We’re always happy to talk to cider (and perry) producers on all ends of the scale here at Cider Review. When the opportunity arose to speak to Richard Johnson, Head Cidermaker at Thatchers, – one of the UK’s largest and most commercially successful cider producers – we jumped at the chance. It should also be mentioned that we love a good long-form read here too at Cider Review – so grab yourself a coffee/tea/apple bevy, and get ready to delve into the world of making cider at scale!
CR: Hello Richard, tell us a bit about yourself, how long you’ve been working at Thatchers, and what you get up to at Thatchers?
Richard: Sure, I’m Richard Johnson, I’m the Head Cidermaker here at Thatchers. I’ve been here just shy of 13 years now – but have been a cidermaker quite a bit longer than that. I originally studied Microbiology at Liverpool University, went to work in Infectious Diseases in Cambridge and quickly found that wasn’t my calling in life. I wanted to get into Industrial Microbiology, saw a job as a Laboratory Manager at a little cider company called Inches in Devon – the original one in mid-Devon. I quickly learnt that cidermaking is all about microbiology and that was really the true value of being a microbiologist was to make alcohol! I stayed in that business, it grew and grew, and was then acquired by Bulmers. I went to join Bulmers in Hereford for a number of years before I ended up here. That’s a very potted history of how I became a cidermaker.
CR: How have you seen the cider industry evolve since you started out at Inches compared to where you are now?
Richard: It’s had its ups and downs; it goes in cycles in terms of popularity. We’ve had the boom years of dare I say it…White Cider back in the 90s, then a dip, then Magners made cider “cool” again – we have a lot to thank them for in that sense. Cider came very much back into fashion and has had a number of years of sustained growth since then. It always ebbs and flows in terms of its popularity, but it’s an enduring drink. It’s been around for hundreds and hundreds of years, other things come along, but cider is very deeply rooted in British culture and enjoyment of socialising and consuming.
CR: With your work at Thatchers, what are the largest and smallest fermentation vessels that you work with?
Richard: That’s a great question! Our production vessels are 125,000 litres, we are a volume business and that’s our main production. I am very lucky that I also have a pilot plant which is a mini cider factory in laymen speak – it has everything that the main plant has, but on a small scale. So, we can make a 1000 litre batch in that. We have three 1000 litre vessels there. Our Small Batches, some of the ones you will be trying on Cider Review, come from 7000 litre tanks, which are our small production vessels for our pilot plant.
CR: Still a sizeable volume and some cider-producers’ total output for the year right there! Moving in a yeasty direction – wild fermentation vs culture yeast…discuss.
Richard: Thatchers goes for a culture yeast because we make national brands and consistency is of major importance if you’re selling a brand all year around, all across the country. People expect it to taste the same in Devon as it is in Newcastle, the same in January as it is in July. I think there is a role for wild fermentation for bringing out the natural expression of different orchards and different varieties, but that’s very much playing to an audience of people who appreciate those subtle nuances and differences, and there’s no denying people revel in that, they like to explore cider. That’s great, but as a national brand, we want to make great cider day in day out. That’s how we believe we’ve gained success and a loyal consumer base.
CR: To follow on from that, 100 years ago, would the smaller cider producers around then – dotted in counties all over the UK – would they have made a more idiosyncratic cider because they had yet to harness the power of culture yeast? Would Thatchers 100 years ago taste different to now?
Richard: I think inevitably it would have tasted differently. Not just the yeasts, but the understanding of varieties of apples has come on a huge way. We owe a lot to Long Ashton Research Station, which from 1904 had a whole series of scientists looking at how cider apples are grown, what’s in them, what tannins are present, perfecting apple breeding. There’s a lot of science that’s gone into the industry in the last 100 – 120 years. But before that, you’re right, there would have been regional differences. One of my most treasured possessions is a copy of John Worlidge’s Vinetum Britannicum, which was written around 1658 – it’s an incredible book to read as you don’t realise just how much they knew about how to make good cider, even though they couldn’t explain it quite. It was all done on observation, cause and effect. If I do this, this will happen. They knew about Sulphur Dioxide, they used to burn a sulphur candle in a barrel because it made the barrel more clean and got rid of acetic bacteria. They were making good cider back in the day too. Thatchers has a great story from its distant history that says cider was made for agricultural workers as part of their wages. If you made the best cider, you got the best workers.
CR: Now there’s a proper perk of a job! Just wondering as we progress with this chat if you’d heard of Cider Review before now?
Richard: Yes, and I’ve read some of the articles before too. I spend a lot of time online researching what other cidermakers are doing and reading reviews of their products.
