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Spotlight on Burrow Hill and the Somerset Cider Brandy Company

Throughout January I’ve been speaking to people within the cider industry who, in whatever way, inspire and have inspired me on my journey through cider. But it’s safe to say that there has been little along that journey that has inspired me as much as my first trip to Burrow Hill.

I was already a long way down the rabbit hole by that point. I had dabbled with real cider for a few years without really submerging myself and for perhaps a year before my visit I had become a little more serious. But it was my visit to Burrow Hill and the Somerset Cider Brandy Company, my wanderings through their orchards and the mottled shadows of barn and still room and barrel house that really crystallised in my mind an idea of what cider has been, is, and could be. I drove back from Somerset composing an article in my head, sat down at the keyboard the moment I was home and spent the evening rattling out my first (and, at the time, I assumed only) cider article on Malt. To this day it is one of maybe half a dozen I’ve published here that I can honestly say I’m entirely happy with.

My guide that day was Matilda Temperley, who is now the Managing Director of Burrow Hill and the Somerset Cider Brandy Company (though, as we’ll see, that title belies the democratic, family nature of the business). Matilda has since been incredibly helpful with several articles on Malt, particularly when James Finch and I were writing our joint article on the Kingston Black apple, but although I’ve reviewed their Ice Cider and their Bottle Fermented Kingston Black, I haven’t revisited Burrow Hill in depth since that first piece two and a half years ago. So I reached out to Matilda for a fuller discussion, and our conversation is recorded below.

Malt: So first of all, introduce yourself and Burrow Hill.

Matilda: So Burrow Hill and Somerset Cider Brandy are one and the same thing – I’m sitting in front of Burrow Hill now. It’s a lone hill with a lone tree on the top – Sycamore tree. Cider’s been made on this farm for around 300 years that we know of, probably a lot longer. My father [Ed: Julian Temperley, company founder] came here about 55 years ago and Somerset Cider Brandy’s been made here for 30 years, and that’s reviving an ancient craft that was practiced widely in this area but disappeared about 300 years ago through puritanism and tax.

Malt: Getting Somerset Cider Brandy legally recognised again was a bit of a struggle wasn’t it?

Matilda: When Julian first started cider brandy he started on a museum license and then got a commercial license – it was the first license for distilling Somerset Cider Brandy commercially for 300 years and at that point in time there were really no other local artisan distilleries. And so first off the customs in this area didn’t have any expertise in distilling. It was all super-tight security and customs officials all the time. And then probably about 15 or 20 years ago everything became much, much more relaxed as we had this sort of artisan distillery boom. But then in 2011 there was a food labelling issue where everyone started to standardise food names across Europe. And Cider Brandy got missed off the list. Every other country protected their food names, whether it was Calvados, the French cider brandy or whether it’s Champagne or Cognac. So it meant that suddenly we would have been faced with calling something “Cider Spirit”, which quite honestly sounds totally disgusting. So Julian actually went to the court in Brussels to try and get our ancient name re-established. And in doing so we had huge support from the Calvados industry and they ended up giving us a PGI for Somerset Cider Brandy. And that was better than we ever expected, because not only did our name get established again but it also got tied to these traditional values that we uphold. So in every single barrel we must have at least 20 different types of cider apple that have to be traditional cider apples from this region, they have to be coming off the tall trees – standard orchards – and they’re orchards that are quite low-yielding, because you don’t have to input fertilisers and whatnot. So it ended up recognising Somerset Cider Brandy and us being able to put in a framework for our PGI, which protects the quality. We’re all about orcharding traditions and our mission really is to highlight the orchards around this area and to carry on expanding these orchards which are being pulled out just about everywhere else. We’ve got a whole biodiversity plan. And now we’ve just started planting our own oaks, so in 130 years time we’ll be able to harvest our own oaks for our Somerset Cider Brandy barrels.

Malt: We’ve been talking a lot about Pommeau and French cider on Malt and in online conversation recently, so obviously we’ve been talking about appellations. How important do you see that PGI as being and do you think there should be more PGIs in UK cider generally?

Matilda: I think the PGI for us is really important. I fear that what’s likely is European Food Standards have always been high – they’ve always been more discerning than us. In French cider it would be totally illegal to do half of the things that many ciders do in the UK and so I think the PGI system was amazing when it was a European system. When it becomes a British system I suspect it will become somewhat diluted by the applications that we’ve seen and by the chatter that’s happening. And I think that will bring down the whole lot. I think the recognition of food heritage is incredibly important.

