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A Little Pomona Old Man & The Bee vintage vertical: 2015-2020

It’s not a big orchard, the Little Pomona Home Orchard. A hundred trees, or thereabouts. Four varieties — Foxwhelp, Dabinett, Ellis Bitter and Harry Masters’ Jersey. They’re tall, widely-spaced, but slender — not terribly old, in the grand scheme of things. They file down a medium-steep south-east facing slope, and in the bottom right hand corner it gets boggy and the apples don’t grow quite so well. The soil is mainly a deep, thick, reddish clay — as you drive up the lane to the house and the little garage that used to be the cidery, high banks on either side give you a 3D glimpse of the terroir. It’s a pretty orchard — as most traditional orchards are — but it stops short of either prolific or spectacular of view. 

And yet it is undeniably special. To me, personally, and to the aspirational British cider scene at large. Because this is the home of The Old Man & The Bee.

In the six or so years since their first release was bottled, Little Pomona have now launched a considerable number of — well, I was going to say ciders and perries, but that doesn’t really scratch the surface, does it? Quinces, damsons, co-fermentations, cider- and perry-kins, grape ciders, grafs and a handful of bits and bobs that I dare say I’ve forgotten. There have been traditional methods, pét nats ad infinitum, cryo-conditioneds, kegs and even a keeve that one time.

James and Susanna Forbes buy their fruit from orchards in Herefordshire and surrounding counties besides. They’ve used umpteen varieties — from taller, traditional orchards and a few from commercial bush orchards. 

In short, they’ve done an awful lot. Relentless creativity and a veritable mountain range of ‘next hills’ to look over for which we have all been a richer people.

But through all that, The Old Man & The Bee has remained a constant. Indeed the only constant — the only cider made every vintage and from the same orchard.

From a certain point of view, it is also the most ‘boring’. A still, dry cider — certainly nothing new about that — and without the increasingly zeitgeisty intrigue of a single variety (he says, having cheerfully contributed to the perpetration of that zeitgeist in the first place, and quite right too). In its early iterations, it wasn’t even oaked. No soleras, no fancy fizziness. As plain a cider as a Herefordshire cider could be. I don’t have sales figures, so this is a hunch only, but there was certainly a time when it seemed as though Little Pomona’s still, apple-only creations were the slowest moving on their webshop; sour cherries and damsons, I dare say, being rather more interesting to the average punter than odd names like Dabinett and something with the suffix ‘Bitter’.

But The Old Man & The Bee, named for the man who planted the orchard, and the bees which pollinate it, is truly special. To me it cuts to cider’s most soulful core in a way that very few existing bottlings even attempt — Prospect Orchard from Welsh Mountain and Albee Hill from Eve’s Cidery being two of its small number of direct contemporaries. A deliberate annual evocation of the best fruit from one, constant, orchard. A fully-fermented, liquid encapsulation of apples and trees and land woven together with the particular signature of an individual vintage. No arrested fermentations, no playing around with carbonation, marvellous as those things so frequently are. Just an orchard, and a unique harvest, fully on show in the most caring way its makers can manage.

James and Susanna have spoken in the past of the time it took to find a house with an orchard — a search they very nearly abandoned — and of the special feeling they got from the orchard once they found it. Having worked in the wine industry they recognised its site, soil, aspect, drainage as ideal for growing fruit, and they’ve since found it to hold additional qualities.

‘Our soil is the typical Herefordshire red clay for the most part,’ James tells me, ‘and that’s where the HMJ and Foxwhelp sit. But actually the site is on a small old quarry. So there the soil is shallow and rocky and the trees are much smaller than the other trees in the orchard. Part of the Ellis plantings are also on this rock, and where they are so situated they too are much smaller than their fellow trees up the slope. I think our Dabinett and indeed Ellis are far more intense than most I’ve tried and I think it’s that struggle to survive.’