CR: It’s nice to know we had a readership of consumers and producers of all different scales! How many different apple varieties does Thatchers grow in its orchards?
Richard: Thatchers currently grows slightly over 500 different varieties. That sounds like an unfeasible number, but we grow 27 varieties commercially, in large quantities that directly forms part of our recipes. One of our proudest orchards in our care is John Thatcher’s Orchard. John, who is Martin Thatcher’s Father, the third generation to run the business, spent all of his life collecting rare varieties and making sure they’re maintained in perpetuity. This orchard is also called the 458 Orchard, which unsurprisingly has 458 cider apple varieties in. We believe it to be totally unique. There’s nothing else like it. Even Brogdale has a national collection of apples, but they’re predominantly eating apples, so we must have the best collection of cider apples in the UK, if not the World.
CR: So, for people looking for scionwood for other orchards, that one is a good reference library to approach?
Richard: It can be, we have been approached by people. Bristol University have taken quite a lot of scionwood as they’ve started to study cider. To the point where they’ve included a cider module on some of their courses now. We’ve been working with them to try to revive the academic study of cidermaking and cider apple growing.
CR: Tell us a bit about the Cider Barn range which we’ll be reviewing here on Cider Review? How did it come to be, and what does it mean to you within the Thatchers brand?
Richard: Cider Barn came about as a way for the cidermaking and orcharding team to put in to practice some of the things that they’ve been interested in when doing various trials at Thatchers. It’s somewhat of an incubator brand. The Cider Barn in question refers to the pilot plant where we make small batches that push the boundaries of cidermaking in terms of techniques – we’ve looked at and used various techniques used in winemaking for example. Or we try new varieties that we think may have the potential to become commercial varieties – so we see how well the cider comes out and how well the trees grow. The orcharding team and cidermaking team work hand in hand to look forward and see what we might be using to create new brands.
CR: One of the releases, a single variety Grenadier cider – I’d never seen it used as an SVC or thought of it being used as one, but now I know it exists, I feel the itch needs to be scratched and I can’t wait to try it.
Richard: It’s a lovely apple. Thatchers have got a very nice orchard of Grenadier trees. Previously it would have only been used to add acidity to a blend. It’s basically a cooking apple, but it does have a unique flavour. When we tried to make a single variety cider out of it, we found it made a very nice Sauvignon Blanc style cider, to use a wine analogy. Very crisp, nice fruity nose, very different to conventional cider styles. It’s not tannic, it’s not trad West Country style. It is a white wine style cider, and it has its place.
CR: I agree, using the reference point of wine terminology is a very good gateway to get other drinkers into trying cider and being comfortable talking about what they’re tasting. If they don’t think cider has the value perception, it’s less likely they’ll delve into the flavour profile.
Richard: I think you’re right. We make cider in terms of volume like beer, but technologically it’s much more like wine. I look to the wine industry for various inspirations. Cider is a fermented fruit juice, not a brewed product like beer. Just because we sell it in kegs, it can be assumed it is similar to beer, but in terms of how we appreciate it is better to think of it like wine and look for varietal difference.
CR: Your Redstreak Cider Barn release, is that using Somerset Redstreak, as I know there are a few Redstreaks out there?
Richard: Yes that’s right, Redstreak is supposed to have originated in Hereford, discovered and then bred by Lord Scudamore about 500 to 600 years ago. There are a number of variants grown around the country. We grow Somerset Redstreak in considerable quantities, it’s one of Thatchers favourite apples with a unique peppery note that we thought would express itself really well as a single variety. It’s commonly used as a blending apple, but when you want to showcase how unique different varieties can be, Somerset Redstreak has a character of its own.
CR: On Single Variety Ciders then, you’ve had Katy on the market for quite a while now as an SVC. Was that a hard sell internally to release an SVC on scale to the market? You can find that release in supermarkets up and down the UK – much more volume than a Cider Barn 1000 litre release.
Richard: Katy has an interesting history. It was bred as a supermarket eating apple, in which role it failed because it has a very short shelf life. They needed it to last longer on the shelf to succeed. But if you get the chance to eat one fresh, it is the nicest apple you will ever eat. The apples started to be released to the juice industry and we initially bought some apple to make cider, found it made a fabulous light, white wine, prosecco style cider. So now Thatchers is a huge grower of Katy, we have over 200 acres of Katy apples growing! I think at first most people didn’t realise it was an apple variety so at first we weren’t selling them an SVC as such.
CR: I can’t think of many other producers at this scale releasing a single variety cider. Are there any other varieties that you’re thinking of releasing at that scale?
