The World’s Most Influential Cidermaker
Tom Oliver makes some of the world’s best cider on his family’s farm in the hills of Hereford, England.
Tom Oliver, the most influential cider maker in the world, has a hole in the roof of his barn. But he’s not worried about it.
“That’s my CO2 vent,” he says with that dry humor that the English have perfected.
Oliver, 60, has been making renowned cider and perry on his family’s farm in the English countryside of Herefordshire, a couple hours northwest of London and on the border of Wales, since 1999. Herefordshire is one of England’s the sparsest populated areas. Its most famous exports are Herefordshire cattle, hops and cider. Oliver and I stood in the entrance to the barn on an early afternoon in April. His round face wiggled into a wry smile as he joked, spreading his gray and faint mutton chops wide and forcing his eyes almost closed behind his glasses as his cheeks rose and his teeth showed.
The steel barn was once where his family picked Fuggle hops. A large canal in the middle that runs nearly the length of the barn was meant for catching hops as pickers removed them from their long bines. Now, it just gets in the way of forklifts and the large, food-grade storage bins and a few worn metal fermentors where Oliver’s cider and perry ferment, as well as the two apple presses that extract the beautiful bittersharp and bittersweet juice from local apples and pears.
Then there’s the gaping hole above Oliver’s largest metal fermentors, light leaking in, exposing his project to the elements — something unthinkable in today’s world of Instagrammable and sleek images of beer and cider production. But even in this day and age of the rustic pictures with a Kinfolk feel, Oliver’s property stands apart because it doesn’t hide its blemishes or try to be anything other than what it is: a family farm.
Oliver’s Cider and Perry is only part of the operation on the farm that his family has tended to for more than 150 years. Oliver’s shares the grounds with his brother and 80-year-old mother, who rear “young, supple” lamb and Hereford cattle, the region’s most well-known and sought after export. The animals roam nearby and can be seen through gaps in the wall in the cellar where his wood barrels are stored.. Oliver works around the restraints that come with a family farm’s legacy. While there are downsides to trying to evolve inside the confines of an old farm (low ceilings that keep forklifts out, uneven floors, a cacophony of walls that create a dark maze) Oliver rarely complains.
“The positives: thick walls, so good temperature mediation, so it doesn’t get really cold in winter, and it doesn’t get really hot in the summer and that is quite good,” he says. “And the fact that it has bags of character — that is fine for us.”
Oliver’s ciders are filled with characteristics that are not for the faint of heart, which makes them stand-out in a beverage market dominated by sweet and sticky drinks. This isn’t the cloudy juice you get from an orchard on a weekend apple-picking trip. His cider bursts with tannins, acid, body, and can be astringent in a good way. The apple, or the pear, is the star and it shines through layers of oak and earthy notes that breathe life and connect the drinker to the apple’s journey from tree to the bottle. This is cider at its most elemental and angelic.
Oliver gets most of his fruit from a network of nearby orchards, farms and local homes in Herefordshire — about 10 percent of the apples he uses come from his own small orchard on the farm. Instead, he receives truckloads of up to eight tons of apples at a time from local orchards. Other times, he gets a sack of a single variety from other farms and locals in Hereford he’s interested in. And then there’s drop-offs of everything in between. There is no true pattern or predictability to what he will get from year to year. Apple crops can be finicky and are beholden to weather patterns, bugs and disease as well as their own growing cycles. And because he doesn’t own the orchards most of his fruit comes to, Oliver’s product is beholden to the growers in his area, so he’s put faith into the region and its long history of apple growing.
When the apples arrive, Oliver and his small team of part-time employees press them in the barn and put the extracted juice into totes and fermentors and lets nature work. By backing off and letting his ciders work and breathe, his products have more in common with the funk and fun of natural wine and wild ales.
“The two main things that mark us out as being a little bit different from everybody else is, obviously, you pick your fruit and you treat the fruit in the way you think it should be, but once we press it we don’t do anything to it,” Oliver says. “We don’t use sulfur prior to fermentation. We don’t add any nutrients and we don’t add any yeast.”
THE FIRST TASTE
The first time I tried Oliver’s cider, more than three years ago, I was working my way around the world with a friend through 10-or-so bottles, starting with French and Spanish ciders, and then moved on to the stateside ciders, and found ourselves at a crossroads when we opened a bottles of Ledbury and Gold Rush, ciders Oliver worked on with Angry Orchard’s cider maker Ryan Burk.