Malt: We’ve touched on apples a moment ago. I know you have a huge number of varieties – tell us about those, and the ones which are of particular importance, either to your cider or your cider brandy.

Matilda: We’ve got 105 types of apple that we know about on the farm; there’s certainly a few unknown types hanging around in our hedges too, we’ve just never got round to identifying them. We grow mostly bittersweets, a very traditional cider apple. And as is traditional for West Country cider it’s two thirds bittersweet and a third sharp apples; that’s a really good blend for a well-balanced cider. And we’ll put all different sorts of apples in there, we get a different blend at the beginning of the season and a different blend at the end of the season. So when we’re planting we’re thinking about planting late sharps or late bittersweets and filling in the holes of what we haven’t got. For us Dabinett and Michelin and Yarlington Mill and Harry Masters’ are huge apples; we’ve got specialist apples Stoke Red and Kingston Black, and they’re really good for us. Stoke Red and Kingston Black are both bittersharps. Kingston Black certainly is a real king in the cider world, but it’s not a great apple to grow, it doesn’t crop very heavily, it crops well every other year and it’s really susceptible to various diseases. But it’s the king of apples for us; it makes the Kingston Black aperitif, because on its own it can form a great drink because it’s got the sharpness but it’s also got the tannins and the sugars – it’s a very rare all-rounder. For our cider we do a single variety bottle-fermented Stoke Red. The batch at the moment is amazing and should be our house cider. It’s just Stoke Red, and Stoke Reds are a right little pain; they are little tiny weeny apples, and on the trees it’s all or nothing – there’s not a single apple on those trees on an off-year. So we don’t make it every year, we have to wait for our trees to be in sync to have a big enough harvest of Stoke Red. But we make this bottle fermented, and it’s a very, very tannic apple so it’s got this huge, full body; it’s amazing.

Malt: We’ve got one in our tasting lineup, so I was just about to ask about it! Talk me through the making of it?

Matilda: So we make the Stoke Red cider, ferment it through to dry and then it goes into a champagne bottle with a crown cap on it and with dosage. So a bit of sugar, bit of yeast. It goes down into the cellar for up to five years and when it comes out of the cellar it goes into a riddling rack, where it’s turned every day for two weeks. And then we have a salt and ice bath and we shove 12 in upside down, wait for the necks to freeze, disgorge them, put in a champagne cork with a machine that predates any of us and it’s good to go. It’s super dry but with this huge body and a refined, biscuity mousse.

Malt: That must make it really versatile with food?

Matilda: Yeah, it’s good with food because it’s so full-bodied. Champagne with food can disappear because it’s so delicate.

Malt: Do you use the same cider for your brandy as for the cider that you don’t distil?

Matilda: Yeah, we do. More or less. We use different orchards, but also when you’re making cider to turn into brandy, we often have people saying “oh I’ve got this cider that isn’t quite nice, or it’s a bit this or a bit that – can we turn it into brandy?” And we say well no, it’s exactly the opposite way round, you have to put your absolute best cider forward to make cider brandy. And you can’t use anything – it’s a really pure cider, there’s no sulphites, you have to get it right. So we have two thirds bittersweet and a third bittersharp for our spirit and it has to be really flavourful, because then it’ll carry through. And if you have any issues in the cider, you’ll just distil those issues for the spirit. So we do use our best cider for our distilling.

Malt: Tell me about your stills – what they are and the different characters you get off them?

Matilda: We’ve got Josephine, we’ve got Fifi and we’ve got Isabelle. Josephine is in bits actually – she’s being repaired today! And she works a bit faster, she’s a bit steadier than the other two and her spirit is I think probably a bit fatter. Slightly less fruity than Fifi. Then Fifi’s spirit is so fruity, she’s a bit flightier. And then Isabelle is actually somewhere in between them. She’s had a fault inside, so she’s just come apart and been repaired; I expect she’ll be working a bit differently this season – she’ll hopefully be a bit faster. But they all have their own characteristics, so we actually tend to mix their spirit together. If we’re doing something like Pear Eau de Vie we will distil that on Fifi, because Fifi’s the fruitiest, and it’s Eau de Vie, so you want the fruitiest thing. I think probably if you’re using a young spirit, Fifi would be your girl. And then if you’re laying down for the future then maybe Josephine would be more complex. But this is something that we’ve got to know over the years, and it’s almost an emotional feel as opposed to something that you could necessarily do a blind tasting of. There’s a couple of us that do the distilling and we definitely have a different relationship with the different stills.

