It was the energy of the letter that caught me. I was in the archives of The Cider Museum in Hereford, way back in 2019 when sitting in museum archives was something you could do, trawling my way through dusty, ancient, manuscripts. Infinitely precious but, if I’m entirely honest, a little bit dry.
The letter was different. It had been written three hundred years ago by a Devonian, Hugh Stafford, and used as a preface to Batty Langley’s Pomona of 1729. Stafford’s purpose in writing had been to tell Langley about a relatively newly-discovered apple which, he alleged, made cider to set your heart spinning. It was called Royal Wilding and it had “a bright Yelloifh rather than a Redifh, Beerifh Tincture; The other Qualities are a Noble Body, an Excellent Bitter, a Delicate (excufe the Expreffion) Roughnefs, and a fine Vinous Flavour”. In the parlance of 18th century Devon, it was a knockout.
The Royal Wilding, it was alleged, was cleaning up at blind tastings, dazzling the palates of everyone who encountered it and was rivalled as an apple for cider by only the Whitfour (or Whitefour). It could take more racking without losing its flavour than anything else – the author alleged that most apples lost most of their flavour after a second racking, whilst the Royal Wilding still showed at its best after a third – and was easily the equal of wines the author had encountered: “I have seen Bordeaux and even Burgundy ftand melancholy and neglected before them.”
This wasn’t a careful, exact and heavily resourced document. It was riddled with bias – Herefordshire apples were described as much inferior, Irish apples dismissed out of hand. But it was an outpouring of passion for cider – a record of fascination, of people gathering in groups to argue and enthuse over varieties and soil and tree and place and flavour. From the fading text leapt the fervent energy, the interest and care that now spills across so much of the cider community, through the cider twitter bubble, through end-of-evening chats when the floor opens at Manchester Cider Club and through envelope-pushing contemplation in cider wonk whatsapp groups.
Reading it was like hearing the rethink cider spirit whispered back to me from centuries ago – at a level of depth and understanding that rethink itself has yet to reach again. Whenever I think about how to approach discussion of cider my mind takes me back to that letter. And then, inevitably, it takes me to modern Devon cider.
Even by the rollercoaster standards of British cider as a whole, the story of Devon cider is extreme. Meteoric rises, devastating falls, twists and turns, ecstasy and heartbreak.
But perhaps that makes sense. After all, cider has curled around the history of Devon for at least as long – if not longer – than anywhere in the UK. So before we examine the modern picture, let’s first cram the last thousand years into a few contextual paragraphs.
“The first orchard recorded in the UK was at the Cistercian monastery at Buckland Abbey,” Barny Butterfield, owner and founder of Sandford Orchards, tells me. “Stands to reason that the Norman monks would be the ones doing it. It’s accepted orthodoxy that the Normans brought new varieties of apples over – and given the trade routes, likely that this was the result.”
Between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries the wool trade grew to make up over half of Britain’s GDP. And Devon gained more from it more than most. “Hugely fertile and sympathetic land [for sheep farming],” explains Barny. “And remembering that America had not been discovered [Ed: By post-Leif Erikson Europeans] most trade realistically was European. Via the spice road apples came back from Kazakhstan, traded for the famous woollen cloth produced in Devon.”
It’s probably no coincidence then that it is during this period that much early evidence of widespread cidermaking presents itself. The Devon Cidermaker’s Guild mentions records from Exminster Manor dating back to 1285, as well as cider being sold in Plymouth and Sandford Pereval by the middle of the fourteenth century. Although the arrival of the Black Death in 1348 set orchards back as much as it did all rural economy, within a century the cider industry had revived itself and continued its development to the point at which Batty Langley took delivery of his letter.
