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Otter Vale Products

A tribute to our suppliers: Chris Coles and Nick Pring, Green Valley Cyder

Meet Chris and Nick, co-founders of Green Valley Cyder at Darts Farm Shop

The southwest is synonymous with cyder – the traditional Devon spelling, take note! We’re blessed to be surrounded by a wealth of dedicated and talented cider makers, but few can claim to have as much experience and combined years under the belt as Green Valley Cyder‘s Chris Coles and Nick Pring.  These champion craftsmen can take the credit for creating the cyders which we have long used in our Great Taste 1 Star 2013 award-winning Apple with Westcountry Cider Chutney, and more recently in our Taste of the West award-winning Devon Farmhouse Cider Mustard.

Otter Vale’s Apple with Westcountry Cider Chutney is one of our three most popular products and although it’s very well-known locally and regionally, we’ve been guilty of not shouting loudly enough about its provenance.  Did you know that it is made using cider pressed from local apples? You might also not have been aware that until 2018, the cider was pressed and produced behind their shop area in Dart’s Farm, Topsham, just across the way from where you can see most of our range proudly displayed in a dresser beside the butchers.  Green Valley Cyder also is used in Georgie Porgie’s Taste of the West award winning Apple and Cider pudding and Julie Scrumptious’ Devon Cider Fruit Cake.

Our relationship with the boys at Green Valley Cyder goes back over twenty five years.  They’ve been there even before our family business was in the capable hands of Granny and Grandpa Otter Vale and they kept Mr Otter Vale right when his parents handed on the reins.  We would combine deliveries to Darts Farm with collections of 25 litre containers of cider, and on more than one occasion Chris and Nick would always helpfully heft these into a heavily pregnant Mrs. Otter Vale’s car!

We’re always keen for an excuse to get out and about and visit our local suppliers and customers who are as passionate about food and provenance as we are.  We caught up with Nick and Chris a few times over the summer and during harvesting/pressing season in 2018, around the time that Chris was (technically!) retiring.  Subsequently, the production of Green Valley Cyder has moved to the renowned Sandford Orchards in Crediton where Barny and his team will continue to make it alongside their own exciting products.  We inadvertently gate crashed a photo shoot (sorry Matt Austin!) and put some questions to Chris and Nick.  We’d hoped to bring you this interview and talk about cider production back then, but time caught up with all of us, so we decided to save it until Wassail time instead.  You can read about the tradition of wassailing in our previous blog post, and read on to find out more about traditional cyder making at Green Valley Cyder, in Chris’ own words.

Credit: Gaby Dyson

Can you tell us how Green Valley Cyder came about? The founding of Green Valley Cyder Ltd. was triggered by the closure of the much larger cider company Whiteways of Whimple Ltd. in 1989, part of the Allied Lyons Food and Drink group. A small  number of the former employees of “Whiteways” pooled their skills and their redundancy payments to set up the new company, specifically founded to “continue the best traditions of cidermaking in East Devon”.

So for how long have you each been making cider?  Or what’s your combined number of years of cider making expertise? At the time, the combined cidermaking experience of the five individuals involved exceeded 150 years with a broad spread of skills.

For how long has Green Valley Cyder been based at Darts Farm? Green Valley Cyder has been based  at Darts Farm since 1989, when it was known as Picfresh. The name Darts Farm was introduced in 1993.

Green Valley Cider

How many people work at Green Valley Cyder? Retrospectively there have been 4 people, rising to 5 during the apple pressing season.  Going forward, the emphasis will be on the retail side and on tasting and appreciation – education if you like. There will be demonstration pressings continuing, but on a much smaller scale than before.

How would you describe the cider making process to a novice? Cidermaking is inherently straightforward, but you do need to run a tidy ship, to use an analogy. First of all you need to use good quality fruit of the right varieties. You need to know your orchards. In East Devon the characteristics we are looking for are a good balance of natural sugars, fruit acidity and tannins leading to appropriate alcohol levels with at least some fruity bite and finally good depth of flavour and length. Sometimes all this can be achieved with a single apple variety, but more commonly we will choose a blend of different “bittersweet” apples to suit.
Apple pressing is simple. First of all the fruit is washed and milled (crushed) and then the juice is extracted from the milled pulp by pressing. There is a wide variety of equipment available to achieve this. Here at Green Valley Cyder we use a conventional apple mill followed by traditional hydraulic “pack press” where the apple pulp is pressed in a stack of shallow layers wrapped in cloth. Our old girl is characterised as a 100 ton press reflecting the ultimate pressure used. These days so-called “belt presses” are significantly more efficient but possibly lack the charm of an old pack press.
Once the apple juice is available, all that is left is to put it into a suitable fermenting vessel and wait for the effect of either wild or cultivated yeast to achieve the magic of transformation into cider – tasting all the way of course.

