There are so many beautiful, wonderful, vitally important cider regions around Britain and the world. From Devon to the Finger Lakes, from Normandy’s Domfront to the hills of mid-Wales, I adore them all. But none has my heart in quite the same way as Herefordshire.
Herefordshire is the county that made my first cider and which makes probably my favourite cider. It is the cider region in which I have spent the most time, visited the most cideries, tasted the most ciders and made the most friends in the time I have been writing about this drink. To say nothing of its position as probably the unrivalled perry region in the country too.
Herefordshire makes more cider than anywhere else in the world, and although a huge percentage of that total is accounted for by Bulmers and Westons, Herefordshire also boasts probably the largest number of craft producers and, by my mileage at least, the largest number of the best craft producers anywhere in the UK.
In short, I am utterly in love with and endlessly drawn to the history, geography and culture of Herefordshire cider and perry. It is one of the single most important regions and products in the sphere of British drinks, if not the world of drinks full stop, and deserves to be recognised as such far more broadly than it is.
No single article I could write would even begin to scratch the surface of the story of Herefordshire cider and perry, so I shan’t attempt just one. Instead, this marks the beginning of what I hope will be a series of articles on the world’s most significant cider region.
Having made that contentious claim, I think it’s fair to say that Herefordshire itself can be surprisingly reticent to champion its own crown jewels. Whilst Westons and Bulmers are unquestionably the most quantitatively important of the county’s ciders, it is a shame that the taps of so many Hereford pubs are dominated solely by Strongbow and Stowford Press. And that the best ciders and perries of the county can be so hard to track down, even by those living in Hereford itself.
Someone who shares this feeling that Herefordshire deserves to be more trumpeted than it is, is Paul Stevens. And, unlike me, Paul is in a position to do something about it. Because for the last year Paul has been the Mayor of Hereford.
Even before his appointment, Paul felt that Herefordshire was the true home of the apple, that its ciders and perries ranked with the finest in the world, but that the city could do more to promote them all. So it’s no surprise that he has dedicated a significant amount of his mayoral time and resource in just this endeavour. I’ve bumped into Paul on visits to cideries any number of times, where he has always been keen to share his thoughts and plans, and have interacted with him on twitter, where he goes by his rallying cry for Herefordshire: reclaimtheapple.
In the time we’ve known each other, Paul has told me about a project to replant the Holmer perry pear, to promote the city as an international cider destination and to instate an annual cider festival in Hereford to name but three. So I thought it was about time we sat down for a recorded chat, and a generous invitation back in April to visit the mayoral parlour with Burum Collective’s Helen and Rachel offered the opportunity to do just that. Our conversation is recorded below.
CR: So first of all, introduce yourself.
Paul: I’m Councillor Paul Stevens, the 639th Mayor of the City of Hereford.
CR: Jumping straight in, tell us about the Holmer project – what it is, how it came about, why this particular pear?
Paul: So when I was Deputy Mayor I had a visit to the Museum of Cider and met Elizabeth, had a look around there. And I noticed on the wall some pictures of Thomas Knight and mention of a Holmer perry pear tree. So I was intrigued straight away as I live in the Holmer area of Hereford. Never heard of the pear before so my interest was sparked.
I spoke to Tom Oliver, to Albert and Mike at Ross. I’d seen they’d done some single varieties some time ago. And I think it was the launch of the 2018 Raison d’Être I was out at Ross and Albert said “would you like to see the Holmer perry pear tree we’ve got?” So he took me across the fields and the orchards and sure enough, there was this magnificent tree that was nearly 200 years old standing there all alone. They’d not used it for some time – it’s very, very tiny fruit and if you make a single variety it’s very diarrhetic as well!
So I thought ok, that’s interesting. I’d found a tree of considerable age and then Tom told me about another tree he knew about just off the Roman Road in Hereford. So I thought “I’m coming up to being mayor – I’d like to leave a legacy”. So I spoke to Jim Chapman, who holds the National Perry Pear Collection in Gloucestershire and asked if he had some appropriate wood there, and I spoke then to Nick and Frank Matthews trees at Tenbury and asked if it would be possible if they could graft ten trees. I didn’t know much about grafting at that point, so enough wood was taken to graft 15 trees. Some time later I went over to see how they were getting on and discovered what they’d done – the rootstock was pyrus, whichis wild pear, then the stembuilder was Hellen’s Early and on the top was the Holmer perry. And even at this stage they all looked very healthy and happy in the greenhouses over there, and 14 of the 15 grafts had taken, so that was a bonus as far as I was concerned.
