Wizard of the West: Tom Oliver

Susanna Forbes

Susanna Forbes

15 March 2017

He’s the Godfather of Cider; an ex-roadie who made a dying category hip; a doyen of minimal intervention; and a rescuer of obscure varieties. Susanna Forbes meets global cider superstar Tom Oliver

If you give stuff time, it will reward you. Patience is the thing that most people struggle with. But I find I can be incredibly patient with cider.’

I’m chatting with one of the world’s best cidermakers, Tom Oliver, in the warmth of the pub, away from the challenges of the harvest. It’s been a busy, chilly day out at the cidery: fruit deliveries, pressing and planning. Visits from local food-makers using his cider in their wares, plus calls from travel guides seeking assistance for cider tours. A typically varied day for the genial Oliver.

‘Time gives character and complexity,’ he continues, warming to his subject as he takes a sip of his drink and settles into his chair. ‘It allows all the little nuances to develop. The cider’s going to be a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. They’ve all got to link and flow through. And it must have character and be intelligent. The type of cider I make is not for the Steady Eddie Belly Wash crowd.’

I’m a non-interventionist. If I don’t have to do something, I won’t

Beer and cider writer Pete Brown calls Oliver ‘simply the greatest cidermaker in the world, a real artist. His palate is excellent and he’s creative.’

‘Tom’s ciders and perries are much like the man himself: fun, characterful, expressionistic and progressive,’ says the National Association of Cider Makers’ Gabe Cook, an experienced cidermaker himself. ‘There is a great simplicity to his ethos, whereby quality, ripe fruit and minimal intervention (plus a great dollop of knowledge and skill) lead to some truly exquisite products.’

And it’s this finesse that stops people in their tracks. Stu McKinlay, co-founder of Kiwi brewery Yeastie Boys and creator of a few distinctive flavours himself, called his first sip of Oliver’s 2011 Real Herefordshire Dry Cider ‘one of the most amazing drinks experiences I have had’, admitting that he contemplated ‘selling up and buying an orchard’, before realising that he ‘should just leave it to the master’.

1966 First taste of cider, during harvest
1976 Roadie, The Hawks; James Honeyman-Scott was guitarist, later a founding member of The Pretenders
1988-now Tour manager for
Scottish band The Proclaimers
1999 Establishes Oliver’s Cider & Perry, ~Ocle Pychard, Herefordshire
2004-now Wins numerous awards, including two Arthur Davies Perpetual Cups, British Cider Championships, Royal Bath & West Show; two Best in Shows, International Cider & Perry Competition,
Royal Three Counties Show
2004 Founder member, Slow Food Three
Counties Perry Presidium
2013 CAMRA Pomona Award, for ‘preserving the tradition of perry production’
2015 Lifetime Achievement Gold Medal, Royal
Bath & West Show
2016 Chair (2nd time), Three Counties
Cider & Perry Association

Oliver is determined to let the fruit express itself clearly. He sources good fruit, and mills and presses in batches, relying wholeheartedly on native yeasts for fermentation. ‘I’m a non-interventionist,’ he says. ‘If I don’t have
to do something, I won’t.’

One clue for the innate complexity Oliver confers on his creations lies behind a wooden door, sitting quietly in the corridor between his friendly tasting room and the busy cidery itself. Prise open the latch and, much like the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, you step into a different world. A corridor leading to rooms that used to house hop-drying kilns appears, lined with a streak of dark wood.
As your eyes acclimatise, the first of Oliver’s cider barrels come into focus. Further serried ranks of barrels inhabit the other rooms, each housing a different cider from the past few years.

All provide fodder for Oliver’s blending.

Like a whisky blender, Oliver draws on his sensory knowledge to craft the final blend. ‘You need as big a palette as possible,’ he says. ‘Though it’s not good in terms of time and efficiency, 200 different containers give a much better proposition in terms of blending than three tanks do.’

‘Tom’s integration of tannin and acid to create balance is his signature,’ says Ryan Burk, cidermaker at Angry Orchard.

‘I don’t find blending easy, but I always look forward to it,’ Oliver says. ‘It sparks more debate than any other aspect, because everyone has their own view. It’s fairly easy to blend acids and sweetness. But you never quite know what the tannins will do.’

Oliver likens his blending ability to his sound engineering skills. ‘First time I saw a mixing desk I could mix sounds. It was like that with cider. I just seem able to taste a cider and I get messages from it. It’s not a “like” or “dislike” thing. I get some clarity with it.’

Mixing desks? What’s that got to do with the world of cider? Oliver leads a double life. Back in the late 1970s, just out of his teens, he dropped out of agricultural college to become a roadie – having been in bands himself, he realised he was better off looking after others.

Forty years later, with a CV that includes Everything But The Girl and Van Morrison, he’s notched up nearly 30 years looking after The Proclaimers, a relationship that he obviously cherishes.

Eureka moment
Despite having growing up being surrounded by cider, Oliver had never had any real interest in it when younger. He credits a couple of characters with changing this. First off, Roger French, author of the seminal History and Virtues of Cyder, who Oliver helped at his harvest in Herefordshire.

‘Roger went down to the cellar and came up with these bottles,’ he says. ‘One of them was a bottle-conditioned Kingston Black cider, and it just blew my mind. Not done with any finesse, it was the apple expressing itself, and he’d captured it beautifully. I then got what cider could be. I knew then that I was going to make cider.’

