I think it is fair to say that I got into cider backwards. My moment of revelation came not because of having the seductive experience of drinking a fine quality cider for the first time. Nor was it because I met some formative influences, some of those remarkable people in the world of cider. That did happen, but it came later. I became interested in cider because of a collection of rare, fine, 18th century table glasses: my main introduction to the world of cider arose because of the accoutrements of a time when cider was seen as a prized commodity, treated with respect by those with taste and the means to indulge themselves. And I think this influences me still – primarily, I see cider as having the ability to be appreciated as a drink of quality and thoughtfulness, with a pedigree that is still to be rediscovered by most drinkers.
All of this was very far from my mind when looking round the Cider Museum, deciding whether to apply for the advertised post of running it. It was simply a job in my old home town, and like anyone anywhere, I’d never visited something that was on my own doorstep. The fact that I knew little about the subject matter of cidermaking itself wasn’t off-putting; I was a social historian with a background in food history. So when I walked past the reconstructed farm barn interior, I was mildly interested but underwhelmed. And so I remained until I turned a corner and saw the collection of cider glasses in their glass box, gleaming under the lights. Confronted with a stunning piece of art history, instantly my mind was made up to go for the post, just so I could work with these delicate and intricate table glasses.
The museum has the best collection of these rare glasses in the UK. They were produced at a time when wine was hard to obtain due to Britain being in a constant state of war with its neighbours. Necessity demanded the focus returned to the apple wine being produced on the gentry’s home estates. The fine glasses used to drink it in small quantities (which were sometimes fortified with cider brandy), were engraved with suitable apple tree, apple and codling moth motifs. The museum also has some perry glasses in the same vein. The collection had been the brainchild of the giant cider firm HP Bulmer, which started collecting around the 1960s, using one of the best London dealers to source the glasses over the next thirty years.
And so, having being drawn in by the quality of the glasses, I then started to learn more about the liquid they would have contained. Having decided to apply for the role of Museum Director, my next research trip was to another Herefordshire success story, Westons, for a tour and sampling of their ciders. I was familiar with some of them but not with seeing the process on this scale, and it was my first and last encounter with cider with rhubarb. My strongest visual memory of the tour is of the Hereford cattle grazing under the old organic orchards behind the factory buildings, a happy juxtaposition of old and new.
Once in post, I was lucky to be scooped up by Gabe Cook, now The Ciderologist, who was then working for the NACM1, and who took me to see orchards and to meet some key figures, including Tom Oliver who was then chair of the Three Counties Cider and Perry Association. With the hope that I could make the museum seem more relevant to the current cidermakers in the counties, I offered to host one of their meetings one evening. Needless to say, at that early point most of what they were discussing went over my head, but what had true impact was when they sampled and discussed the ciders each maker had brought. Some I could relate to, but some were so dry or full with tannin that I could only wonder what qualities made the group praise them as being excellent. Two years later, continuous exposure to a variety of ciders has made my palate more sophisticated, though there is still much to learn, and ironically I appreciate this West Country style of cider with strong tannins the most.
On many occasions I have been asked what my connection with cider is and have had to explain that I am here because I am a museum professional, and not because I had a background in cider production. And yet I can’t say I’d never made cider. I have, by accident, through owning a small orchard attached to my garden, having pressed apples and letting the wild yeasts take over. This set me thinking about whether there were other cider connections in my past, growing up in Herefordshire. And it turns out that in many glancing ways, the story of cider has intersected with my own.
My first introduction to cider was seeing my eleven and thirteen year old brothers trying to play cricket in the field after having imbibed some Bulmer’s cider given to my father, with one of them falling over backwards after a particularly loose and inebriated swing of the bat.
The field wasn’t a field, actually, it was an orchard. An ageing collection of apple and perry pear trees, surrounding my childhood home, and somehow, over the years, I’d managed to forget that some of the happiest years of my life were spent in those acres with apples under foot. Old trees with pale grey trunks of varying girth and height. Newer trees with shorter trunks, whose canopies hung lower and met the tops of the tall nettles growing underneath, making dark green caverns which stank of the sheep that loved their cool in the summer.
In the autumn these trees’ unappealing yellow-green apples would drop unheeded and pile up underneath, with Bulmer’s no longer interested in collecting such small quantities. They would be picked into saucer shapes by blackbirds, thrushes and fieldfares. The smell of overripe cider fruit, the slippery squish of rotting apples under your gumboots and cantankerous wasps were all part of my experience. Protected by the low canopy, the apples – which were in retrospect probably Michelin – stayed gently rotting until the snows came, when the starving rats made runs from the hedgerow to the trees. I liked these trees much less than the ancient trees with their large, round, red inedible but beautiful fruit. There was so much character in the spindly Tom Putt which guarded the gate; in the single, dense, huge crab apple; in the towering, slim perry trees that I could only look up at hopelessly, as there were no accessible branches to climb.
These small acres weren’t managed. Sometimes a local farmer would put sheep in, at other times we had the horses and then bullocks owned by our settled Romany traveller neighbours. Geese, hens and peacocks also wandered around. Wildflowers existed despite this, mostly cowslips and field scabious, with nettles and docks everywhere. The orchards were our playground, and I ran wild in them, making dens in trees and hedges and having campfires by the stream. But even as I grew up, the old trees were dying off one by one. Some collapsed and lay on their sides, but still fruited. As they went, my father replaced them but not with cider fruit. I now would give so much to know what those varieties of my childhood were, but they are long gone, as is the stone mill that was in the room which became my bedroom.
So growing up in Herefordshire meant that, actually, cider was never very far away even if its influence was taken for granted. My parents’ friends included people who were Bulmer’s executives. Patients who worked for the firm would sometimes give my father, a doctor, Bulmer’s cider. I never drank this, being far too young, but I favoured Westons Stowford Press as a student. I named a stray kitten found in a pub after what we’d been drinking, else by now I probably wouldn’t remember what was in our glasses. Cider was just there. It could be rough like scrumpy, or a long, refreshing drink. I never, then, ever thought of it as having the status of a fine wine or craft beer. I simply didn’t think, until I saw those 18th century glasses, and ascribed a value to a commodity that had always been in my peripheral vision.
It has been an utter luxury to have been reintroduced to cider at a time when it is having a renaissance. Would I have appreciated this at any time earlier? I’d like to think so, but I expect that without the education provided by listening to the cidermakers themselves, I would have failed at the first hurdle – at the first sip of a more challenging, mature drink. The connection between modern craft cidermakers and their awareness of heritage, creativity and the importance of the quality of the process has meant that, unlike other museum collections with which I have worked, cider history is alive, and continuously evolving. My task as a museum Director is to communicate this to our audiences.
Born in Herefordshire, Elizabeth is the director of the Museum of Cider in Hereford itself. She has worked in archaeology, education and museums, gaining an MPhil in Museums and Gallery Studies from St Andrews. She is currently without an orchard, having moved in from the country, and misses nurturing the wildlife that came with it. Long-term, she hopes to be able to press her own apples again but until then is living vicariously through being a committee member of the Three Counties Cider and Perry Association.
1The National Association of Cider Makers