Local heroes bear fruitful businesses

03 October, 2008

Small producers who stick to the mantra of regionality are giving the key players in the cider category real food for thought. Nigel Huddleston reports

Concern over global warming and carbon footprints has put local produce at the top of the agenda in food and drink.

Although big brands

such as Strongbow and Magners dominate the cider market, the industry is still built on a bedrock of local producers, some of

whom are seeing their ciders gain increasing distribution and sales in niche independent retailers as the cider boom unfolds.

Henry Chevallier Guild, of Suffolk cider producer Aspall, says: "There is an opportunity for retailers to make more of regional opportunities, as it adds interest and intrigue to the category.

"Diversity is essential for a vibrant and developing category and provides more choice for both the retailer and the consumer. It enables consumers to expand their drinks repertoires as they experiment with the more niche, high quality ciders."

Thatchers managing director Martin Thatcher adds: "The idea†of locally-produced and farm-produced rather than something that's come out of†a factory is†a big advantage for us."

Though many of the 200-or-so cidermakers in the UK come from the traditional cider-producing counties such as Herefordshire and Somerset, there are now cider producers across

England

and Wales giving retailers in all parts of the UK the chance to accommodate locally-made cider and perry on their shelves.

While many don't supply in bottles, small-size plastic barrels often provide a chance to offer customers draught carry-out.

At the last available roll call, there were cider producers in Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Dorset, Essex, Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, Hertfordshire, Kent, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Suffolk, Sussex, Warwickshire, the West Midlands, Wiltshire, Worcestershire and Yorkshire, in addition to the more established

quartet of Devon, Gloucestershire,

Herefordshire and Somerset.

Pontypridd-based Gwynt & Ddraig is one of the more high profile Welsh boutique cider producers, but there are around 15 in production in the country at the moment.

There's even a producer, Peelwalls Farmhouse, in the Scottish borders region.

Herefordshire provides some of the better-known smaller cider and perry producers in the acclaimed Gwatkins and Dunkerton's, along with Henny's and Lyne Down.

Devon has around 30 of the UK's cidermakers, while Sheppy's and Orchard Pig are among the smaller off-trade friendly producers in Somerset.

Cambridgeshire's Hereward produces bottle-conditioned dry cider, and Cornish orchards' bottle-fermented St Cuby's brand is in Booth supermarkets.

Cumbrian producer Cock Robin makes a Normandy-style bottled cider, and award-wining Warwickshire producer Hogan's is enjoying small, but growing off-trade distribution for its dry and medium styles.

Big players follow little league

While the small producers have been trying to take their fair share of the boom in cider sales, bigger players have also been attempting to play the local angle.

Gaymers has followed up its Stewley and Newton's Vale single orchard Somerset styles, with the introduction of the Devon and Somerset County Series - and has even produced a Blackthorn Banger sausage to further make the link between local drink and food.

John Mills, Gaymer managing director, says local brands

can

have pull outside

their immediate area of production.

"People are looking for regionality, but it's not just about those products only being consumed in those regions," he says. "Waitrose has done regionality but on a national basis. They recognise that people in Sheffield are just as likely to†be interested in drinking, say, Aspall Suffolk cider or Gaymer's County Series†as people in those places. We want to sell everything everywhere.

"But at the†same†time it's a great opportunity for our south west sales†team and we've†been to places like the Bath & West Show, the Royal Cornwall Show and Taste of Bath to raise awareness."

Gaymer is limited in its scope to expand the County Series by the sources of its fruit. "We always work with

our long-term contracted growers in Somerset, Devon, Dorset, Herefordshire and one in Kent," says Mills.

Somerset-based Brothers Drinks is closely associated with a local market for its branded pear cider through its origins as a product sold at the Glastonbury

Festival, but director of marketing

Phil Plowman says the company doesn't want to become hamstrung by its Somerset

origins.

"Consumers are concerned about provenance and quality of ingredients," he says. "They are buying triggers that fall into a pattern around broader food and lifestyle choices.

"This has benefited much of the cider category as it is seen as more real and genuine than some other drink categories. It is distinctly British, and being local is perceived as more natural than most lagers.

"But there is a danger that these elements are overplayed. Many ciders only communicate their provenance, traditional methods and geographic roots.

"As a result many ciders are indistinctive from each other and these values simply becomes a ticket to the game in the general cider category."

The prevailing consumer interest in products with local provenance seems certain to be a positive attribute for cider in the months ahead, as long as cider producers can come up with liquids that bring genuine local character.

The independent's approach

Gloucester independent Phoenix Fine Drinks specialises in spirits, but its supplementary ranges of wine, beer and cider feature a strong local element.

Its expanding range includes Green Goblin, produced by Thatchers for the Wychwood Brewery, just a hop along the A40 in Oxfordshire.

It also has products from the acclaimed boutique Herefordshire producer Gwatkins and the same county's Roaring Meg, produced by Lyne Down.

Gloucester's pivotal geographical position in the south west of England means that ciders from across the region can slot nicely into the Phoenix range.

"I'm looking at doing Gaymers, which has started doing a single orchard range," says owner Tim Errock, "partly in response to what people are asking for and partly because it's where I'd like to take my range to.

"My range has grown

and the upside of the cider boom has been that there are a lot of producers now making bloody good cider.

"What I do is the more specialist stuff. There's no point in me doing Magners or Bulmers, the stuff that people can get in any supermarket.

"In an ideal world, I'd get in the car and drive around to stop off at farm gates to buy it, but it's not practical."

Golden success for Showering brand Brothers

The cider boom has seen a famous old name from the world of drinks marketing emerge from the shadows. The Showering family made Babycham into a household name in the 1950s, and now the

third generation of the family

is earning a reputation of

its own as the team behind Brothers†Drinks.

Their pear cider was such a hit at the Glastonbury Music Festival in the 1990s that the

Brothers range was launched commercially two years ago.

Until then, the Showerings were content with a business contract-producing 150 million bottles a year of RTDs and other drinks for other suppliers.

Sales of the Brothers brand have grown 70% in the past year to around

5 million bottles, with Asda, Tesco and Thresher the major customers, with a strong presence in cash and carries.

"When we first went down to Glastonbury in 1995 it was with 10,000 pints in a horse box," says partner Matthew Showering.

"Now we've got some accounts with shops selling 35 cases a week."

Showering said the company was trying to focus as much on consumer advertising as possible, with main cider sponsor status at a number of smaller music festivals and 4,000 six-sheet posters that appeared near convenience stores earlier in the year. "We're doing more advertising because it really was making things happen. "




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