Back in May 2021 I received an email from Paul Morris at Hoe Hill Cider. A new maker, just starting his cider journey in Lincolnshire, not far from me. By a strange coincidence Paul had come across me through Chapel Sider on a random internet search after which we exchanged tips and stories through e-mail and I pointed him in the direction of Cider Review and some other makers who ciders he should try.
I’ve since had the pleasure of visiting Hoe Hill orchard a couple of times and tasting Paul’s ciders at various stages through their journeys. Most recently he dropped off three of his 750ml labelled ciders towards the end of last year for me to try and they were fantastic. So, now getting much closer to launching with his first formal event next month, Paul kindly accepted my invitation for an interview so I can add a bit more of his story to my tasting notes.
CR: Firstly, can you tell us a little about yourself and how you got into making cider?
PM: I’ve always been fascinated with the English countryside – its fields and hedgerows, the shape of the land, and the social history it can tell us. I grew up on the outskirts of a Lincolnshire town and spent most of my spare time cycling out into the country with my friends; trees and ditches being an age-old magnet for small boys! The estate on which I lived was built in the 1960s, but some of the older properties which it had enveloped had old apple trees in their gardens; one even had a small orchard, which presented marvellous opportunities for illicit scrumping! Fast forward to adult life, travelling extensively and living all over the UK, I’ve had gardens and allotments and made beer and wine but never cider. Over the years I followed closely the rise of organic farming, sustainable development and climate change issues and always wanted to do something on the land, to produce something of value for people and do some good for the environment. Finally settling back in rural Lincolnshire with my family made me think about how I could build a practical rural enterprise. However, the more prosaic task of making a living got in the way; I simply didn’t have the resources to jack in everything and live the good life – any business I started would have to be built up whilst I was working full time.
I’d only occasionally had cider that I’d really enjoyed; my day job used to take me to Malvern, where I could sometimes get decent cider in the local pub (Wilces springs to mind) and the family spent several years holidaying in the New Forest, where I enjoyed New Forest Cider. I’d always planted apple trees in the houses we’d lived in before settling down and had always loved visiting orchards – there is just something special about them isn’t there? Unlike a ‘wild’ wood, man’s influence on the pattern of orchard trees is more noticeable, but it doesn’t detract from the overall natural beauty of the whole – if anything it enhances it. So I decided to produce the cider I liked but couldn’t get hold of and start a cider orchard and business. The fact that it would be a very slow process was actually an advantage for me as it would enable the investment of my limited time and money to be spread over many years. It was critical to the whole project that the cider business had to be backed by its own orchard because that represented the most sustainable solution – economically as well as ecologically. Subsequent experience and events have confirmed that belief.
It took many years of research, planning and searching for suitable land nearby, but in the Autumn of 2017, we finally managed to acquire a 7-acre field nearby. It was formerly arable and set-aside and was really too small and awkwardly-shaped for modern arable farming. What had saved the field from being amalgamated into the larger field next to it was the geography and boundaries – there’s a steep bank on the North East side and a lane and bridleway border the field to the West and South. It faces a local landmark, Hoe Hill, hence the name.
The original plan was to wait until my apple trees started fruiting before I tried my hand at making cider, but as they grew, people started to notice them and kept asking me to go and pick their apples, so I bought some small-scale equipment, set up in my cellar and started making cider from scrumped apples in 2020. I’ve now three harvests under my belt and it’s turned out to be an invaluable experience, worth a thousand books. I’m still in the early, experimental stages, but using the time while my own apple trees are getting established to learn the cider-making art will only help when Hoe Hill Orchard finally comes into production.
Now the funny thing is, I didn’t know about this new wave cider movement (or whatever you call it) until I stumbled across you, James. There aren’t many cidermakers in this neck of the woods, so I was really in the dark. The different ciders I’ve tried from some of the cidermakers you cover on Cider Review have been inspirational and really something to aim for. It’s a whole new world! I’ve already booked my ticket for the Ross-on-Wye Cider festival and I hope to visit cideries in future to discover more.
CR: Planting your own orchard is a huge task, how did you go about and why did you chose the varieties you did?
