Special Guest Post from Helen Anne Smith.
Cider Women are a progressive group of women and non-binary people, who are cider makers, drinkers, and enthusiasts. Co-chaired by Susanna Forbes of Little Pomona and Elizabeth Pimblett of the Cider Museum in Hereford, the group was created in order to make the roles they play within cider more visible and to inspire others to join the budding cider industry.
The group just celebrated their first birthday, and I was lucky enough to sit down (over Zoom) with Elizabeth Pimblett and committee members; Cath Potter, Fiona Matthews, Isy Schulz, Hannah Barton and Lydia Crimp. We discussed how the group was formed, how their first year had gone and the effects that the global pandemic is having on cider making.
Helen: So, to start off with if we can just go around, introduce yourselves, explain who you are, what you do and where you’re based.
Elizabeth: I’m the Director of the Cider Museum in Hereford. It’s Britain’s only arts council-accredited museum of cider, so it’s a professional museum and I’ve been there for nearly four years. But I’m a Herefordian, so when I grew up my family had four acres of orchard. I’ve always been around cider, but it wasn’t really until I joined the museum that I became interested in it, and had the joy of meeting Susanna and everybody else.
Lydia: I’m one half of Artistraw Cider and Perry – we’re based in Hay-on-Wye and we are quite small-scale – we’re below 7,000 litres a year and it’s all hand-picked from traditional standard orchards, all of which are unsprayed, so basically organically produced but not certified. We’re planting our own orchard at the moment and are grafting all the trees ourselves. We’ve got something like 45 different varieties with more to come. It’s safe to say that our cidery’s driving focus is on the environment and sustainability.
Cath: I’m Cath Potter, I’m from Manchester. I don’t make cider, I just drink cider and spend a lot of time promoting good cider around the place. What else can I say?!
Elizabeth: You’re a Pommelier.
Cath: Oh yeah. Forgot about that!
Elizabeth: And I forgot to say that we have an annual cider and perry competition and we have a cider shop, so I should have added that in as well!
Hannah: I’m one half of the Kniveton Cider Company which started in 2013, and hopefully we’ve improved a bit since then! (Which I think we have!) I’m also the landlady at the Red Lion of Kniveton, and we promote and sell our cider and other peoples’ cider through there. We’re based in Derbyshire – Derbyshire Dales – quite a rural part of the country.
Fiona: I’m Fiona Matthews, I’m one half of Bartestree Cider Company. We’ve been making cider for about twenty years now I guess; until seven years ago we were in Wales, we were based in Cardiff and we were a company called Seidr Dai, and then we both took early retirement and we moved to a little village just east of Hereford called Bartestree. And we’ve been making cider there ever since. We must be reasonably good at it, because we seem to win a lot of awards!
Hannah: You are!
Fiona: But we’re very much on very small scale – we probably make a similar amount to Lydia and again it’s all hand-picked, hand-pressed, 100% juice, really concentrating on individual, small crops – sometimes just one tree. And fermenting things singly to try and establish what they taste like and then blending if we need to afterwards.
Isy: Me and my partner run Barley Wood Orchard, which is in North Somerset – we’re near Bristol airport – and we’ve been doing this for five years now. We got into cidermaking through an interest in food, doing some home brewing, scrumping a bit, making our own cider and just getting excited about the direct creative process around it. And going to take the cidery on at Barley Wood, which is a walled garden, and it has a few different projects going on, it has the Ethicurean Restaurant, it has an art studio, it’s got this amazing market garden – so it’s a really nice spot. We got offered the lease on there a few years ago and we just went for it… it’s been really exciting. We make 7000 litres a year, so still on the small-scale level of producing cider – we also hand-pick and hand-press. We have, as part of what we took on with the cidery at Barley Wood, these amazing antique manual presses that you have to crank, so it’s a bit of a workout! But it’s nice to feel in that tradition of making cider the same way it’s been made for a really long time. And we try and let the cider speak for itself – we don’t do random additions, we do wild yeasts and use as little sulphites as possible. We’ve been experimenting around with different methods, but also just making good, drinkable draught ciders – we open the bar on weekends in the summer as well and people can come along and enjoy a pint. And then we do different bottles and just see what the fruit that we’ve got works best at. We’ve been really working on developing that over time and figuring out what’s the best thing to do that we’ve got.
Helen: So, I run Burum Collective; it’s only been going for a couple of months. I’m a bartender who, over lockdown had the opportunity to meet some really wonderful people online, and I felt the most connected to my industry than I ever had done previously. I kind of wanted to recreate that, but I also wanted to create a more inclusive space, doing beer, wine and cider as well and also pushing equity within drinks. So that’s where I’m from, but let’s talk about you! So if somebody could explain how Cider Women came about, that’d be fantastic.
