Bulmers getting to the core of craft

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The impact of craft beer on the overall ale market has had the people at The Bulmers Cider Company taking a close look at how this could similarly play out in the cider category. What exactly can be learnt from the rise and rise of craft beer?

Their broad conclusion is that there won’t be that much direct correlation between the two categories. Emma Sherwood-Smith, director of cider at Bulmers, says there is a much greater link between cider and wine rather than cider and craft beer. The focus for the company is not to therefore focus on pushing urban style ciders that ape the look and aesthetic of craft beer – that undoubtedly has its beating progressive heart in more metropolitan areas such as London’s Hackney.

“Artisanal cider is much closer to wine. Think Hereford, Somerset and Kent for apples and cider. It’s very much an English democratic thing. The urban thing doesn’t work,” she says.

There is no doubt that the growing appetite for artisanal products is impacting the cider market. To this end the company is investigating how it can better link back to its heritage (Bulmers was set up in 1887) as it develops products that reinforce provenance. And this might sound rather surprising – it is putting a greater focus on apples.

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But then it really is only in recent years that the beer industry has put the spotlight on specific hops, which have now become an integral component of how many people choose and buy beer. Helped massively by the fact the hop gives a good idea of the beer’s style and how it should taste.

But rather than going down this varietal route with cider there will be more of a focus at Bulmers on specific orchards. It has a big advantage in this department because it has long-standing relationships with many apple growers – that collectively own around 8,000 acres of orchards. When combined with Bulmers’ own 2,000 acres of orchards, the total production this year will hit 130,000 tonnes of apples.

These are processed at the company’s sizeable Ledbury plant, which operates 24 hours per day, seven days a week over the course of the 12 weeks of the apple picking season, which ends in mid/late November.

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Typically a whole variety of apples will be processed at the same time at  the plant to produce the rich concentrate that will be used as the base for the final alcoholic product once the fermentation process has done its magic. But this year for the first time the company had a short spell at the start of the season to only process Katy apples and keep the concentrate separate and utilise it for a varietal cider.

However, more interesting is its focus on specific orchards whereby it is seeking to replicate the mix of apples grown by a certain producer in a batch of cider. Under the Orchard Pioneers branding the first drinks off the production line in this experiment – which will be available in February – are Kier’s Cloudy Apple and Sarah’s Red Apple. They have both been produced through  close collaboration with the orchard’s owners.

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What Bulmers is unable to do at present is use the specific apples from a single grower to create small batch ciders. But this could be on the cards because – just like with the larger brewers – it has created a pilot plant named ‘Percy’ that will be the Willy Wonka component of the organisation where small scale experimentation can take place.

Sensibly there is no defined commercial imperative from this modest plant but Sherwood-Smith is very excited about the prospect and the opportunities that it could present. Even if it is just excitement that Percy produces within the company then it will undoubtedly have some value. But clearly it should enable Bulmers to much more effectively bring the provenance of its raw materials into play, which really is arguably what ‘craft’ is all about.

Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider