Cider is the opposite of a conjuring trick. The moment a magician shows their hand, lets you in on how it’s done, the game’s up, and it loses its power. You see the wires, the hidden compartments, the athletic rabbits and the marked cards and it loses that which made it special. It’s still impressive; hugely so; but it isn’t magic any more. Cider isn’t like that.
Follow the Wye up from Herefordshire as it grallochs the mossy belly of mid-Wales, through the scrunched, green-grey, wooded, achingly soulful valleys, and when the hills start rising and the river – more a stream by now – turns left at the A44, turn right instead, and you’re there.
Climb out of the car and slip into the empty, humming stillness; the wide, lonesome rough-hewn landscape and the taut-drawn silence punctured by plaintive bleating and the murmur of single faraway motorists that sounds a little like a wave. Despite its remoteness there is a sense of expectancy here. Of slow unfurling. Of something beginning. The Hafren Forest is just down the road where the sources of the Wye and the Severn ooze from boggy mountain muck. A combined 375 miles later they both burst out of ciderland into the sea.
I trudge up the road that separates sheep field from sheep field and come to a sign-marked double gate. On one side, “Prospect Orchard”. On the other, “Welsh Mountain Cider”.
Cideries are shy. Lurkers. Most of the time you have to know that they’re there. You can drive past Broome Farm without any awareness of it whatsoever (I did so any number of times in 2012). There’s almost no chance that you’d just happen upon Artistraw or Cwm Maddoc or Little Pomona or Gregg’s Pit. They tuck themselves into rural nooks; pleased to see you when you arrive, but some way from the beaten track.
Welsh Mountain Cider wouldn’t know the beaten track existed if you didn’t tell it. It seems almost preposterous, here in this landscape of crag and granite and scrub that an orchard should be clinging to a slope, tottering precipitously down towards a stream, but there it is, over 500 trees of it, sneering at logic and altitude.
“The books all say you shouldn’t plant apple trees over 800 feet,” Chava tells me. “We’re at 1,200”.
There weren’t apple trees here until 2005, when Chava’s partner, Bill, arrived and started planting. He’d come to cider late; born in Reading, raised in Hampshire, cider was something he dismissed until his parents moved to a house with a small orchard in Somerset and his father decided to put the apples to good use. It was, evidently, a revelation.
The current orchard started with 22 trees, planted by Bill and his friends, each one a different variety. Amazingly, fifteen years and 480-or-so trees later, there are still no duplicates in the orchard. It is a malic library; a museum of flavour. A few months ago Welsh Mountain’s social media started posting an “apple of the day”. It’ll be some time before they’re anywhere near listing everything they grow.
Chava arrived in 2009. She’d grown up in Sonoma, California, a place I know from wine textbooks and bottles of Pinot Noir. But it turns out wine’s a sore subject. “It was all apple trees,” Chava tells me “but they were grubbed up for vines. There was no good cider around then”. The apple trees weren’t forgotten though, and after studying agriculture at the University of Santa Cruz, Chava made her way across the Atlantic to work a cider harvest and wound up on a mountainside near Llanidloes. Two harvests later she returned to California for what she assumed would be forever. “It was supposed to be goodbye,” says Bill, “but I decided I needed to follow her there, tell her I loved her and write a book.” Ten years on they’ve two children, the book has sold 4,000 copies (virtually a Platinum record, in cider book terms) and they’re still on that hill in Wales.
Unsurprisingly, given the brain-mangling diversity of tree in the orchard, I am struck, as we walk through it, not only by the disparity of appearance in the nearly-ripe fruit, but by the shapes and sizes of the trees and (even accounting for biennialism) by the vastly differing fruit-loads on each one. I ask about the challenges of growing apples in this environment and am surprised to hear that a major one is drought, a complaint I would not have expected to hear in the middle of mountainous Wales. But it’s that very hilliness that causes the issues. The soil here is thin; you don’t go far into it before you hit bedrock, and then the water runs off into the stream at the bottom of the slope. Almost irrespective of rainfall, tree stress is inevitable. And the older and bigger the trees become, the more sharply that challenge is brought into focus. Pollinators – or lack thereof – are the other issue. Surrounded by “sheep desert”, this oasis of orchard is relatively cut off from other sources of bug-tempting flora. I’m curious to know whether particular varieties cope well or poorly with conditions, but with only one tree of each, planted in wildly varying locations around the slope, it’s hardly an exact science. Their Kingston Black tree tends to struggle and Somerset Redstreak is apparently very reliable, but solid conclusions are impossible to draw.
