Thatchers Cider: Life on Myrtle Farm

After Thatchers Gold jumped to the top spot in the South West as the best-selling draught pint, we caught up with fifth generation cider maker, Eleanor Thatcher, and orchard manager, Chris Muntz-Torres, to talk innovation, fermentation and what’s in store for the next generation…

“Family cider makers since 1904,” reads each bottle of Thatchers’ cider. Five generations have lived on Myrtle Farm, tending to what feels like an ever-expanding plot of land. A single garden has turned into 500 acres of orchards – 180,000 trees now stand tall and orderly on the foothills of the Mendips. The family-run business leans on 119 years of expertise and now presses more apples in a day than it once did in a year.

The fourth and fifth generations – Martin Thatcher and his daughter Eleanor – have witnessed the business’ meteoric rise to success, becoming an internationally known and widely loved brand in over 20 countries. Although having picked up many a prestigious award over the years for its various styles of cider, it was Thatchers Gold that last month overtook all draught beer and draught lagers to become the best-selling pint across the South West. It was the first time since records began that cider had made it to the top spot. An incredible 15.2 million pints of Gold were poured in 2022. It appears that Thatchers, although already firmly planted in the hearts and minds of millions in the West Country, is still growing in demand.

On the back of last month’s news, we met up with Eleanor and orchard manager Chris Muntz-Torres at Thatchers’ oldest plot in Christon – just a stone’s throw away from Myrtle Farm – to gain a deeper understanding of where the cider industry began and where it’s headed, looking at the importance of preserving cherished aspects of Somerset’s history and heritage and securing a sustainable business for future generations.

As the sun beamed down on us for what felt like the first time this year, the swathes of green land, all packed full of apple trees, glistened in the morning dew. Captivated by the magical beauty of Somerset, there simply seemed no better place on Earth to grow apples. In fact, throw a dart at a map of Somerset and you’ll likely happen upon a farmhouse cider or apple juice producer. But I wonder, what is it about this county that makes it so suited to cidermaking?

“Trees need deep, nutrient-rich soil,” explains Chris, who joined the farm six years ago. “A lot of our orchards hug the foothills of the Mendips where it’s not too low and wet and it’s not too high and rocky. Somerset also gets long, cool autumns, which helps the flavours develop. All of our apple varieties are also perfectly suited to this area because of the cider history and heritage and how important it was to people to make cider on their farm. For the past 200 years, apples have been picked from the trees and made into cider. It was very, very true that people with a good reputation for making good cider attracted the best workers. When one third of their wages were paid in cider, it was very important that it was good cider. That history and heritage is still very much ingrained in Somerset and the West Country today. Some of the varieties that we grow now are exactly the same that were grown here hundreds of years ago.”

Orchard manager Chris Muntz-Torres on Myrtle Farm

Protecting and preserving
It was William Thatcher who first started to make cider for his workers from the apples he grew in his own orchards. As cider grew in popularity, there was an interest for cider makers to plant more trees to produce more apples to make more cider. In turn, trial orchards were introduced by the Long Ashton Research Station in Bristol – an agricultural and horticultural government-funded research centre created in 1903 to study and improve the West Country cider industry.

“Long Ashton partnered with a few key landowners around the West Country to put in trial orchards, aiming to identify which varieties would grow the best in different areas,” Chris explains. “The orchard here in Christon is quite a special orchard in terms of its history. It was originally planted in 1928 and was a mix of all different varieties. It was from orchards like this, though, that we were able to pinpoint which variety would work the best on more modern systems.”

Although the idea was first introduced almost 100 years ago, Thatchers is one of the only cider makers in the UK to still carry out trials in its orchards every year, with nearly 50 acres now devoted to them.

Thatchers is also dedicated to the development of its acclaimed Exhibition Orchard, which is home to the largest collection of apples for cidermaking in the country – over 458 different varieties. Planted by Eleanor’s grandfather and third-generation cidermaker, John Thatcher, many of the trees in the Exhibition Orchard were saved from the Research Station when cider research stopped in 1985.

Protecting, preserving and caring for the UK’s largest and most diverse collection of apples used in cidermaking is at the very top of Thatchers’ agenda. So much so that, in recent years, the cider makers partnered with the University of Bristol in a ground-breaking project that uses DNA fingerprinting techniques to identify apple tree varieties. With many old and heritage varieties beginning to disappear, the project used genotyping – a process that compares DNA to find the differences in genetic make-up – to identify the varieties. Scientists from the university gathered leaf samples, creating the largest database of apple tree fingerprints in the world.