Lydia: So it came about through CraftCon actually, last year, the conference that’s organised by the Three Counties Cider & Perry Association. And a few of us there noticed there were barely any women in comparison to the number of men. And I’d been feeling… not grumpy – grumpy’s the wrong word – but frustrated by people always assuming the cider business belongs to my husband, rather than me being a collaborative part of that. Even my own father made the mistake of calling it “Tom’s cider” once, which drove me round the bend. So we’re in the crowd at CraftCon and I thought “why are there far fewer women here?” Cider is brilliant and I think it’s one of those drinks that actually appeals to both genders equally – it hasn’t really been stereotyped in either direction. So we thought “what can we do about this?” and we gathered all the women who were around at CraftCon and decided to start something and, yeah, here we are.
Elizabeth: It was such a lovely moment when, I think it was Susanna, was running around pulling people out and saying “come on, let’s have our photograph taken, see how many women are actually here.” And the impact of that photograph was quite significant really, because we looked around, we thought “this feels really good”. It’s all about representation: women were there doing it but we, in a way, haven’t really acknowledged it amongst ourselves at that point. Would you say that’s fair Lydia?
Helen: That’s amazing. So when exactly did you start Cider Women?
Lydia: Kind of then and there at CraftCon, really. We didn’t have a name officially, but we knew we were going to start something. So when was that? April last year.
Isy: Yeah we swapped numbers and started chatting; just set a meeting date, met up and thought “let’s do this”.
Fiona: We had our first meeting maybe May, June at ours. We all met up and made it a bit more formal, then we had one or two more meetings a month or so until we’d got a name and decided what we were going to do – what we wanted to do. And then we had an amazing website design and logo designed by Lydia. It was very organically grown; it wasn’t a committee as such, it was just those members who were there to start with essentially became the committee. We chose that we would have a chairman possibly looking more at the admin side of it; we might at some point have bank accounts and things, you need to have that. But it’s been a very egalitarian process, very organically developed.
Hannah: It’s like a co-operative really. The way women generally do things, we do co-operate, as opposed to sort of lineal hierarchy.
Elizabeth: That’s a good point. Everybody pitches in, and everybody’s got different strengths, so it’s very much a team thing.
Isy: It just made us want to start a discussion. And just gather everybody. And that’s sort of happening now, finding out what our needs are as a really wide definition.
Hannah: And also to have a social media presence (although I’m not on Facebook any more, but I was) in the light of the fact that there is a social media presence of cidermakers as we all know, on facebook and twitter, and it seemed to be the same male voices dominating it all the time. And some of us – well I certainly did – felt very frustrated and alienated by some of their attitudes towards us.
Elizabeth: We’ve benefitted a lot from having really good friends and supportive partners in some instances, but unfortunately, there have been a few who have been a little bit recalcitrant in their attitude towards us. But mostly, I think it’s fair to say, we’ve met with a lot of support.
Cath: The other thing I think it’s enabled us to do is to make links with other organisations like Pomme Boots in the States which is the cider women’s organisation there. And also some of the beer women’s groups here. So in Manchester we had a joint thing very early on with Beardless Beers, who are mainly based in Scotland but they had a Beardless Beer week at the Crown & Kettle for quite some years, so last year we made it a Beardless Beer and Cider week. The bar that week was populated by drinks made by women, so it’s usually just been beer, whereas that week we managed to get cider from most of us. Not everybody, but we got quite a few women’s ciders as well. And we had a particular Women evening, in the Crown & Kettle, which was really good. And just echoing what people said about support from men; we didn’t make that women only – none of our stuff has been women-only spaces – but what we found at that (and, like I say, that was a very early event) the men that turned up were incredibly supportive, really amazingly supportive. And it was amazingly good. It gave us a lot of confidence, just that little event in Manchester, that we could do bigger things.
Lydia: Yeah, the only thing that was sort of at the base of things was to try and act as a sort of overarching support for female cidermakers. But everything else, as Cath said, has been very inclusive.
Elizabeth: Yes, and the female cidermakers group is meant to be that space where people feel they can ask questions and not feel silly to ask questions.
Hannah: Not be ridiculed.
Elizabeth: Yes. So that’s why that is separate, to give as supportive an environment as possible. Whereas everything else is open and it’s profile-raising and showing the best of cider I think.
