Behind the scenes at the award-winning Thornborough Cider
PUBLISHED: 00:00 11 October 2019
Copyright Kevin Gibson Photography Ltd
A narrowboat ride near Masham sowed the seeds for an award-winning cider business.
It was 12 years ago Kingsley Ash and wife, Susie, decided to leave the rat race of London and move to Yorkshire. Kingsley had an exciting job working in the music industry but living and working in the capital - read long commutes and lots of evening meetings - meant there was little time for real life outside of work. Kingsley and Susie were keen to start a family, too, and London was not where they wanted to do that.
They gave up their jobs and bought a narrowboat, which provided some much-needed time out and was also the perfect vehicle in which to explore Britain's beautiful countryside. Many years ago Kingsley worked in York, and they had friends who lived near Masham, so they already had a soft spot for Yorkshire.
A narrowboat ride up to Leeds, some additional exploring and they soon found their first home on an estate near Masham. Their first child, Herbie (now 12), was born soon after and was joined by little sister, Edie, three years later.
Unbeknown to Kingsley at the time, it was this move that heralded the start of his new career. Cider-making. And award-winning cider at that!
Kingsley helped out on the estate, which had lots of apple trees and he couldn't bear to see them go to waste, rotting on the ground. He collected up the unwanted apples, pressed them and made his first ever batch of cider. 'I'd never tried making cider before,' says Kingsley, 'But it seemed like the obvious thing to do, and it was fun. I bought an antique cider press on eBay from a farmer in Sheffield, modified a garden shredder to mash up the apples and it all seemed to work. It was so satisfying seeing the juice flowing out from the apples.'
That was in 2009, the same year that Kingsley and Susie got married, when they served his first batch of cider instead of champagne at their wedding.
The following year, Kingsley entered his second batch into a cider competition in the West Country. 'It won a Silver Award, much to the annoyance of the seasoned professionals, but winning this accolade suggested that there was something in this cider making for me, beyond just doing it for fun.'
In 2011, the family moved to Thornborough, near Bedale, which had a big shed for Kingsley's cidermaking, and more importantly, was home to 12 apple trees. Kingsley was still making cider just for fun at this point, his proper job was a university music lecturer in Leeds.
'Giving up the day job and developing my hobby into a career was a gradual process. Twelve apple trees weren't providing enough fruit by this stage though, so I invited people to donate their unwanted apples in return for bottles of the end product.
'I quickly outgrew that system too, however, and we now have 600 trees planted in an orchard. There were the usual hurdles to go through to scale up and trade commercially, trading standards, health and safety and so on, but we're now there and I haven't looked back.'
Kingsley still uses traditional methods to make his cider, although he has treated himself to a bigger press than the eBay purchase he made in the beginning. He's also become a member of the Small Independent Cidermakers Association whose ciders must contain at least 90% fresh apple juice.
Kingsley's Thornborough Cider is very different to what most people would consider a cider to be. Kingsley explains: 'Some ciders are only made up of about 35% apples, the rest being water and other additives. They also tend to be sweeter.
'Thornborough Cider's percentage of apple content is in the high nineties. We are trying to make something as natural as possible, it only has the tiniest bit of yeast and sugar in it so a higher alcohol volume of about 6.5% and is quite dry.
'We press the apples then leave them to ferment using wild yeast from the skins of the fruit. This is left over winter and then transferred to stainless steel vats, at which point we add a little yeast and sugar. It's naturally sparkling and a lot of our product goes into champagne bottles, the idea being that it's served in fluted glasses, like at our wedding. It pairs very well with food because it's so dry.'
Kingsley's cider is proving a hit and can be found at restaurants, cafes, delis and farm shops dotted across Yorkshire, mostly, but also further afield.
'Vennells restaurant in Masham and Buon Vino in Settle were the first places to stock our cider. It's about finding establishments that have the right feel and brand fit for our product,' says Kingsley.
His cider also won another award two years ago. He entered into the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition, the world's largest, in Michigan, in 2017 and came away with a Silver medal. 'Because there isn't a large community of cider makers around here It's great validation for me to win awards like this, continues Kingsley. 'It means I'm doing it right. The judges at competitions like that seriously know their cider.'
Now that Kingsley's orchard of 600 trees is starting to produce apples, his next challenge is to look at developing some new ciders and learning new techniques to remove sediment. Rather than dramatically increasing volume, he hopes to increase choice and further improve quality. Kingsley has other ideas for growing the business without ramping up production, too.
'My friends and family love coming to help press apples,' he said. 'It's so satisfying! So in the future I'm going to launch a pressing experience where people can come along for an afternoon, pick apples, press them and then take some of the juice home to make their own cider. Hopefully it will help generate more of a following of this fabulous drink.'
So is the music industry and London life a distant memory? 'Both jobs are exciting in their own ways,' says Kingsley. 'It's so different driving a tractor or working in the shed, compared to being in an office. In some ways I miss being in London because there's so much going on but it's a different kind of excitement now.
'It feels good to be doing this with the current state of our planet. The world needs more trees and everything needs to be sustainable so I really do feel like I'm doing my bit, and loving my job, all at the same time.'