by pretending to have an apple. The courted horse is having none of it, but its stablemate, a sweating, heaving, cow-patterned giant bristling with foul, turd-footed flies, lurches over with belches and harrumphs.

Amidst the pulsing heat and dive-bombing insects a crowd has gently curdled in what passes for the courtyard. Glistening, cold-beaded glasses are handed round on trays. It’s sherry, but it isn’t. This is Kingston Black Apple Aperitif. It is the meeting of apple juice with apple spirit. “Is it cider?” someone asks. Yes. Of course it is. Every drop was milled and pressed and mashed and distilled from apples. Every sip has its Genesis in a tree behind us.

Cider is the sum-total of the apple’s benevolence. Or should be. But proper cider is hard to make. Demands cussed, belligerent, hard-fingered, snarling grit; women and men with respect for the apple. But, in England at least, where most of the world’s cider is made, the force of the artisan meets the immovable object of the huge corporation’s bottom line, and discovers itself to be not so implacable after all. Which may smack of familiarity to whisky drinkers, but really, compared to cider, you don’t know you’re born.

Cider can be made perfectly legally, and labelled as such in England, with just 35% of apple juice in its makeup. The rest? Concentrates, sugars, corn-oils. Shortcuts for shoddy, underripe apples, maximised efficiency, cynicism and sheer, dollar-eyed, hand-rubbing avarice. In Sweden, so lauded for its no-compromise to whisky here on Malt, the legal minimum can be just 15%.

Imagine if a wine could be just 15% grapes. Or a whisky just 15% grain. Imagine if, unadmitted, unlabelled, undenounced, your drink was less than half of what you believed it to be. More neolithic still, proper cider – cider made wholly of proper apples – has no protection, no designation, no appellation and no huge body going in to bat for it. Just the insufficiencies of CAMRA, which only furthers cider’s incongruous connubial association with beer, when any neophyte could see that it sits more comfortably next to wine. There is nothing – no PGI, no legal assurance – on a bottle of Burrow Hill’s Farm Pressed that guarantees a better drink than you’d get with a can of Woodpecker.

Laura, our guide, vanguards the twenty-strong group with an easy certainty that borders almost on insouciance. We begin, sardined, in the dingy, cramped, rural rusticity of the quasi-shop, then crocodile into the dingy, cramped, rural rusticity of the washback chamber. There are three washbacks that nurse the long, creeping fermentation. Gargantuan, scrawled-on with chalk. “We’ve a newcomer to the team”, explains Laura. “He’d only worked behind tills at Sainsbury’s before, so he was a bit wide-eyed at first. That’s why they’re labelled.” The labelling system is hardly the stuff of the Royal Society. Big tall. Big fat. Huge. That gets a laugh.

Cider brandy

The maturation room, arrived at next, is a bewildering oak-hoard. A ramshackle cask medley. A barrel-nerd’s challenge. Name that vessel. Foudres and hogsheads, pipes and butts, puncheons and barriques. And, yes, barrels themselves. “We just fill whatever there is,” shrugs Laura. A splintered boat hangs from the rafters. I wouldn’t bat an eyelid if it was full of cider too. “What’s that for?” asks a bespectacled man at the front. “In case it floods,” replies Laura. I’m pretty sure he believes her.

At this point we’re joined by Matilda Temperley, the daughter of the founders, who leads the rest of the tour. Imagine that at a whisky distillery. Julian, the founder, would be leading us himself in different circumstances, but he’s fronting a stall at a steam festival. We’re a long way from the chilly, corporate, factory sheen of a clockwork Diageo Classic Malt tour here.

And then, as if to prove the point, we’re in the still room. This is the nerve centre; the fulcrum for the heightening of Burrow Hill cider. Without this room, Burrow Hill is just another orchard and cider farm. With it, they are the innovators, the ameliorators, the luminaries and Brunels of the apple.

My God it’s a mess.

No, that doesn’t do it justice. No whisky distillery tour you’ve ever been on; not the Speyside behemoths nor the ancient chuggers in Islay bays; nothing from Glenmorangie’s burnished throne room to the repurposed storage units at Wolfburn can prepare you for Burrow Hill’s stillhouse. It is jumble on a quantum scale. A rhapsody to clutter. It is my office desk writ in copper, wood and glass. This isn’t for cameras, it’s for real, working distillers, one or two at a time, who know where everything is, and what everything does. It is so unexpectedly true-to-life, even in this already-visceral place, that you can’t but grin at the sheer nothing-to-hide, not-for-tourists, bugger-you-my-lad self-assurance of it all. “There’s a plate for this around somewhere,” says Matilda, slapping a hand on one of the still columns.

