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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 July 2006, 12:58 GMT 13:58 UK
The sweet smell of cider success
By Will Smale
Business reporter, BBC News, Somerset

Louise Sheppy
Louise Sheppy tasting one of the farm's ciders
In the second of a series of articles on companies in the south west of England, the BBC News Website visits a traditional cider producer in Somerset.

The moment you walk into David and Louise Sheppy's farmhouse the wonderful smell is intoxicating.

With their homemade cider being bottled in the adjoining barn, the sweet, tangy scent of fermented apples fills the air.

The latest generation of the same Sheppy family that has been making cider on their 350-acre farm south of Taunton since the early 1800s, their production methods remain a world apart from the giants that dominate the UK cider industry.

Instead of a vast factory and the latest cutting edge production techniques, they continue to naturally ferment all their homegrown apples in oak vats stored in their barns.

Apples on the tree
This year's apple crop is continuing to develop on Sheppy's trees

And forget any artificial sweeteners or preservatives, Sheppy's Cider does not even use temperature control or added yeast to aid the fermentation process.

Instead the cider ferments each autumn in its own good time, speeding up or slowing down depending upon how hot or cold the outside weather.

The finished cider is then stored in the oak vats before any final blending and bottling on site.

Rare apples

Making 454,000 litres of cider a year, Sheppy's Cider is a mere drop in the ocean of the UK's total 500 million litre annual cider sales.

Two of Sheppy's Cider's varieties
Sheppy's produces a range of single variety ciders

Yet its range of ciders is in big demand, with Sheppy's Cider now being sold nationally at Waitrose supermarkets, and in the south west at Sainsbury's and Asda, in addition to mail and internet order and from its own farm shop.

Louise Sheppy says the business takes particular pride in its wide range of traditional, and in some cases, very rare, old cider apple varieties.

"We grow about 30 different varieties, some so old in fact that we don't know what variety they are," she says, sitting at the kitchen table which doubles as the office.

"We are trying to preserve the really old ones, grafting them to grow new trees."

Mrs Sheppy adds that no cider apple would be good for eating or cooking.

"There are basically three types of apples - desert, culinary and cider.

"The cider ones are different as they have a much higher tannin content. While this makes them perfect for cider they would be really horrible to eat.

"And within cider apples there are three main sub types - the sharps, the sweets and the bitters."

'Acquired taste'

As well as producing a range of blended ciders from dry to sweet, Sheppy's also now makes single variety ciders from traditional apples with such old-fashioned names as Dabinett, Kingston Black, Tremlett's Bitter and Taylor's Gold.

Sheppy's traditional lawn mowers
Sheppy's orchards rely upon unmechanised lawn mowers

These are increasingly growing in popularity among cider aficionados, but in some cases are not for the faint-hearted, both in terms of intensity of flavour and a whopping 7% alcohol by volume.

"Mass market ciders are designed to be fairly easy to drink," says Mrs Sheppy.

"Some of our ciders are certainly more difficult, more of an acquired taste, but we do also do easy drinking ciders as well."

The apple harvesting season at Sheppy's lasts from September to December, with the different varieties being really to harvest at varying times.

Unlike eating apples, they are allowed to fall to the ground before being harvested.

The fruit is then chopped and crushed before being pressed to release the juice which is poured into the fermentation tanks.

Cider wars

The cider-making is led by David Sheppy, who does all the blending simply using his taste buds.

Magners Irish Cider
Magners Irish Cider is enjoying a surge in sales

Very occasionally he will add some sugar just to aid a secondary fermentation, or some water if the cider is particularly strong one year.

Mrs Sheppy adds that Sheppy's Cider is benefiting from a general renewed interest in cider.

This is being led in the UK by the recently introduced Magners Irish Cider, which is produced by Dublin-based food and drinks company C&C Group.

Backed by an extensive advertising campaign - and the novelty that it is best served over ice - Magners is the current vogue drink in many parts of the UK.

C&C estimates that Magners accounts for 75% of the current growth in UK cider sales.

The success of Magners has prompted the UK's main cider producer, Hereford-based Bulmers, to bring out its own cider specifically designed to be poured over ice - Strongbow Sirrus.

By contrast, Sheppy's Cider is designed to be served just lightly chilled to allow the full flavours to develop, but I'm sure the Sheppy family wouldn't mind if some drinkers sneaked in a few ice cubes.


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