The Skimmity Hitchers Great Dorset Cider Shed Tour 2017

The Skimmity Hitchers Dorset Cider Shed tour of Dorset

Skimmity Hitchers at Nettlecombe

Playing Scrumpy and Western, the Skimmity Hitchers often sing about cider sheds. In April 2017 they set out to take their music back to the sheds that they sing about. A cider shed takes many shapes and sizes, some are privately held, others are operated by cider clubs, groups of enthusiasts who get together each fall to press apples, and then meet up throughout the year to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

(For those outside the UK it’s important to note that all British citizens are entitled to produce up to 7000 Liters (1800 US gallons) of cider without a license or need to pay any tax. The Skimmity Hitchers sing about it in the song “It’s just a bit of persie, it’s just a bit of personal,” on their forthcoming album.

Magners O’Magnersson of the Hitchers outside the Nettlecombe Cider Shed, where as the sign tells us there is no through road

The tour began at the Nettlecombe cider club’s cider shed. We had a bit of trouble finding it at first, as it isn’t sign posted, the directions were go past the pub (the Marquis of Lorne) and down a track. With a population of less than 50 people, Nettlecombe is a lovely little village. In true West Country fashion, we had to make way for a farmer with a load of manure, but when we asked some people where we might find the cider shed, they told us to park up and come in. Past an old stone stone barn, a small square stone building with a corrugated metal roof, about 15 feet square and 15 feet high.

Nettlecombe Cider Club Shed

The old stone building dates from the 1300s and has been used for cider production since the 1600’s, originally as part of the manor. We are welcomed in with cider and bacon butties (bacon sandwiches). At the center of the building sits the massive Victorian double-screw press, built in the 1880s which the club uses to press its apples each fall. The juice is then pumped into blue plastic barrels up on a loft above the press for primary fermentation, then the cider is gravity fed into oak barrels to mature.

Skimmity Hitchers at Nettlecombe cidershed

The 2015 cider on offer had a slight acetic note, but notable tannins from bittersweet cider variety apples. A small orchard sits out the back of the shed, and other apples are gathered in. On hand were cider notables from Nick Poole, organizer of the Powerstock cider festival and head of the West Milton cider club, and West Milton Cider Company, Alan Stone, an author who’s written several books on cider, including Dorset Cider and In Search of Good Cider. There were also a range of apple growers (such as Mark, who only grows a little bit of Kingston Black about 60 tonnes) and music enthusiasts come out to see the Hitchers and taste the cider. Packing a drummer, double bass, electric guitar and singer plus an audience into the shed took some doing but it worked, and the lads launched into a few of their cider-fuelled songs. Mark the apple grower read a poem by William Barnes, Dorset’s national poet.

Mark reading William Barnes

After Nettlecombe the band and a minibus full of locals headed on to Shane Phillips’s Shed at Bidlake Farm near Bridport . Pulling up by the mobile home, I felt like I was back in Yamhill County. A Kingston Black blend was on tap directly from a blue plastic barrel, and the band set up in woodworking shop around a very impressive bandsaw. The artistic clutter and sawdust reminded me very much of my dad’s woodshop.

Skimmity Hitchers in Shane’s Shed

In addition to the Skimmity Hitchers Dorset Phil, a local singer songwriter sang a few songs on Dorset themes. A lamb roast was served up along with a selection of local cheeses and homemade pickles. At Shane’s shed we were introduced to the 2-handled cup.

The 2 handled cup at Shane’s Shed

These mugs are made for sharing, the two handles make it easy to pass the mug on to the next drinker. The one at Shane’s Shed was a beautiful enameled ceramic number with the inscription “God Speed the Plow”

Shed number three in Symondsbury was in the village, in the back garden of Collin Phillips, Shane’s father. Like a garden shed or garage, decades of accumulated detritus were stacked on shelves. Here the two-handled cup was in circulation, Collin insisted that everyone pass round the cup. We only have one cup, he says, when Kev from the Skimmity Hitchers quipped “saves on the washing up” Collin laughed “We don’t go in for that sort of thing round here.” The Skimmity’s set up in front of a tin shed across the lane from the cider shed, and played to a crowd that had swelled to about 30 people.