Then we came into tree planting season last autumn, October 2021, when Susanna Forbes was being presented with her award from CAMRA. So that was the first of the two trees that went in over at Little Pomona – they went in the autumn of last year. Then over the winter and spring I’ve managed to plant most of the trees. They’ve gone to cidermakers in the county of Herefordshire, so they’ve gone to Tom Oliver, they’ve gone to Little Pomona, to Artistraw, Ross as well. They’ve gone to the National Trust at Brockhampton, the Holme Lacy National Blacksmithing College. So they’ve gone all over the county, and even one has been planted in Holmer. I’m also a Holmer Parish Councillor and I planted one in the graveyard there as well.
CR: That’s obviously one example of the work you’ve done as Mayor towards Herefordshire’s cider and perry community. Can you talk about some of the other things you’ve done?
Paul: So there’s another initiative that I want to get back in Hereford. We don’t celebrate things very well in Hereford – we’re quite an insular little county really – and we’ve got so much to be proud of with our cider heritage. Obviously Bulmers was founded in Credenhill, just outside of Hereford; we’ve got a shopping centre in the city called Maylord Orchards which was where Bulmers moved to from Credenhill.
And while I was Mayor Elect, Ciderlands cam to Hereford. A banquet was held at the Green Dragon; unfortunately I didn’t go, but the previous Mayor went along and told me that she met all these wonderful people from across the world – France, Germany, USA, Japan – part of the international cider community. And I got thinking then that when I was a child Bulmers, which was still an independent company at that stage, had held two large cider festivals in the city – and they’d taken over the city – in 1972 and 1973. So once again lots of international goings-on – artists and apple pie makers, and all sorts was going on.
So that gave me an idea – the scene was set then: “why can’t we do this again?” So H’applefest was born! So we were looking to October as the obvious time to do it, when everyone’s out picking the fruit and pressing for the juice etc. So plans were put in place to hold a festival over three weekends and two weeks. The first two weeks in October. Starting with a music festival in the city centre and asking the local CAMRA branch if they would provide a cider tent. Because, of course, in Herefordshire we’ve got over 200 producers of various sizes – from the largest cidermaker in the world, Bulmers, which is now owned by Heineken; Westons is another large producer in Herefordshire, in Much Marcle, and then we’ve got many, many producers who, through this journey, I’ve got to know and become firm friends with. People like Tom Oliver, Mike and Albert, James and Susanna at Little Pomona, Tom and Lydia at Artistraw, Bartestree, Gwatkins, Once Upon a Tree and the list goes on. So I want to get them fully involved in the festivities really.
So the first weekend will be that. Second weekend will be another banquet, hopefully held in the Assembly Hall, and I hope people from across the world will come to that to celebrate the apple and cider. And then the final weekend the closing event will be at the Museum of Cider – and I’ve spoken to Elizabeth Pimblett to do that. There’ll be tastings, there’ll be juice pressings so children can press their own fruit and drink the apple juice straight away. There’ll be talks, there’ll be events at the Cathedral because of the Cider Bible, where the King James Bible has been made “easier for the people of Herefordshire to understand” by replacing references to strong liquor with the word “cider”. And then the Cider Crypt – there’s a crypt in the Cathedral where a nobleman, who was allegedly quite a big cidermaker in his time. And where most noblemen have usually got their dogs at the bottom of the crypt, this man has got a costrel of cider.
So the Cathedral are very interested in helping, the Museum of Cider, the City Council, so hopefully, fingers crossed, I’d like to make it an annual event in much the same way as the Bulmers festival used to be. People could come across from the whole of Britain and hopefully the wider cider community could come to Hereford, which I consider to be the home of cider. Some other people would disagree, but that’s my view!
CR: I think that’s a really good point, because we’re sitting in the county that makes more cider than anywhere else in the world and also arguably contains people who cider drinkers around the world would put into the top ten cideries that there are, and yet I think it would be possible for someone who wasn’t aware of cider to visit Hereford or Herefordshire and not to realise. It’s almost the equivalent of if the city of Bordeaux didn’t advertise there was a wine region there or celebrate it much. Are you hopeful that H’applefest will change that?
Paul: Yeah and we’ve got an issue locally as well where the likes of Oliver’s Cider and Little Pomona do struggle to sell their wares to the local community, because the people of Hereford consider – quite rightly, because that’s what they’ve grown up with – they’re drinking a local product with Strongbow and Bulmers products and Westons. Because they are – the great majority of the apples are still grown in the county, so they’re quite happy drinking the more commercial ciders rather than branching out and trying a lot of the craft ciders or the different styles of ciders. The dry ciders, certainly, that Little Pomona make and the dry perries, the funkiness that you get from the Ross ciders, some of the stuff that Tom does is truly amazing – different barrel-ageing. And the people of Hereford often don’t appreciate that themselves, so it’s not only selling it to the local community but, as you said, making people realise how important Herefordshire is. More cider fruit orchards in the county than anywhere else in the country, because obviously a lot of the cideries the other side of the country, towards Kent and Suffolk, are using different types of fruit – culinary fruit or dessert fruit – in a lot of their ciders. So Hereford is the home of the bittersweets to make those truly ‘cidery’ ciders.
