Hitchcox Cider in major pubs push

Cask, keg, box or bottled options for selling local “real” cider

Things are stirring down on Orchard Farm. The busiest time of year is starting as the fruit of over 1,000 apple trees is harvested and pressed, while a new bottling plant is starting to turn out previous years’ production of cider that has been fermenting for months or even years. This is “real” cider using only the most traditional methods, with juice pressed using a 1971 butcher cloth. Hitchcox cider is made entirely from juice and not from the concentrate used by mass market producers.

Real ale drinkers are getting the chance to try more cask conditioned ciders from a local supplier as Hitchcox continues its drive to sign up more pubs and beer festivals. The company, based at Orchard Farm near Chalgrove in South Oxfordshire, has taken on experienced local pub operator Mat Burden to develop new sales outlets, while the new bottling plant is also available to small breweries.

Toby Hitchcox savours his produce

Among the first Oxford pubs to take Hitchcox ciders are the Wheatsheaf, White Rabbit, Rose and Crown, Teardrop bar, and the Victoria in Jericho. It will have a major presence of four traditional plus four varied fruit ciders on cask at the Oxford Beer and Cider Festival in November, and will supply the Headington Beer Festival at the Masons Arms this coming weekend.

The Hitchcox story started long before the company was established in 2010 when founder Toby Hitchcox, described as “a man of remarkable character and an impressive beard”, bought a one-way ticket to New Zealand with only a backpack and £60 in his pocket. It’s here that he started picking apples and became enamoured with the world of cider, so when he returned to the family farm outside Chalgrove he planted 400 apple trees, with many more to come in the following years. The 10-acre farm has over 60 varieties of apples, and has been in the family for generations.

Hitchcox operates a tap room, open from Wednesdays to Fridays, and this will soon be expanded. Available on draught during a recent visit were apple ciders Medium Dry (6.4%), Dry (6.2%) and Medium (5.6%), plus fruit ciders Old Rusty and Black Panther (both 4%).

As ciders can be supplied in casks, kegs, “bag in the box” or 500ml bottles, pubs don’t have to make the same commitment to Hitchcox as to a brewery. This is a major advantage when pubs are tied to major suppliers or have few hand pumps available for guest brews.

Mat Burden, who is leading the sales expansion drive, says: “Some pubs are sceptical because they have these agreements in place, and because cider has never been a big thing in Oxfordshire. But at the Wheatsheaf we are now out-selling the big names, and having started with bottles they have gone on to ‘bag in the box’ and hand pump.

Mat Burden welcomes Flora Noble of the Bull, Great Milton to Orchard Farm

“We are not like big cider companies, using a completely different process with pure juice. We use no artificial sweetener and fermentation is from one to three years. Real cider is still in its early days, but in a few years’ time it could develop like small breweries have done.”

So-called “fruit ciders” are very much a trend, especially among ladies and young people, with many weird and wonderful flavours to be found on bars, such as mango. Hitchcox goes along with this trend but only so far, limiting its fruit ciders to ingredients grown in England such as plums, elderberries and blackberries. An advantage of Hitchcox fruit ciders, such as Old Rusty and Black Panther, is that they are only 4% alcohol whereas its apple ciders tend to be 5%, 6% and upwards. Low-alcohol cider doesn’t seem to exist but no-alcohol cider is sold – it’s called unfermented apple juice!

Visitors to Orchard Farm can enjoy not only the tap room but other aspects of farm life, including its livestock. Outside of cider visiting hours, a therapeutic farm operates for children.

Make a visit during the season, but if you can’t there’s always mail order and a growing range of pubs, shops, markets and festivals where you might see Hitchcox. And if you want a group visit, the farm has a minibus that may come to get you.