PM: The field was left with wheat stubble and the farmer kindly sowed a herbal ley for me, with a mix of deep-rooting and flowering plants, clovers and grasses. My son, Jack, and I laid out the orchard in Autumn 2017, using no more than three poles and a long surveyor’s tape; GPS is not needed! I planted around 300 trees in two tranches in early 2018 and 2019. I’ve since planted about 50 more. The 2018 planting was a complete nightmare: the ground cover hadn’t taken yet and there was so much rain that the ground turned to slurry and I was literally planting trees in mini-ponds. Every tree was planted by hand and all the stakes, tree guards, etc. had to be carried across the field as any vehicle would have got bogged down. We have a large deer population in the Wolds – mainly roe and muntjac, but also fallow deer, so I didn’t take any chances and used 6ft high mesh guards – expensive, but I couldn’t risk the trees being destroyed. I returned to the orchard on the morning after the first day of planting to find three roe deer hinds frolicking around the new trees! I developed a routine: 10 trees at a time, pre-position stakes, and guards, dig the holes, plant the trees, stake and guard them straight away before moving on to the next 10. This entailed constant trudging through the Somme-like mud from the field gate to position kit and trees so I must have waded miles in that winter. Soon, every tree had deer and hare droppings around the guards, but I haven’t lost a tree to them yet, thanks to the protection. Planting the second tranche in early 2019 was much easier: the ground cover grew up in the previous Spring (and it really did grow up – to 6ft in places! Probably due to residual nitrogen from the arable farming) and the winter was dryer. It’s funny, but when I planted the first batch of trees, I saw no worms, but after only a year of ground cover with no sprays or fertiliser, every spade-full of earth had half a dozen fat worms. It really doesn’t take much to turn things around.
I’d had plenty of time to research and I wanted to plant vintage cider apples, normally associated with the West Country and which are not really grown in Lincolnshire. Knowing no one in the cider world and with no practical experience, I found that most advice on apple tree selection, planting and management was not suitable for any aspect of starting a cider orchard. The late American orchardist Michael Phillips’ books, (‘The Apple Grower’ and others), were invaluable, especially with regard to orchard management and sustainable practices. My main source of advice was Andrew Lea’s ‘Craft Cidermaking’ book and I based my decisions on varieties on Lea’s advice to plant a good mix of bittersweets, bittersharps, sweets and sharps. Bill Bleasedale’s little book is simply delightful and contains all you really need to start an orchard and make cider. Chava Richman from Welsh Mountain Cider also provided great advice on selecting varieties. However, you can read stuff and test the soil as much as you like, but planting cider apple trees in an area where there are no others to compare with is a complete punt, so I decided on 28 mainly vintage cider varieties to hedge my bets, along with some crab apples to help pollination. Varieties are generally planted in sections of 5 to 20 and mostly timed to ripen October to November. The trees are 4-5 years old now and are mostly doing well, but Frederick (supposedly vigorous), Stoke Red and Golden Ball seem slow off the mark. Others – Morgan Sweet, Brown’s Apple, Crimson King and Ashmead’s Kernel are really taking off. Kingston Black, Harry Masters Jersey, Black Dabinett and several others seem happy enough. Many trees are now getting to 9 or 10 ft high, the slackers around 6 ft, but this may also be due to just slow growth habits. I think that it will take several more years to really tell which are suited to the conditions of Hoe Hill Orchard. It will be interesting to see how West country cider apples grown in Lincolnshire Wolds soil compare with their brethren on their home soil.
One thing I’m determined to do is keep things as natural and healthy as possible. I don’t use sprays (other than seaweed), pesticides, fungicides or synthetic fertilisers. To be honest, on a small scale with sensible planting distances and attention to bio-diversity, conventional chemicals are really not necessary – it’s far more cost-effective (and pleasant!) to let nature help out. I follow the same principles in the cidery with wild yeasts, long, slow fermentations and no sulphites.
CR: How do you find the climate and soil in the Lincolnshire Wolds? How did you source your trees and decide which root stocks?
PM: I spent ages agonising over rootstocks and tree spacing, but settled for full standards on M25 rootstock, 30ft apart in a quincunx pattern. I do have some M26 and MM106 in a ‘tree henge’; the M26 have done well but the MM106 don’t like the conditions. We are supposedly in the rain shadow of the Pennines but at 450ft high we are quite wet for Lincolnshire. Hoe Hill Orchard is also quite exposed to the East and winds are generally quite high, but they are clean and fresh – lichens are already appearing on the young trees. However, we are rewarded with a wonderful view of The Hill, rolling valleys and hills beyond and I can’t wait to be able to sip my own cider whilst looking over The Wash out to the Norfolk coast. I think that we may get our first small crop of apples next year – year 7. Our soil is deep, marly boulder clay from the Ice Ages. It tends to get waterlogged in the winter and bake hard in the summer. I put in lots of deep-rooting grasses and herbs to counter this and open up the soil and I’m doing everything I can to increase the soil organic matter and encourage soil lie and mycorrhizal fungal networks. Since planting the trees, we’ve had the Beast from the East which brought 10ft-high snow drifts and summer droughts, but I’ve only lost four trees so far. I think that this is down to the deep, tough rootstocks.
