The Oak Vats, a rare view

Many a Cider Drinker has probably dream of spending day of two in a 120.000 pint vat of Thatchers.

But the skilled craftsman pictured here are the master coopers who are ensuring the cider makers gigantic 150 year old oak vats remain in top condition for maturing it’s Somerset cider

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Alistair Simm, on top of the 150 year old Oak Vats

 

I spent a couple of hours with cooper Alastair Simm and his team, depending deep into the vats  and getting a rarely seen view from the inside. The 11 30ft tall vats each hold 120.000 pints, but occasionally they do need to be left empty so they are able to receive some expert care to keep them in top condition.

Alastair Simms, Britain’s only master cooper and owner of White Rose Cooperage is entrusted with the upkeep of the vats at Thatchers headquarters Myrtle, at Myrtle Farm, Sandford.

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Kean Hiscock depends into the deep dark Vats

A  fug of cider and sharp apples hangs heavy in the vats, which can, unsurprisingly,  make you feel rather light headed

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Alistair Simms descends into Vat 10.

Constructed of three inch thick oak staves, each of the vats has it’s own character. They were built by Carty and Sons of London, dating back to the 1040s. Each Stave is numbered from 1 to 200 ish  (I forgot to do a final count) with the year roughy scrolled into the wood in Roman numerals.

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All the Staves are numbered.

Apart from when the coopers are visiting, the Huge vats are full of cider.If the wood dries out, it can shrink.

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The oak is fitted and finished using a traditional block plane

Even though the wood has been cut it is still a living product, so the speed of work is essential to complete the work within 48 hours – the longest they recommend a vat is empty for.

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Alistair at work

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Rush Vines are used to seal the gaps between the vats. It is a technique that dates back to the Egyptians.

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Sean does a final check  before sealing the vats

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White Rose Cooperage 

 

While the cider is held in the vats, usually for around six weeks, the oak softens and rounds the flavours, allowing the apple characteristics to shine through. Every Friday the Thatchers cider makers taste the cider from each vat, to judge if it is ready for next step of it’s journey

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All photography copyright Neil Phillips Photography 2015

thanks for Penny Adair and Tina Rowe

http://www.neilphillipsphotography.co.uk

The Picking has begun…

I spent much of last week filming and photographing the start of apple harvest at Thatchers Cider. Traditionally the picking starts with the Katy apple in an orchard just behind Thatchers Farm HQ in Sandford. I love the start of this harvest as it’s usually the first time that I’ve stepped into an Orchard for a couple of months, and the site of these Rosie red apples, ( highly polished by the apple fairies during the night, honest ! ) plus the pungent smells, and not to mention the sweet taste  ( I don’t eat too many – Mr Thatcher:-) ) means it’s my favourite place to wander during the warm early September days.

Katy Apple Harvest has Started atThatchers Cider, Sandford, Sept 10 2015,  Copyright, Neil Phillips Photoand Film 07885 214291 neilphillipsphotography.co.uk

Katy Apple Harvest has Started atThatchers Cider, Sandford, Sept 10 2015,
Copyright, Neil Phillips Photoand Film 07885 214291
neilphillipsphotography.co.uk

The Orchards are looking ready for Harvesting

The Orchards are ready for Harvesting….

Ripe for Picking

Ripe for Picking

Timber…

I spent a rewarding day in Cornwall late last week photographing at Duchy Timber. The shoot actually started with a two hour delay which meant I had free time to use up, which gave me time to make a short trip to beautiful Fowey. Here I sat down with a pasty (£3.60 ouch !), watching the small Ferry come in. I then watched it go out again, it was bliss. Duchy Timber has 11 acres to explore, lots of wooden buildings photograph and in the short time I had, I worked hard to nail the place (as you would, or wood !) The chaps were very patient with my requests to climb logs etc.

Nothing more to say other than……..

Good Timber

The tree that never had to fight
For sun and sky and air and light,
But stood out in the open plain
And always got its share of rain,
Never became a forest king
But lived and died a scrubby thing.
The man who never had to toil
To gain and farm his patch of soil,
Who never had to win his share
Of sun and sky and light and air,
Never became a manly man
But lived and died as he began.
Good timber does not grow with ease:
The stronger wind, the stronger trees;
The further sky, the greater length;
The more the storm, the more the strength.
By sun and cold, by rain and snow,
In trees and men good timbers grow.
Where thickest lies the forest growth,
We find the patriarchs of both.
And they hold counsel with the stars
Whose broken branches show the scars
Of many winds and much of strife.
This is the common law of life.

Be the Best of Whatever You Are

If you can’t be a pine on the top of the hill,
Be a scrub in the valley — but be
The best little scrub by the side of the rill;
Be a bush if you can’t be a tree.
If you can’t be a bush be a bit of the grass,
And some highway happier make;
If you can’t be a muskie then just be a bass
But the liveliest bass in the lake!
We can’t all be captains, we’ve got to be crew,
There’s something for all of us here,
There’s big work to do, and there’s lesser to do,
And the task you must do is the near.
If you can’t be a highway then just be a trail,
If you can’t be the sun be a star;
It isn’t by size that you win or you fail
Be the best of whatever you are!

Douglas Malloch (May 5, 1877 (Muskegon, Michigan) – July 2, 1938)


Then and Now, Spring….

