Features, perry
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A spotlight on The Houghton Project

One of the central tenets — perhaps the central tenet — of Cider Review is that we only post independent content. Our views. Our opinions. Our questions, when we choose to interview. Most importantly, no regurgitation of press releases, whether overt or concealed. We’re a consumer facing site, by drinkers for drinkers. We exist alongside but separately from the industry, and it’s important those lines don’t get wobbly.

But I nearly made an exception.

A few weeks ago I received an email from a PR company representing an organisation called The Houghton Project. The name rang a bell — I had recently heard that they had won a category at the International Cider Competition held annually by the Museum of Cider in Hereford. But besides that I didn’t know a great deal about them.

The purpose of the press release I had been sent was to celebrate the competition win, but especially to highlight the broader work and mission of the Project. Tom Oliver has published it on his website, so you can read it in full here. The Project was established as a not-for-profit organisation in 2002 to teach rural skills and facilitate new friendships for people with additional needs. And since it is based in Herefordshire, it’s perhaps not surprising that among those rural skills are the tending of orchards and the making of cider.

Given the nature of the project I didn’t think any of our readers would have an issue with us simply publishing the press release on this occasion. But it occurred to me that there might be an opportunity to learn about the project in more depth by conducting an interview of the type we’ve published a fair few times now. I replied to Lucie, the PR agent who had contacted us, and she kindly organised an interview with Tim, the founder of the Project, Taylor who works for the Project, and Alistair, who is one of the Project’s participants. Our conversation is recorded below.

CR: What is the Houghton Project and how did it all come about?

Tim: I started the project about 20 years ago. I used to work on city farms down in Bristol for about 10 years prior to that and I thought I could do a similar thing on the family farm back here. It didn’t start off with cider, it started off with just animals and the garden, but the great thing about making cider is it’s an incredibly inclusive activity. It fits very well with the people we work with here, because you can break down all the different elements of the job into things like picking and scratting. You can involve everybody and still come out with, as it turns out, a quality product. So that’s really the motivation for it. It was great planting the trees — all the way through, really. So that’s how we came to be making cider. Just because it’s a traditional cider area; traditionally cider had been made here for years, so I thought I’d continue it.

CR: We’ll circle back to cider in a minute but before we do: I know you’re involved in a large number of other rural skills. Can you tell me a bit more about those and why they’re so important?

Tim: Well just because we’re in a rural setting. And, again, for lots of similar reasons. They can be very engaging on all sorts of different levels. So you can have people who can just feed animals for example, but you can have people who can dig down right into the full nutrition. So it appeals to all sorts of different peoples. You engage all sorts of different people in the same sort of activities and different people get different things out of it. Partly because there are so many people who are sort of disassociated with matters of food production and anything to do with the countryside. And given the people who use the place it just fit the bill really. When I worked at the city farms in Bristol it taught me that this was an activity that was very inclusive. I’m going to let Taylor talk for a bit!

Taylor: Well I was going to ask Alistair what he’s worked on at the project, because there’s been such a massive range. Alistair, you tell us?

Alistair: Oh yeah. There’s a lot of different activities. Working on the cider and perry. Woodwork. Working with animals, taking pictures during courses. Photography.

Taylor: We do a lot of courses linked to Herefordshire council.

Alistair: Yeah, there’s animal care and during the winter there’s pottery. Indoor cooking, outdoor cooking. There’s lots of different things.

Tim: Initially as I say we just started doing animal care and the gardening. But these things develop over 20 years. We’ve got a workshop; there’s a wood here that’s started dropping a few trees, so we started planking them up and started the workshop. And now people make things and they want to sell them. Then before you know it we’ve gotan outdoor kitchen in the garden so we start making things in the garden. We built a camp in the woodland and used it for some coppicing and that sort of thing. So it’s an evolution really. Engaging people on as many different levels as we can. 

Largely it’s a sort of therapeutic activity. Lots of people, especially the kind of people we work with, wouldn’t have access to the countryside in any form otherwise. The countryside is not an open place to go; it’s quite closed. So it does provide a gateway into this sort of thing. 

CR: That’s wonderful to have created this gateway.