Richard: I think it would be nice to see people talking about cider apple varieties. I’m not sure most people are just yet. Whether the market gains anything drastically from more SVCs I’m not sure. We make ciders that people want to buy. If they like Redstreak, we’ll happily make a wider release Redstreak. It’s the third time we’ve released it for Cider Barn. Afficionados certainly love it.
CR: I’m sitting in that tribe definitely! Does Thatchers buy in much fruit from across the UK then, or is it all from your own orchards?
Richard: We don’t buy in open market from traders, we have a great group of contracted growers that we have very close relationships with. By contracted, I mean they plant the varieties we ask them to grow in the quantity we ask them to grow. We enter long-term, minimum 20-year contracts with them to provide us with apples. The furthest North grower we work with is just North of Hereford, the furthest south is probably North Devon, and then all the way in-between, some in Gloucestershire, a lot in Somerset for obvious reasons. All West Country, 26 growers with whom we have very close relationships with. We bring them to our site at least twice a year and make sure we communicate what our priorities for the year ahead are. They’re very much part of the Thatchers family. We intentionally partner with family businesses, not pension fund farms.
CR: Authors and apple and pear historians like Liz Copas, Nick Poole, and Charles Martel have all released books in the last few years about rare, idiosyncratic apple and pear varieties unique to Dorset and Gloucestershire. Are there any varieties unique to Somerset that you think are ripe for rediscovery and perhaps some further writing about?
Richard: Our favourite would be Somerset Redstreak. It’s got a very enthusiastic following. It’s got its name as it’s a sub-branch of the Redstreak family known to grow the best in Somerset. So, we know we’re growing the best quality versions of this apple here. That’s the one that we would like to see moving forward in public perception.
CR: With your access to the 458 Orchard, is there anyone in your team that fancies writing about the formation of that orchard as I think personally that would be a fascinating tale to discover.
Richard: It’s a great story. I would love to see John Thatcher writing a book about why he did it, what was his inspiration for it, where he got the varieties from. It’s lovely to hear him talk about it as it’s his passion. The varieties have been collected throughout his life. I know Liz Copas comes up to that orchard quite often for scionwood and to inspect the orchard and make sure we’re looking after it. She’s a remarkable lady. I would love to see John write about his collection orchard for sure.
CR: The lobbying starts here.
Richard: Maybe you’ve prompted me to see if we can sit down with him and record him. It would be worth a few hours of our time to sit down with him.
CR: Agreed! Where does Thatchers stand on Perry? Do you have any Perry Pear trees in your orchard?
Richard: We don’t have anything commercial. We have a dozen in another lovely orchard which formed part of Christon Court. There is a very old standard orchard planted in 1928 as one of the four Long Ashton Orchards in the county. If you seek out Luckwill & Pollard’s Perry Pears book, in there it refers to the planting plan of the four trial orchards that Long Ashton Research Station planted in Somerset in 1909-1910. The estate of Christon Court has been split up over the years, but Thatchers owns the original orchard there. In and among the old varieties of apples are about a dozen perry pear trees. I must say, my personal obsession is with Perry Pears and I make a little bit of traditional, bottle conditioned, perry each year just for my own purposes, just for fun. Blowing my own trumpet now, in 2012, it wont the Hereford Cider Museum’s “Supreme Champion in Show” this perry I made from that orchard owned by Thatchers.
- Looking up what varieties were planted here in 1928 it is as follows: 5 x Barland, 5 x Barnet, 5x Blakeney Red, 10 x Claret, 10 x Oldfield, 5 x Pine, and 10 x Taynton Squash. With the notes: “Barnet, Blakeney Red and Taynton Squash made particularly good trees. Dieback on Oldfield.” I wonder what survives in 2023?
CR: What are some trends then that Thatchers are seeing for cider drinkers in the UK today?
Richard: You can’t ignore the move to modern, lighter, sweeter, fruitier ciders. I talked earlier about the cyclical nature of the business, and we’re in a phase now where lighter ciders, fruitier ciders are a substantial part of the market. They’ve not taken over, but there’s been a shift in that direction. That’s where Thatchers has moved into recently. You’ve probably seen we launched a Blood Orange Cider last year and it’s bene phenomenally successful with a certain sector of the market. The way Thatchers makes it is to a high standard, we don’t make alcopops. That drink starts life as a proper Thatchers cider, using the same process, the same tanks, the same team. Only at the end do we differentiate the cider by adding in fruit juices to them. It’s different to the kind of products we’re known for but it extends our range and keeps us current.
