Our new Weekend Edition Newsletter is landing in subscriber inboxes across the city. If you haven't signed up (yet) then you can read it here:

Them Apples: Thatchers Cider

Somerset cidermaker Thatchers is now a huge, multimillion pound business that has done the region proud internationally. Here, the team tells us a little about how the process has changed while retaining its age-old values. Words by Penny Adair

Wandering round the pretty orchards at Myrtle Farm in Sandford, you really get a sense of the peace and tranquillity in this quiet corner of Somerset, tucked away at the foot of the Mendip Hills. The trees within the 500 acres of orchard that bear fruit for Thatchers’ ciders are currently preparing to bloom, and once the beautiful spectacle of blossom appears, it won’t be long before those red, rosy apples begin to take shape.Apple tree blossom at Myrtle Farm

Growing apples for cider is a long-term business – a tree doesn’t crop fully until it’s around six or seven years old – so within the Thatchers orchards you see a mix of more mature trees, and those that have recently been planted, something that the family cidermaker does every year.

Chris Muntz-Torres is the orchard manager. “To keep up with demand for our ciders,” he says, “it’s important that we plant trees every year, and that happens in the early spring. Last year we planted around 25,000 new trees, this year we’ve put in about another seven acres in and around Myrtle Farm. It’s always a great time of year for us – we ask staff to come and join us with the planting and it’s a real opportunity for them to experience the orchards first hand.”

Once July and August come around, the orchards look a very different place with the apples in full growth. By September, harvest has started. As the apples leave the orchards and make their way to the Myrtle Farm mill, so the air is filled with the beautiful apple aroma, so evocative of harvest season. Each year around 500 tonnes of apples are pressed every day at Myrtle Farm, apples arriving not just from Thatchers’ own orchards in trailer loads, but also from other expert apple growers throughout the region.

“Growing apples is a bit like growing grapes for wine – different varieties grow well in different soil conditions,” adds Chris. “As a cidermaker, we have preferred apple varieties that we choose and with the West Country such a hot spot for cidermaking, we favour many traditional local apples – Somerset Redstreak being just one.A favourite of ours: Thatchers Katy

“One thing we insist on with our growers is that the apples are of the absolute highest quality. We work with them throughout the year and when the apples arrive at Myrtle Farm each batch is tested. The growers are rewarded for quality, so we know we’re getting the best.”

Thatchers has been making cider in Sandford since 1904, when William Thatcher started to make cider for his farm workers from the apples he grew in his own orchards. Then of course, the apples were picked by hand, and over the years, as in almost all walks of life, technology has taken over, with mechanical apple harvesters now the order of the day.

While there are some elements of the cidermaking that have stayed exactly the same – maturing it in oak vats, serving it straight from the barrel in Thatchers’ Cider Shop, and the essential personal expertise of the cidermakers, especially when it comes to the weekly Friday tasting – now highly tech-led elements are part and parcel of the making and packaging process. From the temperature controlled stainless steel fermenting tanks to the brand new, intelligent canning line that even has cameras to check the cans are all facing the right way in their packs, the latest tech now plays an important role.

“Nothing can replace the expertise of our cidermakers developing new ciders, new tastes and styles,” says Martin Thatcher, who’s the fourth generation of the cidermaking family to be at the helm. “We work with the technology to help us create the best tasting ciders that are available all year round, at a consistent quality, that we’re able to supply to customers not just throughout the UK, but increasingly all over the world. It’s so important to embrace what’s new while retaining all those amazing benefits of being a cidermaker with well over a hundred years of heritage.”Fourth-gen cidermaker Martin taste testing

Creating new and exciting ciders is a huge part of the ethos. In 2017 Thatchers was awarded two international prizes for its single variety Redstreak Cider, a specialist cider within its Cider Barn range – named ‘supreme champion’ in the International Cider Challenge, and the ‘world’s best sparkling cider’. “We have to keep looking ahead and creating new and innovative ciders that people will want to keep buying,” Martin adds. “So to have been recognised by our cidermaking peers for Redstreak has, indeed, been a huge accolade.”

• Redstreak and the rest of Thatchers’ ciders are available from the cider shop at Myrtle Farm – book a guided tour to find out more at thatcherscider.co.uk

Featured image: Orchard manager Chris Muntz-Torres