Dorset Lives: ‘Cider’ Bill Meaden
Lee Williams meets Bill Meaden: cider maker, brewer and metal worker
Published in March ’16
Coming into Myncen Farm just off the A354 outside Sixpenny Handley, I am greeted by a small apple orchard with chickens scurrying about the bases of the trees. A narrow lane leads past a wildflower meadow to a farm cottage whose façade is bearded with climbing plants. Before I even have a chance to open the car door a border collie has popped his head through the window to greet me with panting enthusiasm.
You could hardly wish for a more traditionally bucolic setting, which makes it all the more surprising when the person I have come to meet looks more like a boy band member than a farmer. This is 23-year-old cider producer, blacksmith and master brewer, Bill Meaden, or Cider Bill as he’s known to his customers.
Bill’s Cranborne Chase Cider has become something of a hit around Dorset’s festivals and shows where he sells it direct from his Cider Shack, a trailer based on a converted shepherd’s hut, where customers can sample the delights of his medium, vintage and perry ciders or the award-winning Cranborne Chase Sweet and Cranborne Chase Dry.
‘It’s just starting to get busy now,’ says Bill as he leads me through the April sunshine to the large cider barn in the middle of the 270-acre farm. ‘The sun’s out and people want to drink cider so I’m filling boxes in the evenings and doing events with the Cider Shack at weekends.’
His apples come from the farm’s own 50-tree orchard just down the road. ‘Our apples are mainly Brown’s Apple, a sharp cider apple, with a few Sweet Coppins and Sweet Alford,’ explains Bill. ‘We wait for them to drop before picking them, that helps tannin and sugar levels set and means they’re totally ripe.’ First the apples are brought to a long rack outside the barn where they are washed and sorted. They are then put through an electric mill which cuts or ‘scrats’ them into a fine pulp ready for pressing in the shiny, tractor-powered cider press built by Bill himself and capable of pressing 1000 litres of juice a day. The newly-pressed juice is stored in large plastic vats where it ferments naturally over the winter, after which it is transferred to oak barrels for a secondary fermentation and to imbibe a mellow, oaky taste. All of which leads, six months later, to additive-free, minimum-input cider ready to drink at just around April. ‘Traditionally, as soon as you hear the cuckoo, you can start drinking your cider,’ explains Bill’s dad and the farm’s owner, Simon.
Bill started Cranborne Chase Cider in 2011 after returning from six months’ travelling. It was during this time that he realised what a truly original product was on his doorstep back home. ‘I’d learned to love a drink that we know as flat cider or ‘scrumpy’,’ he says, ‘which they just don’t have in the rest of the world. That opened my eyes up to think, I’ve got such an opportunity at home – we can make a product that nobody else does in the rest of the world.’ Returning home, he began taking his apples to press at the Square and Compass pub in Worth Matravers but soon realised it would make more sense to produce the cider on his own farm. He had already returned to his day jobs as a brewer at the local Sixpenny Brewery and blacksmith at Sixpenny Forge so he decided to use the latter to build his own hydraulic cider press. Things went well and Cranborne Chase Cider’s first year of production saw a bumper crop of 12 tonnes of apples and 6000 litres of cider.
However, not everything went to plan in the first year. The cider had a distinct whiskey flavour and customers reported being somewhat floored by a single pint. ‘The oak barrels we used were fresh whiskey casks,’ explains Bill. ‘We didn’t realise that the first year you use whiskey barrels it bumps up the ABV by about 3%, so cider that was 6% was actually about 9% which is why people were falling over so much.’
Over the four years since, the barrels have lost their whiskey kick and Bill has learnt an awful lot more about the craft of cider making. Not everything has changed though. It is still a part-time job which he fits around working at the brewery and the forge and he still produces the same amount of cider – just under 7000 litres a year. This is because anything under 7000 litres is exempt from duty under UK law. ‘It’s very hard to increase from 7000 litres at the moment,’ he explains. ‘You have to do a massive step up. I’d have to go up to 20,000 litres and that would mean giving up either working at the forge or the brewery.’ It’s a choice he may be forced to make anyway. If EU plans to remove duty exemptions on all alcohol come into effect, Bill would have to pay duty on all the cider he produces, costing him an extra £3000 a year in tax, and forcing him into a difficult decision. It would be a shame because his three jobs seem to support each other symbiotically – the brewery provides an outlet for Cranborne Chase Cider, the cider supports the brewery and the forge helps build hardware for the farm like presses, fences and even guards for the trees. ‘I like the variation of all three,’ says Bill. ‘Metalwork is something I’m very passionate about so I’d like to stay involved in that. Cider’s where my passion is but brewing’s my day job. It would be a very hard decision which one would go.’
Judging by the look on his face when he talks about cider – and the fact that he’s planning a new orchard of 120 trees – it may be difficult to say which job would go, but it’s easy to see which one would definitely stay. After all, they don’t call him Cider Bill for nothing. ◗