Reading many of the historic documents it becomes apparent that in UK terms, for centuries the rival cider powers were not Somerset and Herefordshire, as would likely be considered the case today, but Herefordshire and Devon. The Somerset levels, Barny points out, weren’t drained until the 18th century.* Devon, by contrast, had land, wealth and sea ports – all the means by which the cider trade could flourish. And so it did. Thomas Westcote’s View of Devonshire reports in 1630: “They have of late years much enlarged their orchards, and are very curious in planting and grafting all kinds of fruits for all seasons, of which they make good use and profit … most especially for making cider.” This at the same time that John Beale was writing: “thanks to my Lord Scudamore, all Herefordshire is become an orchard”. The parallel excitement and industry is unmissable.
Such was the strength of Devon cider that even two major adversaries in the eighteenth century couldn’t thwart its progress. In 1763, to pay for the Seven Years War, Prime Minister Lord Bute introduced a tax of four shillings per hogshead of cider. Cue outrage, protests and the burning of Bute effigies, led by the town clerk of Exeter itself. Cider sales collapsed and only recovered when, under tremendous pressure, the tax was rescinded three years later.
An even greater challenge came when a fatal colic whose symptoms included agonising stomach pains, fever, vomiting and paralysis was conclusively linked to the use of lead linings in stone cider presses and even maturation vats. Rather damningly, this use of lead was so particular to Devon (Somerset and Herefordshire ciders seldom used it as a lining and their ciders were proven to be chemically different as a result) that the disease became known as Devon Colic.
By the turn of the 19th century, the dangers of lead poisoning being more widely understood, Devon Colic had been all but eradicated. And Devon cider, profiting from the reduced availability of wine that accompanied England’s wars with France, was able to scramble to its feet again. As recently as 1900, Devon’s acreage of orchard was comparable to Herefordshire’s. In the 1950s Whiteways, a Devon company, made a quarter of the cider sold in Britain.
The story today is very different. In 2018, Britain recorded 24,000 hectares of orchard – less than the total growing in Devon alone at the turn of the 20th Century. A Natural England Commissioned Report that Find & Foster owner and cidermaker Polly Hilton showed me gives a hint of the scale of Devon’s particular demise. The county’s hectares of traditional orchards now number half that of Herefordshire, and only 75% of Somerset’s total. The picture becomes starker when you look at the condition of those remaining. 46% of Devon’s surveyed orchards were described as “Habitat Condition = Poor” versus only 14% of Herefordshire’s. And whilst Somerset and Herefordshire both include traditional orchards within their Local Biodiversity Action Plan, in Devon’s case they are listed as “not a priority habitat”. Charities Orchard Link and OrchardsLive do inspiring work in restoring, protecting and promoting these precious resources, but the scale of what they’re tackling is colossal.
“The late 19th century Ordinance Survey maps show significant orchards in every farm in the Blackdown Hills, where I live,” says Alex Hill, owner and maker at Bollhayes. “And this pattern would have been similar throughout Devon. I believe that Devon had more apple trees than any other county at that time. When I arrived there were a few farmers still making cider but most have given up and there have been few new entrants.”
Barny Butterfield acknowledges the parlous state of small traditional orchards, but points out “scale orchards for cider production are actually in good health”. And it is fair to admit that the decline of small farm orchards is a nationwide phenomenon. The bottom line remains though that, both quantitively and in terms of national recognition, Devon orchards and Devon cider sit well behind those of Somerset and Herefordshire; no longer on the lofty pedestal they once occupied.
And yet the story is by no means over. “It’s obvious that quality emanates from Devon,” Susanna Forbes of Little Pomona and The Cider Insider muses, “particularly in the right hands. And apple trees find a happy home, particularly including the cider apple varieties, so the soils must be welcoming. And aspect and microclimate, similarly.”
Devon has always held a particular mystique in my mind – a county I mentally file next to Cumbria and the Scottish Islands as a place to get lost in; a rough-hacked, visceral blast of remoteness. The boundary line at which bucolic western England stops being green and verdant and takes on a wild edge. It’s an image buttressed by sea-thrashed coast and wind-whipped, heathery moor studded with rocky outcrop and Baskerville menace.
