It's been ten years since Adam & Dani Davies started their little cider project in a tiny shed in Knighton, Powys. I was first alerted to their work by Alex Whyte of Tutto Wines who along with being born in Wales, shared a mutual friend with Dani. I looked them up, got in touch and we started stocking them at Wright's in Llanarthne. Dani, eventually joined me on an eventful trip to see some winemakers a few years back. When he started his restaurant Daphne's in Presteigne, he didn't have time to distribute his cider and I was very happy to be asked to represent them. Dani has written about the Skyborry journey below.
10 years of Skyborry Cider.
At the end of 2020 we completed our tenth harvest, that’s ten years of commercial cider making at Skyborry Cottage.
Skyborry Cider was the brainchild of my brother Adam Davies, he had been working part time for Martin and Janet Harris of Butford Organics in Boddenham, Herefordshire helping with the pruning of the orchards and pressing of the fruit for their Cider, Perry and apple juice. I had been living in London for 7 years and was giving up my lease to head over to Brittany to help a friend renovate a house for the summer, I had no new accommodation set up for my return so when Adam suggested attending a short course in Cidermaking at Peter Mitchell’s cider academy in Hartbury, Gloucestershire in September I decided on that, with a view to embarking on our own cider making venture after, both living back in Knighton.
The first year we made cider Adam had made a press out of green oak sleepers and some big bolts. We had a tray to catch the juice welded at a fabrication workshop on the Rotherwas Industrial estate in Hereford and we used a 10 tonne hydraulic bottle jack for the pressure. We harvested a couple of trees at Panpwnton Farm, an old orchard by Clungunford and a few sacks from here and there. We milled the fruit and pressed it on the driveway at Lower Skyborry Cottage, the family home since 1985. The 50 gallon food grade barrels that had been collected from Smiths of the Forest of Dean sat in a line on the right hand side of the garage to ferment. The juice was carried in buckets from the press, that clicked and strained under the pressure of the jack.
Adam had bought me the book ‘Ciderland’ by James Crowden that I found very inspiring, it featured various cider makers from the West of England and their different styles and methods, it featured local makers such as Ivor and Susie Dunkerton in Pembridge who’s cider we were enjoying regularly, Newton’s from by the Cadbury factory past Leominster and larger makers like Westons of Much Marcle. My favourite section was about Rosie Grant’s ‘Cider by Rosie’ of Winterborne Houghton in Dorset. She had a vintage French hydraulic press painted a beautiful blue colour and fermented in shiny clean stainless steel vessels she referred to as ‘sputniks’. She practiced the Normandie Method of making naturally sweet ciders using Dorset Varieties such as Tom Putt. I got to try her cider when camping with friends down near Worth Matravers and the famous cider pub the Square and Compass, where traditional ciders are served alongside pasties from a hatch in the wall. I bought a couple of bottles from a shop in Swanage. That evening we drank them while we ate a sea bass cooked over a fire that James had caught in Chapmans Cove where we had pitched our tents just above the tidal line. The cider had a rosy like quality to it, it was dry and conditioned in the bottle and tasted fresh and fruity. I liked it, I wish to taste some again.
Despite trying many ciders over the years, there are very few that I can remember being exceptional and unforgettable, Rosie’s was one. Another was that of Cyril Zangs, a Normandie producer who’s cider was a big inspiration to us when deciding the style and presentation of our own. I’d bought a few bottles from a tiny wine shop run by a french chap on Hackney Road in London that is long closed, he described Zangs as a ‘genius’. His cider was beautiful, refined and aromatic, with clear differences to the West Country style we were used to.
In 2018 I went to the Loire with Joel Wright, we tripped round to different winemakers looking for importing potentials. It was a proud moment when the winemaker Julien Prevel produced a bottle of Zangs cider and cracked it open to drink alongside a bottle of Skyborry. We stood around an old barrel at the mouth of his cave and tasted them with a couple of other winemakers that had pulled up in an old Citroen van. They liked it and I don’t feel shy to say that it stood up in comparison.