Cath: It’s really worked, that group, because Facebook closed groups are not always brilliant, but I think ours is really good. It’s only been going a year and we’ve already got 200 people signed up for it. We do actually vet them and make sure that they are really interested in cider or involved in cider in some way before we invite them. It’s amazing who has joined it; there are an awful lot of women from other areas of hospitality and drinks who have got involved in it, like Lily Waite’s a member, Charlie from Manchester is a member. Quite a lot of the American sisters from Pomme Boots have joined, and it’s really taken off in that sense. It’s been a really successful group, I think, on Facebook. And because we’ve got the public page as well, we can use that to spread out wider than just our little women-only space.
Fiona: And actually it’s not just America and the UK, we’ve got members in Australia, Japan …
Cath: Hong Kong.
Fiona: Yeah, and most European countries now as well.
Isy: It might be worth mentioning as well that when we say it’s sort of a group and space for women that we’re trying to be more inclusive around that as well. It’s not just biological women but we’re trying to say in our statements and stuff that we’re open to people identifying as female, non-binary, trans as well. Basically anyone who’s not a straight man. We’re trying to galvanise those of us who feel marginalised in a way, and try and support each other.
Helen: That’s fantastic. It’s really nice as well because, very often, with private groups, they can end up not being as nice as what someone might have intended them to be, so that’s really lovely. How has your first year generally gone, how do you all feel about it? (Aside from the obvious.)
Lydia: I think personally we would have liked to have done more face-to-face. That was kind of the plan, but obviously with COVID that hasn’t really happened. So COVID’s kind of messed up the year. I don’t know how everyone else feels? It’s really disappointing – makes me feel rather gloomy.
Cath: We did have quite grand plans, didn’t we? We were going to have something at CraftCon, we were going to do something in summer, we were going to do harvest days. All sorts of stuff we had planned – we would have done it, as well. So the only things we managed to get done were those things that just happened to fall at the beginning of the year, which was the CAMRA Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, where we had a big cider presence, but we had a big Cider Women presence as well at that. We had a leaflet identifying all the ciders that were made by women, we had a reception that was kindly sponsored by the Real Al Company – they put up money for it. And that was really, really good. We had Gillian Hough, that some people might know from CAMRA, who happened to be there and she did a whole day in the Learn and Discovery zone about different ciders from women, and showcased everybody’s ciders that we had at the festival there with the leaflet that we’d made. Then the very last Cider Club we managed to have before everything shut was very close to International Women’s Day, so we had a Cider Women afternoon tea in the Marble Arch in Manchester with Find & Foster Cider. And then, sadly, everything else just fell.
Hannah: Shit hit the fan.
Elizabeth: The online social was quite good. Some of the people who attended that, we didn’t know, they then went on to visit Little Pomona and Ross, didn’t they? So even what we did do online managed to generate more interest.
Cath: There was also the Women On Tap online beer festival that they did. They normally have a festival in Harrogate every year, and obviously this year it had to go online. So we did a Cider Women zoom event with a cider box with ciders made by women in the box. And that was really successful – a lot of people turned up to that, and I think everybody enjoyed all the ciders that they had. It wasn’t perfect – how we wanted it – we just had to put together something that was short-term and could get to people.
Helen: And you’ve got a Cider Club coming up in December, is that right?
Cath: Well because it’s Manchester Cider Club, we try and get ciders that we’ve not had before. So at the moment, we’ve asked Lydia and Isy for cider, just because they’ve not had a chance to be showcased in Manchester. Plus we’ll have another one next year which Hannah’s going to host from their pub. And it won’t be a Cider Women one, it’ll be a Midlands one.
Hannah: Yeah, East Midlands.
Cath: Hannah and other people will showcase their ciders. So, we might expand it, it depends.
Hannah: There’s always room for Cider Women.
Cath: Yeah! But as an event as Cider Women, that’s been in the Manchester plan since it was started in January, so it’s just a matter of how can you organise something in this environment? We’ll do it!
Helen: Do you think you’ll do more virtual events other than that as yourselves over the next few months?
Lydia: We’ve not discussed it but I don’t see why we shouldn’t, so – hot off the press – maybe we will!
Fiona: A bit of the problem is of course that we’re all really, really busy picking and pressing and running around filling containers at the minute!
Helen: I was going to ask, actually, how is pressing going for everyone who is pressing?
Fiona: We’re tired and broken already.
Hannah: We’ve not even started yet, we’re really behind. We went to our first orchard today and some of the Tom Putts were ready, but the other ones, the Michelin, weren’t. That’s the two trees we have in this orchard. But we hope to start very soon, but we’re stuffed at the moment, we really are.
