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Brahms and Liszt in Elgar Country

Max Le Grand visits an Apple Cider Mill and a Potato Vodka Distillery in Herefordshire

There is hardly a pub in Cheltenham that does not stock Weston’s Cider, a refreshing drink that reaches many parts of the country and is located in Much Marcle.

Here, cider is bound up in the history and legend of Much Marcle. I met a farm hand, whose grandfather Henry Weston established the cider mill in 1878 at The Bounds farm house, which then stood in 160 acres of land.

The farm hand turned out to be Henry Weston, great grandson and the latest member of the family to reside in the old farm house. He is the Director of farming at the mill. No pin-striped suit for Henry. It is typical of the Weston family, that they are prepared to roll up their sleeves, and get stuck into manual work. No wonder the 160 employees are happy. It’s not just the 9% proof Rosie’s Cider which has the kick of Shire horse, to inspire a loyalty for some, of up to 40 years.

Life was not always hunky-dory for the senior founder of Weston’s Cider. Henry got wind of Percy Bulmer’s plan to open up another mill in Hereford. Bulmer’s now have some clout with 65% sales. Which makes Weston’s 3% share sound a trifle meagre.

Henry explained that Weston’s expansion was based purely upon demand. The family firm never wanted to punch above their weight. You won’t see a palatial mansion amidst the apple orchards or a Rolls Royce in the driveway. Weston’s plough their income back into the company. That way, according to Henry, they keep a firm grip on the quality of their award winning drinks.

By contrast with Weston’s ‘steady-as-she-goes’ ethic, another Herefordshire farmers son, William Chase, has focussed his entrepreneurial skills upon the potato. Just 12 miles along the A417 to the north of Much Marcle, is the hamlet of Rosemaund. Here surrounded by potato fields and an apple orchard, is the Chase Vodka Distillery. You may have quaffed the world’s best vodka at various festivals and functions around Cheltenham.

‘Will’ speaks with a local burr, and gesticulates like a windmill in a hurricane. His big break came through his macho Tyrell’s Crisps, sliced from large potatoes. Tesco’s found a ready market for these ‘snacks in a bag’. While the profits mounted, a problem emerged. There was a glut of small potatoes among his crop, which went to waste.

On a trip to America, Will met a man who made potato Vodka from mini-spuds like the Lady Claire and the Lady Rosetta variety. At this stage, the ambitious Herefordshire man spotted huge potential in the distillation of Vodka. So he sold the crisp business for a considerable profit, and then set about putting together the best possible equipment for making Vodka. Will purchased a hand made, copper batch pot in Germany.

Not any old still which might filter the character out of his vodka, but one with a hand made 75 foot rectifying column with 42 bubble plates, which must be seen to be believed. This will explain the tall chimney like structure that stands proud over the roof of the big barn where he had the still installed.

Will then explained, how he laboriously distilled the vodka three times, and then ran it twice through the rectifying column. Dip a finger into the tiny sample bowl, at the base of the column, and you taste the neck slapping essence of Chase Vodka. The raw spirit is then filtered through charcoal to give the vodka its creamy taste. In 2008, April Fool’s Day, the finished product was then bottled, stopped and labelled by hand and launched upon the world. Many Cheltonian Chase connoisseurs have been heard on the streets, singing “show me the way to go home”. It takes 16 tonnes of potatoes to distill 1,000 litres of Britain’s exclusive Chase Potato Vodka.

To lend perspective, Grandpa Weston originally purchased three wood vats he named, Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester, each holds 1,200 gallons.

More recently, Weston’s added Pip and Squeak to the growing capacity. Each of these towering containers holds 42,000 gallons. It would take a dedicated cider drinker, 230 years to reach the dregs of a single vat! Harvest time comes between September and November.

For Henry’s father, Norman Weston, who was then Managing Director, school summer holidays meant pure joy. He organised picnics in the orchards. Helen, Henry, Diana, Juliet and Tim represent the current generation. The kids then, did their fair share among the workers on the farm. To ensure a fine crop, traditional wassailing would echo around the orchards. “Oh, apple tree, we’ll wassail thee, And hoping thou wilt bear, For the Lord doth know where we may go, To be merry another year”.

Weston’s crop was heavily supplemented, when local farmers arrived loaded with cider apples and perry pears. After being weighed and sorted, they would eventually go to the press. The blending of each drink was a manual labour of merriment. These days the blending and filtering is a sober, fully automated process.

Henry openly admits, administration is not his strongest forte. This explains why his sister, now married as Helen Thomas, was made Managing Director in 1996. Her job is to commercially drive the company into the 21st century. She is adamant that Weston’s Cider will continue to maintain her great grand father’s traditional values.

Back in the early 1900’s, Shire horses hauled drays that creaked under the crates of cider and perry to make local deliveries. When the railway came to nearby Dymock, Weston’s were able to extend their markets to Cheltenham and towns around Gloucestershire as the locomotive network gradually expanded.

Today, Cider is no longer the kids drink. Just as well, some pressings are
more powerful than ale!