The challenges haven’t deterred further planting. Beside Bill’s initial orchard is a new one, planted just a few years ago. Again, no more than one tree of each variety. And in this new orchard they’re trying perry pears too. Tree growth is vigorous; Bill and Chava have found full-vigour rootstocks (mainly M25) to cope best with conditions of altitude and high rainfall. Fruit won’t start appearing in any meaningful way for a good while yet though – despite a few blushing baubles on a Blakeney Red hinting at things to come.
Their orchard serves a second purpose, and another arm of the Welsh Mountain Cider business. It is a breeder; a parent to other orchards across the country and especially those which are growing in ‘challenging’ conditions. Bill and Chava cultivate a nursery from their hundreds of varieties, from which they estimate that acres of orchard around the UK have been planted. The tree crêche nestles behind a protective hedge at the bottom of the slope, and the stocklist, as you would imagine, is extensive. Chava admits to being in two minds about continuing that wing of the business. The constant grafting and cultivation of the nurseries, coming as it does immediately after the picking and pressing season has ended, afford precious few moments to sit and catch a breath, let alone enough time to take a holiday. But the satisfaction when she talks about the ‘children’ of Prospect Orchard planted around the UK is tangible.
We trek back up the hill, through spongy, recently-strimmed grass. Once upon a time a small herd of sheep were employed as orchard gardeners, but they proved too enthusiastic in their work and developed a taste for sapling. These days it’s all manual. Chava tells me it’s a shame I’m not seeing the grass pre-haircut. Since their arrival this formerly dull and empty field has been rewilded into a biodiverse meadow. Bill’s even started a “wildflower of the day” to go along with their “apple of the day” posts. I recall some words from a conversation with Cwm Maddoc’s Claire Adamson and Jeremy Harris: “We’ve planted wild flower meadows here and woodlands as well as orchards. That’s our little bit of journey. We’re very fortunate to have our 8 acres to care for and try to make a little bit better than all our sheep fields and arable fields around us.” The energy here feels the same. Struck by the thought, I ask whether Bill and Chava have visited Cwm Maddoc yet. They haven’t, but I get the sense that it’s on their list.
Bill and Chava point out various trees as we pass them by, and I nod and “mm” as though Pitmaston Pineapple and Morgan Sweet are varieties I recognise on sight and am intrinsically familiar with. Somewhere there’s a what’s-what map of the whole slope; in its absence there are metal nametags around each tree. It’s mid-August, and coming to the time when the likely quantity of the harvest is starting to become clear. Some trees are groaning under their weight of fruit; others just couldn’t be bothered this year and won’t yield a single apple. Which all feels like rather a good metaphor for 2021.
Last year Welsh Mountain pressed about 1,000 litres from Prospect Orchard, and they supplement that annually with apples picked locally and from just over the Herefordshire border. Quantities have historically varied according to how busy Bill and Chava were with children, but it’s always been under the 7,000 litre mark.
At the top of the slope are a cluster of small red buildings and picnic benches that serve as the cidery and, on Saturdays, as the bar. Two wooden presses command the crest of the hill, for all the world like Gondorian beacons. I wonder why they’re there; Bill tells me it’s to do with red tape – they were told pressing had to take place either in a certified food room or outside, and there wasn’t space in the bottling room. Still, silver lining – you can’t argue with the view.
Bill collects bottles as I sit with Chava and ponder the state of modern cider. Chava tells me they’ve been visiting other cideries recently, enthusing about a trip to Little Pomona just the previous weekend. Although they’ve been making cider for over a decade, it’s only recently that Welsh Mountain became engaged with the general cider community again. Chava feels they stepped back a bit a few years ago – I dare say children were at least partly to do with that – and she acknowledges the irony that it coincided almost exactly with the first stirrings of the current cider revolution. When they returned, metaphorically speaking, the whole landscape seemed to have changed; new faces, new attitudes, new interconnectedness. Bill and Chava are keen to throw themselves into it all and find out what everyone’s doing.
