It was a chance meeting at a party that set Michael and Joanna Creighton off on their cider-making business.
That was four years ago – 20 years after Michael and a friend had toyed with the idea of becoming beer brewers.
“We went around the pubs to do some market research, but at that time nobody was interested in anything different, so we gave the idea up,” says Michael, a forester and landscape gardener by trade.
It is a little ironic, then, that he should ultimately find himself cast in the role of brewer for another alcoholic beverage, but one that needs skills closer to those required for producing wine than beer.
Despite having no previous experience, and with very little training, the couple set up Dove Syke Cider in West Bradford, near Clitheroe, and now produce between 14,000 and 16,000 litres of juice each year, selling a range of ciders on draft and in bottles through pubs and retailers.
“I first thought about brewing 24 years ago,” says Michael, 59. “A friend and I went round the pubs to do a bit of market research, but none of them were interested in having anything different then, so we never got going.
“Then we bumped into some cider and perry makers from Brecon at a friend’s party, and decided to have a go. A company in Yorkshire was selling up its gear – stainless steel vats, a pulper and a press – and we bought them.”
Training was equally ad hoc, with the couple calling in on another cider-maker in Ross on Wyre en route home from a holiday for advice on how to go into production.
Clearly the relaxed approach has worked, because last year they won the CAMRA award for Best Cider of the Festival at Clitheroe Food Festival, with their single variety Dabinett cider.
Dove Syke is actually Lancashire’s first semi-commercial cider producer, pressing apples not just from its own trees at Dove Syke nursery, but also from orchards in and around Preston.
“Our trees are still quite young,” says Michael. “But we do get some juice from the fruit and then we get people who just turn up with apples from their own trees that they can’t use. A lot of fruit is wasted. When you look around you see apples trees growing everywhere, and often the fruit is left to rot on the ground.
“We buy in some cider apples from Hereford and also from Waddington Fell and Southport – a mixture of varieties makes a nice dry cider, but we need more orchards really.
“The art of producing a good cider is in the blending. You might have several tanks, each with 300,000 litres of juice in them – and they will all taste different. Then you might blend two of the tanks together and go from there. You can add water to make it more mellow, for instance, or sugar to sweeten it; it’s not really that technical.”
As well as the cider, Michael and Joanna are now also keen to produce cider vinegar for human consumption. “If you have some spoilage you can make cider vinegar for horses; it’s used for treating colic,” explains Michael. “But if you want to make it for humans it has to be made to a certain standard – you need good cider to produce a good vinegar.”
If they can get their hands on enough pears, they also produce perry.
So, has the long wait to become a brewer been worthwhile – even if the product wasn’t the one he originally set his sights on?
“At first it was, ‘Wow, we’ve made it’,” he says. “After a while I suppose it just become the norm. Ideally, I’d like acres of different apple trees so I could blend the ciders more – but all being well we’re getting it right with what we have.”
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