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Cider with added craft and care

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Cider with added craft and care
Article date: 20 Sep 2010

Thatchers cider is for those who care about taste, from a family which has cared about cider for generations.

Witness a resurgence in a drink’s popularity these days and you’ll likely notice a procession of global brewers close behind, seizing the opportunity to mass-produce millions of pints a week of brand X or brand Y – with all of the heritage, passion and craft which a roomful of suited number-crunchers can muster.

Arguably, they have their place, but, when another trend is born – off they go.
The Thatcher family members have an approach which is in marked contrast, as are the flavour and smoothness of their cider.

They have observed several of these resurgences of interest in cider and, indeed,
welcome them, knowing that one thing is for sure: they and future generations of Thatchers will happily carry on crafting some exceptionally fine, smooth-tasting ciders, in the way in which William John Thatcher did when he first began cider-making in 1904.

The family’s passion is for crafting ciders using fine apples, predominantly from its own Somerset orchards, using the kind of expertise which takes a century to acquire. While each of the four generations of the Thatcher family has added to the development of the cider, all have taken great care to stick to founder William’s driving principles. Martin Thatcher (the present MD) and his father and chairman John are the current custodians of the Thatcher heritage – and very proud of the added care which they put into each pint, as Martin explained: “Quite simply, you can’ t rush quality; you can’t take shortcuts. Cider-making is a craft

To master it, you need to appreciate the taste and to know what makes it special. For us, that begins by using only the best-quality English apples and oak vats in which to mature our ciders. “Yes, there is new technology in use, like modern apple presses and new stainless steel equipment. That’s all very welcome progress, but, when it comes to the fruit and maturation, they both add so much to the distinctive flavour that there can be no compromise.”

The ‘care and craft required’ principle applies also to the family ‘apprenticeship’ in cider-making – a learning curve in which Martin is in his 25th year: “From the bottom up, I’ve pretty much done every job connected with cider-making. That’s how you learn to understand the process; if you understand it, you can control and craft it – after all, cider- making at Thatchers is all about controlling natural products in a natural process.”

To ensure that Thatchers uses only the best- quality fruit, its cider is produced from the family’s own apples, grown in its own orchards or from the ‘family’ of those West-Country growers meeting its stringent quality expectations, as Martin explains: “We have about 360 acres of orchards, growing 25 types of apple, ranging from really sweet to quite tart – to allow the cider-maker to craft different tastes by blending each apple’s various characteristics.

“Actually, for me, the orchards signify one of the best parts of the job. Having a rural industry, nestled in the beautiful rolling countryside of Somerset, surrounded by orchards, nature and cider – now, that’s a pretty good perk.”
The apples for making a great-tasting cider need to be fairly ‘bittersweet’ or ‘bittersharp’, styles which are typically more fibrous than those which you tuck in to at home – a quality which makes them very easy to press and from which to extract juices. In fact, it is all about the apples, as Martin explains: “I’d say that, when it comes to growing the required fruit, seasonality is possibly our biggest challenge. A hard winter, wet spring or a hot summer – factors which, as we know, have varied enormously over recent years – will affect the fruit which we harvest, along with the cider-making process which follows. The skills of the cider-maker then come into play, to ensure a consistently high-quality product, every time.

“Whatever the apple harvest, there is no escaping the fact that it’s all about the apples and capturing the character straight from the orchard into the glass.”

Achieving this is the cider-maker’s craft, a craft largely unchanged for generations – which starts with apple-pressing and seeking the right balance of purity and flavour, before the yeast is added. Even this yeast affects the characteristics and flavour of the cider to a large extent. Martin explains: “Yeast, like the apple juice, is totally natural – and so you have a cider made from natural ingredients, but it needs nurturing and controlling as it matures.”

“Now, that, as I learned, requires the cider- maker’s use of some very sophisticated pieces of equipment: his eyes, nose and mouth. “The cider-maker will know what an apple tastes and smells like, before a pressing; during maturation, using aroma is key to developing the taste profile – as is the use of our giant oak vats. Each vat is formed from about 50 tons of oak; this will impart flavour and provide a very important part of the final taste, but only after one further key ingredient is added – time.

“The flavour characteristics of the cider and the combination of the apple juice, yeast and oak all take time to develop and mature, with subtle changes coming through. Indeed, a Thatchers cider will typically mature for up to six months, before it is ready for sending out to pubs.

“There is no set clock, no ‘press a button and it will be ready’: it’s ready when it’s ready – and the skill of the cider-maker is in knowing when the look, aroma and taste are just as they need to be. Quite literally, all the raw ingredients’ characteristics can be subtly different in every batch, yet the craft is in ensuring that, when you taste the final product, it’s the same – time after time. To me, that is craft – one in which we take immense pride.”

There is little doubt that this is a family which cares, a family which crafts.
As for the future – well, Martin and his wife Anne have two children who they very much hope will keep the tradition going of caring for cider – for many more generations to come.

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