Farm Of The Week: Cider is the apple of Rob’s eye

Rob North.  Photo: Marie-Claire Kidd
Rob North. Photo: Marie-Claire Kidd
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To find Yorkshire’s fast rising cider star, travel out of Holmfirth to Netherthong, and turn right into the hamlet of Deanhouse, one of the Holme Valley’s true hidden gems. Here, at the bottom of the path that winds down from Oldfield, is the Pure North Cider Press.

Established by businessman Rob North, Pure North is quickly becoming a recognisable brand, selling through pubs, restaurants and farm shops in Huddersfield, Leeds, Sheffield, Lancashire and Manchester.

Rob has left his job as managing director of a successful Yorkshire company in his quest for liquid gold. He has planted 350 fruit trees, including over 200 of the four kinds of fruit he considers essential to cider making.

There are the bittersweets, like Dabinet and Yarlington Mill, the bittersharps, such as Kingston Black, the sharps, for example Browns Apple, and the sweets, like Morgans Sweet, an apple so sweet and low in tannins it can be eaten as a dessert apple.

He has perry pears too, Turners Barn and Brandy for instance, and over 100 eating apple trees. Most are northern varieties, like the Yorkshire classic Ribston Pippin or the Scottish variety Bloody Ploughman. The rest are late-blossoming varieties from all over the country.

“After much research and experimentation, I’ve learnt that you can only make a full, well-balanced cider by using a range of cider apples,” says Rob. “Most of the fruit I’ve planted is late blossoming, so it has a great chance of avoiding frost.

“The orchard is establishing itself very well. Where we want to get to here is when fully mature, in a good year, it will yield 25,000 litres of juice, for drinking and making cider.”

This year he has sold over 1,200 litres of juice direct from the cider house. He sold out in June. “I just didn’t make enough,” he says.

To make juice he presses eating apples with a little cooking fruit to sharpen it. This season he is buying a large quantity of Katie apples, for both juice and cider.

Last year Rob converted what was a stable block into a cider house, equipped with press, scratter and fermentation and maturation vessels.

“The building lends itself to a cider house,” he says. “It doesn’t get too hot in summer and it’s not too cool in winter. Stability of temperature is important. Below seven degrees the cider doesn’t ferment.”

Pure North Cider is selling even quicker than the juice, with retailers hungry for a local, traditional and natural product.

Rob explains: “Large retail cider producers ‘kill’ their juice by dosing it with sulphites. This sterilises it and reduces the risk of spoilage. They then add foreign yeast, usually a champagne yeast, to start the fermentation process. Purists say this gives it a foreign flavour.

“There’s yeast in the air, on the fruit, on the equipment. We’ve been lucky here, we seem to have the right kind of yeast. I’ve never had a pressing not start to ferment and I’ve never had one go off. It’s as pure as it can be.”

Using naturally occurring yeast means Rob’s cider is different every year. Last year’s press is now bottled. “It’s different to the 2010 Pure North Original, although I’m using the same quantity of bitter sharp and the same quantity of bitter sweet cider apples,” he says.

“Obviously the fruit makes a difference too. 2010 was a poor year. 2011 was a great year, the cider was sweeter and fuller. 2012 is not going to be good.

“We had a warm spell in spring followed by frost and rain, which severely weakened any blossom, and one of the worst summers in terms of sun. The fruit is small and it will have less sugar.”

The poor apple harvest means a higher price for cider fruit, and this is where Rob’s business background helps. Until July he was managing director of Altavia HTT Ltd, a marketing services company with its headquarters in Sheffield, and with some of Britain’s biggest retailers as clients.

While the orchard matures, Rob relies on southern orchards to provide him with organic apples by the lorryload. This year he secured the fruit he needs with a large deposit.

He supplements the apples he buys from commercial growers with apples from local trees. “Local people bring me fruit. I press it,” he says. “There are a lot of people with trees they don’t know what to do with.

“They might only have a couple of trees. I’ve got one family with 10 trees in Honley.

“Another couple asked me to make cider with their apples for their wedding. We work out a quantity and a yield, and I agree to give them x amount of juice or x amount of cider.”

Pure North is a one-man band for now, but it is growing. The cider house will open as a cafe and shop, featuring a yurt with a stove for chilly winter days, in spring 2013.

On the menu will be apple nibbles and Yorkshire tapas. “More or less everything will be related to the apple, the juice, the cider or the cider vinegar,” says Rob.

“We’ll have sorbet, ice lollies, pork and apple teacakes and lots of apple desserts.”

Unpasteurised cider vinegar is a new addition to the range. “By its very nature it doesn’t look pleasant but it tastes gorgeous,” says Rob. “It’s difficult to get hold of. A lot of people say it’s good for arthritis and joint problems.”

Rob believes he is part of a growing number of growers and producers committed to traditional apple and pear products. “It wasn’t that long ago that virtually every farm had an orchard, and people used to get paid one third of their wages in cider,” he says. “We’ve lost a lot of that but people have been planting orchards again.

“Even the perry pear orchards are coming back, and they take a long time to establish; pears for heirs, as they say.

“A lot of the commercial orchards have been really supportive. There’s a lot of integrity. A lot of them really believe in what they do and in their product. We’ve lost a lot, but it’s on its way back.”