Denis Gwatkin in his farm shop
The cider making world is full of wonderful characters. None more so than Denis Gwatkin.
He was featured in Oz Clarke and James May’s TV series Oz and James Drink to Britain and as the pair approach the Gwatkin family farm, May jests with Clarke: “As he’s one of your establishment drinking chums, he’s not going to be a great, big, hairy bloke with a huge, red beard now is he.”
May is being ironic of course – as he finishes talking, the cameras pan to Denis marching up the yard to greet his visitors. This is exactly what Denis looks like – larger than life in more ways than one. He is part hairy biker, part cider making legend.
Denis’ family has farmed this corner of Herefordshire for four generations. Their land nestles beneath soft, rolling hills near the Welsh border at Abbey Dore, in what is known locally as Golden Valley.
For 120 years his forebears have been making cider, as is the tradition is these parts, but it was not until 1992 that Denis turned what had been a family hobby into a going concern.
He divides opinion does Denis. His cider is distinctive and a bit like Marmite: you either love it or hate. He is often elusive when you try to tie him down on what makes his cider so different. “It’s my feet,” he jokes. “I wash them in it. I’ve got the cleanest feet in Herefordshire.”
Joking apart, the wild yeast plays a part. Denis adds no yeast to his juice, leaving the yeast which occurs naturally on the apple alone to kickstart the fermentation process. And then there’s the old whisky barrels in which the cider ferments and matures. The rest is Denis’ secret.
Golden Valley in Herefordshire
Denis tends 12 acres of orchards, growing pears and classic cider apples like Kingston Black, Foxwhelp and Morgan Sweet, and supplements his crop with fruit from neighbouring farms.
All the apples are picked by hand using a pranking pole, a long staff with a hook on the end which is used to hook round the branches and shake them in order to make the apples fall to the ground.
Different varieties are piled in the yard and then scooped up in the bucket of a digger, fed into a hopper, washed and pressed. The juice ferments and matures the oak, whisky barrels.
Gwatkin Yarlingoton Mill is a 7% single varietal cider made with nothing but Yarlington Mill apples. Yarlington Mill is a favourite with traditional cider makers due to its outstanding qualities. Denis is loathe to admit it – rivalries run deep among cider makers – but the apple originates from Somerset.
He says: “It is a really fruity apple – it has got everything going for it. It makes a full bodied cider, full of tannins yet with a honey taste. To people who are not usually cider drinkers, this cider really appeals. If you are a cider drinker, then you are away with it.”
The apples are red and yellow in colour and are harvested in late November. The juice is slow to ferment, producing a rich, red, medium cider. Woody spirit on the nose, the flavour is deep and complex. The distinctive Gwatkin twang gives way to sweet apple and a spirit finish.
But the question is: do you love it, or do you hate it?