That is, however, very much a tourist’s vision, and although it holds true for much of the county it belies the reality of the multitudes contained within Devon’s comparatively enormous size. “Devon is quite a geographically divided place,” says William Chambers of North Devon’s Smith Hayne Cider. “East Devon is another world. The South Devon producers are just unknown to me”.
A trip around the county unearths cideries tucked into green pasture, nestled in bosky valley, bestriding urban street and gazing out to sea. But you’ll have to do a lot of driving – precious few are all that close together. From my outsider’s perspective I’ve long viewed Herefordshire cidermakers as an increasingly joined-up and clubbable bunch. Whereas those in Devon, though united in obvious pride in and affection for the county, can often seem rather more disparate. This spread may be a factor in relatively low levels of visibility. As Sandford Orchards’ head cidermaker Andy May tells me: “the opportunities for a lot of the smaller cider makers can be quite difficult with their remote locations to get the cider out there.”
Of Britain’s three historic cider strongholds, Devon is also alone in currently lacking a monolithic cider company on the scale of a Thatcher’s, Weston’s or Bulmer’s (Heineken). With the upshot that interlopers are common sights in Devon pubs; Stowford Press, Strongbow and Thatcher’s Gold are often the primary options for drinkers. Whiteways, so dominant in the 1950s, and having bought up several smaller cideries in the process, were eventually bought themselves before being closed down in 1985.
“Inches Cider too became a national company – and again, was sold, and again, shut down,” Barny tells me. “Bigger businesses buying capacity or market share can have a huge impact on a local economy and culture, and rarely for the good.”
Devon’s topography itself played an ironic role in its cider’s slip away from prominence. Its peaks and troughs had, for centuries, been ideal ground on which to grow apple trees – better draining, and with better exposure to sunlight and protection from wind than those planted on the flat. But when mechanised agriculture became more of a feature in orcharding, those hillsides became impractical to manage. As ciders, in line with changing tastes, became lighter, more dilute, and lower in apple juice content, as bush orchards – better adapted to the flatter land and gentler slopes of Somerset and Herefordshire – gained ascendancy and as the EU incentivised orchardists in Britain to grub up their orchards, the costs of maintaining these hilly plantings proved unrealistic.
“The 1960’s and 70’s of my youth in Devon were mainly about the decline of Devon cider and stories of disappearing orchards,” recalls Manchester Cider Club founder and native Devonian Dick Withecombe. “And reading through the CAMRA Good Cider Guides of the 1990’s and 2000’s there was a drastic decline in the number of listings of Devon pubs selling craft cider”.
There’s a familiar image problem, too. Like every other county, Devon’s craft cider has struggled to shrug off the stereotype of uncompromising, rough’n’ready scrumpy, served from underfilled barrels with more than a hint of cardboardy oxidation and vinegary acetic acid. But in Devon’s case these associations seem to be even more prevalent and enduring than most. In my interview with him last year, Herefordshire’s Tom Oliver remarked “having spent two and a half years in Devon drinking Devon cider and visiting Newton Abbot Cider House I’ve drunk probably more than my fair share of farmhouse cider or scrumpy.”
Dick echoes the sentiment: “early returns home in the 1980s mainly led to encounters with cheap and nasty tourist scrumpy.” “It maybe hasn’t embraced a more modern style in terms of flavour and also styling,” suggests Mike Shorland of Rull Orchard. “Farmhouse styles in plastic buckets”.
Recently, however, my impression of Devon cider has been one of a qualitative corner quietly but definitively being turned. This week alone James and I have reviewed an embarrassment of riches – a swathe of beautifully presented, gorgeous ciders that more than bear comparison to the best this country makes anywhere else. One of my favourite experiences last year came from tasting the mostly-keeved Special Reserve and Méthode Traditionelle 2018s from Smith Hayne. I named the former in my “essential case of 2020”, but really could have gone with either one of them. I’m not the only one impressed, either. “Each cider I have tried from Smith Hayne has been exceptional,” enthuses Cider Voice’s Ben Thompson. “It would be completely true to suggest the Méthode Traditionelle 2018 is pound-for-pound one of the best ciders on the market but frankly there is no need for such qualifier.”
