Shropshire Cider Renascence
Shropshire Cider has a long history. Although it may not be a county that is immediately identified with cider in fact it is the northernmost of the western counties that have a genuine rural tradition of farmhouse cider. It is really only to be expected as the cider strongholds of Hereford are only a few miles to the south. It is a bit like the connections of Dorset with Somerset and Devon. In the 1881 census of orchards Shropshire, or Salop as it was referred to, had 3,718 acres of Orchard which places it 10th out of all the 50 counties covered by the census. This places it on a similar scale to Monmouthshire, Dorset and Cornwall – all the counties adjoining the three main cider counties of Devon, Somerset and Herefordshire. Worcestershire and Gloucestershire were in-between and the only other county in the country that broke this West County domination was Kent. It is good to see a reawakening of interest in cider in Shropshire. Interestingly it is not the artisan revival that has been seen amongst small producers in other parts of the country but is linked to local small breweries and pubs.
I have just returned from a few days in south Shropshire between the Long Mynd and Stiperstones. We usually manage one break there during the year, walking in the beautiful countryside, watching birds and both drinking and eating in a wonderful selection of pubs. However Shropshire Cider has barely been on the agenda until now. Yes there has been Mahorall Cider. We made a trip to the shadows of Clee Hill a few years ago and were presented with an acetic sample of ‘rough’ cider. It may be to some peoples taste but I am afraid not mine. Their professionally bottled, filtered and pasteurised 500ml bottles available in Tuffins were a lot better but nothing to get excited about. There is also a cider from Ludlow Vineyards – the word Vineyard rather gives it away. Generalising, most vineyards make very dry, acidic cider from non cider apples..
However this year we have noticed considerable advances with three ciders which we came across for the first time.
The Special Cider Company is a Shropshire business but is quite honest that their cider is not actually made in Shropshire. It is the ‘special’ cider which has been sold for years at The Cider House, Quatt, near Bridgnorth. This is one of very few cider houses in the country not selling beer or lager. I am afraid to report that I have not managed to get there despite knowing of it for many years. I have met Mr Jervis, the long time landlord, through the mobile bars he used to travel the country shows with. However, a hard to find location, restricted opening hours, no food, and equivocal Trip Adviser reports have always put me off making the extra effort. Research online shows that younger family members have now set up the Special Cider Company producing a version of the strong sweet cider for which the pub was famed. This was actually a Hereford based Bulmers Cider and is apparently now being made for them by the Herefordshire based Weston’s Cider. However, a few bottles from the superb selection in Tuffins Supermarket in Craven Arms confirm that this is a cider worth drinking – though at the sweeter end of the spectrum.
The second new Shropshire Cider is Sweeney Mountain which comes from the the Stonehouse Brewery, near Oswestry. They are making cider from apples from orchards on an estate near the brewery. The latest report says they pressed 8 tones of apples last autumn which should give them about 5,000 litres of cider. They are now in their third year and hope they have made enough to see them through the season. I came across their cider in Keg in the superb Stiperstones Inn, one of my favourite Pubs. It also had a Stonehouse beer, ‘Between the Rails’, an excellent Porter. The Sweeney Mountain Cider is 6.2% ABV and on the sweeter side of medium. However the acidity from the mix of apples, presumably including a fair proportion of desserts, has made a very palatable product.
The third new cider of note was also associated with a small brewery. This time it was Hobson’s Brewery of Cleobury Mortimer in Shropshire. Oldfields Orchard Cider is described as a sister company. The apples come from the farm of Geoff Thompson from near Tenbury Wells. Described as on the borders between Shropshire and Worcestershire – though which side I am not sure. The farm also grows hops for the brewery and the farm is said to have made cider for private consumption for the past 50 years but only have tried commercially for the past three years. Their first cider was made with the dessert apple Discovery and was a big success, but apparently now their main cider is made from a blend of Dabinett, Harry Masters Jersey and Yarlington Mill the staple bittersweet apples of most west country ciders. This was probably why it was our favourite of the three even though it had been blended down to 4.8%ABV.
The connection of cider with pubs and even breweries is a positive thing. As these new products show the synergies to be gained are considerable – and it fits well with getting new brands of cider into the mainstream, As a purist I suppose I could moan that all three products are slightly on the sweet side – and have used non traditional techniques and equipment – but they are good popular ciders and help increase the popularity of Shropshire Cider. It will be interesting to see if any more new products come to light.