Elizabeth: I think running a pub successfully in shutdown is such an achievement.
Hannah: Thank you, thank you. I don’t know about successfully but yeah, we’re keeping our head above water and promoting proper cider. Kev’s going out picking tomorrow while I hold the pub down, so poor old Kev on his own. In the rain!
Helen: Yeah, it’s a really inconvenient time of year for apples to decide to fall off trees! So what are your kind of goals for the next year? Obviously, that’s not necessarily the easiest question to answer.
Elizabeth: That’s a good question.
Hannah: Nobody knows the answer because everything’s up in the air. We won’t be able to produce half as much as we normally do. We’re normally just sub-7,000 litres like everyone else, but I think we’ll probably produce 4,000 litres maximum this year because we haven’t sold as much because everything’s been shut.
Isy: Is the question about Cider Women or about us as cidermakers?
Helen: It was about Cider Women, but I still enjoyed the answer any way!
Elizabeth: We’ll be having a meeting soon and we’ll be trying to plot that out. So, in amongst everybody’s commitments we’ll be thinking about what we can do, but really it’s probably going to have to be more online things because nobody really knows. And I’m just wondering whether in May, when we usually have our Cider and Perry Competition at the museum, who knows? Hopefully, we’ll be able to. But I think we’ll have to get back to you a bit on that one.
Isy: We’re talking a bit about some educational things. We had been talking about that before this stuff happened – about putting on more skill-sharing and educational events. And I mean we could do some of that online now, with our available resources. Then I guess seeing what other virtual events we can put on. I think the thing with Cider Women is to maybe keep a profile, keep ourselves visible and take whatever opportunities present themselves within that. Basically whatever’s happening within general cider world, we make sure that Cider Women are represented there.
Lydia: We like to talk to our members as well, so if our members have got a certain direction that they want to see the group going then we’ll be happy to try to do that. Some of our events have come out from sort of demand from the people within the group.
Cath: The other thing that we’ve done a little bit of, and we’ll probably do more is that CAMRA has made quite a big turn to cider and they’ve got this part of their website called Learn and Discover, which was live in beer festivals but obviously we can’t have those, so there’s a massive bit on their website now on Learn and Discover. We’ve already got one article up there on the beginnings of Cider Women – just an introduction: who we are, what we do. There’s plans for more stuff on general cider but also on cider women that we can get in there. So that’s quite a good place to start, because you’ve got a captive audience there. Because even though they’ve lost members because of shutdown and not having any pubs and stuff there’s still quite a big membership base there – not all of whom know all about cider, but we’re trying!
Elizabeth: That’s a good point, it’s about keeping the profile raised, isn’t it, and as much of that sort of thing as we can do. I’ve had an article on the history of women in cider in Britain accepted for Malus, the American cider magazine, so that’s something I’m really pleased about. And also obviously for International Women’s Day we’ll have to think of something significant to do around that, so yeah – creative minds around our membership, so we’ll be pulling on all of those strands.
Helen: I suppose, with cider, it’s different to International Women’s Day with beer where they do like a community brew, but obviously cider is very specific in its time of year, so it’s a little bit more tricky. But hopefully you’ll be able to do an event around then?
Elizabeth: It would be nice to do a Cider Women blend, wouldn’t it?
Cath: I was just going to say that! I mean again it all depends, because you can only do things like that if you can physically be in the same space as each other. I think it would be great to have a Cider Women blend that we could actually sell.
Hannah: It’s dependent on circumstances, isn’t it?
Helen: That’d be amazing! So you’ve talked about the fact that cider hasn’t really been gendered either way but yet there’s still not a lot of women drinking cider. What are the main problems that women are facing within cider?
Cath: Well what’s amazing about our facebook group is that, when you look at the people that joined it, there are women in cider companies and cidermaking enterprises all over the place – it’s just that you don’t always see that.
Hannah: The invisibility of women in general in society is reflected in the world of cider.
Cath: Yeah, so they’re there though. As are the women cider drinkers – it’s just that we’re not as visible.
Hannah: We’re not allowed the spaces.
Cath: We don’t fit the straw hat and country bumpkin drinking it out of a pint and getting drunk image that there is still of cider. So it’s challenging that and making that new image. Because gender-wise it’s a 50:50 split of who drinks cider.
Helen: Most of the people who come into the bar where I work and drink cider are women. Not a lot of men drink the cider.
