Wilding cider

Bowing out at the top for long-term ambition

Words by Hollie Newton
Photography by Emli Bendixen

Horror. That was the general reaction among Bristol’s gourmands when Birch announced that it would be closing its doors this year. Southville’s cult neighbourhood restaurant, beloved of Marina O’Loughlin and Gill Meller alike, had seemed like a permanent foodie fixture.

   But this is far from the ‘independent restaurant going under/ food bubble bursting’ story we’ve come to expect. Like Seinfeld, Black Books and Flight Of The Concords before them, Sam Leach and Beccy Massey have decided to bow out at the top of their game. Stepping away from their restaurant to concentrate on a longer-term ambition… cider.

“There is a distinct ‘sack
off your job to till the land’
magic to the place.”

    There is a distinct “sack off your job to till the land” magic to the place.
It is rare that I get to chat with a brand before it’s started, but Wilding Cider has barely pulled together an Instagram page, let alone distribution partners and trade show appearances. The first bottles of 2017 vintage will be ready next year. “We’ve spent the last 5 years working towards

something we’re happy with,” says Beccy, who alongside Sam grew much of the produce for Birch. “Dry. Sparkling. Bottled. That will be our thing.” Magners this is not.

   If the West Country pair has a mission, it is to re-define what cider should be. Cider and wine are, after all, the same product, “just made with a different fruit”. Theirs, a premier cru 2 years in the making, will pair perfectly will a salty aperitif “or freshly shucked oysters.” A far cry from the warm student pints I just-about-remember.
  So what makes Wilding different from the Bulmers and the Coates of the cider world? Well, everything really.

   This is a tale of craft. Of respecting the process. A slow, gentle, ancient way to make something special. Named after wilding apple trees and the wild yeast they use, Sam and Beccy refuse to spray anything: no fertilisers, no pesticides. The microbial balance of the orchard comes before volume and profit margins. Apples are harvested by hand at their peak, friends and family roped in as the autumn draws to a close. “It feels right,” says Beccy. “You’re re-connecting with the land in a way people have for hundreds of years. We’ve lost that recently, and it’s regrettable, I think.”

   This is something that Sam picks up on. “I grew up near cider orchards, and I used to love the apple harvest. Six or so men. Two people constantly driving the trailers, 1 person tree shaking, two people on poles, pickers. Now there’s just 1 guy. They wait for everything to fall, then harvest with a modern machine that scrapes everything from the floor, tips it all into a lorry, ruins the apples, then drives off. It’s not the same. The quality isn’t equal. And there’s such wastage. I went round at the beginning of December, and at least 30% of the apples were on the floor rotted. All the late one still on the tree. They can’t be bothered to shake the tree or anything like that. It’s appalling.” When cider became a commodity product when companies could just buy in concentrate from all over the world, the price of apples went through the floor, and the UK’s orchards have suffered terribly, as a result, sold off to housing firms or simply given over to more profitable crops. “In the past, every village around here would have had 10 acres at least of cider orchard. So it’s nice to be able to keep this going.”

“You’re re-connecting with
the land in a way people have for hundreds of years.
We’ve lost that recently,
and it’s regrettable, I think.”

   There is something refreshingly altruistic to Beccy and Sam’s approach. Preserving a hundred-year-old orchard, building a new business, but planting for the future too. “We might get 20/ 30 years of apples from the new trees, but they’ll be at their best in fifty to a hundred years’ time. Hopefully, younger cider makers will benefit from our actions long after we’re gone.”

   Today we’re looking to see if the newly grafted fruit stock has taken. It’s a nerve-wracking business involving the removal of an existing branch, the long taper of new capital (a Kingston Black variety) edged into a slot in the wood, a bitumen seal, and a prayer to the cider gods.

   This morning, against a clear blue sky, we can see the first signs of growth start to take. The grafts will be a success. 
The varieties of apple used are just as important as grape varieties in a wine. Alongside their Kingston Blacks, Sam is currently fond of a Blackwell Red. They have an ‘apple wizard’, John Worle, who has been helping them bring the orchard back to life. Having worked in and managed professional orchards all his life, he spent his pension to set up the UK’s biggest cider nursery. By a stroke of fate, John’s cousin used to own this very farm. The cider world is a close family.

   Alongside two other sites and the investment needed for proper professional cider making equipment, this is no small enterprise. Are the government supportive of young people starting businesses? Have they had access to startup grants? “Not from the UK,” says Sam, “but we have a great grant from the EU. We couldn’t have done it without that.” Oh bloody hell. “I’m not convinced that the UK government will do the same after we leave.” We both pause for a moment of Brexit despair beneath the apples. It makes you worry for the next generation coming through. “It does, and I just think that Michael Gove’s approach is really mixed up. It seems to me that his vision of the countryside as a vast tourist landscape.

    Something to look at on the weekend. It’s a very middle class urban white man’s view. That real food production should be occurring in large fields with huge machines for minimal effort. The classic neoliberal perspective.” I like Sam when he’s angry. It is deep, academic anger, just threatening to bubble through his calm exterior. “But what he doesn’t realise is, all this pretty stuff, this greenery, is here for food production. That’s why everything looks like it does in the countryside. And I just can’t see any benefit in paying farmers JUST to look after the environment. It’s mad.” He is, of course, entirely right.

  The ideal for Sam is an integrated approach between farming and the environment. This orchard – this farm - is a perfect example. It is low intensity, providing just two ‘crops’. Apples, and the sheep that graze under them. The trees are old and still going strong, full of mistletoe, rotten branches and warm shaded crevices: wildlife and fungal haven. Hedgerows surround the site. It is a balanced ecosystem within a proper biodynamic farm. Above their cider field, someone has planted a vineyard.

   The owner of the estate has planted a forest garden. This is a traditional mixed farm, but because different people run each enterprise, they can make money, ensuring that each section is perfectly looked after and profitable. “We’ll help them pick their grapes, they’ll help us pick our apples, and the sheep love the mistletoe we clear.” Perhaps Sam should step in as Environment Secretary. Until then, I’ll settle for a glass of Wilding Cider and an oyster or two in a years time.

Wilding cider will launch in 2019.