So Oliver planted his own museum orchard – 60 varieties of cider apple and 40 different perry pears – and started creating ciders and perries. ‘Then I discovered Peter Mitchell’s course in 1999. That course was just brilliant. I definitely don’t make cider how Peter says, but he’s happy to send students [to me] because he knows that I’m doing it in a way that’s also just as feasible.’

Oliver set up his own cidery on the family farm in 1999. Five years later his Still Perry won the Arthur Davies Perpetual Cup for Best Bottled Cider/Perry at the Royal Bath & West Show. In 2009 he won the same award for his Bottle Conditioned Cider.

Oliver’s influence is profound. In the USA he’s treated like a rock star

‘Oliver’s influence on the world of cider is profound,’ says cider specialist Bill Bradshaw. ‘He sets the standards to which others compare themselves, particularly in the USA, where he is treated like a rock star.’ The ‘rock star’ description is no mere hyperbole either. More than 1,000 people attended Oliver’s talk on perry at CiderCON 2016, the annual conference of the US Association of Cider Makers.

Greg Hall, the famed former Goose Island brewmaster, is among many who have consulted Oliver. Prior to setting up Virtue Cider in 2011, he and his then cidermaker Burk visited Oliver. A year later, Gold Rush, the first transatlantic cider collaboration, emerged.

‘Tom recognises the value of tradition but he’s also open-minded and forward-looking,’ says Brown. Take hopped cider. Drawing inspiration from the USA, Oliver launched the UK’s first hopped cider, At The Hop, in 2014. Now on to #5, it’s made with Kazbek, Chinook and Cascade hops.

Sharing the knowledge
Oliver loves collaborations. ‘It’s the people,’ he says, reminiscing about when Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver – ‘some bloke, some palate’ – joined Thornbridge head brewer, Rob Lovatt, at Oliver’s cidery. Garrett and Lovatt were on the hunt for ‘natural’ cider lees for their latest collaboration, The Serpent.

‘Natural fermentations result in a cider which is much more interesting with an immensely complex palate,’ explains Lovatt. ‘The lees produced are naturally jam-packed with wild yeast and bacteria which we can then use to introduce novel, exciting flavours to our barrel-aged beer through secondary fermentations.’

So, for a year, that’s what Oliver and his team sent. When The Serpent was finally unveiled, what hit Oliver straight off was the mandarin notes on the nose. ‘The fruit was incredible. It was an ale, yes, but it had cider stamped
all over it.’

If this sounds intriguing, look for Oliver’s newest collaboration with Jonny Mills, ex-Bristol Beer Factory and now flying solo at Mills Brewing. The pair have created a lambic-style graff – a beer/cider hybrid – where wort and apple juice ferment together. With the first incarnation due out in spring, look out for its summer alter ego, Wild Strawberry.

‘It smells like you’ve opened a strawberry box, with the dry, slightly sour, tart refresh-ment of a lambic drink,’ says Oliver.

Oliver sees cider and perry as natural food partners, and Felix Nash, with his Fine Cider Company, is opening new London doors for him. ‘Tom is a brilliant listener,’ says Nash. ‘He listens to the fruit then works with what he’s heard. His ciders make you ask why wine is the only thing we tend to drink with food.’ The team at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal are among those looking further, creating special dishes to match Oliver’s ciders.

Aware of the continuing decline in total UK cider sales, Oliver is calling for a ‘Pyramid of Quality’, a tool to allow consumers to see what good cider can be. ‘It drives me mad,’ he says, his eyes firing up. ‘It really is inexcusable. Every other drinks category around has one. And the cider category is not diminished by it. Rather it has an aspirational aspect. What do we have? Nothing!

‘If you’re drinking a nice cider, you’re drinking a part of something that’s timeless,’ he says. ‘It’s not just me and what we’ve done. It’s who planted it. It’s a reflection of the seasons. It’s a wonderfully complex thing.’

Oliver’s influence in the industry doesn’t end with apples, though.

‘Tom’s real passion is perry,’ says Bob Chaplin, the Royal Bath & West Show’s chief cider steward. ‘Perrymaking is more complex, less understood.’

Oliver pays tribute to talented Gloucestershire perrymaker Kevin Minchew, who showed him the potential possible with single varietal perries. ‘Not overstated. Just wonderful,’ he says. ‘It’s the delicacy, the subtlety. Unlike cider, it doesn’t slam you over the head.’

Oliver co-founded the Slow Food Three Counties Perry Presidium, a foundation with the objective of rescuing the perry pear from obscurity and raising awareness. ‘More perry pear trees have been planted in the last five years than in the past 50,’ he says. And this includes his beloved Coppy, the variety of which a decade ago there was only one tree left. ‘Now there are mini-trees in quite a few places,’ he says with pride.

Apples & eats
Tom Oliver’s top three food matches

1 Oliver’s Fine Dry Perry & Thomas Crump Single Gloucester cheese
‘Wonderful floral/elderflower/rhubarb and citrus notes combine with the cheese to give a heady combination, taking both to new heights.’

2 Alpenfire Glow, Washington State & Gorsehill Abbey St Eadburgha cheese
‘The taste of the soft cheese grew three times bigger when we tried it after drinking the cider. We all just went “Wow!”’

3 Virtue Redstreak #2, Michigan & spicy chorizo
‘The cider and chorizo combination is a winner. Period. Fine-tune it with this slightly tart, off-dry cider – gazunga!’

Tom Oliver is Cider Ambassador for Imbibe Live 2017, 3 & 4 July, Olympia

Photography by Bill Bradshaw

With thanks to Nigel Holloway at The Courtyard Costume Store, Hereford

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