Malt: Long Ashton Research Station said that where you are, Kingsbury Episcopi, was the perfect place to grow cider apples. Why was that?

Matilda: The terroir – which I can never say properly! – is meant to be special. There’s a fault line, a sandy soil, and since we’re on top of a hill it’s incredibly well-draining. The other places that are meant to be of superior terroir are Wedmore and Baltonsborough – in Baltonsborough no-one grows apples any more, but Wedmore is where Roger Wilkins is [Ed: iconic traditional Somerset cidermaker – see excellent Pellicle interview with Roger here] and both places share the same geography. They’re all sitting just up above the Somerset levels, they’re all on the same soil, this sandy, well-draining, fertile soil. They say an apple tree will always tell you where it wants to grow.

Malt: We’ve been talking about how Somerset Cider Brandy goes back hundreds of years, and then traditional method cider’s been around longer than Champagne, so there’s a huge amount of tradition running right across your range. How do you marry that with innovation, moving forwards, creating new things?

Matilda: We’re completely married to our environment. So we’re always trying new things, but we’re quite purist about it. So if you look at our range, say you’re looking at the ice cider, the Stoke Red, the brandies, all the liqueurs – well, excluding Blackcurrant and Cherries – you’re only looking at apples and pears. There’s nothing else across most of the range and it’s kind of exciting thinking up the things you can do with just apples and nothing else. And there’s huge versatility in that, and that comes down to your orchards and knowing your varieties. I think you have to always move forward and innovate, and the cider world’s changed hugely since I’ve been working in the business. What people think of as cider now is something very different to what people thought of as cider 20 years ago. So we have to change, we have to innovate; it’s exciting, there’s a long way for apples to go. And there’s lots of new producers doing great things.

Malt: Your family’s an institution at Burrow Hill. What’s your role within the company now and are you starting to take over more from your parents a bit?

Matilda: I work very much with Julian and as MD I oversee the day-to-day. Julian’s full of amazing ideas so it actually leaves him free to do more innovating. But we’re not very into hierarchy up here, so it’s a really unusual place to work. Every single person on the farm – 10 or 12 of us – does multiple jobs. So the other distiller might be a delivery driver some days, he’s fixing the stills today, he might be barrelling another day, he might be pruning another day, he might be chasing sheep another day. That’s the sort of environment we’re trying to foster; we’re all a team, we all work across each others’ jobs. I think that’s really important – that’s also where you get ideas.

Malt: I wanted to ask about your perries. Obviously with perry people talk more about the Three Counties, maybe, than Somerset. Can you tell me about your pear trees; the varieties and also the two different perries in your range?

Matilda: We grow about 20 varieties of perry pears. I have to say, perry trees are not like apple trees. They don’t grow as well as apples do down here. But they’re all traditional perry pears, our orchards are quite young and they say with orchards you grow apples for yourself and perry pears for your grandchildren because they take so long to establish. I think there’s a real truth in that, and Julian waited until he had grandchildren to plant perry trees. So we don’t have very many pears but last year we had enough perry to make some really amazing perry eau de vie. And we do this bottle-fermented perry made in the same way as the Stoke Red. It’s not as strong, it’s slightly finer and it’s a completely and utterly different profile. It’s really light, really floral. You’d drink this perry in the same way that you’d drink a champagne or a prosecco, as an aperitif. You talk about it in such a different way, you know the cider can kind of be butch and really full and the perry’s delicate and floral, really floral. So that’s our bottle fermented perry. Our 50cl perry is very lightly carbonated, more commercial. Again really nice, really fruity. It’s got a lovely body. That’s my summer drink. Perry’s less challenging, I think, than cider, because it’s pure fruit with much less of the tannins. And perry has such a natural, non-fermentable sweetness, which gives it this slightly elegant feel, I think.

Malt: Talking of things that take a long time to grow, tell me about the oak planting project.