What they’re doing themselves is, in the words of Bill’s book, “very simple”. At Welsh Mountain Cider, dedication to the principles of the natural movement are absolute. No spraying, no machine picking, no added sulphites, no pitched yeast. “I strongly believe this is a food,” explains Bill. “The moment you sterilise something, you start to kill it.” The ‘living’ nature of Welsh Mountain’s cider is intrinsic to it. The liquid manifestation of their aim to portray the fruit and the orchard entirely as it is.
Bill acknowledges that theirs isn’t a universally – even widely – practiced approach, but beneath their concession to good ciders being produced through other practices I detect an iron belief in their own as being the most satisfactory. An excellent producer once said to me that the best ciders emerge when people make what they want to drink. You’d struggle to find anyone sticking more resolutely to those principles than they do at Welsh Mountain.
With such concrete conviction in what they do, it’s perhaps not surprising to see how invested Bill and Chava are in the quality of what they produce. Natural cidermakers, as we have attested so many times here, walk the most delicate tightrope of all. Producing a faultless product through such methods demands absolute focus, but it’s something the pair take seriously. Chava tells me that in the past they’ve recalled batches or ditched tanks when they’ve realised there’s been something wrong, and although it’s only happened a few times in over a decade, it’s clear she feels each one keenly. “They’ve all ended up going to cider critics,” chuckles Bill, wryly.
If the ciders we go on to taste are anything to go by there won’t be any such recalls again soon. We make our way through seven – dazzlingly fresh Cox’s Orange Pippin, floral Falstaff with a beautiful, winey mouthfeel. Petrichor – a sinewy blend of Dabinett and dessert fruit, then a chewy, textural 2019 Dabinett single variety. The last trio might be the best of all – Somerset Redstreak with billowing tropical aromatics and a streak of Browns apple acidity, orangey, apricoty Kingston Black and Prospect Orchard, the home blend from across their hundreds of varieties, full, rich, tannic, and ripe. Fuller notes for a few of them are at the bottom of this article; the links above take you to the Welsh Mountain Cider Website, where you can buy all but the Dabinett (exclusive to their Cider Club) for between £8.50 and £12.50, or a mixed case of each one for £55.
The differences between them are vast – “if there’s a hundred flavours in grapes, there’s a thousand in apples,” is Bill’s comment – but across the septet runs a theme of brightness, purity of fruit and elegant, structured body. Bill is convinced that the latter point is owed mostly to the use of spontaneous fermentation and lack of filtration. “What yeasts are better than the ones that come in on the skins of the apples?” The filtration point makes a lot of sense, too. Whatever the drink, it always seems to be texture that suffers first when a filter emerges. There are no such problems here. These are vivid, compelling, profound.
Pleasingly, to this taster at least, they are also dry. That’s Chava and Bill’s preference; they feel it coaxes more expression and complexity from the apple. Chava’s intrigued by cold-racking, and it’s something she wants to try, but I get the sense that that’s mainly just out of intellectual curiosity. Dry ciders like these are the sort of bottles I want to put in front of people. The kind of drinks that dispel the lingering stereotype that dry cider is synonymous with challenging astringency or puckering sourness. Everything we taste is balanced, refreshing, beautifully appetising and approachable to anyone. I can’t think of a friend I wouldn’t pour them for and I think, as I sip, of how well thy would pair with food. Make no mistake – these are ciders that need to be on your radar. I just wish that, as I driver, I wasn’t pouring everything away. “An offering to the cider gods,” says Bill.
We chat a little more under the low, sun-punctured clouds, picking at fresh bread and tomatoes just plucked from the kitchen garden. Then I say my goodbyes and amble back down the deserted road, bottles clanking under my arm, climb into the car and drive back to Reading. And for almost the whole way home I’m thinking about one of the last things Chava said, almost as an aside.
A couple of years ago, they were thinking of washing their hands of the whole thing. The ciders, the tree nursery, the whole of Welsh Mountain Cider. It all felt like so much, like such a high cost in time and aches and hope and toil and effort, all for something that barely seemed to be noticed. If it hadn’t been for a windfall in the arrival of James Martin to film part of a documentary series, and his recognising a good thing when he came upon it, perhaps the whole business would have been quietly brought to an end.
