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Sound and Vision — Getting to the Core of Oliver’s Cider & Perry

Sound and Vision — Getting to the Core of Oliver’s Cider & Perry

Tom Oliver is envious of natural wine.

“If you open a natural wine bar then its customers will drink whatever is recommended to them,” he tells me in his Herefordshire baritone. “That’s not the case in cider, but that will change.”

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Change is something Tom is acutely aware of, and in cider, is personally responsible for. As a producer he is a spearhead, driving the explosion of artisanal, low-intervention ciders and perries on both sides of the Atlantic. From his cidery, based on his family farm in Ocle Pychard—six-and-a-half miles northeast of Hereford—his modest team presses, ferments, matures, and blends juice from locally cultivated apples and pears into some of the most stunning alcoholic beverages on the market.

A cider maker of roughly two decades, Tom knows—despite the fact cider doesn’t quite exist in the same space as craft beer or natural wine—it must learn from their successes in order to find its own. To achieve this, cider needs to shed its tired image: whether fizzy, sweet and industrially produced, to the opaque, rocket-fuel-strength, farm-shop scrumpy. Cider and perry must find higher ground, where they can hold their own against some of the most highly regarded beers and wines in the world.

To do this, Tom thinks the cider industry needs to take an approach that would seem quite preposterous in the far-more-crowded wine and beer markets.

“People want to drink great cider but the big problem is that it’s still hard to find great cider,” he says, determinedly. “We need more producers.”

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For a long time, if you were new to low-intervention cider, Tom’s name would undoubtedly be the first recommendation off someone’s lips. Now he’s desperate for some competition.

He sees the opening that the craft-beer and natural-wine booms have created for his industry, and knows if more people are drinking those sorts of beverages, then they should naturally gravitate toward better-quality cider, too. However, he’s all too aware that, unless exceptional cider becomes more accessible, this opportunity will be squandered.

When I ask which cider producers are exciting him at present, he’s quick to name-drop Find & Foster. Both method and presentation from this Devon-based producer are distinctively wine-like: it packages its cider in 750ml bottlings, and offers both méthode-traditionnelle and pétillant-natural (pét-nat) variants. The fact that these ciders are being sold in some of the UK’s hippest wine shops—alongside his own, of course—isn’t lost on Tom. He knows where his emerging market is.

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Someone else who knows just how much cider is changing (and how influential Tom has been in effecting this) is Felix Nash of London-based cider merchant and wholesaler The Fine Cider Company.

“Tom has opened the door to a new wave of [cider] makers who have only really got going over the last three-to-five years,” he tells me. “The ability for so many to come along and do interesting things, to even be tempted to do so in the first place, is thanks to the breadth of Tom’s shoulders.”

In addition to Find & Foster, Felix is eager to mention other favoured producers. Fellow Herefordshire residents James and Susanna Forbes of Little Pomona are among them, as is Starvecrow, the cider side-hustle of vaunted British winemaker Tillingham.

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The common thread between Tom and Felix is one of excitement. They know cider is having a moment, and along with a booming array of new producers they’re damn well making sure they make the most of it. Thanks to their efforts, it’s likely you’re getting excited by it, too.

***

Every bit the archetypal West-Country farmer, Tom is some six-feet tall, broad, and gilet-clad. His ever-warm expression—led by the gaze behind his signature, steel-rimmed spectacles—is matched by an even warmer handshake.

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However, the silvery sideburns that jut along his jawline tell of Tom’s double life. As well as being a cider maker, he’s managed touring rock bands for most of his adult life.

In his early 20s, he was the driver and guitar tech for the late James Honeyman-Scott, who Tom would part ways with when he joined The Pretenders. Recounting the experience, he says he feels very lucky to have known him.

“[James] was a fantastic guitar player and as a young man I had exposure to his incredible sense of timing and melody,” he tells me, adding that seeing the young guitarist find success made him want to buck up his own ideas.

“At that moment I knew I had to get off my arse!”

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Tom’s life would continue to straddle both the music industry and his family farm back in Ocle Pychard. In the ’90s he worked with Hull duo Everything but the Girl—a partnership he describes as an “intense relationship.” Perhaps most famously, he has toured with Scottish rock legends The Proclaimers for the past 30 years.