Matilda: We’ve got big ideas. Small ambitions and big ambitions! We’ve thought a lot, in this transition between generations, and talked a lot about what we want. Whether it’s big business and big revenue or whether it’s something else. And for us, really, making cider and making cider brandy is something else. None of us are in it for the financial reward. What we are in it for is creating this magic environment that we live in. These incredible orchards on this hill. And we’d like, ultimately, to preserve that for the future. And that’s our real aim – to put these drinks on the map and keep a small, sustainable business going. And increase the land slightly – so we’ve got bee areas, we’ve got wildlife areas, we’ve got copses. And we’d just bought this new land, just before the first lockdown. So we thought we’d start planting oak forest and we’ll do it slowly over the next five years, and then in 130 years time the first oak trees to come out will then be big enough to turn into barrels. And so then we can have everything off this land, and it’ll help protect this land and it will create an amazing space hopefully. And we thought every time we plant orchards we’ll intersperse the orchards with oak.

Malt: So you’ll literally have everything required for your product on the farm.

Matilda: The first Somerset oak barrels are busy ageing at the moment. We’re always looking for oaks that are coming out naturally, and are being felled for any reason. And to find an oak that’s the right size – because we don’t have oak plantations in this country – is quite difficult. It has to be 130 years old, so really wide, and then it has to have a nice straightness with no knots, which is impossible generally. But this morning we’ve taken three new oak butts to the woodman, who’s hand-sawing them to make staves to make the next batch of Somerset oak barrels. So we’re testing these oak barrels so we’ll know what’s to come in 130 years’ time!

Malt: Going back to your range – the brandies, the traditional methods, the fortifieds – they’re really gorgeously-packaged, high-end stuff. How important is it that cider presents that kind of image?

Matilda: Julian’s always wanted to see the cider world elevate itself and sit on the dinner table, which is not something cider’s traditionally done. But now there’s a lot of people doing that, and it’s brilliant for the cider world. The cider world’s divided; it’s gone from being traditional makers to big commercial makers, to people making alcopops versus people making high-end cider, and the dichotomy in that is massive. And thank goodness we’ve got all these people making high-end cider and innovating. The Somerset Cider Brandy Company was really born out of that. And with the cider brandy, once you’ve got the spirit, like in any spirit region, you’ll have the intermediary, the pommeau or the floc de Gascogne, the pineau. So those were born after the spirits. And it’s constant experimentation down here. There’s always something being laid down and then we’ll forget about it for ten years, then come back to it and go “oh actually someone had a good idea!” Like when we made the ice cider; Julian did it quietly then he turned up with it and we said “oh, not sure we like that” and then over the summer my family and I managed to drink the whole production of that first year! So we decided it was a goer after that!

Malt: I know South West Cider Week was a while back now, but talking about this dichotomy and the current rise of small, high-quality producers – do you think South West Cider Week made a difference to those producers coming together? Is that something you’d like to see more of?

Matilda: I think so. I do feel like there has been some change in the industry. I mean we’ve always got cidermakers here, Julian’s always showing people around, we have people from all over the world coming and doing a season and learning about cider. And, in a normal year, Julian gives someone who’s interested in cider a tour about every other day. He’s really into sharing his knowledge. But I did feel that with South West Cider Week there was a good camaraderie between the industry. And I think it’s changed from being sort of old cidermakers on their farms, sticking to themselves, to having a bit more chatter amongst one another. I think. I hope!

Malt: It’s really great to see that cohesiveness start to happen. And that conversation – between drinkers as well as makers. Moving back to the range, we touched on fortifieds a bit – you’re one of the very few English producers who are making pommeau-style drinks outside of Normandy. Tell me about the pair you make.

Matilda: We make Somerset Pomona and Kingston Black Aperitif. They’re both made in a similar way – they’re fortified juices. Kingston Black is fortified, it’s 18%, uses just the Kingston Black juice and then it’s married for a year or two with a young spirit, but doesn’t go back into oak. So it’s clean and fresh. Then Pomona is similar, fortified juice, it’s a bit stronger, slightly different blend of apples, and it goes back into the barrel for a year or two. In the barrel it oxidises, so it’s darker and it’s thicker and it’s stronger. So it’s really good after dinner, really good with cheese, it fits the same place as a port on the table. To make a good fortified drink you really need both ends of the spectrum. You need the amazing juice, and you need the purest spirit.

