The most melancholy but perhaps most keenly-felt measure of love is in how much you miss something when it is gone.
It is Sunday morning on Broome Farm and the air of the Old Orchard is rendered with the ubiquitous dawn chorus tent-zipping of all campsites, the whistles of hidden avians, the fleeting aroma of bacon grease and the maudlin, generalised air of the full stop that comes after joy. There are still a few musical acts left in the tank, the bar continues an albeit-thinned trade and a few of the food stalls still bubble and hiss with gastro temptation, but as I sit with a few friends on a bench outside the bottom barn, picking at breakfast rolls and restorative black coffees, the mood and the muted chatter is that of an epilogue. Ross on Wye Cider & Perry Festival, at least for another year, is done.
A lunchtime later, as my friends poke their belongings together and slowly de-peg their tents, I detach myself with a half of keg-conditioned Thorn and wander into the perry pear orchard to sit for a few nostalgic moments amongst the looming trees.
It being Perry Month, I have looked for perry all through the festival, and have found it by the gallon. From the startling green, mint-tinted cooker-eater at the opening night tasting with Elegast of The Netherlands, through Ross’s nutty, melony Red Pear 2021 release; the delicate juniper nip and crystalline lime fruit of Cwm Maddoc’s beautiful Gin and Thorn; the full, gorgeous balance of Bartestree’s inch-perfect draught; through vivid, aromatic Yellow Huffcap from Merseyside’s Brennan’s, vibrant blends from Cambridgeshire’s Blue Barrel, swathes of Rob Castle’s bottles from May Hill itself, a Butt Pear from Seb’s that casts spells.
Not that cider was found wanting. Single variety pommeaux from the Finger Lakes ran the spectrum from luscious golden syrup to dark, crackling, hearthside spice — a Manhattan in malic form. There were Foxwhelps that whistled up lightning bolts and burly bittersweets rolling with thunder. A champagne method wreathed in the peatsmoke of a Laphroaig cask; the best flight of Ross releases I think I can remember; keg-conditioned Major booming with savoury blood orange; fortified ice cider from Halfpenny Green as deep as winter and sweet as love; the first cider made from James’s own orchard, trilling and aching with soul.
Indeed the highest praise I can offer for the many, many wonderful things we tasted is to say that no single bottle stands out in my mind either as the pick of the bunch, or as a straggler. The quality was as astonishing in its uniformity as it was in the variety of flavours and textures running through the bottlings presented. Every moment, preference and pairing had its perfect foil within their ranks.
But cider and perry, whilst they might be the lifeblood that courses through the festival; the reason for its existence, are only a part — if a considerable one — of its sum-total. Indeed the true joy and genius of ‘RossFest’ is its encapsulation of the whole of cider and perry; not merely the liquids, but the communities from which they spring and which form around them, the places and occasions in which they are drunk, the foods they are paired with, the trees that nurture them and the feelings they all inspire.
RossFest is as much the clamber up the haunting, canopied slope of Gammyoulands, stepping gingerly over nettles, feeling the change in the air and the soil from the cool, moist foot to the sun-tinted peak as it is the whirling, stamping, end-of-the-night dancing; the careless one-more-song revelry of the last band. It is the whole lamb smoking slowly over low fires next to homemade sausage rolls, spicy burgers and fresh Thai noodles. It is the bottle share around an Old Orchard table where cidermakers and new drinkers alike share little gasps of wonder at new flavours found; at glassfuls of unexpected genius. It is the bar where draught and keg and 750ml bottles all find an unquestioned place. It is the discovery that Thorn perry and spicy barbecued sausage are a marriage made in heaven. It is the half pint that stands to the side, sipped almost without thought as a supporting act to Uno or Settlers of Catan or rib-aching laughter as much as it is that same half-pint, just one table away, eulogised in raptured tones by a twenty-years-standing drinker and a total newcomer who has just found their gateway to cider or first sip of perry.
RossFest is the dog show on Sunday morning and the huddled, softly-chattering circles of last-ones-left-awake the night before. It is the apples that fall with little thumps onto your tent’s canopy and the snatched quiet hour spent pottering down to The Yew Tree for a breath. It is the drinks you have never previously tasted and the old favourites you find on top form. It is the rock cover that follows the folk band that follows the harp-cello duo, and the same whoops and cheers that follow them all. It is the Raison d’Être you drink with a group of new friends in the barn and the perry you drink with one old one, somewhere in the orchard’s somnambulent shadows.