Cath: But I think you’re battling two bad images of cider, for me. One is the thing that women like sweet, sticky fruit ciders with lots of fizz in them. So that’s one image – which I’m sure some people do like that, but nevertheless it might be that they’ve never had a chance to try anything different. And then secondly is the male either getting drunk on a park bench as a kid or being an old fella with a piece of straw stuck in your mouth swigging a pint of cider. So there’s two contradicting images and the reality is something else. And that’s what we’re trying to get out there – what the actual reality is about women who drink cider.
Fiona: And then there is also the issue that we’re not really engaging hugely with – it’s on the back burner – that there is actually a lot of sexist imagery, which is off-putting to women who don’t really want to identify with that as a product. And there are companies who have women involved who use those sorts of branding, so it’s a difficult one to tackle. And it’s one of the things we’re looking at – education, rather than trying to be confrontational about it. But it’s one of those things maybe you don’t want to align yourself with, as a woman, in the industry.
Isy: I should say from a cidermaking point of view as well, it is quite hard – you know, these things become self-perpetuating, don’t they? You have the imagery, the imagery of men making cider and then you just can’t see yourself doing it – you don’t feel empowered to, you don’t feel encouraged to, so that’s why our visibility is so important to help show women – and men – that it’s not just men, that we can do this too. I think it’s generally a lot of more physical-based work feels very gendered, and that feels like a barrier to people. And yeah, things do sometimes become a bit of an old boys’ club, that’s just the way things have been for a long time. And you kind of try, and you’re looking for a bit of advice and encouragement as a woman trying to get into cidermaking and it’s really quite daunting when the field seems to be dominated by older men who know everything and look down on you. Can’t even see you, can’t even imagine you as someone who can make cider. So yeah, the more we can put ourselves out there, be positive role models or whatever, the more I think that will gradually change over time and more women will feel like they actually have a place within cidermaking. And that’s just from the cidermaking point of view. It’s taken me a long time to feel more confident as a cidermaker – to feel like an equal within it.
Elizabeth: And that lack of representation was why I put together the exhibition “Women and the Art of Cider” last year. And through that, I’d discovered that it wasn’t that women hadn’t been making cider – they had – and one of the best things I’d found was a seventeenth-century estate book. In fact, actually, Darlene Hayes, an American researcher, and I were both interested in the same book, and she found it first, so I must give her credit for that. So anyway on Lord Scudamore’s estate, so the great pioneer and the originator of the Redstreak apple, he had women on his estate who were picking the apples, they were scalding the vessels and they were making the cider alongside the men. And so that was really interesting as to: where did these women go? And I think the answer is that the more industrialised it got; the more money there was to be made in it, the more marginalised women became, and it’s the same sort of story in here in that they were making it, and they just kind of got faded out. And it’s the same all the way through. And I don’t know whether it’s easier now with the advent of Fine Cider to reclaim that. You know, we go away from all the big, long, fizzy pints in pubs and all that historically more male culture (although obviously women have always been in pubs and have run pubs). But it’s a good time, I think, for women to really be visible and reclaim the cider world, because we were never really never part of it. We had people working in fields that were being paid in cider just like everyone else, it’s just that they never had the imagery to support it. Actually there are the images there, just took a bit of discovering!
Cath: Yeah, some of the comments from people I’ve asked to join Cider Women who work in cider, I’ve had people say to me “oh well I don’t actually make it, I just organise the distribution and do all the books and sort out all the money” and you think well that’s working in cider – without you it’s just a non-existent thing. And it is what Isy says – the confidence to actually say “well, actually, I’m a really important part of this. It’s not just him that turns the screw on the press, you know, I do all these important things as well.”
Hannah: I think it’s a thing that reflects society as a whole, that women feel that their work is not as relevant, and we have this confidence problem with years of being over-patronised by men that we feel our work isn’t as valid or as important. We don’t stand up, we don’t claim our space. And I think that’s what Cider Women is doing, is claiming our space.
Helen: It’s fantastic because it’s so important for people in the future who want to work in cider and beverages generally. I think the #rethinkcider movement, with how that’s gone, it’s getting people to think that it’s not just rethinking the product, it’s the social aspect within that. I think what you’re doing is really cool and I’m really pleased to be in that Facebook group. It’s just nice to know that there are people who aren’t men working in cider.
Cath: The other interesting thing – I was just thinking about this the other day – is that the pubs that post about cider on Twitter and things, and also have members in the group, it’s quite interesting because a lot of the main ones that talk about cider and post about cider, they’ve got a woman either running the pub or jointly running the pub. You know, I’m thinking places like the Jolly Fisherman’s, Fram Ferment and the Station House in Durham, Nicky at the Crown & Kettle. There seem to be more possibilities for people.