Malt: What sort of oak are you putting the Pomona into?

Matilda: Pomona goes into oak barrels that have held cider brandy for a minimum of five years. So it wouldn’t go into a neutral barrel; it will always have to have held cider brandy. And that’s just to make sure that you’re having the oak, but it’s pure apple influence.

Malt: What do you see as the main challenges for high-end cider (apart from covid) at the moment?

Matilda: I think it’s the identity crisis. The sort of marketing nonsense that goes into flavoured products at the moment. All those people making alcopops and calling them “cider” are essentially corrupting the traditional side of the market. Because the youth are going to grow up thinking that cider is flavoured with strawberries or whatever and is sweet and sticky. So I think that’s a problem, and I think that’s a legislative problem. There should be a fine line of what’s called cider – I think that was a terrible mistake, those loopholes allowing the alcopop industry to come back disguised as cider. Part of the challenge is the fact that with this industrial alcopop cider, people are moving away from cider apples, and they’re moving towards neutral apple concentrate, which is imported. Which means that the orcharding traditions are getting lost. 75% of all orchards were under threat through the big companies swapping over to concentrate. And certainly, many of our neighbours are just rotting their apples on the ground this year because there’s no market for them – the impact that could have on our environment is huge. Apple orchards are such an incredible piece of the landscape, certainly traditional apple orchards. The amount of birds and insect life that they house is huge. That’s a disaster for more than just the cider industry – it’s a disaster for the country really.

Malt: Yeah, it’s really tragic to see some of these ancient, brilliant varieties ripped up and replanted with far less flavourful things just for yield or efficiency or whatever.

Matilda: Or ripped up and replanted with crops that go into the biodigester.

Malt: So last question, what’s the short and long term plan for Burrow Hill?

Matilda: Short term, survive! This summer we’d like to have more people to the farm; before the last lockdown [Ed: the November one] we opened all of the farm’s orchards and encouraged people to come and roam and have picnics, because we’ve got all this space so we’re morally obliged to share it, I think. And if there are no festivals we’ll have the Cider Bus out in the yard. In the medium-long term, we want to make sure that our business can weather future storms like this and would like to increase this area of orchards around here. We’re slowly growing and that’s good for us. We’ve got all sorts of experiments going on. This year has given us a great opportunity to tidy up our yard and make sure our orchards are well pruned and think about how we can improve our environment.

On that note, we should dig into Burrow Hill’s liquid corpus. (I nearly said ‘burrow into’, but you deserve better than that.) I’ve five bottles lined up, all of which are mentioned above. We start with the two perries: a 50cl medium-dry at £2.60 on the Burrow Hill website and the 75cl champagne-method Bottle Fermented which is available for £14. Then we’ve the Bottle Fermented Stoke Red single variety at the same price and the two fortifieds: Kingston Black Apple Aperitif and the Somerset Pomona, both of which are in 50cl bottles and are priced at £12 and £14 respectively. Those prices are as quoted on The Somerset Cider Brandy’s own website (which is where the links will take you to) but most of these can also be found on Scrattings or Crafty Nectar.

Burrow Hill Perry Sparkling Medium-Dry – review

Colour: Gold.

On the nose: On the honeyed end of the perry spectrum, but it’s light, fresh honey – nothing heavy here. Tinned pairs. Green, springtime notes of honeysuckle and nettle. It’s not super complex but that’s not the point – it’s lovely and fresh and enticing.

In the mouth: There’s a little more intensity here. Ripe, rounded, juicy. Pears, honey, white grape and green leafiness. Just enough of the tannin and acidity to keep that touch of sweetness in balance. There’s nothing challenging or harsh whatsoever. The tingle of fizz is really well-judged too. It’s very harmonious. This is a really nice, clean, fresh drinking perry.

Burrow Hill Perry Bottle Fermented – review

Colour: Young champagne.

On the nose: Really lovely. One of those noses from the Newton Court Black Mountain or Jörg Geiger CBB22 stable – not just about overt pear fruit, there’s a stoniness here too. Rainwater and seashore pebbles. Cut grass. Really clear and clean and elegant.