“Modern Devon ciders are a world apart from the sometimes-dubious products on the market when I started making cider [in 1992],” says Alex Hill. “There are numerous fairly recent entrants making fantastic cider.”
Without a shadow of a doubt, the most prominent of those recent entrants to Devon’s small, aspirational cider scene is Find & Foster. Since the 2015 vintage, Polly Hilton, with husband Mat, has made ciders mentioned in the same breath as the country’s finest, proving it by winning an unprecedented trio of Best Newcomer, Best Exhibit and Champion Cidermaker trophies at the Devon County show in 2016. When I spoke to makers for the first cider article I ever wrote – a piece for Graftwood on the traditional method – Polly’s creations were near-unanimously namechecked as national yardsticks. “They really shine a beacon for Devon,” says The Fine Cider Company’s Felix Nash. “Their approach means their bottles are just ever more nuanced and wonderful … good luck to anyone trying to catch up to their level.”
Find & Foster are also almost invariably mentioned when the subject of Devon’s lost orchards arises – their very name refers to Polly’s self-imposed remit of uncovering unloved and abandoned orchards and nursing them back to health. “Polly and Mat are doing something special” enthuses Sam Congdon, who runs The Vessel Bottle Shop and Beer Festival in Plymouth and has long stocked Find & Foster alongside other UK ciders. “They really keep Devon orchards alive and enhance perceptions of what Devon cider can be.”
The cast of increasingly wonderful, aspirational characters goes on. Besides Smith Hayne and Find & Foster, there’s Yarde, in the south, made by Simon Akeroyd, whose fascination in making drinks that reflect their place is tangible, and is rooted in the many books he has published on gardening. Then there’s Ridge & Furrow, making cold-racked ciders that easily rank beside those from such makers as Barley Wood Orchard and Wilding. “Ridge and Furrow, for me, are making the best naturally sweet ciders in the country,” is Andy May’s emphatic assertion. Some accolade.
In the north of the county, Bollhayes’s traditional method creations now date back almost 30 years and offer some of the most enduringly compelling drinking in British cider. And that’s not to mention such producers as Sampford Courtenay, brand new Rull Orchard, the enigmatic Rock Hill and many more besides.
Another telling metric for Devon’s historical importance to cider is in the Devonian apple varieties that have spread themselves into the modern nationwide press – some of them so ubiquitously that many drinkers might not be aware of them as Devonian in the first place.
Arguably top of that roster are Browns and Tremlett’s Bitter. They sit at opposite ends of the structural spectrum, the former a zippy, firm, lemony sharp popularly blended into ciders across the West Country to add lift and zest, the latter a hulking, muscular, tannic gnash of an apple, whose phenolic grunt and intensity matches anything Harry Masters’ or Chisel Jersey can conjure.
But the roll call of Devon’s native malic stars extends much further. Ellis Bitter, a bittersweet cornerstone of Art of Darkness, made by Herefordshire’s Little Pomona, sprung first from Devon soil. Tom Putt, a zesty, versatile cooker-eater that you’ll find in more than a handful of Cwm Maddoc blends, is Devonian too – a mainstay in the Yarde bottlings I’ve tried. Barny Butterfield runs me through a few more: “Major – fantastic balanced bittersweet with admirable disease resistance. Sweet Coppin, very forgiving natural sweet. Sweet Alford, legendary apple, a classy gentle bittersweet – the definition of Devon cider.”