The Skimmitys and Collins Shed in Symondsbury
The Skimmitys at Symondsbury Cider Shed

Shed 4 was located in North Chideock, just inland from the seaside village of Chiddoeck. Collin’s shed is located across the farmyard from a tractor storage shed, which was also home to an antique motor coach along the usual assortment of tractors and implements of a working diversified farm. Operated by Collin Hopkins, the North Chideock Cider club moved to its current location after the original shed burned down in 56 years ago. The shed also has an attached skittles alley attached, which is no longer used, but once hosted skittles tournaments for charity. Skittles, once common in pubs throughout the West Country is a game similar to 10-pin bowling, but the balls are smaller (akin to a lawn bowling ball) and have no holes, and the “skittles” as the pins are called are heavy and shaped like miniature pipes (cider barrels).

Collin Hopkins with a 2-handled cup

The Skimmity Hitchers set up in the fermentation shed, while Collin Hopkins showed off his press, another Victorian double screw number. The 2015 blend on offer was largely Kingston Black, Brown Snout, and King’s Favourite apple, but included about 96 varieties of apple. The cider from Collin’s Shed is never sold expect to raise money for charity.

The Skimmity Hitchers at North Chideock Cider Shed

The final stop on the tour is Winston’s Farm, near Monkton Wyld. Winston and Di are a lovely couple, who’s main enterprise is Christmas tree farming, and Winston is a relative of the Weston’s family which operates on a massive scale in Herefordshire. Winston’s cider shed is located in the original farmhouse, a stone longhouse dating to likely the 1500’s. Originally people lived in one half and animals in the other in the tradition of house barns, or longbarns.

Being that it is located next to a creek, the house was prone to flooding so a modern house has been built on the hill looking down on the cidershed. Winston has gone all-out with a large tent (marquee) erected outside the cider shed, and amazing potluck spread of food including local cheeses and cured meets and pickles of various sorts. The locals turned out in droves to share some cider and see the Skimmity’s performance.

In the cider shed a stack of barrels bearing different names with spigots protruding invite the visitor on a choose your own adventure of ciders of various vintages, including Skimmity Scrumpy which the band helped to press. I found about ¾ of a pint of the Skimmity Scrumpy topped up with some of Winston’s Scotch whisky barrel aged cider was just the thing.

 

 

 

 

Powerstock Cider Festival, Dorsert

 

The 16th annual Powerstock Cider Festival

In 2001 the village of Powerstock needed a new roof for the village community hall, fondly referred to as “the hut.” Local amateur cidermaker Nick Poole organized a festival with four cidermakers and more food producers. The event was such a success, that they made it an annual affair, and replaced the food vendors with more cidermakers. Over the last 16 years the Powerstock festival has raised over £40,000 for local charities, including the Air Ambulance, as well as putting a new roof on the hut.

 

The “hut” is a wood floored community center, with solar panels on the roof, which not only power the hut, but also actually are a source of income for the community. The village of Powerstock only has about 50 inhabitants, and with neighboring Nettlecombe and West Milton the parish has about 300 residents.

Nick Poole and his wife Dawn have since made the jump to commercial production and their West Milton keeved cider even beat out the locals in a Normandy cider competition.

The Powerstock cider festival is unique in that home producers and commercial producers compete on a level playing field. Cider is submitted in glass gallon demijohns in dry, medium, and sweet categories. This year there were entries from cidermakers producing 20 liters to over 100,000 liters a year. (Cider Riot! made 64,000 liters last year). While the majority of cidermakers participating were from Dorset and Somerset, there were also participants from Wales, Hereford, Gloucestershire, Kent, Normandy, and Oregon. Over the years cidermakers from as far away as Scotland and Lincolnshire have taken part.