In the mouth: The bottle fermentation has worked perfectly here – the mousse is beautifully integrated. It’s dry and crisp with a citrusy nibble of clean acidity and a touch of body from the very light tannin. Again the pear is complemented seamlessly by gunflint and elderflower and green fruit. It’s all elegantly harmonised – there’s no one particular shouty note. As an aperitif perry this is superb, and something I would pour for absolutely anyone.

Burrow Hill Stoke Red Bottle Fermented – review

Colour: Bright copper.

On the nose: Big, fulsome nose for a traditional method. Rich, ripe, juicy fare. Loads of blood orange and ginger and clove and baked apple – the Stoke Red character is really shining. There’s some woody leatheriness in here too; I can certainly see the shared DNA with their Kingston Black. Loads going on. Mousse is initially very lively – open carefully! – but its aggression is very quickly reduced.

In the mouth: Yes, it’s dry – bone dry – but so full-bodied is the fruit and so creamy the mousse that it never once seems austere. More blood orange and dried apple and more of that woody spiciness, though the leathery touch found on the nose isn’t here. The acidity keeps things fresh without being at all cheek-puckering. The tannins towards the end are absolutely lovely – ripe and velvety with just the right amount of grip. Another traditional method from the Bollhayes school and a splendid advert for dry cider.

Burrow Hill Kingston Black Apple Aperitif – review

Colour: Hazel.

On the nose: Really clean and fresh. Red apple juice, heather honey, a light touch of caramel. Orange zest and copper pennies. Very nicely married with the spirit – nothing harsh whatsoever.

In the mouth: Pristine again, and what this has that pommeau often tends not to is a lovely fresh brightness of acidity that just pierces the sweetness and lifts everything up. Apple and golden raisin. Mango slices and Dundee cake. Just such a drinkable and fresh take on this style and again the weighting of juice and spirit is delightful.

Burrow Hill Somerset Pomona – review

Colour: Black tea.

On the nose: Deeper, richer, spicier. Very spicy actually, oak and nutmeg and clove. Moved from the Dundee Cake of the Kingston Black Aperitif to a brandy-soaked Christmas pudding. Oloroso sherry. Polished furniture. All with a beating heart of stewed apple. Fans of Glendronach, step this way.

In the mouth: Again, it’s deep, it’s rich, it’s rounded, it’s spicy. Very sweet, but balanced by tannin and oak. Less acidity than the Kingston Black Apple Aperitif, but again there’s more than you find in most pommeaux, which is all to the good. Char and raisin and cinnamon and nutmeg. In pudding terms it’s Halloween’s toffee apple meeting Christmas’s fruitcake. A decadent end-of-evening treat.

Conclusions

Here’s a rarity. A flight of five wildly diverse ciders and perries and I have no niggles whatsoever about any of them. All five are tremendous in strikingly different ways; there isn’t one that I wouldn’t heartily recommend. If you stuck a gun to my head and asked for a “top two” I’d um and ah and point towards the Stoke Red and the Somerset Pomona, but I’d lose so much in doing so. The Bottle Fermented Perry and the Kingston Black Apple aperitif bring so many unique, dazzling and memorable qualities entirely distinct from anything you’ll find in those first two, and at £2.60 a bottle the medium-dry perry is an utter no-brainer that should be tucked into everyone’s fridge door and gulped down at the first sight of sunshine.

Often, when we drinks hobbyists head down new boozy avenues, we can forget the bottles that led us there in the first place. This tasting, and my conversation with Matilda, was a wonderful reminder of how special the Somerset Cider Brandy Company is and how delicious many of their creations are. I’ll certainly be drinking them through the year, and would urge you to do the same. And if, by summer, lockdown has eased, I’ll be making a long-overdue return trip top the orchards at Burrow Hill.

Many thanks to Matilda for taking the time to talk to me and for contributing all of the imagery (besides my stock-in-trade brick wall background bottle shot … )

This entry was posted in: Cider, Features, Reviews

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In addition to my writing and editing on Cider Review I contribute to other drinks sites and magazines including Graftwood, JancisRobinson.com, Full Juice, Distilled and Burum Collective. I share my home with several hundred bottles, one geophysicist and a small fluffy belligerent called Nutmeg. @CiderReviewAdam on Twitter and Instagram.

3 Comments

  1. Pingback: Fizzical education: some thoughts on sparkling cider | Cider Review

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