Because of the conditions I sourced most of my trees from Bill and Chava’s tree nursery at Prospect Orchard, 1,100ft up a Welsh mountain – I reckoned if the trees grow there, then they should be OK in Lincolnshire!
CR: What’s been your biggest challenges so far to starting a cider business? What couple of pointers would you give to anyone embarking on the same journey?
PM: Land and time! It took me 8 years to find land for the orchard. Land is expensive, hardly ever for sale and small parcels near villages suffer from ‘hope value’ for residential development. This skews everything and prevents people from starting out in small-scale horticultural and farming businesses. An orchard requires long-term surety and landowners generally are unwilling to give that for the most part, which I suppose is understandable. But there are a surprising number of odd fields around, which don’t lend themselves to modern farming. Look for fields that are too small for big tractors!
Like you, I have a busy day job and a family to attend to and despite my theory that slow growth is more manageable, trees demand attention at set times of the year and you cannot put it off. As far as orchard size goes, I reckon my 7 acres is enough for one busy cidermaker – I’d struggle with more. Similarly with the cidermaking, you only get one shot at it a year and you cannot put it off until later. Once started, another challenge is that the transition from amateur, hobby scale to even small commercial is a really big step with a corresponding uplift in the resources required (time and space being up there). After three cidermaking seasons I’m running out of space sooner than I thought (where do you put over a thousand bottles of cider?), but just in the nick of time I’ve been able to source a barn on the local farm and this will transform the business.
But for someone with no land and very limited resources, a cider enterprise is, with lots of hard work and enthusiasm, a very realistic prospect. The capital equipment required can be built up over time and will last for ages. An orchard will give you fruit for a hundred years with a modicum of maintenance. It’s a slow process but that has its own advantages whilst working the day job. It allows you to build up both your cidermaking skills and the market as the apple harvest increases year on year.
We live in an age where instant returns are required on investment and naff branding sells low-quality mass-market products. Cidermaking and orcharding are emphatically not that. The type of cider I want to produce, like that of the small-scale cider makers you have interviewed on Cider Review, will only ever be a niche product, but that’s OK. Not many people outside have ever tasted real cider before, so you need to sell it intelligently, as it really is not what people expect cider to be. I quite enjoy introducing folk to real, natural cider. Not everyone likes it, but that’s OK. Some even suggest that I add sweeteners or artificial gas, but I’m not prepared to compromise on quality – if I can’t drink it, I can hardly sell it can I?
CR: The three ciders being reviewed today all come from fruit you’ve sourced around you while your orchard grows to productivity. How have you managed to find traditional cider varieties in Lincolnshire?
PM: I haven’t – they found me! There’s a surprising number of small orchards and trees hidden away, usually neglected and unused, where the owners are only too happy for you to come and harvest their fruit, especially when it is put to good, delicious use! People started to notice my orchard growing and just asked me if I was interested in gathering their apples. Luckily, there are a few cider apples about – Black Dabinett, Yarlington Mill, Slack ma Girdle, Tremletts Bitter in one small orchard at Hagworthingham. I’ve plenty of Sweet Pethyre and Dunkerton Late Sweet, which gives a high-sugar rich mahogany-coloured juice which takes a long time to ferment. One cider I’ve made is what I call ‘Baumber Wildings’, from a row of seedling apple trees. They are a real pain to get to, over a barbed wire fence next to a 10ft-deep ditch, but they make great cider. Another orchard at Kirton Drove is mainly eaters but there are several varieties which I can experiment with. I’m really interested in making ciders that reflect their place, so I try and come up with an expression of each particular orchard from its constituent apple trees.
CR: Your labels look fantastic; can you tell us about the designs and how you came up with the Hoe Hill Cider branding?
PM: Hoe Hill Cider’s logo is simply an outline of The Hill. Does it for me.
Each bottle label design represents a sense of place: something related to the orchard where the apples grew. For example, ‘Wearddraca’ from Hagworthingham is an old English word for ‘guardian dragon’. When we were harvesting the apples the biggest grass snake I’d ever seen slithered out from the grass under the trees. My son’s friend, Charlotte, is an incredibly talented young artist and drew the dragon in ink. Kirton Drove, by Maxim Peter Griffiths, who specialises in contemporary Lincolnshire scenes, is just a delightful view of the Fenland drove road where the orchard stands. The picture just shouts, ‘Summer is here!’ which seems to be reflected in the cider, which has a really fruity aroma. ‘Baumber Wildings’, also by Maxim, does what it says on the tin – a representation of a rather unruly hedge of seedling apple trees.