Judging entries at the Powerstock Cider Festival

The ciders are judged at the beginning of the afternoon. All cidermakers who enter get to judge, and samples are pulled from the demijohns with turkey basters. It’s a tall order but judges must sample all the entries to make their decisions. This year that meant 22 dry ciders, 14 mediums, and 11 sweets. Used to competitions such as the PICC and GABF where judges have time to write comments on the ciders or beers being judged I was the slow judge, after taking meticulous notes on the drys I must admit I had to rush through the other two categories. The ciders varied greatly, from lovely and well-balanced ciders with notable varietal characteristics from Kingston Black, Sweet Alford (a native Dorset variety), and Dabinett, to more acidic ciders such as Wise Owl from Kent, which took first place in the Dry category, made with a blend of Dabinett and dessert apples, to downright acetic ciders, and even one mousey one.

After the judging concludes votes are tabulated as cidermakers talk shop. Tables are pushed to the sides, awards are given out, and then the public descends on the hut for the festival portion of the afternoon. Cidermakers are asked to stand with their ciders and pour samples and talk about their ciders to the public, in a festival format familiar to us in Cascadia. Again there is no divide between bigger producers, such as Dorset Nectar and Dorset Star and home cidermakers. Everyone has the opportunity to share their ciders with the public. (In the UK anyone can produce up to 7000 liters (about 14,000 pints) of cider without paying the excise tax, and don’t need a license to sell it, so the line between commercial and home producers is much thinner than in other countries.

Pouring Cider Riot 1763 next to Bill and Orla from Cranborne Chase Cider

As the evening fell, the Skimmity Hitchers took to the stage to play their brand of cider-fuelled Scrumpy and Western to an enthusiastic crowd. By the time they finished up the final encore at 11pm, the dance floor was soaked in cider, and the crowd was smiling broadly. Sadly this was the last Powerstock Cider Festival, as Nick Poole is stepping down as organizer. I was honor to compete in the final festival, and was happy to be able to share our 1763 Revolutionary West Country Style Cider with the crowd there. Though it did not win any prizes the cider was well received and I learned a lot from talking to the cidermakers from small scale producers such as Albert Rixsen from Gloucester and Phil Palmer from Wales, and Michele from Normandy, to larger producers such as Charlie Harris of Talbot Harris cider, and the Dorset Nectar family, who used to live near Port Townsend. This is the magic that was Powerstock.

Nick Poole joins the Skimmity Hitchers on Stage for “Drink up thee Cider”

 

Abram’s West Country tour 2017

In 2014 I set out to the West Country in search of real cider. He drank some great ciders and met some lovely folks, including the Skimmity Hitchers, a Bristol-based Scrumpy and Western band. In 2016 Cider Riot! hosted the Skimmity Hitchers in Portland in what’s now our production facility to 300 people as the grand finale of Cidercon. I was their driver and roadie on their tour of Cascadia with dates in Corvallis, Eugene, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC where they played for 700 people at a packed house at the Rickshaw Theatre with the Dreadnoughts.

When Kev from the Skimmity Hitchers told me I had to get over Easter Weekend and I found a plane ticket for $666 I thought I had to be a sign. So here be I in the West Country. The Skimmity’s had arranged some great cidery events for me which I’ll share with you here.

The first stop was Cranborne Chase Cider in Dorset. When I visited the farm in 2014 I met Badger Meaden who showed us around and made me most welcome. In 2016 his son Bill, the cidermaker who also brews at Sixpenny Handley brewery,  accompanied the Skimmitys on the tour along with cidermaker Charlie Harris of Talbot Harris cider. Bill even brought along a bag in the box of his cider to the Portland gig.

I was very excited to join the Skimmitys for their gig at the Meaden’s farm. Cranborne Chase was originally a royal hunting preserve, as a result it abounds in large expansive green fields, it looks similar to Yamhill County with more hedgerows, and less vineyards. In the following posts I’ll take you on a tour of the West Country originating there.