The first thing people ask when they find out you are from Somerset is “how much cider do you drink?” The apple-based drink is synonymous with our county. It has imprinted itself on our culture, forming much of our history and traditions.
For instance, wassailing is an ancient West Country cider festival which ensures a good apple harvest by waking up the apple trees in January. There are nearly as many variants to this tradition as there are orchards in Somerset. The fun normally takes place on ‘Old Twelvey Night’ on 17 January, a wassailing queen is crowned and much noise made (even shotguns fired) and wassail (a mulled cider) is consumed before an offering of cider to the trees in the orchard in order to wake the trees from their winter slumber!
How has such a traditional industry as cider-making fared in the current climate? I spoke to Matilda Temperley from Burrow Hill Cider and the Somerset Cider Brandy Company.
Matilda’s father, Julian, first arrived at Burrow Hill Farm as a sheep farmer 55 years ago but cider had always been made there. He used the old press to start a cider-making business which, 30 years ago, became the first fully-licensed distillery for cider, reinvigorating the ancient craft of Somerset cider brandy.
Burrow Hill is home to over forty varieties of vintage cider apples such as Dabinett, Kingston Black, Stoke Red, Yarlington Mill and Harry Masters, which are used to produce many different ciders, brandies and other apple products.
Matilda explained why their business has been hard hit over the last year due to the Covid-19 virus:
“About 80 per cent of our customers have disappeared as the pubs and restaurants which are a mainstay have been largely closed for the past year, so it has hit us badly. On a positive note, online sales have increased.”
Burrow Hill has also been hit hard by the cancellation of the many festivals which have traditionally been a mainstay of sales for them.
“We have been selling Burrow Hill Cider at Glastonbury Festival since the very beginning. At first we sold out of the back of a Landrover, then from a horse-drawn waggon and finally from the legendary Somerset Cider Bus which has been a staple of Glastonbury Festival for the past 30 years. According to the Independent ‘it may be almost as iconic as the Pyramid Stage itself’.”
So with all the loss of revenue the cider business has had, how does Matilda feel about Brexit and the new UK/EU trade deal?
“Brexit is a disaster for sales. We can no longer send small parcels to the EU directly, as it is too complicated and the carriers don’t want to take the risk. Imports and exports are suddenly much more expensive. Our glass and barrels which come from Europe are expensive, as also are our paper, our boxes and other items. It has completely decimated our trade with Europe.”
So you clearly have problems with the substance of the new trade deal but at least the Government gave you enough information to mitigate the issues around Brexit?
“No, of course not. They made a shoddy deal at the last second so no one could have prepared efficiently for it. Because of this all the customs brokers have been booked up for the next few months due to the lack of clarity.”
She went on to explain:
“What the government fails to understand is that if we are unable to export, even short term, it will be detrimental to our contacts and customers whom we have nurtured over the years. Brexit has caused a stumbling block that a family-run business like ours cannot simply overcome. No amount of bluster and bravado can mitigate our lost opportunities.”
So I asked Matilda whether she feels that Burrow Hill can survive:
“We have a robust future. Covid-19 and Brexit have been disasters for business but we make something tangible and more people are coming directly to us via our online shop. So we may have smaller ambitions for the moment but we will carry on and focus on diversifying the farm in the meantime.”
Once again our local businesses have amazed me in showing the courage and innovation that is crucial for survival. This despite the failings of our government and the new trade deal.
If your business has a story to tell regarding Brexit (positive or negative) West Country Voices would like to hear it.