If Welsh Mountain Cider was a winery, and Prospect Orchard a vineyard; if Bill and Chava were making wine the way they make cider, they would be fêted by drinks magazines and wine cognoscenti. Internationally-read articles would be penned about them, oenophiles would make pilgrimages to see a vineyard on a mountainside boasting 450 varieties of grapes turned into natural wine without spraying or sulphites or pitched yeast or filtration. Their bottles would sit on the sort of restaurant wine lists that don’t bother typing the pound sign and specialist retailers would bicker over allocations of new releases which would probably start at a minimum of £30 at least.
But because it is cider; because so many people still condescend, still saunter up to makers at market stalls smarming “zoider” at them in a faux-Somerset accent; because it is still so widely thought of as macro insipidness or chunky vinegar served from a flagon, this remarkable place, its museum of trees, the people who have sculpted it from barren sheep fields and the vibrant, living drink that it produces still slips beneath our collective national radar.
If the rethink movement of the last few years stands for anything, it is for a gradual shifting of this unfairness. For a realisation that places like this make something that glimmers and sparkles; is brilliant and worthy and unique and delicious. But to really get it we have to go there, and that’s why cider isn’t like a conjuring trick. If you buy a bottle of Welsh Mountain Cider – and you should – you will drink it, and you’ll probably think that it’s great. But it’s when you go there – when you visit a place like Prospect Orchard, this little gleaming Eden on its rough-hacked mountain – when you wander, gawping, through the clusters of trees, take in the presses that stand on the hill, sit yourself down and look across the valley greenness with a glass of living cider, that you realise it isn’t just great, it is magic. And it is. It really is.
Thanks to Chava and Bill for inviting me to visit and taking so much time to show me around and share their story.
Welsh Mountain Cider Pippin Pét Nat 2020 – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Hazy pale straw, gentle mousse.
On the nose: Sea-washed pebbles, salinity and all. Hedgerow flowers, green apples, gooseberry fuzz and cut grass. A little peach skin and lemon zest. It’s hugely mineral. Delicate and precise aromatics that aren’t at all short on expressiveness.
In the mouth: Again so clean and mineral. There’s a lovely spritzy zip of acidity which combines with the fine seam of bubbles to give this beautiful brightness and liftedness. Green apple, more cut grass and a touch of riper stone fruit and citrus. Finishes to that lovely refreshing stoniness again.
In a nutshell: As an aperitif or with fish this would be absolute perfection. So refreshing.
Welsh Mountain Cider Redstreak 2020 – review
How I served: The lightest of chill. As close to ‘cellar’ as I could get.
Appearance: Lightly hazy amber. Tiny spritz.
On the nose: A tropical fruit bomb. Beaming with satsuma, vanilla and apricot. A touch of apricot yoghurt from slight malolactic gives the fruit breadth and creaminess. A smidgen of reductive sulphur soon blows off. Some orange citrus and hedgerow.
In the mouth: Lovely structure. The nip of lemony Browns apple acidity gives poise and elegance to the fleshy tropical fruits. Sinewy body and a nice seam of light tannin. Apricot and fresh mango meet lemon and grapefruit. Loads of energy and intensity of flavour. There’s a real summeriness to this cider.
In a nutshell: Loud and bright and intense and super fruity and full of joy.
Welsh Mountain Prospect Pét Nat 2019
How I served: Room temperature
Appearance: Burnished gold. Low-ish steady mousse.
On the nose: The deepest yet. Despite the multitudes that make up its blend there’s much to the ripe orange and peach and vanilla that reminds me of Dabinett – but Dabinett with more energy and brightness. Forest floor and wood. A touch of almond and a well-judged trace of creamy malolactic. It’s rich, it balances rounded and defined beautifully, there’s loads going on.
In the mouth: That’s ace. A huge, ripe, full-bodied, fleshy-fruited, structural mouthfeel. The interplay of textures is addictive; a light seam of pith, a nibble of clean acidity, that light grip of tannin, a prickle of fizz, all at such a balanced level and all harnessed to this gorgeous, ripe, round, orangey fruit. Ripe blood orange, passion fruit and warm lemons. Touches of vanilla and almond. A whisper of smoky herbs. Long, refreshing. Complex, mineral finish.
In a nutshell: A huge, arresting, beautiful and energised cider. Stunning. I will buy loads more.