The tannins filled my mouth and a sharp sweetness blended perfectly with a slight acidity that rounded them out. The two ciders made me process what I was drinking in ways I hadn’t before. I was a devout beer drinker at the time who had been dissecting and discussing craft beer since college, which I graduated from in 2009. I sought out IPAs across New England. Hops had become an addiction, and there was nowhere I wouldn’t go to feed it. Then this happened.
Oliver’s ciders put me out to sea. They made me rethink every preconceived notion I had about cider. I had to reprocess and understand what was going on in the bottle. There were no hops, no malt, no additives. Just fruit. But the body and mouthfeel lingered, it sat like the thickest and haziest NE IPAs. There were bitter notes and hits of acid. I had no answer. I wanted more. And I’m not the only who’s had this experience with Oliver’s Cider and Perry.
“His Hereford Dry Perry and Hereford Dry Cider are two ciders I drank that changed my whole perspective,” Burk tells me over the phone while on his way to blend the fifth batch of Gold Rush with Oliver. “I had just never had anything like that before.”
Burk came across Oliver’s cider while living in Chicago. He hadn’t become America’s most important cider maker, yet. He was a guy searching out his next step in life. He was homebrewing when someone at West View Liquors in Chicago told him to check out these funky bottles of English cider.
“It was like, geez, what is this thing? How do I do this? How do I get there? How do know more about whatever this thing is?” he says.
I had the same feeling as Burk. So I ask him what makes Oliver’s cider so special. What makes it stand out in a world where the difference between great and good cider is constantly moving as the drink goes through its latest renaissance?
“The expression of fruit is really key for me. He just really delivers on the apples. He lets them speak. He gives them the time they need,” Burk says. “Often, the cider he’s making needs one, two, three years before its ready to come out of a barrel — and he allows that time. By doing so, he gets these amazing expressions of terroir of Hereford — full, round tannins, really nice, sharp acidity. And he doesn’t pitch any yeast, so it’s all wild fermentation. It’s true expression of locality. That’s the beauty in his cider. He really deeply understands the fruit and varieties.”
This process has taken years for Oliver to get where he is. Cider wasn’t his first love. It’s his second act. A journey he never thought he’d go on. He wanted out from this farm and now, thanks to the apple, Hereford and the farm has become his lifeblood.
A RETURN HOME
Oliver’s family moved to this farm in Hereford, two and a half hours northwest of London and almost in Wales, in 1873. Green hills and old stone homes pop up along the road, reminiscent of a small-scale Vermont. There’s endless yellow fields of rapeseed, which is used to make vegetable oil and animal fed. There’s Pockets of orchards and endless farm land pop-up from behind old stone walls built centuries ago and maintained for eternity along the winding roads that weave through one small town after another.
Hereford’s fertile soil has a good mix of clay, which allows for good drainage, plus the rolling hills, gentle frosts and generally predictable climate void of extreme weather make the area well-suited for orchards. The traditional know-how and apples in the area, plus the farming culture, gives Oliver a microflora perfect for making wild-fermented ciders like Oliver’s.
In 1921, Oliver’s grandfather gave up on his family’s orchard after a disagreement on the pricing of apples with Bulmers, one of the world’s largest cider companies that started in Herefordshire and is now owned by Heineken. According to Oliver, Bulmers reneged on a promised price increase for cider apples that year and his grandfather decided to pull up the trees. He decided to plant Fuggle hops, instead.
“Best cash crop we had here,” Oliver says about the hops, which other farmers in the area still harvest.
When Oliver was born, the farm had 10 people working on it. The hops grew up and along on 16-foot high wires. By the 1990s, the hops were infected with Verticillium Wilt and had to be removed. The family couldn’t decide on a replacement hop that would be viable to replace it. This was before the big craft beer boom in America that has encouraged a wealth of hop varieties, research, and demand.
Before that, though, Oliver wanted out of the family business. He went to college to study agriculture, but never finished. Instead, he became entrenched in music and found himself helping out three guys who would become the backbone to Chrissy Hyndes’ band The Pretenders — Jimmy Honeyman-Scott on guitar, Peter Faradon on bass, and Martin Chambers on drums. Before the trio left for London to join Hyndes’ band, Oliver watched their gear. He connected with Honeymoon-Scott, driving him around and caring for his guitars. After they moved to London, Oliver started mixing sound and managing tours for other bands.