CR: Finally, when are you hoping to launch commercially and where will our readers be able to get hold of your ciders?
PM: I waited until I had some decent cider under my belt in reasonable amounts before I applied for my alcohol licences last Autumn. Hoe Hill Cider is still really at the experimental stage and I won’t release cider unless I’m happy with it. We’ll be selling direct, locally and perhaps through an online specialist for the time being. We hope to have a website up and running soon. Our first event is an artisan market at Baumber Walled Garden, near Horncastle, on 7 May. We’ll take it slowly and build up experience for when Hoe Hill Orchard comes online. Last year was a bumper crop, which gives the opportunity to try new methods and blends; we’ve made our first Pet Nat this year. Even at a relatively small scale it’s possible to produce several different ciders each season; I don’t think I’ll ever get bored with it!
Huge thanks to Paul for answering all my questions with such candour and sharing the story of his journey so far.
Now on to the three ciders, which as Paul explained above are all slowly fermented with wild yeasts, unfiltered, unpasteurised, and full juice.
Baumber Wildings (6.3% – 2020)
Crafted from a selection of seedling apples from a small orchard in Baumber, Lincolnshire. Label artwork designed by a local artist: Maxim Peter Griffin
Colour: pale gold
On the nose: firstly, lots of fruit; green apples, lemon balm, as well as some bursts of strawberries. Followed by slight savoury herby notes of thyme and hints of eau de vie.
In the mouth: juicy but light, a real balance of all three major elements; acidity, sweetness and bitterness, with none standing out above the other. The very slight petillant carbonation lifts it, but it doesn’t last long. The green apples are here but it’s not overly appley (is that a word?), more grapes and pears along with hints of lemon citrus, but it’s super delicate. The finish has a little collision of a savoury herby character and a perception of sweetness that lingers pleasantly on the palate.
In a nutshell: a balanced delicate collection of fruit that intwines with a pleasant green herb character.
Kirton Drove (5.9% – 2020)
Another single orchard cider, this time from Kirton Drove, an orchard very exposed to the elements. Label artwork again by Maxim Peter Griffin
Colour: bright gold
On the nose: freshly pressed apple juice and orange squash, wooden press racks, and whispers of caramel. There is a real fresh juicy fruit quality to it as well as an aged woody element. Allowed to start to warm up to room temperature you get notes of orange marmalade.
In the mouth: given the bouquet it’s actually very delicate; very little body but smooth and easy drinking. That orange squash comes through onto the palate as well as some woody apples along with that almost caramelised fruit but not in a sweet dessert like way. It tastes a little sharper than Baumber Wildings, or a little greener at least, but again there is no prominent acidity. The finish feels drier compared to the above and it coats the mouth with a chalkiness. It’s got more minerality this one.
In a nutshell: another delicate very easy drinking cider but with a marvellous texture.
Wearddraca (6.3% – 2020)
Another single orchard cider, this time from Hagworthingham. This time fermented in Speyside oak whisky barrel. Label artwork by Charlotte Guy and captures the largest grass snake ever seen in the orchard.
Colour: amber and gold
On the nose: vanilla and wood and oodles of it. Swill the glass and you get burnt toffee and candied orange along with little wisps of smoke, as well as some earthy undertones.
In the mouth: damn! There is a lot going on here. It possibly stands out so pronounced due to the subtlety of the other two, but what a journey in a glass. First, I’m at sea with intense salty brine flavours, then I’m in the orchard with bitter apple skins, followed by the fireside with toffee apples and smoking wood. I loved the first glass, but it does start to overpower the palate considerably after a while. The Black Dabinett and Dunkerton Late Sweet are a little lost, or more to the point I can’t find them in terms of fruit character. Little elements of orange rind and apple skins try to poke through, but they are quickly pushed aside by vanilla and oak. A little less time in the barrel and a bit of sparkle would lift it for my taste.
In a nutshell: a bold merge of apple and wood that tests the boundary depending on where your preference lies
My fascination with cider started because of the vast opportunities to be able to taste new creations. So, the chance to experience something new so close to home is joyous. Especially as I have seen a glimpse of Paul’s voyage over the last couple of years as well as witnessed the impact of his forage into the wider market, the influence of his orders from Cat in the Glass on the ciders he has decided to create. His passion to create such a wonderful orchard in such a challenging space is inspiring. The three I’ve tasted today are excellent, all in their own unique way, some subtle and delicate, others bold and rich. The fruit and geography of the Lincolnshire Wolds have teased a little of what they’re capable of through these three and it only leaves me more excited to see what Hoe Hill orchard itself will create in the coming years. One to watch and look out for folks.