It is the realisation that this beautiful, messy, entrancing, delicious, mystical, fulsome, ancient and modern magic encapsulates not what cider could be; not some dreamish potential future, but its present; what, at its very best, it already is, when people who care enough come together and make a space for it to be treasured.
Absolute joy, I believe, is a very rare thing. It is different from the much-needed ordinary moments of bliss and contentment; more encompassing than the satisfaction of a job well done or the pride in something achieved. It is something that soaks and suffuses; that enwraps you completely and whisks you along with its sheer intensity. It is unmitigated and without caveat, it is fleeting and slippery and unpredictable, and when it is gone you feel the rough hole of its absence.
For a few September days this year I found it amongst the old apple trees of a little farm in south Herefordshire. Amidst the peace and the raucousness, amidst the silly-named burgers and the top barn half pints, amidst the old faces and the new friends, the dancing and conversation and, yes, amidst the cider and perry. A long weekend of absolute joy that flew by with the swiftness of a thought. A brief glimpse at the bright soul of cider, shimmering over it all.
My journey to Ross on Wye Cider & Perry Festival started with a flavour of Summer 2022 across East Anglia – sadly not with some tasty liquid made from 100% apple or pear juice – but with the train tracks buckling North of Ely, leading to severe speed restrictions across the key line I was using to get over to Nottingham. It always pays to leave 2 hours earlier than required… Once in Nottingham, I rendezvoused with James who was traveling down to Peterstow from Lincolnshire. An impromptu Cider Review roadtrip heading South-West across England!
I opted to volunteer at the Festival due to a temporary air of unemployment following me around for the past 6 weeks (all rectified now thankfully). Upon arrival I checked-in, got my volunteer wristband and festival t-shirt, and put my name down on the cider bar for the busy periods on Friday and Saturday. There were always a minimum of 4 of us manning the bar, and it was a great way to chat to a large proportion of the festival-goers as nearly everyone visits the bar at some point over the festivities. Having worked on a busy city-centre bar in an arthouse cinema in Cambridge in my 20’s, it was great to be back serving drinks again – only this time there were 3 IBC’s of dry, still cider; 10 lines of keg-conditioned cider & perry; 6 casks of real ale; and over 50 different bottled ciders and perries to choose from. Quite the selection!
We had purposely arrived early on Thursday evening to attend the Cider Club event with Arjen of Elegast Cider from the Netherlands. Albert very kindly put us on Arjen’s table, which we shared with his family and other visitors to Broome Farm that first night. For anyone wishing to expand their known range of producers, this was a fantastic event to attend as I’d previously never seen or heard of Arjen’s Elegast Ciders, whereas now they’re firmly on my Cider & Perry map. It’s a great way to chase those elusive Dutch badges on Untappd too, using only cider and perry to get there.
A highlight for me on Friday was the Cidermaker’s & Cider Drinkers Bottle Share in the main barn. James had attended this before so was cool as a cucumber bringing his Chapel Siders along for other makers to try. I admit I was initially pretty nervous about sharing my Toye’s Cider endeavors with other folk – it’s one thing to make it back in Norfolk and share with friends and family, it’s quite another to be stood next to the Brennan brothers of Brennan’s Cider when they offer you some rather exquisite Perry and Cider made up in Merseyside, and then it’s your turn to pour something for them. All life-affirming events however, and the ultimate aim of making it is for it to be consumed. With hindsight, a really enjoyable event that I look forward to attending again in the future.
Following this with Adam’s informative, educational, and entertaining introduction to Waterford Whisky was a surefire way to cement the feeling that we were all existing on festival time now – as well as being a lovely link to my other annual pilgrimage to the Arran Malt & Music Festival in Scotland.