Two years in at 2012 we had begun experimenting with making the cider using the Normandy method called ‘keeving’ and conditioning in champagne bottles with cork and muzzle. While helping a local footpath contractor digging in a stile at the Warren in Hay on Wye I had met Devlin Price, a Welsh farmer who kept an orchard and some pigs a short way from the river. He had many great cider varieties there and that year we bought a few tonnes of Dabinett and Yarlington Mill, we have been friends since and although he no longer owns the land, we stay in contact.
We harvested Devlin’s orchard for six years before he sold it. It was at the auction of the land that he chatted with another local farmer about the prospect of us using his orchard and now we harvest a large portion of our apples from Hawkswood farm just outside Hay on Wye. The apples had gone to Dunkertons cider mill until they fell surplus to requirements. After Ivor Dunkertons death the cider making operation had been taken over by the son and moved to a larger facility in Cheltenham.
In the winters of 2010 and 2011 we had also planted our own orchard on the edge of Knighton on some land owned by our grandparents. The field was called Lower Jackets so this has become the Lower Jackets orchard. Now, ten years later, it is beginning to bare enough fruit for us to make our first home orchard ciders. ‘KNIGHTON CIDER’ a short run of 200 bottles was released before Christmas. We sold most of it, but made sure to keep a few cases back for future reference. The orchard is a mixture of Welsh and English Perry pear varietals, as well as traditional cider varieties Kingston Black, Yarlington Mill, Stoke Red, Browns, Breakwells Seedling, Frederick and Dabinett. Adam grafted a good portion of the trees himself from scion wood he had collected. Orchard work feels like sacred work and time spent in them soothes me. We have harvested Perry pear trees more than 250 years old, and to think that the varieties were selected, grafted and planted for this purpose, feels incredibly special.
It was in the harvests of 2015 and 2016 that we found a process of cider making that we have stuck with. We had experimented with the Normandy Method of ‘keeving’ since 2012 with some success, but the method we tuned in to did not require the adjuncts for keeving and was less nerve racking and far easier to explain. Now we could present a bottle of cider to anyone interested and say ‘there is only one ingredient in this bottle (fruit). We begun to call this our ‘Rural Method’ cider a translation of the french wine style ‘Methode Rurale’ similar to ‘Methode Ancestrale’ and ‘Petillant Naturel’. A simple method resulting in bottles of naturally sparkling cider and perry with residual sweetness present from the fruit. We now make nearly all of our cider and Perry in this style.
We were mostly learning about fermentation for the first 5 years (and are still learning of course) but since we’ve rested on this process it feels like we have begun to turn more to the fruit varieties and the different qualities each one brings. Less anxiety, and with our cider being popular in its little corner of the market we generally feel more confident about what we are putting out.
Making cider in this fashion, without the commercial yeasts and sulphites, pasteurisation and many other possible interventions, undoubtedly opens you up to many unpredictable happenings, each vintage providing different surprises (not always good ones). The variables are infinite, but you can begin to get a rough idea of what may happen as experience is gained. We are not big note keepers, and it could aid the learning process if we were, but we do things more intuitively. If you end up with something special, it is in my opinion far far more delicious than anything the mass produced alternatives can offer. In the pursuit of a consistent product for the mass market, the juice is heavily tampered with and while drinkable beverages can be made, the magic is lost.
Within the boundaries we have set ourselves, fruit and nothing but the fruit, there lies a lifetimes worth of experimentation, and I hope we are still tinkering away for many years to come. We remain small, producing roughly 6000 bottles a year that find there way to various shops and restaurants around the UK. 2020 saw our first export to Canada, with some hopefully heading to Japan this year. There are exciting new orchard projects on the horizon and we are always looking for better fruit and ahead to the next harvest.
Dégustation outside the wine cave of Juliene Preval, Montlouis, Loire Valley 2018.