Our family has made cyder in Suffolk since the 1700s. Clement Chevallier planted an apple orchard here in 1728, when he inherited the Aspall Hall estate, and introduced the county to cyder. His cyder house, with its stone mill for mashing apples and its wooden press, still stands in front of the 2002 bottling house.
Last year we pressed 9,500 tonnes of organic and conventional apples for a combination of apple juice, cyder and cyder vinegar.
We actually shied away from cyder for many years. It's such a cut-throat business. We just sold locally or to family and friends.
But after my older brother Barry and I came into the business in the nineties we felt there was a market for a super-premium cyder made only from fresh pressed apples: a real, artisan product of the kind people used to drink in the 18th century, when it was more revered than wine.
At first we were going to get Greene King to contract-fill it for us in their own bottles. But when we were talking to John Murphy, who used to run Interbrand, he said: "It's a fantastic product. Why are you putting it in beer bottles?" So father dug out an old flared-bottom bottle that great-grandfather used in the 1920s, and we had a new 500ml version specially made for us.
Our first, semi-automatic filling machine could only do 1,000 bottles a day, which was nothing like enough. So we bought an old 1960s Meadowcroft filler, which was fine but couldn't handle the carbonation in a bottle shaped like ours. Finally, we found a company in West Bromwich that was closing down and had a 21-valve Italian machine for sale. They insisted we buy the whole line, not just the filler, but we managed to sell off most of the other bits. We bought a new crowner, rinser and labeller, and now we've got a bottling line that is working efficiently and has more capacity than we're likely to need in the immediate future.
And two years ago we started selling kegs. We bought a carbonation nozzle from a guy up at Scotch Corner, filled 20 kegs and gave them to the local Earl Soham Brewery free of charge provided they'd tell us how things went. They soon wanted another 20 kegs, and we realised we were on to something. So we went to Adnams, in Southwold, who happened to be reviewing all their on-trade tied accounts and were looking to buy local wherever possible.
The only thing they baulked at was our 7% abv, so now we dilute the keg cyder with fresh pressed apple juice; this brings it down to 5.5% and also sweetens it to an "off dry". We started in six Adnams pubs. By May this year it was 160 and it's growing fast. We've also managed to hit a lot of the London gastro-pubs.
When father came out of the Navy in 1970, this was basically a fruit farm and small-scale local cydermaker, using an old-fashioned press. It was all jug-and-funnel stuff. Then he started producing apple juice and cyder vinegar, mainly for the wholefood trade. A lot of people take cyder vinegar as a health supplement. One of father's big supporters in those days was Barbara Cartland, the romantic novelist, who was a great believer in alternative remedies.
In 1981 father won the Sainsbury own-label apple juice contract and bought the first of two Bucher-Guyer HP3000 presses, which have been the heart and soul of the business ever since. Everything still goes through them. He only bought the second press because Sainsbury insisted he have a back-up. But that Sainsbury contract really paid the debt on all his machinery.
We've also got a spare apple augur, which takes the fruit to the mill. We never thought we'd need a second augur either -- until ours jammed in peak season when we were working seven days a week. By the time the hire crane had arrived we'd got the roof off, and we had the augur replaced in four hours. A spare would have taken six weeks to arrive.
My brother and I joined the business in 1993. Barry had done various jobs, from selling BMWs to consulting on BS5750 standards for an accident repair specialist. He now looks after sales and marketing. I'd done a business degree at Oxford and worked for Grand Met Brewing in my gap year. But when I came here I'd spent the previous nine months riding an Enfield motorcycle round India. Father never pressured either of us to join the business. It was clever psychology, really.
When father started, no-one else did fresh pressed apple juice in bulk and he was selling to people like Gerber and Princes by the tanker-load. But by the mid-Nineties things were changing. Also, the business was heavily geared to own-label, which left us vulnerable. Someone sent us some samples of French cloudy apple juice, which was much the same as ours but a lot cheaper, and we recognised that someone, some day was going to take the word 'English' off their packs and start buying overseas.