Little Pomona took this simplest and most noble style of cider and they treated it with consummate respect. Scrupulous selection of fruit in the orchard — I’ve picked with them in the Home Orchard before, and can attest that James is fussy indeed — and then even more scrupulous sorting in the cidery. Long resting time post-fermentation; we’re more than two years since the 2020 was pressed, and at the time of writing it still isn’t released yet. And packaging and — yes — pricing (though find me a wine of the time, rarity and quality that costs nearly the same — I’ll wait) that denotes it as something worthy of respect, of time, of savouring in small measures and ideally serving with food. As with all of their ciders the label described in detail the fruits, the place, the making and the serving and pairing suggestions. Basic stuff, you might think, if you approach it from a wine drinker’s perspective — but this was near-revolutionary at the time of ‘Old Man’s’ inception, especially for a still cider. Albert Johnson, of Ross on Wye, has called previous iterations of The Old Man & The Bee ‘the best dry, still cider in the world’.

For many reasons, some of them ennumerated above, The Old Man & The Bee has always been especially dear to me. I’ve probably drunk more of it than I have any other Little Pomona creation — even though it’s never been in one of my year-end ‘Essential Cases’. When I visit the cidery any new vintage of The Old Man & The Bee is usually the cider I ask after first, and I have come to see it as a not-unreasonable bellwether on my feelings about a Little Pomona vintage full stop — if not a Herefordshire vintage more broadly.

Yet unlike Raison d’Être from Ross on Wye, itself an annual single-farm expression, launched the year after ‘Old Man’, I’ve never had the chance to sit down for a vintage vertical. So when James Forbes mentioned that the launch of the 2020 was imminent, and offered me the chance to taste it next to its predecessors, I said ‘yes please’ straight away.

Little Pomona tell me that the new vintage — 2020 — launches today, so you can probably find it on their webshop from this afternoon or so. They’ve no other vintages available, but you can find the 2018 (£11.95) and the 2019 (£13.95) on The Cat In The Glass. (The price difference reflects the increase in duty Little Pomona started paying in 2019, not any sort of perceived vintage quality).

Little Pomona The Old Man & The Bee 2015 – review

(Equal parts of all four apples. Unoaked.)

How I served: Ambient cidery temperature. More or less cellar temperature. Just cool. (This is definitely not a cider for the fridge).

Appearance: Hazy honey

On the nose: Huge aromatics. Old HMJ — waxes and dried orange and BIG apricot. Some spritely Foxwhelp tones too. Leather, boiled sweets. It’s had a very lovely progression into tertiary development — dried fruits pepped up by sherbety tangfastics. Very complex.

In the mouth: Wild delivery. Cranberries and tangy strawberries — a very Foxwhelp delivery, that extra percentage of Foxwhelp dominating the older leathers, waxes and apricot fruits of HMJ. There’s a lot of Ellis influence here too though; that skins-y tannin — and a good whack of juicy Dabinett. Lots of complexity, all apples clearly showing their role. Picking a nit, it’s a bit as though they’re all fighting to be heard though, rather than seamlessly entwining.

In a nutshell: Ageing beautifully, and showing the qualities of all the fruits, if clearly an early stage in the Forbes’s blending philosophies.

Little Pomona The Old Man & The Bee 2016 – review

(Unoaked. Blend not noted)

How I served: As above

Appearance: Rich brass, with lovely oils down the glass.

On the nose: A real musk to the perfume — almost earthy. Leathery, waxy, hard cheese rind. Apricot again, and some honeysuckles. Beeswax. A little wood. Feels very HMJ-influenced, in the ever-so-slightly-austere way. Not actually the most overtly ‘fruity’, but mineral and rich and evocative. 

In the mouth: More fruit on the palate — VERY HMJ in its earthy, slatey, waxy-yellow and honeysuckle character but fleshed out by the Dabinett’s orange fruit. Distinct pencil shavings on the finish. Demands focus and wants food. Hugely concentrated, with grip and pith.

