Holy orders for apple corps

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When farmers diversify it’s usually away from agriculture. But not Rob Gibbon and his new farming venture, making cider, recently won him a regional award.

“I wanted to diversify back into farming,” says Rob. “I woke up one morning and simply said to Caroline, my wife, ‘I’m going to make some cider’.

“I don’t know to this day where that suddenly came from. It’s not as though I had ever done anything like it before.

“I’d never done home brewing of anything other than a cup of tea. I don’t drink much either. I like a beer or two but I don’t go out to pubs too much.”

Rob turned to the monks at Ampleforth Abbey for advice. “I remembered watching something about them making cider so we paid them a visit.

“We had a long and very informative talk with Father Rainer who is responsible for the orchard and cider making at the abbey.”

Two years on, Rob’s product has been judged Cider of the Year by CAMRA in the East Midlands and Yorkshire area against 16 others.

“I honestly never expected it to turn into a business. It all started off as a kind of joke really. We bought a few demijohns, built a press up with the use of a car jack and bits of wood and I went out and bought some apples, as well as a book about cider making. It went well and I kept buying from local growers.”

Rob uses about 15 to 16 tonnes of apples to produce 5,000-6,000 litres. He now has a hydraulic press, an electric crusher (rather than the bucket he started out with), a small bottling plant and large fermenting tanks and storage vessels.

“We now have around 60 pubs, clubs, tearooms and restaurants stocking what we produce .

“To start with I sent our cider to Ben Cox who runs the Star Inn at Sancton. Because I’ve been working with him I now use a few Cox’s apples in my blend.

“Everyone knows I don’t use cider apples and some say you can’t make a good cider without them. But we’ve won this competition so we must be doing something right.

“We sell in bottles and 10 and 20 litre bag-in-a-box packaging so landlords can have it on draught.”

This spring there are plans to move the operation into a refurbished shed and maybe to use the cider in ready meals. He also has plans to plant his own orchard this year.

“We had Holstein Friesian bull calves and when the subsidy came off we could no longer afford to trade.

“The apple waste can be fed to cattle, so the pulp means we could feed cattle relatively cheaply. That could really put me back into farming properly. I never wanted to come out of cattle, it was purely for financial reasons.”

Rob and Caroline came to the 10-acre Moorlands Farm, North Newbald, in 1994 having lived in the village. “I was in haulage and had my own tipper lorry. I wasn’t satisfied with the way my life was going and wanted a different direction.

“I wanted to farm as my great granddad and granddad had done before me. When we moved here there was no house. We lived in two Portakabins put together to form a three-bedroomed dwelling.

“We lived in that for 10 years until we built the farmhouse. We had to show that we could make a living out of cattle in order to build it. We did just that but it was tough.

“When we first came here it was around the time of BSE and our stock halved in value immediately, then feed costs went up.

“Cattle used to be our core business, but maybe our new core business will see them returning soon. I hope so.”