“People want to drink great cider but the big problem is that it’s still hard to find great cider. We need more producers.”
— Tom Oliver

Surprisingly, these adjacent worlds of music and cider have never crossed over, and Tom seems more than happy to keep it that way. The only exception is that, in his role as a touring band manager, Tom had plenty of opportunity to explore a burgeoning North American cider scene and build several strong relationships with fellow makers, such as Ryan Burk of New York’s Angry Orchard, in the process.

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“I’ve deliberately kept those two worlds very separate,” he says. “Each world doesn’t really know of my other life.”

On the surface this doesn’t seem to bother him. Still, in an uncharacteristically off-guard moment, Tom makes an admission that he’s been unable to switch his touring groups from mass-market lagers to quality cider. He takes it all in his stride, though, confessing that he doesn’t feel like he’s worked a day in his life, and that it’s all still “a bit of a thrill.”

“We’re not creating fortunes,” he admits. “But I can make great cider—and help out great bands—I’ve just got to keep myself going.”

***

As well as managing livestock, the 38-acre Oliver farm once cultivated hops as its largest cash crop. Things might have gone differently for Tom if the farm had continued to produce hops; he says he grew up thinking it was his future. But in the late ’90s the market struggled, and to make matters far worse, a terrifying disease known as verticillium wilt was wiping out entire crops within 24 hours.

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“It wasn’t easy transitioning from hops to cider, but the challenge of sustaining hop growing was too great,” Tom recounts. “We just couldn’t make it profitable any longer.”

The modest orchards at the Oliver farm account for close to 10% of the apples and pears that make their way into Tom’s bottles. The rest is made up from donated fruit, some of which is grown specifically for him, some from orchards that Tom helps manage, and some is simply donated.

“One of the things that drives me on is talking about cider,” Tom says. “It is a gloriously straightforward, simple drink, but most people don’t know that.”

“Straightforward” and “simple” are two words you’d be unlikely to use when describing much of Tom’s produce. Although the process of making low-intervention cider or perry is inherently simple—allowing wild yeasts on the skins of the fruit to naturally ferment juice as it matures in oak or steel—getting the best fruit is key. Tom evidently works hard with his growers to source the highest-quality pears and apples he can find. The artisanal process of blending the finished product is also a rare skill, and one that Tom has mastered.

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“His ability to memorise flavours and pin them into a three-dimensional sensory map gives him a head-start in blending, resulting in very complex ciders,” says Susanna Forbes of Little Pomona. “His palate is second to none.”

A cider Tom released in 2018 called The Mayflower—a blend part-matured in rum, red-wine and whisky barrels, before being fortified and back-sweetened with ice cider—exemplifies his expertise. Despite its myriad components, the blend had a singular, yet layered complexity. Bittersweet apple was cut with soft, oaken tannins and followed by a finish at once boozy and dry. It seems almost criminal that he was selling it for just £10 per 750ml bottle, when a similar product from a natural winemaker would command at least three times the price.

And yet, while Tom does explore what he would call “uncharted territory” with blends like this, many of his products are exquisite in their simplicity, from single-varietal ciders such as Yarlington Mill to Gold Rush, a dry, sparkling cider made in collaboration with Angry Orchard’s Ryan Burk.

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Perhaps they are straightforward after all, in that they are remarkably easy to drink, despite their depth and breadth. This is what Tom is trying to communicate: there is a great deal to explore and enjoy within his cider and perry, but—much like great beer or wine—it’s best not to overcomplicate the experience. He knows that, if cider is to emulate the appeal of both, then it needs to be accessible as much as it is exceptional.

***

“Thin Lizzy,” Tom says after a short pause. I’ve just asked him who his cider would be if it were a musician. “Phil Lynott got what it was all about. Good tunes, good show, good times. Twinkle in his eye and a lust for life.”

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He could quite easily be describing himself—but Tom knows he can’t be the headliner forever, and that next-generation producers like Find & Foster, Little Pomona, and Starvecrow will be the ones to lead British cider into the future.

“People see cider’s place but the ripple now needs to go out further,” he says. “This is why we need more cider makers in order to give people more to talk about. Then we can see what happens next.”

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