In a nutshell: Mineral, complex, layered. Slight austerity could be divisive, but I’m a big fan. Wants decanting, time and an evening when you’re paying attention.

Little Pomona The Old Man & The Bee 2017 – review

(About 87% HMJ, plus Dabinett and a little Foxwhelp. Unoaked.)

How I served: As above

Appearance: Edging more towards gold now.

On the nose: Clean, pure, rich, deep, chisselled and very beautiful in its aromatics. Totally seamless aromas — polished wood, ripe apricot, golden plum. Hay and honeysuckle giving lift. Focussed, aromatic and utterly pure in its clarity. My favourite nose so far.

In the mouth: Even bigger on the palate, that purity and harmony utterly singing. Still has a firm, winey texture — years left in the tank — tannins buttressing ripe, clear fruit and exotic woods perfectly. A perfect foil for roast pork. Ripe apricots, yellow apple skins, slateyness, and a light butter popcorn amidst all the other notes.

In a nutshell: A rhapsody in rich yellow. Still young despite entering its 6th year. Stately, rich, phenomenal. Grown up cider.

Little Pomona The Old Man & The Bee 2018 – review

(50% Dabinett, 37% HMJ, rest made up by Foxwhelp and Ellis. Unoaked.)

How I served: As above

Appearance: Same

On the nose: This is the 2018 vintage all over. Ripe, juicy, friendly-waggy-tail fruit bounding from the glass, billowing that hot summer ripeness all over you. Apricot as per, in both fresh and jam form, plus oranges, tangerine and a background flutter of cranberry – hey there, Foxwhelp! Still some of the beeswax, honeysuckle and slateyness reminding you that this is still OMATB — just with its tie undone.

In the mouth: Again so 2018 and yet also so Old Man and the Bee. Big, ripe, yellow fruits, full body, fleshy juiciness — but all underpinned by leather and spice and slate and lightly pithy tannin. Huge-bodied, but definitely the ‘easiest’ palate so far for just drinking outside in the sunshine.

In a nutshell: The most joyous and boisterous — more bee than old man. Yet still a big, gastronomic, cerebral food-pairer and contemplative sniffer.

Little Pomona The Old Man & The Bee 2019 – review

(67% Dabinett, 31% HMJ, 2% perry pears. First vintage aged in oak — 6 months, French)

How I served: As above

Appearance: Same but light haze

On the nose: A definite change up. Gummy, juicy. Sweet yellow Victoria plums, floral honeysuckles, sweet spices and orange juice. The barrel is felt without really imposing too much flavour on the fruit. Juiciest yet.

In the mouth: Retains ultra-juiciness and fruitiness here. All the yellows — apricots, mangoes, vanilla, wine gums. Even pineapple. The least tannin so far — pith and mineral edge shaved off by barrel, and the slightly lighter, more challenging 2019 vintage. Less full-bodied than its two predecessors. Perhaps less cerebral, too, if you’ll pardon a largely unquantifiable musing. Easier-drinking. There is also an ever-so slight volatile edge, but it’s just about on the tolerable level by my mileage. 

In a nutshell: Definitely an evolved animal, but still recognisably Old Man. Earlier drinking than its previous three stablemates. Wouldn’t age this any great time longer. Tuck in.

Little Pomona The Old Man & The Bee 2020 – review

(67% Dabinett, 33% HMJ. 11 months in French oak)

How I served: As above.

Appearance: Same as 2019 more or less.

On the nose: Oh my word, what a nose. So heady and billowing and perfumed and intense. A cloud of the most exotic, tropical flowers, bergamot oil, fresh apricot and mirabelles with lightly toasty French oak spices. Oak and fruit are utterly seamless, incidentally. Unquestionably the most arresting and immediate nose, and in my opinion the best and most complex Old Man & The Bee aroma yet.