“I was drawn to looking after guys who could play. I could communicate with them. I understood what it takes,” Oliver says. “There’s a whole lot of stuff that goes on, but underneath it all, there is people getting on stage and playing in front of people, and that takes some balls. They need someone who knows what’s what and can interpret things. I just found that niche and got stuck in.”
Working in music wasn’t easy, though. As the Pretenders ascended, they fell apart. In 1982, Faradon was kicked out of the band due to a heroin addiction. A few days after the Faradon decision was made, Honeyman-Scott died after complications due to cocaine use. A year later, Faradon drowned in his bath tub after overdosing from heroin.
“It’s a destructive thing, music,” Oliver says. “I’m one of the lucky ones. I came through it relatively unscathed. But I still do it.”
Eight years ago, Oliver became the manager for The Proclaimers.
While Oliver was globetrotting and following his dreams, home stuck with him, particularly the apple orchards that define Hereford. When he would return, Oliver would help the “old boys” cider makers pick fruit and make cider with it. It wasn’t commercial cider, just weekend projects. “Shed cider,” he calls it. When the time came to remove the hops, Oliver asked his brother and mother if he could plant a new orchard of cider fruit. What started out as a side project became Oliver’s new passion. His second act. People took notice.
THE CANTILLON OF CIDER
Oliver had been making cider for a few years when Ron Extract and Amber Watts showed up at his farm in 2007. Extract was working for Shelton Brothers Importers at the time — since he’s helped launch Jester King in Texas, and is now opening a new beer, cider and fermentary in Washington. The pair were on a mission to learn more about cider for future Shelton endeavors.
“Shelton Brothers tends to like things that are fermented very dry and usually with preference towards mix fermentation with mixed organisms, multiple strains of yeast and other organisms as part of that, and we already developed a pretty extensive beer portfolio drawing on that philosophy,” Extract says. “But cider was a category we had read a little bit about, especially traditional farmhouse cider, but didn’t have as part of our portfolio at that point, and saw it as an opportunity to branch out a little bit and expand on what we were doing.”
Extract and Watts had both visited the United Kingdom and felt they had an understanding of cider in England. Extract had spent a summer pouring pints at a bar in England and Watts spent a year of high school in Belfast, where the drinking age was lax. But that was all upended when they ended up at Oliver’s.
“We thought we knew a lot about traditional UK beverages, but Tom taught us a lot about cider,” Watts says.
Oliver took them on a tour of Hereford and introduced them to the world of cider. He showed them around his own production facility and got them started on cider school, teaching them about the different scales of cider — dry, medium, sweet, etc. — and gave them their first taste of traditional perry, which is made with pears instead of apples.
“We were blown away by his operation,” Extract says. “Seeing his operation, his cellar for the first time, it reminded me of my first visit to Cantillon. It had that kind of revelation. It was something so categorically different from how I thought about that category before that. It was really amazing.”
Shelton Brothers started carrying Oliver’s cider soon after Extract’s trip, and his product has become tantamount to the growing American craft cider scene.
I would be remiss to not mention Oliver’s perry.
When visiting him in April, he opened a bottle of his wedding perry for two friends and myself. The beverage is carefully selected every year from barrels of aging pear juice and then it’s bottled in unlabeled 750ml glass bottles to bottle condition. It’s only made for custom-orders, for weddings, and with custom labels. And it’s immaculate. It’s creamy and light with a beautiful sweetness up front that doesn’t linger. It’s in the same class as any of the finest champagnes. Eleanor Leger of Eden Ciders in Vermont described the first time she tasted one of Oliver’s wedding perrys in 2014 as “asterial.”
“It was bottle conditioned. It had the most beautiful fizz. It was creamy, but it had acidity. It had tannic structure,” Leger says. “And there was beautiful fruit without it being at all sweet.”
When I spoke to Extract and Watts, it was Oliver’s perrys that stood out. It’s a misunderstood category (even more than cider), since the inception of pear cider and flavored cider, people have come to associate perry with a sweet, almost-fruit-juice drink. Oliver’s is the opposite. It’s a low-alcohol alternative that stands up to any champagne in the world.