Helen: I hope that, in Cardiff especially, we’ll see more cider. It’s currently just such a heavy beer and cocktails city.
Cath: So was Manchester. So was Manchester.
Hannah: You changed Manchester, Cath.
Fiona: Roath – Roath is an area in Cardiff – and we were amazed at the amount of cider, real cider, that we found there. Cathays Beer House, it’s got something like ten different ciders on. We lived in Cardiff for a few year and my son still lives there, so we supply cider down there and there are two or three different venues around there where there’s quite a big cider influence. But that’s one of the interesting things that Cider Women seems to have done is it’s generated kind of – marketing’s the wrong word, but markets. So part of the big meetings we had in the summer there were a couple of girls who were part of that who were staying in Hereford; on the back of that came and saw us, I posted something on social media, Hannah saw that they were with us so she was then able to order our cider to go up. So it’s been a good networking thing – we’ve been down to see Isy and try some of her cider. Women are developing their own sort of marketing lines, without sort of going through the more traditional, male-oriented business deals, you know what I mean? It’s just kind of piggybacking off it, really.
Helen: Yeah, I guess that’s the thing, it’s about helping each other out. And I guess that’s where the support is so important, because actually you just never know who it is you might be connecting with, and that’s really wonderful.
Cath: I think that’s true. Because if anybody wants a cider now made by women or anything to do with Cider Women, in Manchester they know that they should contact me, and I’ll get it for them. Or tell them how to get it. Whereas before it’s always been distribution networks and wholesalers and things that are really quite difficult to negotiate. And I think that’s part of the problem with getting cider into the big markets in the city, is “how do you get it in? What’s your way in?” You’ve got to have a contact or something. So in some way that’s Cider Women’s function as a type of network. We’re nowhere near big enough yet, but we are getting more and more people who work in pubs joining. So I reckon we’ll soon be able to put on our group “anybody working in such and such a place, we need to get some cider in there” and be able to set up those networks. That’s what I hope, anyway.
Helen: Definitely. You could even start your own distribution.
Cath: Oh don’t go there!
Helen: I think being able to support each other like that is what makes it so good. And that’s kind of why I started doing Burum Collective, because I felt like I was being supported by more people far away. It’s that thing of being on your own, when you’re the only person in a place then you find that the other people like you are online. So actually it’s really nice to be able to support each other like that. Did any of you have anything that you have coming up that you wanted to talk about other than finishing pressing?
Lydia: That’ll be a nice day! We are finally going to launch our online shop, which has taken since March!
Lydia: We don’t have a date yet, but before Christmas.
Fiona: It’s very hard to see a way ahead at the minute. There are just so few events – there’s nothing planned. I’ve never had a year when there is nothing in the calendar for so far ahead. And you can’t even really start planning for next year’s events, because God knows whether they’re going to go ahead or not. So you just kind of on faith make all this cider and then hope to God that there’s somewhere to sell it.
Lydia: I’ll drink it, Fiona, if nobody else does.
Fiona: Swap you, Lyd!
Hannah: I’ll drink some.
Helen: I’m assuming then COVID has massively affected your distribution in terms of cider as well.
Fiona: Hugely. In our company, we probably sell 70-80-90% of our cider at festivals and food fairs and there hasn’t been one this year. So we’re left with probably over 50% of the stock. Normally we have run out, we sell out of cider every year so in September we struggle to do the Ross on Wye event, which is 2nd of September. This year we’ve got over 50% of our stock from last year left. So the knock-on is that we’re not making half as much and the orchards around us are just not getting used. There are so many orchard owners on social media begging for someone to come and take fruit, because in Herefordshire it’s just awful to see the amount of fruit that is just rotting, because no one’s got capacity to use it.
Isy: It’s the bigger cidermakers as well. They’re stocked from last year so they’re not using as much now in this season of picking, so it’s a bit of a strange situation. Sad to see all the unused fruit.
Elizabeth: My bottle shop at the museum isn’t open because the building’s shut and so it’s quite interesting – I’ve learned who puts sell-by dates on their cider and who doesn’t – that’s a very interesting one!
Fiona: It’s really quite interesting because we had Trading Standards out and you don’t have to. And there’s nothing to say that you have to. And we do, and that was a big shot in the foot for us, because most of ours is naturally bottle-conditioned, so it ought to improve. But because we put stuff in the Cider Museum with sell-by dates on, we took it all back.
Elizabeth: Which was very kind!
Fiona: And we opened it, and it was fine. So we just drank it.