Spring Blossom, katy WaySpring is a special time in the orchards, and you prey for long sunny days and blue sky. What you don’t want is heavy rain and strong winds, exactly what we suffered today. Our recently built wooden garden Gate has been blown off it’s hinges, so lord know what apple blossom will be left, if any. Luckily, it’s still relatively early for blossom on cider apple trees (only the ever so keen Katy Apple trees may of had their young but strong branches whipped by the winds) so fingers crossed for a rise in the temperatures and a reappearance of Somerset blue skies.Below is another extract from ‘Then and Now’

SPRING

Spring at thatchers Cider
Even after all these years Martin Thatcher is still

bowled over by the sight of an orchard decked in apple
blossom, and he’s not alone. To many people, the
coming of spring in cider country is one of Britain’s
wonders – nature and humankind working together
to create a marvel. Few sights compare to the beauty
and magic of trees suddenly covered in white or pink
flowers, yet it is not only a visual experience. A walk
in an orchard at blossomtime is as much about the
scent of the flowers and the drone of bees, the feeling
of warm sun or a cool breeze – and a sense of magic.
To the cidermaker, though, blossom is much more
than just a thing of beauty. For the trees to produce
apples the flowers need to be pollenated, and the
blossom doesn’t last for long. If you’re unlucky, in fact,
it can disappear overnight.
Nothing makes a cidermaker quite as nervous
as the prospect of a late frost, which can devastate
a whole orchard in one night, and in times past
fruit growers came up with some ingenious ways of
keeping temperatures above freezing at this crucial
time of year, such as burning oil in ‘smudge pots’ to
warm the air and keep it mobile. On one 19th century
Gloucestershire fruit farm the foremen slept beside
alarms connected to thermometers, which would
sound when the temperature became dangerously low.
But they were probably growing fruit varieties
that were not native to the area. The beauty of the
Somerset cider varieties is that they have evolved over
the years in the same climate, so that most blossom
after the worst danger of frost is over. Thus although
Somerset Redstreak is classed as an early bittersweet,
it flowers in mid-season, that is in the middle of May,
after all but the most freakish frosts. However, that old
renegade Tremlett’s Bitter indulges in rather riskier
behaviour, often flowering in late April when freezing
conditions are still a distinct possibility. It is still
essential, as it always was, to pick the right site for a
new orchard.

Tree Planting, Thatchers Then & Now:

Over the last couple of weeks I have been photographing tree planting at Compton Bishop where Thatchers have been busy planting 100,000 young apple trees –  putting in some classic cider apple varieties such as Vilberry and Dabinett, as well as traditional varieties such as Tom Putt and Stoke Red. The weather has been kind and the planting swift, and it’s been great to view the team working together, as many of the office staff and members of Martin’s family have turned out to help.

Below is a selection of pictures from last weeks shoot and of course another extract with pics from the new thatchers book, Then and Now.

PLANTING CONTINUES…
Planting continued as demand grew, so that by the
late 1980s Myrtle Farm was surrounded by flourishing
apple trees. By the end of the next decade there
were about 180 acres of orchards containing many
thousands of trees, from Webbers to the more recent
Nye Road, Shipham and Sacofs Orchards (all planted
mid-1990s).

Planting a new Apple Orchard at Thatchers Cider, North Somerset.

Planting a new Apple Orchard at Thatchers Cider, North Somerset.
From time to time particular orchards have been
commemorated in ciders that have born their name,
such as the company’s first single orchard cider,
Christon Orchard, which was launched in 2005 as a
companion to Katy and the newly-released Vintage.
These ciders were sold in sleek green 75cl bottles,
similar in size to wine bottles but distinctively
streamlined, reflecting in their design Thatchers’
desire to emulate the high standards of wine
producers while remaining determinedly different.
The orchard itself is a familiar sight to travellers
on the M5, lying just across the motorway from the
Webbington Hotel and Crook Peak; first planted with
standard trees in the 1920s it was then replanted by
Thatchers near the end of the century, with Somerset
Redstreak, Katy, Morgan Sweet and Ashton Bitter
growing alongside older varieties like Porter’s
Perfection and Harry Masters Jersey. For the single
orchard cider each variety was pressed and fermented
separately, then the ciders blended for the desired
flavour.

A late winter… “Then and now”

I was a little anxious about starting the ‘Then and Now’ posts with ‘Winter’ images, but as spring now seems to have declared itself as a false start and the chill winds of Eastern Europe have blown in, I can now comfortably post them without them appearing too incongruously out of time.

Below is a montage of chilly winter images, including the Green Man (more of him and Wassailing next winter) that appears in the ‘Apples and Orchards’ section of the book, plus an extract that describes the not so dormant winter period. I have also added a winter poem by somebody called Shakespeare.

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THE CIDERMAKING YEAR:
WINTER
Winters in Somerset are not usually harsh, but in the
dark depths of January the spring can seem a long
way off. In the orchard, this is the time when the trees
rejuvenate, their roots pulling nutrients up into the
dormant tree ready for new growth, and it is the time
when the orchard manager tends to the trees, pruning
and planting.
Pruning is an essential job, especially in bush
orchards where trees need to be kept in the best
possible health. An unpruned tree will yield less
fruit than a tree that has been carefully cut back in
the winter, and pruning has been a valued skill –
almost an art form – since the days when Roman
fruit growers left their pruning knives lying around
for us to find. The aim is to focus the tree’s energy
on producing fruit rather than on growing, and to
give the fruit access to the sunlight that will help
it develop from blossom to ripe apple, so untidy
growth is removed and the branches trimmed so as
to encourage growth in particular directions. Treeplanting
too takes place at this time of year – once
an arduous job that would take weeks but now, as we
have seen, a whole lot easier.

A poem for Winter…

Blow, blow, thou winter wind
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.

Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most freindship if feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

Freeze, freeze thou bitter sky,
That does not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot:
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As a friend remembered not.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.