Somerset’s rich soil and lush climate cry out for apples. Even the legendary Isle of Avalon, rumoured by some to be Glastonbury, was once known as the Isle of Apples and the county’s most famous product, cider, reaches back at least a thousand years.
Cider was vital to the rural economy. Without a good brew a farmer couldn’t hope to attract a decent workforce. A labourer would be paid 4-6 pints a day; at harvest time that allowance would double. Cider was even used as currency. By the late 20th century, however, the drink was ‘old-fashioned’. Britain’s orchards were in serious decline. Happily that situation has reversed and orchards across the land, both community and commercial, are being planted again.
Some, of course, never went away. David and Louisa Sheppy are the sixth generation of Sheppy’s Cider, a 200 year-old family business passed from father to son since at least 1816. Today’s vats may be a little shinier than their ancestors and the cider a little sweeter than the mouth-puckering scrumpy of yesteryear, but the basic fermentation of home-grown apples using natural yeasts is much the same as it would have been two centuries ago.
“We’ve tracked the family back to Congresbury, near Bristol,” says Lousia Sheppy. At first cider would have been for the farm but gradually it began to be sold too. This didn’t please everyone. “There were two sides of the family, farmers and millers, but at some point the milling side became Methodists,” says Louisa. “Being strictly teetotal, they saw us as the wicked side.” David’s father Richard finally healed the rift in the late 20th century.
In 1917 Stanley Sheppy, Richard’s father, moved to Bradford-on-Tone near Taunton. Three Bridges had been rebuilt in 1880 as a state-of-the-art ‘model farm’ and the terrain proved perfect for cider production. By 1932 Sheppy’s was so good it won top prize – the gold medal – at the Brewer’s Exhibition, an unheard-of accolade for a cider. Gold Medal is still one of Sheppy’s best sellers.
In the same year Stanley made a brave decision. He replanted his orchards, five-year old son Richard by his side. ‘Richard’s Orchard’, now reserved for Sheppy’s organic cider, is in the old, standard-style, with tall trunks. Cider apples are gathered from the ground so it’s important to keep the grass mown. “Modern, bush-style orchards allow a lot more trees per acre, but you sacrifice grazing land” says Louisa. David’s herd of longhorn cattle enjoy grazing the old fields. “They’d just scrump their way through the new trees,” says Louisa.
“I never tire of the orchards,” she says. “David looks at them and just sees work but I love the wildlife. You can hear the woodpeckers, enjoy the dappled shade – you only get that in an orchard. Thousands of insects are supported by these trees; lots of things live in here.”
Pruning takes place between Christmas and Easter, just before ‘bud-burst.’ “Visitors come for the blossom,” says Louisa. “It really is a sight.”
Harvest is dictated by the 30-odd varieties of apple, which fall in succession between late September and late November. Some are kept for single-variety ciders, such as the classic Somerset Kingston Black; most are expertly blended by David. There aren’t quite enough apples to fulfil demand so more are brought in, often from local farmers with small orchards who don’t want to see their crop go to waste.
The apples are pressed immediately then transferred to vats. “We still have two giant oak vats, at least 60 years old, probably older,” says Louisa. “We had to move them recently, it was a scary day for David; he’d nurtured them all his life.” Whether in oak or stainless steel, cider ferments quickly. “We don’t use anything to start it, just the natural yeasts on the apples.”
David’s longhorns do eventually get to eat the apples – or at least the ‘pomace’, pulp left over from the press. They literally frolic across the fields to be first to the trough.
When it’s ready, the cider is transferred to bottles, jugs and kegs. Traditionally every company has its own colours – Sheppy’s kegs have red, green and brown stripes – but they also include the name; today’s workers can read!
Sheppy’s cider would have originally sold in pubs. “It would have been raw cider –what we’d call scrumpy, unpasteurised and unsweetened,” says Louisa. “Things have changed so much. Then, if you didn’t like dry cider, you didn’t like cider.” Today, Sheppy’s range from dry – similar to the old scrumpy, though slightly sweetened and filtered – through medium to sweet. They even make a couple of fruit ciders though this isn’t a line they’re keen to expand. “If you love what you’re doing and keep old-fashioned quality, you don’t need syrups or flavourings.”
One particular, limited edition cider is very special indeed. In 2015, on a whim, David and Louisa decided to try to find Iwood, their ancestors’ farm near Bristol. They knew the old mill had burned down but thought they’d at least try to find the site. “We walked along the river – and found the mill!” says Louisa. The current owners had dredged the waters for the old machinery and restored it. “We sneaked up to the garden to have a look and the owner came zooming over. We stood there like naughty children, thinking we were going to be told off.” Instead, Owen Lloyd welcomed his unexpected visitors, showed them the ancient orchard then allowed them to pick the apples. David has created a blend of Iwood and Sheppy’s as a special 200th birthday celebration cider.
Visitors have been welcomed to Three Bridges since the 1960s, when Richard had a little roadside stall on the A38, then the only road between Yorkshire and the West Country. “David played with his toy cars while Richard sold cider out of what was basically a garden shed.” Business was brisk, particularly from lorry drivers. A tearoom was followed by a small museum of rural life, all curated by the avuncular Richard. “He loved people,” says Louisa.
Production moved to new buildings in 2016. Across the yard, the labyrinthine Victorian outhouses became a House of Cider, complete with farm shop, cider tasting and heritage museum. Now a restaurant and bar, the apple bay serves all manner of cider-related goodies, but retains its old, slatted windows, rustic charm and warm welcome. Richard Sheppy would have approved.
Sheppy’s Cider can be found in independent stores, delis and some supermarkets.
The House of Cider visitor centre at Three Bridges Farm, near Taunton, is now fully open. www.sheppyscider.com