Tim: Well also they’ve done lots of surveys into the psychological benefits of green spaces. Just having space really and being active in those spaces. The other thing is that I’m a big believer in any sort of creativity. It’s very good for people — it reinforces self-esteem, it builds resilience in people. It builds initiative and self-dependence. Just making things is a fantastic thing for people really. It doesn’t matter what it is — whether it’s a bird box or whatever it is — the act of creation is always a good thing. That’s what we like about the cider. Again it’s creating something. And, especially here, if you can sell it there’s another dimension to it as well.

Taylor: In terms of selling the cider, it’s more about spreading the message of the farm, and, as Tim says regarding the participants having the ability, and changing the perception around these guys and what they are and are not able to do.

Tim: A lot of the time people are sort of evaluated by what they do and how they do it. It confers status on people a lot of the time. A lot of the people who come here can lack ‘status’ in terms of other people. But if you’re making a product that other people are buying, which essentially is what we all do, and is how we define ourselves; if you can create something that people want to buy then it instantly raises peoples’ status and the way they’re perceived. They’re not just a recipient of services but they’re actually creators of something that we are prepared to part with out money for. It’s a way of saying ‘look, you’re just as good as anybody else’, you know what I mean? You taste the perry, you taste the cider — well the people who come here, they’ve made it.

CR: Talking of which, let’s chat more about the cider. Talk me through the orchards you use and the cider project so far.

Taylor: We have our own orchard here — the trees are about eight years old. We’ve got about 150 apple trees of various varieties, 150 pear trees in the perry orchard. We get most of our apples from a place called Bodenham Lakes, run by the Herefordshire Wildlife Trust.

Tim: They’ve got a community orchard, so we take some of the apples and pears from there. But also from other local farmers. One local farmer up at Kimbolton, his granddad planted trees about 100 years ago — there are big perry trees up there. They’re fantastic, seem to make very good perries. Then a couple of other places. There are a lot of people who have acquired bits of land, they’ve got trees that they don’t know what to do with. So as we’ve been doing it we’ve gradually built up a network of people who want us to come in and take the stuff away. So we do that! It’s a very mixed bag of pears — what do we use?

Taylor: Gin, Blakeney Red, Thorn. But there are a few varieties we went out to pick at Bosbury this year, which we’ve got no idea what they are. There’s five big trees on this guy’s land, out towards Ledbury, all different, all probably at least 100 years old, and we’ve no idea what they are.

Tim: My reasoning is that they must have planted them there to be combined. They didn’t just plant them there for no reason; they must have had a plan, something like: ‘ok if we blend all these together they’re going to make something nice’. And it turns out they do! But I’ve no idea what they are. Some of them are no bigger than a two-p bit almost. And dry as dry!

Taylor: I did email Jim [at Hartpury], but then I missed our next picking so I couldn’t take any pictures. Next year!

CR: It gets busy around harvest, doesn’t it? [Ed – not that you’d know, Adam!] So next question: who is the team, and how many people are part of the cidermaking?

Tim: For the cidermaking it’s just about everyone who comes here. Alistair’s there; we must have a group of maybe twenty people involved. Then in terms of people leading it, possibly three. We’ve just about finished for this year. We don’t make that much cider — if we make 3,000 litres, that’s a lot. 

Taylor: One lovely thing about the farm is that there’s not a huge amount of hierarchy. Lots of things are very democratic. If anyone wants to get involved in something they can do that. So, as Tim says, almost everyone that comes to the farm. will have had a hand in some part of the cidermaking process. If it’s from picking the apples and doing the scratting and pressing, or helping us check the specific gravity levels and ph levels through the fermentation process, bottling, labelling. But there’s other people who, if they only want to come down to the orchards with us for a walk to check the health of the trees, that’s fine and a massive thing too. So yes, almost everyone will have had a hand in making the cider and perry.

CR: That’s awesome. And tell me about the ciders and perries that you make?

Tim: Initially we started off making to my own palate — so not the best marketing plan in the world! I’ve got a bit of a sweet tooth so I started off making more of the sweet. Also I like perry more than I like cider, so I tend to make more perry. I wasn’t provoked by the challenge that perry’s more difficult to make; as it turns out I find it slightly easier to make perry than decent cider, I don’t know why! We do do some dry ciders but mainly they’re medium-sweet, I’d say. Usually about 5-5.5%.

