Bulmers' apple farmers facing glut as consumers favour fruit ciders

Robin Eveleigh

23 July 2018

Its apples have been feeding the ravenous presses of cider-making giant Bulmers for almost 60 years.

But this autumn, Herefordshire’s Grove Farm faces an unexpected quandary – unless it can find a buyer for its 50-tonne harvest, the apples will be scraped, rotting, from the ground to make way for grazing sheep.

Soon after, bulldozers could flatten the farm’s 70-year-old orchard – where seven, traditional bittersweet apple varieties thrive – to firewood.

'It’s a shame,' says farmer Tim Bunting. 'We had a stewardship with Natural England to keep it as a traditional orchard – no fertilizers or sprays – and I know we have woodpeckers in there.

'I’m loth to get the bulldozers in, but that would be the easiest option. I have to be realistic.'

Among the 180 or so Herefordshire apple growers supplying Bulmers – owned since 2008 by global drinks giant Heineken – Mr Bunting is far from alone.

A perfect storm of improved farm productivity, ambitious tree planting and a shift among British drinkers towards sweet fruit ciders has resulted in a glut of the bittersweet apple varieties that make up the backbone of traditional mass market fare like Heineken’s Strongbow.

As a result, Heineken – the world’s biggest cider producer – is now negotiating compensation packages to buy some growers out of their long-term contracts, leaving a question mark hanging over the future of their trees.

Silenced by non-disclosure agreements, many are reluctant talk.

There’s an oversupply. I don’t have anyone else to sell my apples to.

One long-established grower, who asked not to be named, explained: 'Bulmers has been good to me so – pardon the pun – I don’t want to upset the apple cart. There’s an oversupply. I don’t have anyone else to sell my apples to.

'But too many trees were planted ten years ago, and there’s an over-supply of fruit. We’re trying to resolve it with Heineken, but the reality is I don’t have anyone else to sell my apples to.'

Another, who has retained his contract while taking a number of acres out of production, said: 'The powers that be didn’t do their sums – they didn’t bank on mature trees yielding so much fruit.

'They planted 50 or 60 acres at a time, and those trees are coming to full maturity. Heineken can’t press any more fruit because they’ve run out of storage.'

Bulmers instigated an orchard expansion period in late 1990s, which saw some farmers take an all-in gamble and turn over their entire estates to apple growing.

By 2006, it looked like a winning bet as rival Irish drinks manufacturer Magners awakened a new generation of cider fans, smartly repositioning the drink from park bench to trendy bar beverage with the simple addition of some ice cubes.

Buoyed along on the boom, Heineken encouraged more tree planting from 2011, but by 2013 the Magners effect was already losing its sparkle.

Now, figures from the most recent Weston’s Cider Report point to a growing thirst for ‘ciders’ with sweet fruit additions.

Almost a third of the 800m litres drunk annually in the UK – the world’s biggest cider-drinking nation – is flavoured cider, up from just 14% five years ago.

In pubs and bars, Swedish brand Kopparberg’s Strawberry & Lime and Mixed Fruit are the top-selling bottled ciders, with Heineken’s Strongbow Dark Fruit berry cider the second-biggest draught offering.

At Grove Farm, like many others, the focus is on bittersweet varieties such as Brown’s, Vilberie and Dabinett.

The farm’s agreement with Heineken was an annually-renewed ‘supply contract’, which doesn’t warrant a compensatory buy-out. Grove was given the news in February that its apples – which fetched around £130 a tonne – would not be needed.

Tim Bunting’s son, Rory, 24, has known apple growing all his life, and this week took to social media – advertising locally on Facebook forums – in a last-ditch bid to find a home for this year’s crop.

'It came right out of the blue,' he said. 'We’ve been growing apples for them for over 20 years, but we won’t get a penny for this year’s harvest. Come autumn, we need the orchard to graze the sheep and we can’t do that if the ground is covered in fallen fruit – it’s got to go somewhere.'

Some of Herefordshire’s surplus fruit will undoubtedly be picked up by the burgeoning ‘craft’ cider sector, which grew 17% last year, but one producer said he does not relish the prospect of an over-supply of cheap apples.

'Bittersweets are already incredibly cheap in the UK,' says James Forbes of Little Pomona, who this year hopes to double the 5,000 litres it made in 2017.

'The going price is about £120 a tonne. In the States, you’ll pay more like £750. Cider can carry a premium and I’d like to see the industry get to a point where everyone – growers included – can profit.

The Craft sector is way too small to pick up all the slack

James Forbes

'We’ll certainly buy some of the surplus this year, but the craft sector is still way too small to pick up all the slack.'

He added: 'There’s an inevitability to the Heineken situation because it’s cheaper to buy imported apple concentrate than harvest what’s grown locally. These big commercial producers encouraged a lot of planting, which simply didn’t sustain itself. Now they’re turning away from apples to other fruit.'

Heineken said it was speaking to its long-term contractors – some of whom signed up to supply the company for 25 years – on a case-by-case basis, pointing out that some agreements were due to expire naturally.

A spokesperson for the company, which in the UK processes over 100,000 tonnes of apples a year, said: 'Heineken is committed to Herefordshire, investing £58m over the past few years to upgrade our operations.

'We have positive long-term relationships with our growers, supporting them to improve the productivity and sustainability of their orchards.  It’s no secret that there is an oversupply of apples across the industry driven by increased lifespan of orchards, bumper crops and changing market dynamics.

'We’re working closely in partnership with our growers and are committed to ensuring a sustainable long term supply of cider apples.'

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