Cider brandy

She talks about the stills with the long-brewed familiarity of a ship’s captain. The first of the pair has been around since 1989. I don’t imagine Matilda has been around much longer. They’re two French ladies; Josephine and Fifi. Both Armagnacais; column stills for batch distillation. The spirit comes off at 70% from both, but they’re very different beasts. “Fifi’s young, vibrant, feisty. Josephine makes a big, complex spirit.”

Cider brandy is hardly a new concept. It put fire in the bellies of Somerset yeomanry for centuries, before Julian resurrected it in the tail-end of the eighties. It is, he says, the natural progression from cider, just as whisky is, in a certain sense, from beer. The Normans make oceans of the stuff, and call it Calvados. But the Somerset Cider Brandy moniker was hard-won. The thick end of a decade ago, the EU published a list of recognised spirits. Cider Brandy didn’t make the cut. Spanish and Italian distillers of grape brandies fought hard to keep it that way; Julian Temperley and the Somerset team, fully backed by Calvados distillers, fought harder to put the recognition back. Spain eventually relented, with a caveat. Cider Brandy had to be prefixed by “Somerset”. As of 2011, Somerset Cider Brandy is the only English spirit with Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status.

“That’s important,” says Matilda. “It means something, and we have to fight to keep it that way.” A distillery in Cornwall is looking to gain PGI status for its own cider brandy. They import concentrates from Turkey to buttress their blend. “That’d be terrible for the category,” says Matilda. Cider doesn’t get all that many victories. It can’t afford those it wins to be diluted. In any sense.

Matilda fires out facts like a revolver. Number of trees, number of varieties. Pruning’s every four years (when achievable), every tree is grafted onto the roots of another. You can’t plant a Kingston Black apple and expect a Kingston Black tree to grow. It’s the same with vines. It’s the same with people. No one is a clone of their parent. “We had a Japanese student here; he collected seeds from as many trees as he could to take home. We tried telling him “you won’t get Dabinett from Dabinett”. He took about a hundred. Hopefully he’ll get something interesting …” The ellipsis is deafening.

Finally the bonded warehouse. A glass of the Pomona; another fortified cider. This time it’s older brandy blended with the juice. Served at room temperature; apple’s answer to tawny port. Then a glass of the ice cider, the one that makes the group coo and gasp. Apple juice freezes in barrels in the orchard. Remove the ice and only the most intensely concentrated, sugared juice remains. Fermented to 11.5% it is as luscious and dazzling as any dessert wine.

The air hangs chewy with angel’s share. Fleetingly there are nuances of a whisky dunnage warehouse; vanilla, honey, oak. But the dense, laden, aromatic thump is the incense of apple in full, hydra-headed guise. Baked, ripe, bruised, fresh, crisp, green, red. It takes seven tonnes of apples to fill a barrel with spirit. This is the scent of graft and toil and bloody-mindedness; of years and decades of shifting, nefarious English weather. It takes fifteen years for an apple tree to reach maturity; there are centenarians rooted in Burrow Hill soil. Some of these barrels have twenty years behind them. More than any other of the hundreds of barrel houses I have stood in, this one reeks of time.

You’ll know the casks, as whisky lovers. Sherry stands out; Oloroso butts and PX puncheons. “Twice as expensive as eighteen months ago,” says Matilda. That’s the single malt industry’s fault. There are wine casks too, and a smatter of virgin oak. There are even new barrels from the Allier forest that drifted ashore when the MSC Napoli beached off Devon. Packed in cases stuffed with bibles written in Zulu; no-one else wanted them, and the Somerset Cider Brandy Co found a new expression.

Three more tastes; the five-year-old, young, fresh, fiery. The richer, chewier ten – served at Prince Harry’s wedding. Stateliest of all, the twenty-year-old. That’s eight tastes for a fiver, if you’re keeping score. One small quibble: they’re all bottled at just 42% abv. “Have you ever done a cask strength bottling,” I ask. “We will be,” says Matilda. Somerset Cider Brandy doesn’t have the same wonkish, obsessive discipleship as single malt; it isn’t subject to the same online nerdiness and clamouring. It is, for now, whatever its makers want it to be. And of course, indisputably, it is the best in its class.