What we’ve tried to do until now is that we do use a pasteuriser. So instead of backsweetening things we watch the specific gravity come down, and when it’s ready we rack it off into bottles and pasteurise it just to hold the natural sugars in there. So most of the perries we’ve got, we’ve never added sugar to. We just take it down to about 5-5.5% and then we’ll pasteurise it. And because we’re working in such small volumes pasteurisation is the viable thing to do. I don’t really like using sulphites — we’re trying not to use any sulphites this year. We’ve got a couple of barrels we sulphited, but the rest of it we’ve just left it to the wild yeast. Obviously there’s an attendant risk that you might have to chuck a lot of it away, but because it’s not our bread and butter we can afford to be picky — we can afford to say ‘well ok, that’s not good enough, we’ll chuck it away’, rather than just chucking enough sugar in it and bottling it anyway. We try not to do that.

Taylor: For one of the ciders we’ve done this year we’ve tried to replicate the cider that won first prize at the Hereford Cider Museum’s International Competition this year. So that’s 50% Kingston Black, Dymock Red, and this year we’ve added a couple of crates of Foxwhelp as well. Because that’s my favourite, so I thought we’d chuck it in and see!

Tim: It’s all just experimentation a lot of the time. This year’s a good year, but it changes every year. That’s part of the joy of it, that it’s on an ever-changing continuum in terms of how it tastes in the barrel, how it tastes in the bottle after pasteurisation, how long it stores for, how long it takes to start with, how much sugar is in it. There’s so many variables, and that’s the joy of decent cider and perry is the fact that you can still get it even though there’s so many variables that you haven’t been able to control. You’re just guiding it, almost, into what you want. That’s what I feel, and that’s the bit I really enjoy: going along for the ride and being able to say ‘well let’s stop it here’. And that’s the great thing with the pasteuriser; you can just stop it when you want it without chucking loads of stuff in.

CR: You touched on something a moment ago that I wanted to ask about. Winning the competition at the Museum was huge. Tell me about the experience?

Taylor: I’ll tell you what happened on the day! We didn’t enter any other competitions that year, we entered this one very last minute. We only entered two drinks and got first prise in the sweet cider, second in the sweet perry. Me and Tim were trying to level expectations, just saying: ‘we’ll see what happens’. I went in the evening with one of the guys that comes to the project, and then when we did win it he shouted a couple of expletive-laden things, was unbelievably happy, shook the mayor’s hand, bawling his eyes out. The pictures are amazing! 

It was pretty amazing really. It was unexpected. Something that comes along with that though is that post that, and beforehand, the Herefordshire cider community have been unbelievably supportive. When we won it I spoke to Susanna from Little Pomona and Polly from Find & Foster, who I think was the head judge in our category, or possibly Simon from Once Upon a Tree. But they were all really supportive, saying that we need to get out there, because the Project has this sort of special message attached to it. They’ve been amazing.

We’ve been putting a lot of effort in post that to get to the point where we can market the cider properly.

Tim: That’s our weak point really, marketing. It’s quite a busy place here. We’re always working with people, we spend our days working with people. Occasionally we do some very inept marketing where we go out to a bottle shop and intimidate the owners! Which hasn’t worked very well! We need a better marketing strategy. We recently got some money from a grant, so this is the start of our marketing drive, so to speak. The next thing is to get it out there, slogging it round the bottle shops. That seems to be the best way to do it. See where it goes from there. But again, the marketing is to raise the profile of the people who use the place — that’s the most important thing.

CR: You touched on this briefly, but how has the wider cider community reacted to and interacted with the Project?

Taylor: Gabe Cook and Tom Oliver, who’s just five minutes down the road, they helped plant the initial orchard here.

Tim: Tom found the orchard for me. I went to see him because I got some money to plant the orchard about eight years ago, so I phoned him up and said ‘do you mind giving me some advice?’ And he gave it out to me. We went to Frank Matthews in Tenbury Wells for the trees. I took the catalogue and he ticked them off and said ‘ok you want some of these and some of these and some of these’. So laid it all out: ‘if you want a well-balanced cider these are the trees you’re going to need’ type of thing. 

