Wales breathes new life into cider, one of Britain’s oldest drams.
By Ben Keene
My rental car’s engine struggled as I urged it up the steep incline. Earlier that morning, I’d passed through Ebbw Forest on my way to a farm near the town of Crumlin in the Welsh Valleys. Now, two hours after leaving the traffic-choked streets of Cardiff, I was late. Again and again my sense of direction had failed me in Wales, and today was no different. So when Blaengawney Farm finally came into view around a bend in the muddy lane, I breathed a sigh of relief. Cider hunting can be tough work.
In recent years, this overlooked country has witnessed the revival of cider, one of Great Britain’s oldest beverages. When it comes to drinking, England is known for its bitters, the Irish have their world-famous dry stout, and even Scotland can lay claim to its own malty style of ale. Meanwhile, amid the crumbling castles scattered across an area the size of New Jersey, Welsh producers have quietly sparked a new interest in local cider. And I was going to find them.
Andy Hallet, an imposing man with broad shoulders and thick forearms, greeted me as I stepped out of the car, inviting me to join him for lunch: carrot, mushroom and potato soup spiced with chili and cumin. I followed him into the kitchen where he began to talk about his business.
“The first time I made cider, I made 60 liters. I chopped up apples with a meat cleaver and put ’em through a hand crank.” He paused, and then added a qualifier: “But nature did most of the work.”
Throughout much of southern Wales and southeastern England, the simple methods of producing cider have endured since roughly the 14th century. Traditionally, ripe apples were hand-picked and milled into a pulp or pomace, which was then pressed to extract the sugary, fermentable liquid. Sugar itself was added rarely, if ever, and wild yeasts turned the juice into alcohol. After that, cider making, much like brewing beer, is about waiting. Today, larger commercial firms process their cider to maintain uniform quality standards, but for the producers that have joined the Welsh Perry and Cider Society over the last decade, filtering, pasteurization and artificial carbonation are avoided due to their flavor-altering tendencies.
“It’s got to be pure juice,” Hallet explained, showing me around his newly planted 7-acre orchard. “The challenge is whether apples will grow at a thousand feet.” To my untrained eyes, the young trees, evenly spaced in neat rows that followed the curve of the hillside, looked healthy. Some of them already had fruit at the ends of their slender branches.
Further north, close to the Herefordshire border in Powys, Ralph Owen began coaxing cider from his own small orchard in 1984. By dusting off his grandfather’s recipe, he became, along with Mike Penney, the founder of Troggi Seidr in Monmouthshire, the vanguard of a new generation of craft cidermakers.
“This orchard has been here since the 1830s,”Owen told me when I dropped by his farm on a dreary day in early September. “It’s nothing new.”
In the past, farmers made the rustic drink to quench the thirst of seasonal laborers who helped during the harvest. The industrialization of agriculture in the 20th century uprooted the rural workforce, however, and the practice declined. For decades, equipment rusted and orchards withered as the growing urban population adopted beer as its drink of choice. Of the dozens of sweet, bittersweet and sharp cider apple varieties that were once common in Wales, only nine survive today.
Wearing an old green knit sweater and matching Wellington boots, Owen led me to a low brick building set at the back of a garden behind his home. Inside the cool, musty room, he insisted that his was the only fully licensed cider house in Wales and that perry, or pear cider, was something he only remembered his grandmother drinking.
Pouring a cupful of copper liquid from a plastic barrel behind the bar, he gave me a brief history of his chosen occupation. “We’ve done a lot over the last 20 years to promote traditional cider. The farmhouse ciders years ago were rough; they were very acidic, some of ’em.”
Not Owen’s, though. While he spoke, I let the tart drink linger on my tongue. The predominant flavor was unquestionably apple, but I detected an oakiness in the finish, a quality, I learned, came from maturation in oak whiskey casks.
“They were always placed in wooden barrels back then,” Owen declared proudly, “but my grandfather spent more time with his cider. And I haven’t cut any corners.”
Like Owen, Bill George and Andy Gronow started making cider as a hobby in the fall of 2001. At the time, Andy was a welder, and Bill was a civil engineer. Nearly a decade later, their company now employs seven people. Last year George and Gronow sold 500,000 liters (more than 130,000 gallons) of their cider and perry in England, Wales, Holland, Germany and Australia. In other words, their brewery Gwynt y Ddraig—“dragon’s breath” in Welsh—isn’t exactly producing on a craft scale anymore. Riding an unlikely trend to the shelves of supermarkets and wholesalers, Gwynt y Ddraig has turned tradition into a brand.
“We wanted to raise cider out of the doldrums; give it more of a premium image,” George informed me when I visited him in Pontypridd. A quick look around their large facility told me they were succeeding. The only things sitting still were the enormous fermentation tanks. And last May, the International Cider and Perry Competition declared the duo’s Black Dragon, an oak-conditioned, medium-dry cider, Overall Champion.
Pulling away from their hilltop farm, I considered my good luck: Not only had I discovered an embarrassment of Welsh cider, I’d been introduced to a gold medalist. The world’s best. But I didn’t have time to celebrate then and there: Dusk was on my heels and I still had a hotel to find. •
WHEN IN WALES
Don’t miss these five spots to drink and dream.
The Bell at Caerleon: An old coaching inn serving cask ales along with more than 20 different ciders and perries. Caerleon, thebellatcaerleon.co.uk
The Clytha Arms: A country pub and restaurant with four comfortable, reasonably priced rooms above. Clytha, clytha-arms.com
The Roast Ox Inn: CAMRA’s Brecknockshire 2010 Cider Pub of the Year with Ralph’s, Weston’s and Thatcher’s on tap. Painscastle, roastoxinn.co.uk
Toloja Holdings: This working cider farm rents out Scrumpy Cottage, a guesthouse with views of Cardigan Bay. Lampeter, toloja.com
White Hart Thatched Inn and Brewery: A family-run brewpub built in 1371 that began making its own cider in 2010. Carmarthen, thebestpubinwales.co.uk