Sunday, 7 October 2018

A Tour of Thatchers Cider

So, a little disclaimer at the beginning of this post: I'm not really a cider drinker. I know; it's hard to comprehend how you can have grown up in the West Country, live in Bristol and not be into the region's legendary beverage. But as someone with a low alcohol tolerance and an inability to drink pints, I've always assumed cider wouldn't be my tipple. Add in a 'memorable' experience at a cider festival during my university days (it didn't end well) and I've pretty much avoided the stuff ever since, bar a few underwhelming experiences that failed to convert me from my regular drink choices.

But of course, like wine, there is cider and there is cider. So when I got the opportunity to take a tour of my local producers, Thatchers, with a bit of casual cider tasting thrown in for good measure, I was keen to see if my mind could be changed. And everyone I know seems to be a Thatchers aficionado, so I had been wondering if I might be missing out on something. 

Furthermore, the company itself is one that interests me. I love producers that have a heritage like Thatchers. Based in the Somerset village of Sandford, and surrounded by the gently rolling hills of this lovely county, the Thatchers orchards have been in the care of the same family since 1904 and the business is currently under the management of the fourth generation of owners. 

I've been past the factory and orchards on many occasions during cycling rides along the Strawberry Line so the chance to actually step inside and have a wander around the farm was an exciting prospect. Anyone can do so - guided tours of the orchards and mill take place every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. At just £12 for a 2-hour tour, it's a great value experience for the cider lover in your life (you can also buy vouchers online.)

Annoyingly I'd been hoping for some early Autumn sunshine to complete the vision of bucolic Somerset that is presented to you on reaching the orchards, but sadly they were rain-soaked rather than sun-dappled. As such, I'd recommend coming with weather-appropriate clothing so you can enjoy the fascinating insights into how the orchards are managed and how the cider apples are cultivated; on a sunny afternoon I can't think of a nicer place to hang out for a while. 
Our friendly guide explained how Thatchers cultivates and tends its 100-year-old orchards which are home to no less than 458 apple varieties - that's possibly the biggest collection of cider apples in England.

Despite apple cultivation being a pretty intensive and time consuming process, Thatchers prides itself on innovation and a dedication to creating new apple varieties that bring something fresh to the cider market. Our guide also explained that the company partners closely with other farms both locally and further afield, helping to keep their farms flourishing as they supply the highest quality apples to Thatchers to top up the their own supplies. 

From the orchards, we were then led into the mill, a state-of-the-art processing factory where the apples go through the washing, grinding, pressing and fermentation stages. Huge 160-year old oak vats store the cider until it's ready to be canned; at the tasting at the end of our tour I particularly liked the 'Redwood' cider, a blend of Harry Masters, Dabinett and Yarlington Mill apples, which is fermented in the oak vats alongside an infusion of oak chips - you can really taste that gorgeous oaky flavour in this cider variety.

I love the feeling of heritage and the combination of traditional and high-tech processes on show at Thatchers. Alongside some impressive modern machinery, it's great to see these vast oak vats - dating back to a pre-mechanised era - still doing their job with the help of a once-yearly visit from a cooper (to be honest, I didn't even think they existed anymore!) But if it ain't broke, don't fix it, and these massive vessels remain perfectly suited to the important task of holding up to 135,500 pints of cider. 

A quick look at the canning floor - and you'll be pleased to know that Thatchers are dedicated to keeping their packaging plastic free (which means no more plastic 6-pack surrounds) - and then it was on to something a little more interactive; the chance to sample some classic and newer cider blends coming out of the factory. This is included in all tours, you'll be pleased to know. For the record, I DID come away feeling a bit more converted to cider. I really liked the oaky Redwood cider, which was light enough (6% alcohol) and dry enough to put thoughts of sickly super-sweet ciders out of my mind. 
The crisp and balanced Katy was another favourite. Some of the draft ciders felt a bit strong for my uninitiated taste buds but there wasn't one cider I actively disliked. I've never really considered cider being paired with food before or as a basis for a cocktail (there are some recipes here) so I'm keen to try experimenting on that front. Oh, and Thatchers also makes a sparkling apple wine (a bottle of which came home with me) and a gin. So there really is something for everyone in their range.

An absolute must-do is to combine your tour with lunch at the Thatchers-owned Railway Inn, a cosy pub and dining room that serves fantastic food, much of it using cider as a cooking ingredient. Really friendly service and a nice setting accompanies pub grub favourites (cider battered fish and chips, for example) with more unusual choices. I had a gorgeous butternut squash risotto with truffle and goats cheese. 

Puddings, unsurprisingly, heavily feature apples - my apple sticky toffee pudding was insanely good, while the apple crumble also looked delicious. If you haven't had quite enough cider after your visit to the farm, you can opt for a Haze sorbet, the perfect palette cleanser after your main meal. 

There's also a shop on site where you can buy the full Thatcher's range, as well as other locally produced foods. Choose from freshly filled cider kegs, limited edition Special Vintage ciders, mix and match options or special occasion gift boxes, as well as books and merchandise.

With really friendly and knowledgeable guides leading you through your visit, one of the main things I took away from my visit was that Thatchers is doing great things in the world of cider - I'm big on supporting local producers and while the company has come a long way since 1904, when William John Thatcher's farm was just a small, cottage industry, it's a company with an ethical outlook and dedication to keeping centuries-old traditions alive. 

With the Thatchers family very much still involved in the day-to-day running of the farm, it's a business that is both progressive (it has an award-winning graduate training programme) yet keen to keep its integrity and character intact. And while I'll possibly never be a huge cider drinker, sampling its products definitely swept away my uncertainties about cider. And I know plenty of people who will be keen to follow in my footsteps and take their own tour of this brilliant company...

For more information about Thatchers Cider, visit the website here. You can also check out the Railway Inn website here

I enjoyed a complimentary tour of Thatchers with Bristol Bloggers. All thoughts and words are my own. 


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