Taylor: In terms of these days, I could go through a list of the people we’ve been in contact with in Herefordshire, and they’ve all been amazing. I recently went round to see Albert at Ross on Wye, who took me through their orchards and talked to me about the cidermaking process, so we can try and get a bit more focus on it. He gave us a load of bottles to help with the cider and perry course that we do with Herefordshire Council funding. We’ve been out to Little Pomona, they showed our guys round. We went to see Tom’s place. David from Redvers Cider in Yarkhill, he’s just started up, he’s amazing. People at Artistraw and Cwm Maddoc.

When you tell people about cider and say ‘oh we won this thing’, everyone says ‘that’s amazing, it’s a good thing to win.’ And then when they learn more about the project it becomes less about the cider. People really buy into the fact that it’s the guys who are making the cider, and it’s providing them with that opportunity. Everyone in the cider community that I’ve spoken to has been very supportive. So now we need to go out and find some people to sell the cider who understand the message equally.

CR: How has 2022 gone for you in terms of pressing and making as an experience?

Tim: It’s been alright actually.

Taylor: It’s been fine. We seem to have barrelled through it quite quickly actually. We’ve got eight barrels of perry on the go, and two of cider because we’ve still got some apples to press. 

Alistair: It’s been good. I’ve helped with some pressure washing and scratting — it turns it into a pulp in like a bathtub. Then we press it and we get the juice for cider and perry, which turns into alcohol.

Taylor: So when we scrat it goes into these black vats that look like bathtubs! It’s been good — we do these courses, and some of the guys — Alistair in particular — have got an amazing memory. So Alistair will rattle off whatever you want about the whole thing. It’s been amazing. So many people have been involved. Some of the guys come and they’ll help for half an hour, and that’s what they take from it. And for others, like a guy at the farm called James, who’s the guy who came to the awards at the Museum with me, it really provides them with their motivation. It really keeps them going. James really focusses on it. He loves it, really engaged.

Tim: It boosts the sense of self-worth and purpose. The prize was the topping on the cake, but the main thing is the actual engagement in it and learning the process. And learning that he can do the process by himself, so you’ll go in and say ‘you alright mate? Know what you’re doing? The taps, the sterilisation and so on’. Being able to master all of that, and us being able to say ‘yeah, I trust you to do it then,’ all of those things feed into bringing somebody on. Especially if they’ve never done it before and then they’ve mastered it. And at the end of it you’ve got something that’s great, that people like.

CR: How can people become involved with or support the project?

Tim: The people who come here are usually referred to by carers. There’s lots of volunteers here as well; people can volunteer and help along with it. Or you can follow Taylor’s instagram account which he just set up.

Taylor: In terms of accessing the cider, through the winter there’s probably going to be limited chance of that. But come the spring, once we’re bottling the produce that we’re doing now, we’re probably going to try and get some sort of website up where people can buy the products. As Tim says we’re going to try and get in as many bottleshops as we can, and maybe a couple of online shops. 

CR: Last question — what’s next for the project?

Tim: We’re never going to have an empire! That’s not what we’re looking for. The commercial effect is going to have a knock-on effect for the place as a whole really, and just the way people value each other is what it’s all really for. We’re not going to make a fortune out of it; as you know, everything’s gone up in price — the bottles, electricity — nobody’s going to be making a fortune. 

Alistair: We’re going to make different variations of cider and perry; different types of pears and apples.

Tim: It’s a fairly ergonomic process — just sort of making it up as we go along, try and maintain the quality. But we’ll see what opportunities come up and go with those really. That’s been the ethos of the place for the last 20 years and it seems to have worked alright so far! Whether you’re pruning the orchards or you’re picking, or doing the hives down in the orchards or the birdfeeders or sheep, it just evolves and keeps on going — we could do with planting a few more trees, I suppose. There’s always something more to do, but it’s always enjoyable.

***

Huge thanks to Tim, Taylor and Alistair for taking the time to talk to us. We’re hugely inspired by the work being done at the Houghton Project, and wish them all the success in the world. As a final note, we hope any retailers who happen to read this interview will consider getting in touch to stock the next vintage of the Project’s ciders and perries. A truly worthy cause… and award-winning quality to boot.

This entry was posted in: Features, perry

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In addition to my writing and editing with Cider Review I lead frequent talks and tastings and contribute to other drinks sites and magazines including jancisrobinson.com, Pellicle, Full Juice, Distilled and Burum Collective. @adamhwells on Instagram, @Adam_HWells on twitter.

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