Saturday brought with it a Meet The Cidermakers event, which for someone who has been buying their bottles from Scrattings (RIP), The Cat In The Glass, Cork & Cask, and FramFerment, was a great opportunity to say hello in-person to the teams behind Bartestree Cider, Cwm Maddoc, Blue Barrel, Seb’s Cider and more. I felt it was a great chance to not only try their different drinks, but to the gauge the outlooks and attitudes of the different makers there in the barn. An epic bottle share back at the Cider Review camping area (finally got to try the elusive Brown Snout S.V.C 2017 bottling and something very McDisco-tastic from Sam Nightingale) was followed by a tour of the Harry Masters Jersey orchards that Albert is top-grafting over to a library orchard of nearly a hundred different rare cider apple varieties; all on a commercial scale, with a view to releasing single variety bottlings from them in the years to come. This felt extremely special to me – seeing the future output of this cherished cider and perry maker, growing upwards towards the Herefordshire sunshine.
To sum up: a bucolic weekend of smiling and laughter in such copious proportions I have not experienced for much of 2022 (it’s been a tricky year with work for me). A festival that feels like a turning point is being marked in the year – both seasonal and in mental health terms. A coming together of friends and new acquaintances in a beautiful part of the country all surrounded by trees, rolling hills, lots of dogs, and an awe-inspiring array of world class cider and perry. Thank you to all at Ross on Wye Cider & Perry Company who made it happen!
It’s a normal human reaction to be sad when something great comes to an end, as the saying goes; you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. As I write this, news has just broken of the death of Queen Elizabeth II and that first sentence seems more poignant than ever. For me the last day of Ross Fest always brings with it a air of regret, not at the amount consumed but of the moments lost, the bottles you didn’t get round to opening, the food you were too full to sample and the song you were too caught up in great conversation to run and dance to. There is never enough time to achieve all of the plans, but that’s what makes it so special, the quality over the quantity. I’ve now attended the festival several times and each time I take away life enduring memories, new friends and a feeling of privilege to have sampled some truly exquisite drinks.
It’s hard to pull out just a handful of highlights, but I shall do my best. Thursday cider club by Elegast was inspiring and delicious. A new experience for me to sample cider crafted in the Netherlands and the opportunity to talk with Arjen and Paulien about the Dutch cider scene, their methods and our shared values was a definite highlight. Friday saw the return of the “Cidermaker’s & Cider Drinkers bottle share”, which as always is full of very small scale makers keen to share their wares and drinkers who conveniently miss the memo to bring a bottle. A highlight for me every year is to see the beaming faces of the Brennan brothers, fast becoming excellent makers, yet still so humble. Their genuine happiness to be crafting cider is infectious.
Saturday’s cidermakers selection was superb as always; particular standouts for me from Blue Barrel, Halfpenny Green, Palmer’s Upland Cyder and Four Acres Estate (more on some of those coming soon). Let’s not forget the new releases from Ross on Wye themselves, which as Adam points out is one hell of a memorable flight, including a number of rum barrel influences: Deja Bu and The Dabinett SVC 2020 were absolute delights to drink.
The food on offer this year also seemed particularly exceptional, Two Guys Burger and Fries, Hancock’s Meadow Farm, Broome Farm Favourites to name a few. However, it was MJ’s Smokeshack that stole my culinary heart, with their succulent pulled pork, pit beans and corn bread. Currently regularly taking over the Yew Tee Pub at a weekend, I implore you to sample their delights if you are passing by.
Apart from the outstanding performance from “Soul Stripper”, whose AC/DC covers rocked the barn, for me it was the quiet ponderous moments that I remember fondly. The walk through Gammyoulands orchard with Adam and Jack, marvelling at the topography and the startlingly visual adaptation of the trees as a result. It was the old orchard bottle share, where we sampled unseen (and superb) releases from Sam Nightingale, along with 2017 vintage Ross Brown Snout that I pulled out of my personal archive. It was the 1am banter by the barn when the rest of the festival crowd had vacated to their canvas cocoons. And it was the slow stroll back to my own tent in the darkness marvelling at the millions of stars in such a clear sky.
I know I’m not alone when I say that Broome Farm is a truly magical place, I recall several conversations from the weekend where like minds agreed just that. If cider were a religion, many believe this would be their temple. There’s something about the peacefulness of it all, the closeness you feel to nature and the warmth of the whole Ross on Wye family that make you feel part of it, no matter how far you’ve travelled. So, though I may regret how quickly the festival passed, I look forward to my next pilgrimage back to cider’s spiritual home.