CR: As much as we’ve just said that things might slip under peoples’ noses, in this very room in which we’re sitting there are all these references to Herefordshire’s apple heritage. Can you tell me a bit about some of the references around us, and where people visiting Herefordshire should go to learn more about the county’s apple and cider heritage.
Paul: The obvious one would be the Museum of Cider. We’ve got Elizabeth Pimblett with us today, who’s the Director of the Cider Museum. It’s on the site of one of the former Bulmers factories; just across the road from the current Bulmers factory. And you can go into the basement there and see where the champagne method ciders were made in the vast underground caverns basically! So that’s definitely number one to go to.
Then where you are today, the Mayor’s parlour and the civil museum, there’s lots of tiny references that crop up. Even in the stained glass windows in this building there are pears and apples. And this building was built in 1902. So those two places.
Then the Cathedral, which is very unique. As I mentioned before you can go to their Chained Library and ask to see the Cider Bible, go in the crypt and see that costrel of cider, see the Tree of Life by the West Door.
And obviously, especially if you’re here in the spring, go and see the orchards, go and see the cideries. Many of them are open to the public, they’ve got their own taprooms. Then in the autumn come back and see the fruit and maybe go and help some of those producers – they’re always looking for help! That smell across the city we get in the autumn when the cider fruit is being pressed at Bulmers is incredible.
CR: Not to mention people have to stop by for the festival! Winding back a bit, we’ve talked a lot about cider, but we opened by talking about the Holmer project and as much as Herefordshire could argue that it was the home of British cider, I’d say it’s indisputably the home of modern British perry. And I’d say that perry is even more tucked-away and secretive than cider is; you could probably count the number of pubs or bars where you could actually buy a perry in Hereford on the fingers of one hand.
Paul: Quite easily. I can only think off the top of my head of two bars in the city where you could get a perry at to be fair, and obviously the traditional home of May Hill in Gloucestershire is just across the border. Pears are so special, Tom Oliver will tell you that, and the taste is amazing. We’re here drinking a keeved perry of Tom’s at the moment from 2020, which is only 3.3% and it’s absolute nectar, I think you’d agree Adam, it’s wonderful. Pears take so long as trees to develop and fruit – there’s the famous saying “pears for heirs” and that’s never more true than with perry. If you can source it and you can discover it it’s such a different drink to cider and it can be more complex as well. So it’s a very exciting and rare drink.
CR: Will it play a part in H’applefest?
Paul: Yes, I’m sure if we can find enough perry producers we’ll put something on. With over 200 craft producers in the county I’m sure we can get CAMRA to put some perry on the cider bar as well. And just to point out that we will only be selling it in halves – it’s not the commercial type of drink; as you know, often ciders are well over 5.5% when you’ve fermented all the sugars!
CR: I can’t wait for the first edition of the festival. Is there anything else you’d like to touch on in terms of the cider and perry scene in Hereford and the things that you’ve see develop?
Paul: With people such as James and Susanna Forbes moving to Herefordshire they’ve come on their own cider journey – they were in the wine industry. Lydia and Tom at Artistraw the same – both have come to live in the county, buy a patch of land and start planting some of the old cider fruit trees. And some of the stuff they’re producing is amazing.
Something that sticks out in my mind is that my Mayor’s Officer, John Marshall, who’s a Scotsman, said something that struck me when we went out to Little Pomona. He said “it’s the first time I’ve tasted a cider that tastes of apples”. And you can – you can just taste the fruit in some of the ciders sometimes, it’s just amazing.
I finish being mayor in four weeks, but I’ll still carry on this cider journeywith H’applefest. I love the drinks industry – sitting here we’ve got hops around the fireplace as well – Herefordshire’s an important place for hop growing as well as ciders and perries. We’ve got a few gin producers now as well.
CR: Herefordshire cider really feels as though it’s taken a step forward in confidence in the last few years, and it’s been wonderful to see.
Paul: It’s been great. Tom’s been a driving force with that. The difference with the cider community I feel is that they’re always willing to share, and I think that’s been so important.
Huge thanks to Paul for taking the time to talk to CR and for his generosity in inviting us to visit the Mayoral Parlour. We wish him the very best with H’applefest.
Credit to Gerry Matthews for the lead image – and thanks to Susanna Forbes for sharing it.