“The traditional style associated with Devon included a greater proportion of sharps compared with Somerset,” says Alex Hill. “I still like to include a good measure of sharps, as I feel this gives the cider more freshness and life.” Although, like every other cidermaking county, Devon’s orchards now tend to include a broad mixture of Somerset varieties – Dabinett, Yarlington Mill, Harry Masters’ – as well as their own, there is a rich depth of long-established apple identity here, one whose constituents (if I’m allowed to be relatively general) evince a leaning towards clean-lined, definition (whether that be through acid or tannin) and juicy fruits running generally from green to yellow with a significant seam of structure-buttressed freshness. “People talk about a harder edged cider than Somerset,” explains William Chambers. Whilst all are strikingly individual, tasting across a few of them it is easy to persuade yourself of a seam of regional identity.
“Many have said cleaner, more wine-like,” says Barny, expanding on Alex and William’s assertions when I enquire about Devon’s historic style. “More sunshine hours and the rich redlands give Devon fruit a great helping hand. In past centuries … differences between Devon and Somerset were not usually discussed. Much more was made of Hereford’s cider in comparison to Devon’s.”
It strikes me that the compelling and re-iterated point there is: “in past centuries”. Today, despite the remaining existence of native varieties, it would be a leap too far to suggest shared stylistic character across the county. Alex and Mirjam at Pullo, the Natural Wine and Fine Cider shop in Exeter, suggest that this is an area for investigation. “Consensus from cider-makers and customers as to what constitutes a ‘Devon’ style so as to be better able to communicate what this is to a wider market”, is their response when I ask what they’d like to see.
“It’s about discovering or rather rediscovering what makes Devonian style cider different – that tradition of incorporating mixed-use apples, desserts and cookers,” they explain. “In particular how these varieties can be used in different ways. As a collective we as retailers and cider-makers need to come up with a better way to explain the differences between styles and regions.”
Whilst the sort of cider that sits outside the industrial sphere is woefully underdiscussed wherever it comes from, my impression throughout my years as a drinker has been that Devon sits some way behind Herefordshire and Somerset when it comes to spilled ink. In both Ciderology by Gabe Cook and World’s Best Ciders by Pete Brown and Bill Bradshaw, Devon’s presence is dwarfed by that of its old rivals to the north. In this Guardian article dating back to 2012, the “three giants” are listed as Somerset, Herefordshire and Wales, with an “honourable mention” to Kent – a trend echoed in most mainstream coverage of cider since. And, whilst impressions gleaned from the echo chamber of social media are never a reliable metric, it isn’t controversial to suggest that cideries from Somerset and, particularly, Herefordshire, are lionised above and beyond their Devonian counterparts. For a bit of fun I conducted a twitter poll asking “if you could only drink cider from one county in western England, which would it be?” Somerset and Herefordshire carved up over three quarters of the vote. Devon barely scraped ten per cent.
Alex Hill suggests it’s time for communicators to catch on. “It would be helpful for the world of Devon cider for journalists to recognise the quality and diversity of ciders produced in Devon.” As a country generally the UK often seems poor at recognising, championing and protecting regional excellence, and when all five of the biggest cideries in the nation – responsible for a colossal percentage of our cider output – lie in other counties, perhaps it’s not surprising that Devon is often overlooked. After all, there isn’t a great deal of cider journalism to go round.
The pattern is repeated across the ranges of many online cider retailers. Scrattings, home to likely the broadest selection of craft ciders in the UK, boasts nearly twice as many from Herefordshire as from Devon, and nearly three times as many from their home county of Somerset. Looking elsewhere the picture becomes even more stark. Of the wonderful online stores highlighted on our resources page only Cat in the Glass offers ciders from more than one Devon producer (they currently have two). Across all nine websites, Scrattings excepted, only four Devonian makers are represented.
Indeed it isn’t always easy for even the biggest Devon cideries to grab attention. “We’re very popular locally,” Sandford’s Andy May comments, “but I’ve worked at shows in Bristol and London where people can be quite surprised to see a Devon cider. Getting outside the county can be quite a task.”