So that's when we started building a brand, developing the cyders and re-packaged our organic vinegar as a super-premium product.
Making vinegar is the bacterial fermentation of alcohol to acetic acid, and it's done using acetobacter. Back in the 1970s, father couldn't afford a purpose-built Frings acetator. So he got in touch with a man called Professor Greenshield who owned the patent on a micro-digester used for treating effluent on Malaysian rubber plantations. It was basically a tower of liquid that you bubble air through to keep the micro-organisms active.
It was designed to work like a Frings. You start with a tank that's about 50-50 cyder vinegar and cyder, so it's 4.5% alcohol and 5.5% acetic acid. You blow air through it and keep it at a constant temperature, and after 24 hours virtually all the alcohol will have been converted to acetic acid. At that point, you pump out half the cyder vinegar and recharge with 10% alcohol cyder.
Father worked out a way to run his two Greenshield towers as a continuous process. The trouble is, the Greenshield cooling system is poor so it can't cope with more than 7% acetic acid strength, and most people want 9%. So five years ago Barry and I bought a Frings Acetator. It's a large-scale batch process, not continuous, but it's on a 24-hour cycle and automatically discharges when the alcohol dips below 0.2-0.3%. And it now rattles away all year round. We still use the Greenshields for our organic brand because it gives a much more mellow product.
We do bulk vinegar in tankers and 1,000 litre bins, which goes to manufacturers of dressing and chutneys. And we've got a bottling line doing red, white and cyder vinegars and balsamic cyder vinegar.
Our third line is an aseptic drumming line for bulk apple juice, which we put in last year. We had problems with that at first -- purely because we didn't have time to commission it properly. But now, instead of sending everything out by tanker, all our bulk juices are pasteurised on-site and sold in drums or bag-in-box.
I'm not really a technical expert but I've never been afraid to ask questions. When I first came into the business, some of the old guard would either disappear behind the black art of vinegar making or just say "that'll never work". But I knew we needed to make changes, and there was a hugely defensive attitude from people who felt -- rightly, as it turned out -- their positions were at risk.
I was quite idealistic -- or naïve -- thinking it could all work with all of us still there. Then I heard a business trouble-shooter say the reason a lot of small family businesses fail is that the next generation won't take the tough decisions needed to move forward. And I realised I had to bite the bullet, trusting it was the right thing to do for the business. Ultimately two people had to move on, and we haven't looked back; I sincerely hope they haven't either. Happily, the last time I had to do that was four or five years ago.
In 1946 my grandmother, Peronelle Guild, was one of the founder members of the Soil Association. We've still got 90 acres of organic orchard, along with 260 acres of farmland. We only produce a small percentage of our requirements now and it would be cheaper to buy everything from someone else, but that has never really felt right.
All our kegged and bottled cyder is fermented from English apples, as is all of our organic cyder vinegar. Everything else -- non organic vinegar and apple juice -- depends on the time of year. It's mainly English from August to April and mainly foreign from April to July, but we're pressing English come what may for the drinking cyder.
My brother and I both live by Aspall Church, which is a 10-minute walk away, through the apple orchards. It can take 30 minutes when the blossom is on the trees.
If we hadn't come back into the business, father and mum would have sold up, so I think we should throw off the weight that 'we must never sell'. There aren't many eighth-generation businesses around. But it's a lifestyle thing too, and at the moment no-one could pay us enough to sell. Besides, it would spoil my commute.
Interview by Mick Whitworth
Name: Henry Chevallier Guild
Career history: Took business degree at Oxford and travelled for two years before joining family business in 1993.
Domestics: Single, and living in the hamlet of Aspall.
Outside work: "I read a lot, I do a lot of yoga, and I have a motorbike that I tend to use to go on birdwatching trips."
Location: Aspall, The Cyder House, Aspall Hall, Debenham, Suffolk IP14 6PD. Tel: 01728 860510. http://www.aspall.co.uk
Main products: Premium apple juice, cyder vinegar and cyder, in bottles, kegs and bulk bins.
Throughput: 9,500 tonnes of apples last year.