Perry has its followers, but in a push to make it more mainstream, someone came up with the idea to label some perries as “Pear Cider.” Pear cider has joined the ranks of flavored ciders in that it has pushed far away from the traditions of the original drink. It’s moved past the nuance and into the Frankenstein’s monster phase. It’s more reminiscent of the ciders made in some corners of the world that are covered in adjuncts that distort the flavor of the original juice and cover the flaws by becoming a pear or apple drink that relate more to flavored wine coolers.
A few days before I arrived, Oliver entertained a couple who were scouring the earth for drinks for their daughter’s wedding. They’d come to Herefordshire and sought out Oliver. They were interested in his perry. They wanted the perfect drink to open their daughter’s wedding celebration. An aperitif that was light, effervescent, and dry. They wanted an alternative to champagne and they found it on Oliver’s farm before jetting off to France to search for the perfect wines.
A small smattering of buildings at the front of the farm houses the cider operation. There’s barely a sign on the road letting people know they’ve arrived. There’s the large corrugated metal barn at the end of the short, skinny driveway. Next to it is the main cider house, where there’s pallets next to pallets of glassware. The bottling room is housed there, along with the small retail shop, which is dark and dimly lit with the warmest of yellow-hued lighting. In a room that connects the main building, there’s posters on the wall of different varieties of apples, newspaper and magazine articles in which Oliver’s cider been featured, and two bookcases stacked with ciders and beers from around the world — some good and some bad, and some very bad. Down the hall is the bathroom and then through an unassuming door is the barrel room, or cellar.
The space at first is no bigger than a hallway with barrels on either side. Looking in and to the left, cattle graze outside in a pen on the other side of a wall. The room is dank and dark and the barrels are worn. Some have microorganisms growing on the outside of them. Walk a few steps and there’s a room on the right, square with rows of barrels filled with cider, sleeping and aging. Oliver has roughly 120 barrels that he fills twice as year to ferment and age cider. The blends and varieties of apples are written on the outside of the barrels in chalk with the date they were filled.
After his cider has stopped fermenting, Oliver racks the cider either into packaging or, for most of it, it finds its way down here into the cellar for an unforeseen time, so that the cider can mature to its full potential. The oak and microflora that lives here work their magic. By taking this hands off approach, by trusting nature, there are bound to be mishaps and misfires, but Oliver takes it in stride and has adopted an approach to blending the juice from different apple varieties to give him the best chance of creating a true expression of the fruit.
“In the 120 barrels we’ve got, there will be at least 15 really fucking horrible, challenging things every year that you have to find a way of making it work,” Oliver says. “There will be 15 [barrels] that will be an absolute delight on their own and don’t require any assistance at all. Then there will be the other ones that will need some good, sensible blending. We don’t do it because it gives us an easy thing. It gives us an opportunity.”
The opportunity mean every year, Oliver’s cider is theoretically vintaged. No two ciders will be the same each year. It’s more akin to wine than the beer that cider is sold next to in the states. Oliver’s ciders stand apart in the regard. But it also means that every year is a little different for Oliver and his small team. There are the standard ciders and perrys that come out annually, but, for the most part, every cider has a life of its own. They depend on the fruit and the season and then on how it ferments. This is a product of nature and nature is finicky, refusing to be tied down to a schedule or a predictable pattern.
As Oliver walked us through the cellar, we stopped in the back room. Light poked in through holes. A beam from the rafters hung down from a wall with a nest on it. No bird lived in the nest yet, but at some point a swallow will find its way there. I asked Tom if it was normal to have birds in your barrel room. And with that same smile from earlier when talking about the hole in his barn’s roof, he answered me in a way only he could.
“They have been coming here longer than I’ve been making cider, so who am I to tell them no. And they come all the way from South Africa or something,” Oliver explains. “So I think they’ve earned the right to nest where they want to nest.”
Oliver takes a sip of a vintage cider he opened earlier. It’s in a small tasting glass with the company’s name printed on it. The liquid inside is gold and rustic. It has an acidic bite to it with a round tanning backbone that blends well into oaky and earthy notes. The cider has had time to open up as he’s walked through the tunnels. He sipsit gently and lets out a sigh of enjoyment as light pokes through the holes in the walls and the ceiling.