CR: Why does the UK (and the World) need to drink more cider?
Richard: There are many, many reasons. I think the history of it suggests that it’s a flavour that people genuinely like. Cider has been around for 1000’s of years – Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East all have a long history of cidermaking. As long as we keep moving with the times, it will continue to be a popular drink. As long as we flex with people’s changing tastes and try to make a cider for everyone, which is part of our aim, we make traditional, modern, and fruit ciders – then I think it will continue to succeed as a drink. That’s the market perspective, from another angle, it’s a very, very sustainable drink in terms of the amount of agriculture and jobs that it supports. Our by-products are suitable for feeding cattle with pomace, or you can make electricity from it by putting the leftover apple into a bio-digester and make electricity.
CR: That’s good to hear the South-West is being partially apple-powered! Onto another question, 750ml bottles, Bag-In-Box, and barrel-ageing – where does Thatchers stand on these elements of cidermaking?
Richard: With 750ml bottles you’re taking it into a wine-style cider in my book, it would be nice to see people drinking cider like wine. It pours well from a keg as a pint drink, but there is a sector of the market that I would love to see people talking about varieties and drinking it like wine. It pairs so well with food. There’s definitely a role for cider on the food table. Some of the smaller producers are doing that now and it’s very nice to see. In our own world we have very nice products like the Platinum Reserve, which we produced for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022, it is bottle-fermented, champagne-style cider. Previous to that we’ve done Family Reserve as a celebration cider. So we do dip our toes in these larger serving, celebration style offerings. I hope that sector grows.
Bag-In-Box we do as well, we have a range of traditional ciders that are served like this – great for festivals, great for parties. It is a traditional style of cider, still, not carbonated. There’s a sector of people that love that too and we do a reasonable volume in that.
Barrel-ageing we’ve tried over the years. It’s very difficult to make it at a commercial scale. We favour oak vat-ageing. Thatchers has done a really great job of maintaining its old oak vats. They’ve been on site for many, many years. We’re told they were originally built in about 1850. They do give you an angle on a very traditional, high tannin style of cider. It wouldn’t make Katy or any of our modern ciders. For a traditional style cider you get that micro-oxygenation through the oak-ageing and that softens the tannins and gives the drink an extra dimension.
CR: Lastly, what can we expect to see from Thatchers in 2023?
Richard: Well I can’t launch any new products here, but we are always looking forward and working on things. There should be some great news for the market in terms of something new and exciting. Other than that, we will continue to make more of the same brilliant ciders. I’ve always been a massive champion of Thatchers Gold. Most people ask me what’s my favourite cider when I’m doing training courses and I’m very pleased to always champion Gold. I can drink it in January or July, wherever I am. It’s the best balanced cider I think on the market in terms of fruity, tannin, sweetness, acidity.
CR: Thank you very much for your time and a very informative chat with us here at Cider Review!
I hope in a follow up interview the question can be asked, given John Thatcher’s desire to preserve and propagate so many apple varieties, why do they feel the need to trademark many varieties, recently notably Katy, and then send cease and desist letters to sub 7000L producers making tiny batches of single varieties? Indeed, woe betide anyone stirred by this interview to make a single variety Grenadier, which is also under trademark.
Thanks for reading Saul and we appreciate the question. Personal views on their approach aside, the interesting fact that I hadn’t realised is that Thatchers were allowed to trademark “Katy”(also called Katja) when they shouldn’t have been as it is the name of the fruit. Something trademark law doesn’t allow, but unfortunately slipped through. Sub 7000l makers can make a SV cider of that apple they just need to call it something else as it’s main name but can still say it’s made from single variety Katy apples. Thatchers have only enforced their trademark where makers have tried to call the cider “Katy”. The same situation doesn’t exists for Grenadier which is the established original apple name and therefore cannot be trademarked. This is a different situation to “Pink Lady” which is a trademarked name created by a fruit company for the “Cripps Pink” apple.
Thanks to Gabe Cook for the clarifying of facts around the trademark and what shouldn’t be allowed to happen normally.
A fascinating discussion particularly on the Thatcher museum orchard. Is there a public record anywhere of the varieties included in the orchard?
Glad you enjoyed the read. I think John Thatcher or Liz Copas would be the best folk to ask about the varieties. Can see if we can find out which varieties are there, but maybe it’s a piece for John’s lobbied for book 😉
A very interesting article.Being a personal friend of John Thatcher,I will pursue the idea of him writing a book.
Glad you enjoyed the article ☺️ Please do start the lobbying from your end as you’re a friend of John’s. Would be a book at the top of my list for sure.