“Back in the day, people reproduced trees from cuttings and over hundreds of years, varieties often got misnamed or forgotten. The university are now giving them a benchmark in history, which has been brilliant for us,” says Chris.
Perhaps most interestingly, however, was the scientists’ investigation into what makes a good cider apple variety and if, in the future, their genotyping procedure can be used to identify a disease resistant, high-quality cider apple variety – something that would certainly help preserve the health and vitality of the Thatchers business.

Fifth-generation cider maker Eleanor Thatcher on Myrtle farm

Long-term goals
As growing apples for cidermaking is a long-term commitment, with young trees taking at least six or seven years before they crop commercially, having a long-term view appears to be essential to all aspects of the business. “The decisions we make today don’t really affect us, it’s for the generations to come,” says Eleanor. These decisions are most evident in the way the family has intertwined traditional methods with modern technology from pip to pint.

“In terms of cidermaking, we still use our 150-year-old giant oak vats [each holding 120,000 pints], we know they’re an important part of cidermaking but we also move forward with modern technology in terms of apple processing and, more recently, bringing in sustainable energy with the use of solar panels. All of our electricity on site also comes from renewable sources so we’re making good progress there too. But it’s also a trade-off and there’s things that they’ve done in the past that we mustn’t forget because it was important and they did it for a reason. We can modernise their ways, though, and innovate to not only make them more efficient but to make better cider – it’s all about quality for us.”

What’s more, as the cider market evolves, tastes change and new styles of cider become popular, it’s important for Thatchers to look ahead and plant the varieties of apple that create contemporary style ciders. As proof that Thatchers is not only committed to its customers but has the masterful skill to carry out their demands, it released its first alcohol-free cider in 2020. Thatchers Zero still very much holds all the appley aromas expected from a Thatchers product. “It’s now the number one alcohol-free apple cider and has won quite a few awards, which is pretty amazing,” the team explain. “We’re not afraid of trying new things.”

Local environment
Thatchers’ 500 acres are home to a diverse habitat, yet the family are conscious of making a real contribution to the local environment and the biodiversity of the area. Recently, Thatchers planted 169 trees and hedges including native species such as hawthorn and hazel, English oak and field maple, together with grasses and nectar-rich wildflowers. All of which help create sheltered micro-habitats, and will aid the important retention of a dark corridor for bats and other wildlife.

“We’ve also got beehives in or near every one of our orchards,” says Chris. “We’ve worked with about half a dozen beekeepers in the area and have about 70 hives on the farm in total. Bees are vitally important to us in terms of pollinating the crops. We do a lot to encourage wild, solitary bees as well as bumblebees, masonry bees, and mining bees.”

Springtime on Myrtle farm

Life on the farm
As for Eleanor, life at Myrtle Farm has clearly been a happy one. “I think my earliest memories of being on the farm are being with my grandfather. I remember going out and picking the apples with him and I used to love that. Harvest time is also a magical time because suddenly the farm is alive and buzzing.”

After recently spending two years in Australia, working on a vineyard just north of Adelaide, Eleanor’s focus has clearly been set on the science behind the fermentation process. “It was interesting because the grape that they loved on the vineyard was Shiraz. If Shiraz converted into apples it would be a Redstreak and that’s the cider maker’s favourite apple,” says Eleanor. “I have this passion for fermentation and blending that goes on – I love that part of the business. My grandfather’s love was the orchards and mine is absolutely fermentation.”

Although having passed her tractor driving test at 16 and worked in the orchards during the school holidays, Eleanor’s day-to-day is now focused on two of those most important parts of the business. “I spend half my time making cider and half speaking to our customers. I love the balance – you get to see what our customers want and what they like to drink. That really helps when you’re doing new things and setting the direction for the future.”

With the plans to one day take over from her father, Martin, I wonder whether the 23-year-old feels the pressure. “There’s definitely a level of responsibility. I’ve got so much to learn, which is really exciting. I’m mainly thinking about what the next generation of customers are going to want to drink and what we can do to meet their aspirations while ensuring we continue to be even more sustainable than we are now.

“A lot of people that work in the business are like family to me – I’ve grown up with them. When you think my family’s been farming here for over 100 years, you don’t want to leave that.”

As the sun rose higher in the sky and our time together came to a close, Eleanor reminded us of the translation of the county’s Old English name, which felt particularly apt on this warm Spring day. “Somerset is the land of the summer people,” she says. “Spreading a little bit of Somerset around the world, I think, is something that we can be really proud of.”

Visit All images courtesy of Thatchers Cider