Green Valley Cider

We have to know our onions in the chutney business – how important is it that you know your apples?  Largely covered above [You need to know your orchards].

What are the most important features of the apples used in your cider production and what types of apples do you use?  Many of our orchards are mixed plantings of cider fruits with maybe up to a dozen varieties in each case. We can normally name about a half of these. We have our favourites, particularly old Devon varieties: Fair Maid of Devon, Sweet Alford, Sweet Coppin, Twos and Twos, Tremlett’s Bitter, Ellis’s Bitter, Ten Commandments, Brown’s Apple, Slack ma Girdle, Harry Masters Jersey, Dabinett and even Tom Putt to name but a few.  The apples we use are predominantly bittersweets but we are not averse to small quantities of desert apples when these are available locally e.g. Discovery, Katy, Braeburn, Cox, Russet

How local are the apples that you use? All from within about 15 miles, predominantly East Devon.

How important is provenance and local knowledge to what you make? Crucial

Do you think the extremes of weather we’ve experienced this year will affect the local apple production? Weather always impacts on crops. Apples are no exception. 2018 has been probably the best growing season for cider apples in the last 20 years – particularly the long warm and sunny summer. I note that vineyards have experienced the same benefit. The result will be high sugar levels with well developed tannins and no excesses of acidity. This is confirmed at pressing with sugar gravities about 20% higher than average at 1.060 to 1.065. The tonnages are about 75% of maximum with some local variation. We are going to see some superb ciders. There may be a knock on effect next year with potentially fewer fruit buds forming this autumn due to the conditions, so that next year’s yields could be down.

Will Green Valley Cyder products taste any different now that production has moved site?  Green Valley Cyder stocks, recipes, specifications and know-how are all being transferred to Sandford Orchard Ltd. with the aim of maintaining existing product tastes. The aim is to achieve a seamless transfer.

Green Valley Cider
Credit: Gaby Dyson

There are many ciders and local brews available in the shop – how important is it that local producers have this outlet and support?  Will customers still be able to have tastings at the counter, and will there still be expertise on hand to discuss the merits of these many products?  The aim in the shop is always to improve and extend the range of West Country Ciders particularly from artisan producers of which there are an increasing number. There are exciting and extensive developments afoot in the shop  which will increase the retail area back towards the Cider Press and also incorporate a proper bar for tastings – formal and casual. Our existing staff have plenty of expertise on cider (and on beer) to help in advising customers.

Green Valley Cider

You’ve won many awards over the years – which ones have meant the most to you? Green Valley Cyder has received numerous awards over the years for its  ciders. The ones that stand out in my memory are the Devon County Show Championship in 1999, 2004 and 2009, the Arthur Davis Cup at the Royal Bath and West Show (2004) and numerous  awards from CAMRA [CAMpaign for Real Ale] (the national beer and cider consumers organisation), the best of which was the national Gold Medal championship in 2008. On top of this the retail shop has won “The Best Independent UK Cider Retailer of the Year” awarded by Off Licence News in 2014 and 2016.

What’s been the defining moment of your cider-making careers, or what are you most proud of? The defining moment of my cidermaking career was undoubtedly the farm auction at Plum Tree Farm in Somerset where we bought our fine old Stowe Cider Press – for a price at least 3X more than expected at over £3,000 (well over 12% of our working capital). That was definitely the point of no return.

Green Valley Cider

What do you feel are the benefits of a locally produced craft cider over mass-produced offerings? Locally produced craft ciders win hands down. They demonstrate direct provenance, they have inherently high apple juice content and hence cider with interesting taste and character, they have much lower food miles and finally they keep the local agricultural economy turning over.

What advice do you have to anyone hoping to make cider at home? Go for it. (Take advice)

How many apples are in a typical pint of cider? That all depends on the size of the apple and, less flippantly, on the juice content of the cider. So a pint of craft cider with 100% juice content will be made from about 800g of apples (around 8 apples), whereas a pint of mass produced white cider may only have about 30% juice content, barely 2.5 apples – and much less taste.

What’s your favourite type of cider? I always ask people what they like, and try to avoid telling them my preferences. Everyone’s taste will be influenced by the weather (summer vs. winter) and the food they may be pairing the cider with. For the record, I favour full bodied, medium dry still ciders.

How do you best enjoy your cider?  What food do you recommend alongside it? When gardening, I plant a pint of cider at the end of the patch I am working on, as a reward. It speeds up the job. With food I would pair cider with pork, chicken and cheese dishes. Try cooking your chicken or pork chops in cider – magic.

What ingredients would you recommend using from Darts Farm shop to enjoy with your cider? Obviously Otter Vale Apple with Westcountry Cider Chutney together with a good cheese – like Quicke’s Mature (other brands are available).

Are you really going to retire?  If so, what are your plans for the future, because we’re not entirely certain that you’ll ever stop working?!I have officially retired – but this is more of a gradual process.

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