Where trend meets tradition
The Thatcher family have been making cider in Somerset for over 100 years, still produce fine traditional ciders and are justifiably proud of their heritage. But it’s their new Katy Rosé that has caught the imagination of not just the cider industry, but the whole alcoholic drinks sector.
With the popularity of Rosé in the wine world, you could be excused for thinking that it was developed after highly-paid market analysts predicted that there would be a demand for a cider equivalent – light, easy to drink, refreshing, sophisticated and of course pink. Indeed Katy Rosé ticks all those boxes, at just 5.4% alcohol, it’s half the strength of most wines, is deliciously drinkable and is my find of the year!
MD, Martin Thatcher (pictured above) is honest enough to tell us “what actually happened is that whilst we were discussing the ongoing problem of Katy cider coming out slightly pink, someone had a Eureka moment and said ”Why don’t we make it pink? We then spent a lot of time and energy making it as pink as possible! The pink pigment comes from skin of apple, and it’s about how we press and deal with the mash. We need to keep the juice in the skins until the last possible moment.”
Katy appeals to a new generation of cider drinkers, introduced to cider by a trend those in the industry call ‘The Magners Effect’. Martin explains: “There’s been a huge change in the cider drinker profile. Somerset people always knew how good cider was, but because of the National brands and their vast advertising, word has been spread far and wide. There are a lot of people who traditionally wouldn’t have considered cider who have tried it and said, “actually I like that!”
“The Magners effect has introduced new people to cider who want to continue to drink cider, but to move on and try something different from the huge choice of ciders available. It’s been great for the whole industry.”
“The Thatchers range is very broad, from traditional cloudy cider to single variety bottled ciders such as Dabinett and light sparkling varieties like Katy. Not everybody will like every product we produce but we can usually find something that everybody likes!”
Around 60% of Thatchers business is still draught cider, much of it the traditional cloudy variety, and the basic process remains very similar to that used by Martin Thatcher’s great grandfather William John Thatcher. In a nutshell, apples are harvested, pressed to release the juice, the juice is fermented, matured and packed into bottles or barrels.
“The machinery around the process has got bigger and more efficient, but the basic technology is the same”, says Martin, “for example when pressing, my great grandfather would have manually packed layers of apples and straw and pressed them manually, my grandfather used material cloths in similar presses and now we use hydraulic presses, which are fully computerised and sealed. But the material that strains the juice out is still very similar to my grandfather’s.”
“The National Association of Cider Makers do a lot of technical development in the area of pomology; planting new varieties of apple trees and developing new growing systems. This work is so complex and so long term that a huge amount of co-operation is needed in the industry for the general good. Thatchers play a leading role in this, we have a trial orchard here, with 100 varieties of apples being grown for benefit of whole industry to see what works and what doesn’t. Smaller makers benefit from this too. They are important to the industry, they have a different skill set and add depth. Smaller makers keep the market interesting, we need all of us to survive.”
Thatchers employ about 75 people, and the family know that they play a big role in looking after the rural economy and take this very seriously. “All our roots are in the heart of the area, not many other industries can say that. We have many long serving employees, Ken who works in production is the longest, he came straight from school, to what was Cheddar Valley Cider, has been here all his working life and is now in his 60’s. Most people who have visited the shop will know Trish, she is very much a part of Thatchers too. But as well as direct employees, there’s a lot of spin off for local farmers, we depend on them and them on us. The business goes deep into the Somerset economy.”
As I write, the 2009 apple harvest is approaching completion. The different apple varieties are not only needed for different ciders, but also ripen sequentially, allowing the harvest to be spread over a longer period. Thatchers tend to start with Katy at the end of August and follow on with Somerset Redstreak, Prince William and Dabinett, then Tremletts bitter and Ashton bitter, finishing at the beginning of December.
Harvests vary, for example this year the yield for the typically peppery Somerset Redstreak is around 400 tonnes compared with just 40 tonnes last year and for this reason not every variety is produced every year. “People get disappointed because maybe their favourite variety has been changed to another one, but they can look forward to them coming back” says Martin Thatcher.
“2009 has been a really good quality year. We had a sunny September, this is a critical time, giving us an excellent harvest in terms of quality, although not quite as high as some years in volume terms.”
Plans for 2010 sum up Martin Thatcher’s approach to the old and the new. In the Spring, planting will begin on their new 10 acre orchard for future generations and new cider varieties. The ground is being prepared in time-honoured fashion; stubble turnips have been grown to help prepare and level the ground for the orchard, providing ideal feed for grazing sheep, which in turn help to fertilise the soil.
Taste the products from the barrel before you buy! Click here for more details
The Railway Inn
Station Road, Sandford – owned by Thatchers, stocks the full range
Cross Lane, Long Sutton, Langport, Near Somerton
Priddy Green, Priddy Nr Wells,
The Mandeville Arms
High Street, Hardington Manderville, Yeovil
2 Kewstoke Road, Weston Super Mare
Sandford Road, Winscombe
The Coronation Tap
Sion Place, Clifton, Bristol - dedicated ciderhouse, promising a lively night out, with a special Thatchers cider produced just for them
Hanover Place, Spike Island, Bristol – winner of the title CAMRA pub of the year
Thatchers can be found in some Black Sheep puns in Yorkshire, Fullers pubs in London and St Austell Brewery pubs in Cornwall.