'My grandfather, Stanley, made award-winning cider,' said David Sheppy, sixth generation cidermaker at the helm of the eponymous family firm with his wife Louisa. 'It was still very small scale. But he won three Golds at the International Brewers' Exhibition in the 1930s.' Thus what started as a hobby and to provide liquid sustenance for the workers became a business. After Stanley came Richard, David's father – 'He was the showman,' – before David picked up the baton nearly 30 years ago.
Having been involved for as long as he could remember, David had already shown a flair for cidermaking. At the time, cider was around two-thirds of the turnover, the remainder being cattle. Rather than keep things as they were, he had other plans.
While David accelerated the transition from dairy to beef farming, it was his vision for the appeal of his cider that proved the game-changer. 'I looked a bit further,’' he explains. He wasn't thinking just regionally. 'I asked myself: "What would Bristol think?"' he says. Next he pioneered the blending of dessert apples with cider varieties. 'We first planted dessert apples (Falstaff) in our orchards in 2005,' he tells me. 'And we introduced Somerset Draught to our range in 2009.'
Now Sheppy's produces three million litres each year, the business has grown tenfold and cider stands at nearer 95% of the turnover, with exports going to ten countries, including the USA and China.
With a range of ciders to their name, all made with natural yeast, a quarter of which are matured in vast, decades-old oak vats, today the biggest selling bottle is Vintage Reserve. At their 200th anniversary celebrations at Merchants Tavern recently, this 7.4% blend of eight varieties coped admirably with both saddleback pork belly and butternut squash risotto. 'Food matching is a market we are going to be interested in,' David says.
So what else does the future hold? David's thinking of experimenting with an ice cider and a bottle-fermented one too, acknowledging these can take time to perfect. More immediately, early 2017 will see Sheppy's Cloudy Orchard hit the market. Initially in 50cl bottles and weighing in at 5%, it’s crafted with traditional bittersweet cider apple varieties, including Harry Masters, Michelin Browns and Dabinett, with the cloudy nature coming from fresh apple juice, mainly dessert varieties.
Back at the cidery, now that the new cider mill is up-and-running, the visitor facilities will be receiving a seven-figure sum investment. As well as a new restaurant and a revamped farm shop, a bar is to be built in an old apple loading bay.
Before that, the rarest cider will go on sale, but only locally. David and Louisa tracked down the farmland where cidermaking began all those years ago, before the family moved to its current farm nearly a century ago. There was still an orchard there, so they picked some of the fruit with the current owners, adding it into a blend of their finest cider varieties. With only 1,000 bottles of Limited Edition available, a true case of ancient meets modern.