The sun is still hammering down percussive, throbbing pulses as we drift back to the orchard’s fringe, through those Sergio Leone dustbowl buildings, decipherable only to those who need to decipher them. A few kids scurry and whoop; a dog snaps at a wasp and spits it out, retching. “He’s been doing that all day”.

“Make sure you walk up the hill,” says Matilda. “You can see across the orchards, right out to Glastonbury Tor.” The kids, zonked on unfermented apple juice, have now stampeded into what apparently is the office. Glenfiddich this ain’t. And all the better for it.

There are very few things at which the English can even tenuously suggest supremacy, but cider is one of them. Despite the Stygian torrents of adulterated swill. Despite the sneering and the back-handers, the clichés and the unlovely, schizophrenic image. At its best it is the utter mastery, the ultimate, sensitive expression of fruit. As vaulted, if all were fair and even, as wine. Undoubtedly as multifaceted and versatile. Beside Normandy and Brittany, Somerset is its heartbeat. And Burrow Hill is its Olympus.

I’ve dandled and slalomed through this review without mentioning the “t” word, but here it comes, with my reason for writing this on Malt, a whisky blog. I’m in Kingsbury Episcopi for the terroir. There are three established honeypot cider apple sites in England. All are in Somerset and the bowl of Kingsbury Episcopi is one of them. Julian and Matilda and the team at Burrow Hill can ameliorate and buttress and innovate and sculpt, but terroir is what makes this cider pulse and tick. Every bottle has an orchard of origin. Every vintage has a new story of hot summers, freezing snaps, torrential downpour, thunder, lightning and invasive mistletoe. Of craned necks, cold fingers, spat curses and stretched backs. All painted on this same, light-brown, shallow soil canvas; unrepeatable, unique.

Cider brandy

There are two apple trees in my garden; slouched, lazy, unworked. What variety? I haven’t a clue. But even trained and pruned and nurtured and nourished, they wouldn’t grow apples like those of the same variety in Kingsbury Episcopi 100 miles away. Or like those in the orchards of Herefordshire, or Devon, or Cornwall or south Wales, or the garden two streets down. The cider they would make would not – could not– taste the same either. Distilled, the spirit would be different too. How is this rocket science? How has the whisky industry blinkered itself so vociferously against what a child of three could understand?

Terroir doesn’t mean “better”. It doesn’t even mean “good”. What it does mean, what it incontrovertibly is, is the one true inimitable. Stills can be replicated. Workmanship can be learned and copied. But the bones of the land are their own, and they cannot be rewrought. Burrow Hill, a craft distillery twenty years before the term was coined; before the earnest, dew-eyed new whiskymakers and the steampunk gin trendies in Shoreditch sheds, has succeeded in the drinks industry’s most merciless market because they have made the most of their terroir. Of what no one else has, or can ever have.

The geophysicist, my friend and I traipse up the Burrow Hill, where a single sycamore stands sentinel. And suddenly Somerset unfolds, the hedgerow curtain falls back and the flat greenness sprawls out forever. Glastonbury Tor salutes on the horizon, half a marathon away, and all the muggy, ha-ha clichés melt into tangible truth.

This is a mystic place. The ancestral land of the Celts and the Britons, handed down, Chinese-whispered, grasped at and reshaped by Saxons and Normans and the English, through shifting, ethereal, fraught, violent, yearning and hungry generations. This is our myth, our legend, our legacy; written in the curve of a hedge, the line of a plough, the warping, wefting, transformative march of time. A story of the past carved not from mouldering, transitory piles scaffolded by National Trust grants, but from the ancient flesh of the earth itself. An inheritance for the present. A promise for the future.

Terroir, organics, biodynamic farming. These aren’t the moon-struck ramblings of barmy, pagan hippies. They are an identity. An unpurchaseable profundity. Terroir is a tool in no one else’s kit; the impression no one else can do. For over thirty years, Burrow Hill have proven that terroir can be distilled; that true singularity of flavour is wrung from your own muck, and nothing else. They have used terroir as the springboard to create something burnished and brilliant and new, irrevocably intertwangled with tradition and the past. And I see now, as I crest the hill and look across the patchwork apple trees, that these are the true spirit artisans. The yeoman distillers of apples and mystique and history and soil. The bottlers of the taste of the land.

 

Huge thanks to Matilda, Laura and the team for showing us around. And to Lydia and the geophysicist for letting me drag them along.

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