Sam Congdon’s alternative view as owner-manager of a craft drinks shop and festival suggests that the noise made outside Devon is proportionate to the noise generated from within. “I’ve come to decent cider since coming home and opening our beer shop in Plymouth in 2016. To be honest though it was from other regions rather than Devon. We need greater visibility of producers.”
So is it, in fact, that Devon cider doesn’t promote itself with enough vigour? One telling point may be the size of most makers named in the paragraphs above. Most are tiny affairs, making quantities well below the 7000 litre duty threshold. Yarde, for instance, is a producer that I have almost never encountered outside its home county and, when Simon can sell everything he makes from his cellar door, you could argue that being represented outside Devon makes very little difference to him.
But this is hardly a position that helps when it comes to generating a rising tide around Devon cider in general. And most significant of all is the untapped potential of the cider market within Devon itself. “As a traditional cider county it’s a real shame there doesn’t seem to be a customer base really engaged with it,” says Sam. “I’m not sure there is a local cider scene sadly – I really want more people enjoying great cider in my city.”
William Chambers mentions only one cider event of which he is aware – the Devon Show – and that the main stallholders will be the same five stalwarts every year. “If I go to the pub, middle aged or young people drink mainly beer,” he adds. “Old farmers will talk about homemade cider, most younger people just think of that as a joke.” The most eye-catching statistic comes in a Sandford Orchards blog post: of all the thousands of pints of cider drunk in Devon in 2017, only one in five came from Devon apples.
But if anyone is going to change Devon’s fortunes and return the county’s cider to its ancestral place in the national pantheon, it is Sandford Orchards themselves and, particularly, Barny Butterfield. Indeed so synonymous has Barny become with Devon cider that his name was raised by all but one of the makers, retailers and communicators I contacted for this piece. “Barny Butterfield is the main mover in Devon cider,” was the understatement from William Chambers.
A local boy who, by his own admission in the inaugural edition of Graftwood, grew up scrumping apples, Barny established Sandford Orchards shortly after the turn of the millennium and, from its base in the old ciderworks at Crediton, has turned the company into Devon’s largest producer.
“Largest” is relative, mind you; Sandford is still far, far smaller than Thatcher’s, Weston’s or Bulmer’s (approximately 1.5 million litres pressed in 2019 vs upwards of 40 million at Weston’s alone). But, as Gabe Cook points out to me, Sandford sits in a relatively untapped bracket of the UK cider market – that of being “middle sized”. Large enough to provide an easy-drinking draught competitor that’s a step up in quality from the expected norm; nimble enough and invested enough to create smaller-batch ciders that reflect specific varieties and allow drinkers to climb their way up the ladder of quality and interest.
I have always been an admirer of theirs. When I came across the Sandford “session” range – Devon Mist, Devon Dry and Devon Red – it was a revelation compared to other mainstream options on offer at pub taps. But what has always resonated with me particularly is the connection that Barny and Andy May have with the wider cider-drinking community (Andy used to blog – tremendously – at Cidersleuth) and the tangible love that they and Sandford Orchards have for every facet of cider and cider culture.
Taste your way through the Sandford range – as I did a few days ago – and you will encounter not only session ciders, but higher-strength “Traditional Ciders” and aspirational, larger-bottle “Fine Ciders”. You will see apples and cask types listed on labels and can find out much more by tapping into their website. Barny boasts a peerless wealth of knowledge on Devon’s cider history and is demonstrably obsessed with Devonian apple varieties (when I emailed him for this piece he had just finished planting two more orchards of them).
A few years ago Sandford launched a “Demand Devon Cider” campaign – an attempt to get more Devon apples into more Devon ciders and more Devon pubs. And their success in that regard has been terrific. Their entire output has its genesis in a Devon orchard and when I last visited Devon, all too long ago, back in September 2019, almost every pub I went into had some form of Sandford presence. Its quality, relative to larger competitors and the tired perception of Devon cider as “a challenge”, is making a clear difference.