Hannah: We put sell-by dates on I think the first two years that we did it, and then we found out that we didn’t need to, so we don’t put anything on ours. And I’ve still got bottled cider from six-five years ago, and every now and again we pop the lid on them and they’re fine. They get better if anything.
Fiona: I know. We actually found some bottles that we had made when we were in Cardiff seventeen years ago – sixteen, seventeen years ago – and we took one to Hereford Beer House and opened it there. And it was just slightly oxidised, but the flavour was still brilliant and the carbonation was still amazing sixteen years later.
Hannah: It’s really good. Really good.
Elizabeth: That’s one of the things I’d like to do, is use the Cider Museum cellars to lay down a series of bottles and we sample them every five, ten, fifteen years and see what happens.
Fiona: I’m in.
Elizabeth: Well that’s a great thing to do with the surplus stock!
Helen: And have any of you had to then start doing way more packaged stuff? Some point around me just started delivering locally.
Fiona: Well we’ve licensed our premises. We said we’d never sell from the house, but at the start of COVID people were saying “well can we not buy direct from you?” So we did, but it took us the whole of lockdown to get the license sorted, and we got it just in time for all the pubs to open.
Isy: We got into home delivery as well – we did sort of local deliveries. We lost a lot of our outlets and events and things like that. But we did gain quite a lot, we had quite a lot more interest in trade from people I think throughout the lockdown period when pubs were shut, when supermarkets weren’t as convenient – a lot of people were willing to sort of try new local businesses. So I think we found quite a few new customers that way. Which was really nice and I hope that maybe across the country we’ve seen an expansion of peoples’ palates and knowledge of local businesses, I’m hoping that that’s a positive takeaway.
Helen: I mean, I do think you could have your own cider women webshop.
Isy: We did talk about doing a Cider Women selection box, but we didn’t get round to that. Because it’s just sort of logistically complicated as well.
Cath: Unless you’ve got premises, and transport of course, because even though most people are concentrated around the west it’s still a long old drive to get round everybody to pick stuff up. And it’s so expensive to post things and some of the courier services have been …
Cath: Smashing. Yeah. Smashing is a good word! And it’s just been a bit difficult to get stuff to where it needs to be. And established couriers that courier other stuff don’t seem to be that great for cider, that’s for sure. You know, we’ve had a few smashed bottles arrive, from people who’ve really packed them well. I don’t know what they do – they must play football with the boxes or something. So doing something like a selection box, we are reliant on other people to do it for us. So for our Women On Tap thing Felix from Fine Cider Company put a box together, but it wasn’t just our stuff; we’d have liked it to have been a bit more focussed and a bit more representative, but you take what you can get, and if someone else is prepared to do something for you, you don’t say no, do you? You say thank you very much.
Elizabeth: I wonder if there’s any way we can quantify or find out the impact of Cider Women on the drinkers. So Cath, when people come to the events in Manchester, do you think it’s encouraging more women to try cider? Or is it appealing to men just as much and broadening everybody’s horizons? Or is it impossible to say?
Cath: I think it’s a little bit impossible to say, but I think the beer festival was the most easy to judge, and I think it did encourage more women to come to the cider bar and to try some different things. And you could see it by the way the stuff that was on our leaflet that says “this was made by women” – it all sold out. I mean not just sold out, but sold out really, really quickly. We should have had lots more, but we didn’t! And I think just giving that publicity and that little push, it did make a difference. You know, some men did come and ask for it, but mainly the people who came and said “oh, I’ve got this leaflet, can I have one of these that’s made by a woman?” that was mainly women. And I think they really appreciated it as well. Because beer festivals, again, not the most inclusive-feeling spaces. I know we try, and we’re really trying to make them better than they used to be, but it’s still a kind of macho …
Hannah: Beards and bellies.
Cath: Yeah! Yeah, there’s so many of them everywhere. Some days we had gangs of young women just hanging around the cider bar and trying one after another and buying bottles and everything. I wish I’d taken pictures really, but I couldn’t because I was running about. I think if we’d taken pictures of who was hanging around that bar, and who was chatting and selling and drinking, I think you would have found it was a much more equal-looking space than the other bars that were there. I can’t prove that, but …
Helen: I believe you – I trust you.
Cath: Did you think that, Fiona, when you were there?
Fiona: Yeah. Yes.
Hannah: And I would say, too, yes definitely.
Fiona: There were a lot.
Elizabeth: Which is interesting, because we all like beer, I think? I don’t think there’s any amongst us who don’t?
