Suffolk cider is the apple of this firm’s eye
Cider is enjoying a renaissance as a cool drink of choice among younger consumers. And that is good news for a Suffolk family firm whose combination of tradition and modernity is proving a recipe for success. Stephen Pullinger reports.
For more than three centuries apples harvested from a corner of Suffolk have formed the core ingredient of a successful family business.
And the new cool image of cider is helping a family-run firm buck the economic downturn and expand at a rate unprecedented in its history.
Aspall Suffolk Cyder, based at the same site in Debenham since 1728, last year achieved 11pc growth and saw a once tiny export market grow by 30pc.
The brand is now drunk as far afield as Australia and Russia and the first orders of a quintessentially English product have just been sent to Abu Dhabi and China.
Company chairman Barry Chevallier Guild, who runs the business with his brother Henry, is proud of the fact that despite production increasing from one million litres to 13 million litres over the past decade, each batch is still tasted by at least one member of the family before it leaves the plant – a tradition maintained through eight generations of ownership.
He said: 'Cider has gone through tremendous growth in recent years, notably since Magners came on the market in 2005-6 and spent a huge amount of money promoting it.
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'It has been growth at the premium end of the market rather than the base of it and that has helped us because of the quality of the product we make.'
He said the transformation of cider's image meant it was now socially acceptable for a 25-year-old man to go into a pub and ask for a pint of it.
Mr Chevallier Guild, whose family employs a 100-strong workforce at their Debenham site set among 90 acres of organic orchards, said: 'All major brewers now want to get involved in cider.
'From our point of view, it is great to see big companies like Stella Artois coming in and spending vast amounts in advertising that raises the profile of cider.'
He said the remarkable change was highlighted by the fact that when he came into the business in 1993, they only employed 30 people and primarily produced apple juice and vinegar.
'In those days we only sold a little bit of cider locally.
'Now it has flipped the other way,' he said.
He said the company founder, Clement Chevallier, who moved to Suffolk from Jersey, had begun producing cider chiefly to satisfy his love of it.
'Through the generations, the family has always worked on the premise we have got to sell a product we like,' he said.
The original press, installed in 1728, was used as recently as 1973 by his father John, and although the plant had since been brought into the 21st century, the focus on quality of a family company had been maintained.
He said: 'We have a big investment programme going on at the moment to increase our production and warehousing capacity.
'When it is completed at the end of the year we will have the capacity to double our production, but we are not looking to grow for growth's sake.
'We have no desire to be the number one cider in 10 years' time. We want to be the choice for quality.'
The recipe for Aspall's unique blend has been handed down and developed through the generations to produce the super premium product of which the family is proud today.
No single apple carries all the necessary constituent properties to ensure a truly well balanced cider,
Aspall Cyders are expertly blended, capturing the best attributes and characteristics of a combination of apples.
Dessert apples are used for sweetness, cooking apples for acidity and apple aroma and bittersweet apples are included to give a heady perfume, body and a long and complex finish.
The premium quality of the product is represented in an equally striking signature bottle – a replica of that used by one of the family's descendants, JB Chevallier, in the 1920s and 1930s.
Mr Chevallier Guild said their product had been relaunched in 2000 and was much more 'refined and delicate' than the drink produced by his ancestors.
He said: 'It is akin to champagne and there is not the strong aftertaste you get with West Country cider.'
However, he is confident it is a drink that Clement Chevallier would still appreciate.
Aspall needs to source 12,000 to 15,000 tonnes of apples each year and tries to source as much fruit locally as possible.
'We start at Aspall and go out from there as far as we need to, buying apples as far afield as the West Country and Kent as well as East Anglia and the Midlands. We source as much fruit as we can in England,' he said.
Some of the cider produced was organic and Aspall had created a market for East Anglian producers growing organic fruit, he added.
He sees the export market continuing to grow around the world in a way that would have been inconceivable to his ancestors when their cyder was just a local drink.
'My brother has just come back from the US and found the most expensive bottle of Aspall's being sold in a bar for 26 dollars,' he said.
He is also confident that the continuing economic downturn will not stand in the way of their growth.
When times were hard, people were careful to spend money on products they really liked, to treat themselves, and Aspall's passed the taste test even among people who would not normally profess to be cider lovers.
Aspall's is now supplied to pubs and pub groups across Britain and Mr Chevallier Guild is proud to have developed a reputation for 'exceptionally good service'.
'We supply into Scotland and down into Devon as well,' he said.