In the mouth: Taut, winey, complex and beautifully-structured delivery. An encapsulation of the qualities I’ve come to find in the great 2020s. (Of which there have been many). Acid, tannin, fruit and oak are outrageously concentrated whilst also utterly seamless and balanced. Two and a half years old already, yet it feels like a baby still. Yellow and orange sun-warmed citrus — more Dabinett than HMJ — but with the ballast of exotic potpourri, waxy yellow fruit, slatey minerality and structural control that Harry Masters’ brings to the table.

In a nutshell: A showstopper that perfectly reflects orchard, vintage, and the evolution of Old Man & the Bee. Unquestionably my favourite nose in the series, maybe my favourite OMATB full stop. Still unbelievably concentrated — will age well over half a decade or more to come. Open one now with protein-rich food and hide the rest.


Vertical tastings are always a fascinating privilege, but all the more so when they encapsulate not only an orchard, but a cidermaker’s career — and a much-lauded career at that.

Particularly captivating was experiencing the gradual development of James and Susanna’s sense of what (who?) The Old Man & the Bee is. From working out which apples were best suited, to giving each given vintage more of its own room to speak, to bringing in the element of sympathetic oak from 2019. As the vertical progressed, not only did the harmony of fruit (and later oak) become more seamless, but a more distinctive identity began to emerge in the ciders, even as each offered distinct takes on the overall theme.

Certainly the vintages sing out beautifully from 2016 onwards. 2017, 2018 and 2020 are especially reflective, albeit those (in this taster’s opinion) were three very good years. 2019 is especially impressive for the ripeness of fruit it shows in what was a pretty challenging harvest — a testament to the team’s emphasis on selection and sorting. If I’m picking favourites, it’s ’20, ’17, ’18, just about in that order — though the ’17 might edge it on another day. But every vintage is worth your time, money and consideration. (If you find the ’17 anywhere I demand you reveal your source).

I won’t speak much about terroir here, partially because there will soon be a better Little Pomona prism through which to discuss it, and partially because considering one orchard in isolation is never the best way to view the impact of terroir. I will merely add that were the orchard any different — in aspect, soil, steepness, drainage or microclimate, the ciders would be very different. That the terroir is unquestionably central to the character of The Old Man & The Bee, whether or not one chooses to look for it. And I maintain my view that it is a very good orchard — and terroir — indeed. There is an additional fullness, ripeness, texture on show here, compared to the mean; there is a throughline not found either in other Little Pomona ciders (even those showing the same primary varieties) or in other ciders more generally.

What I will say, as a closer, is that there has lately been some (more) discussion around the ‘winification’ of cider, and its various pros and cons. I’m not going to wade too deeply in here either for the time being — I think ‘winification’ is an interesting word on several levels that deserves a more thorough dissection in another article. But James and Susanna have a wine background, and have been open about the degree of influence that wine has had upon their cidermaking, so I think it’s worth one final aside.

What The Old Man & The Bee certainly has in common with the best wines — indeed in common with the best drinks of any sort — is utter reverence for its ingredient fruit. What that ingredient is, how and where it was grown and the ways it responded to its vintage. Reverence for the time and manner in which that fruit was picked, the way it was processed and the way it was nurtured through fermentation and maturation. Make no mistake, this is a drink that evinces love, respect, curiosity and care on the maker’s part. A desire to work with apples, trees, place and time to show something as fully and sensitively as it can be shown. The result is a drink that means something, beyond mere liquid quality. It is cider whose unique identity — as cider — has not been watered down, but strengthened; it is a glimpse at cider’s very soul. If that comes in part from the influence of wine, I for one am all for it. 

Many thanks to James and Susanna for making this tasting possible. Samples were provided by the cidery, but as ever the author’s opinions and tasting notes are his own.

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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, Pellicle, Full Juice, Distilled and Burum Collective. @adamhwells on Instagram, @Adam_HWells on twitter.

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