Helen: Well my favourite thing has been getting people I know who are really into wine really into cider. Because it’s been really nice, I guess, to share cider with someone who has a certain opinion of cider and then try to get them to try cider and just fall in love with it. It’s a really, really wonderful experience to be able to do that.
Cath: The other people who bought lots and lots of cider – this was at Salford as well, Salford Beer Festival, which was before the Manchester one. My daughter was behind the bar at both and we were laughing at her and saying that she was the salesperson for brewer’s mums. Also, Indyman was the other one. Brewers mums at Indyman, Salford and Manchester bought loads of cider. Loads of it. It was funny. You wouldn’t know, but she knows these people so she got talking to them – there were about three different brewers from Cloudwater – their mums all bought cider.
Lydia: Oh right, I thought there was like a group called “Brewers Mums” – I was like “who are they?”
Cath: If I knew them I’d try and recruit them!
Helen: It is interesting how – over lockdown, we used Scrattings a lot, and it was amazing because it was nice to be able to try a lot of different ciders from a lot of different people. Which I guess is the thing, isn’t it? People always like getting that mixed selection of stuff.
Cath: You just have to mix and match your suppliers. Because we’ve had stuff from Scrattings, we’ve had stuff from Fine Cider Company, we’ve had stuff from Crafty Nectar. It depends what you want, and if it comes as part of that. That’s something that we might do more of as a cider club, so if we’re doing an order for tickets, we might ask members “do you want anything else while we’re there?”
Helen: I like that, that’s a good idea! So how long has the Cider Museum been open for?
Elizabeth: Since 1980. It’s in the former Bulmer’s factory, so it’s in a building that dates back to 1888, the site was bought. And it tries to do the farmhouse cider and then you go into the champagne cider cellars – you can find out how champagne cider was made and so it’s like moving from farmhouse to industrial cider. And what we’re trying to do, what we were doing before lockdown, is starting an audience survey to find out ways in which we can improve, modernise, bring in new themes. So the Women and the Art of Cider exhibition was meant to be a temporary one, but thanks to COVID it’s still there! But I’ll try and incorporate elements of it into the displays generally so that it’s properly represented all the way through. And find other areas that aren’t properly represented ad have a go at those next.
Hannah: It’s fabulous Helen, you must go.
Elizabeth: Oh bless you.
Helen: I’d really like to. We were talking about it the other day, about – obviously when we’re able to, to travel across. Because my friend Ben [Ed: Cider writer on Burum Collective … we’ll get him on Malt one of these days] really wants to go to. But I also just really love museums.
Helen: When I heard there was a cider one I was so excited, because I didn’t know there was one! And especially because I think that people often talk about cider as if it doesn’t have any history, which I find really bizarre, because obviously everything has history. Do you get a lot of people coming in?
Elizabeth: We don’t have a huge population in Herefordshire so we’re very dependent on footfall from people coming to visit the area. It’s one of those things – people don’t tend to visit museums in their own back garden; if you go for a day out you go out. So we’re very dependent on the numbers of tourists that come. And there’s been a new campaign that’s just been launched by Visit Herefordshire – they got some funding to promote Herefordshire – so it’s called Apples for Autumn, so anything to do with apples or cider is being promoted at the moment, and sadly, because the museum is shut, we’re not able to be part of that. So it’s extremely frustrating – there are all these people who I want to know all about the museum! But when I got there I was also very aware of the fact that it wasn’t all supposed to be just about Herefordshire. So I tried to go out to places like the Bath and West Show and speak to as many people as possible who weren’t Herefordshire cidermakers and probably also weren’t aware that it existed and just promote it as a museum for the cider industry. So that’s been really good – social media’s helped with that an awful lot – so now we’ve just got to try and get the museum to reflect all those new aspects and really just revitalise it. So hopefully people who have always come will want to come back and see what we have changed when we have changed it. COVID has taken just such a big chunk – it feels like the whole year’s gone before it got started; a couple of months at the start and now a couple of months at the end and there’s just a missing gap in the middle.
Cath: Somebody said to me on my birthday, “we’re not counting this year because we haven’t used it”.
Helen: That’s a good one. But I guess at the same time some of it’s been positive in that you have had a bit of time to work out “what can I change? What can be different? And what can happen hopefully when things are open again, or even just in the intermediate. I just hope you have much better years and your harvests and everything go well.
[Ed: Massive thanks to Helen for leading this tremendously in-depth interview, to Elizabeth, Lydia, Cath, Fiona, Hannah and Isy for taking the time to talk, to Susanna for providing the imagery, to Elliot for the additional artwork and to all of the Cider Women committee for letting me sit in on the conversation and allowing us to publish this.]