“My image over the years of Devon Cider had been of very old-fashioned branding and inferior scrumpy with flavours of vinegar,” admits Dick Withecombe. “Discovering Sandford Orchards cider in North Devon pubs began to change my perceptions.” Sandford have been hugely affected by the closure of much of the on-trade – their 2020 press was barely half the volume of their 2019 – but talking to Devon landlords on my visit two years ago, the affection for the brand was clear. I have no doubt that Devon will re-assume its Sandford-burnished crown of “best mainstream pub cider county” swiftly after lockdown ends.
In the meantime I’m keen to learn how Barny intends to continue his push for recognition of Devon cider, and he tells me about the Cider Innovation House Sandford Orchards is launching with farm shop and long-standing cider supporter, Darts Farm in Topsham, near Exeter. “We’ve already planted the orchard,” he explains. “All Devon apple varieties – we’ve started with 40 different varieties with more to add next year. The whole process will be on display, old methods, new ideas and cross-category collaborations are all happening. With scores of smaller cider makers selling their cider through the shop, a tap-room bar offering tastings with amazing food. We’re excited.”
It’s a prominent and enthusiastically-backed new Devon cidery that Barny and the Darts Farm team hope will become “the beating heart of cider in the region”. Not just a vehicle for Sandford Orchards or the farm itself, but a hub for consumers to be exposed to the very best of the whole of Devon – its history, its unique apple varieties and the many exceptional producers weaving its modern legend. “The biggest event in years for Devon cider,” says Dick Withecombe, excitedly. The Innovation House is set to open in late Spring or early Summer this year. It’s hard to think of anything that could give Devon cider’s standing and audience a more significant boost.
Despite his enthusiasm, Barny is cognisant to the scale of the challenge faced in restoring Devon to anywhere close to old glories. “Devon cider feels like it’s in good heart,” he tells me, “but there is still some way to go”. Devon still needs to re-cement itself as synonymous with cider in the national psyche, and as synonymous with the best ciders in the minds of the most switched-on enthusiasts. It needs its own products in its own pubs and bars, and it needs the rest of us to take notice. Sandford Orchards can’t be expected to carry the whole county on its shoulders – as is the case across the UK, small producers need to be vocal in championing themselves, their apples, their fruit and what makes it all idiosyncratically special.
But, to this observer at least, there are real grounds for optimism. “There is probably more good cider being made in Devon now than at any time in the last century – maybe longer,” says Alex Hill. A bold statement, but one borne out by a glance over the ciders James and I have reviewed in the last week as well as the several that have featured in these pages previously and the many we’ve still to get round to. Right across Devon, wonderful drinks are being bottled, bagged and kegged. Their tent is pitched over a broad range of styles and a huge variety of apples, but all have this most enigmatic, fascinating, historical and alluring of counties at their heart. There has never, to my mind, been a better time to rediscover Devon cider.
“What springs to mind – and what excites me – with Devon is taste, texture, quality and authenticity,” enthuses Susanna Forbes. “Wonderful apples with brilliant flavours. What should they do? More of the same! Perhaps share further a Devon Pomona, so we know what apples are their pride and joy. Promote their visitor facilities, and encourage pubs and restaurants to carry more of their ciders so us visitors can enjoy too.”
Barny concurs. “I’d like to see better cider everywhere I see bland cider. I’d like to see Devonians remember their roots and embrace the drink that helped build a county.”
Watch this space. I think their wishes may well be granted. The UK’s sleeping giant is waking up.
Immense thanks to William Chambers, Barny Butterfield, Polly Hilton, Alex Hill, Dick Withecombe, Felix Nash, Susanna Forbes, Sam Congdon, Gabe Cook, Ben Thompson, Alex and Mirjam at Pullo, Mike Shorland, Andy May and everyone else who helped me put this piece together.
*Addendum – it has been pointed out that although the levels were not drained, there was nonetheless significant cidermaking presence in Somerset from long before the 18th century, with Glastonbury Abbey having been a substantial producer from the 14th.