It was the Romans who discovered how to ferment apple juice to produce a pleasing and refreshing drink. Centuries later, the Normans found that the soil in Northern France was ideal for growing the fruit tree. This led to planting of orchards and the production of cider. History speculates that, when the Normans conquered Britain in the 11th century, they brought their fruit-growing and cider-making expertise with them and, finding that the soil in the West Country was similar to their own, started widespread planting of the apple varieties grown successfully at home.
Thus, the British cider industry was born. Farms would have a small number of apple trees, and many would make their own cider using a very basic process which gave no real control over quality or alcoholic strength. Many farmers, particularly at harvest time, would pay their farm hands partly in cider, a cheap and tax free alternative to wages. Here and there, farmers would get together to process their fruit at one location and so co-operatives were developed.
The Early Years
One such co-operative came together in the Somerset village of Norton Fitzwarren, just west of the county town of Taunton, in 1805. This little business continued right through the 19th century, making good quality cider to meet the needs of Norton Fitzwarren, surrounding villages, and Taunton itself. It might have continued on this way had not the business decided it need a full time cider maker. In 1911, Arthur Moore – the gardener and part time cider maker at Heathfield rectory in an adjoining village – was offered an extra one shilling per week to work at Norton Fitzwarren.
With Arthurs’s expertise, the ciders became very popular and in 1912 the business became The Taunton Cider Company Ltd.
After The Great War, the company resumed its growth and began to sell throughout Somerset, surviving the introduction of Purchase Tax on cider in 1923.
Cider at that time was still fairly basic. There was no hint of the sparkling and pasteurised varieties to be developed in the 1960s, and as cider had a very limited shelf life there was no question of geographical expansion.
All production was in traditional wooden barrels. In the late 1930s the Company flirted with bottled cider, but this form of packaging only took off much later.
In the years following The Second Wold War, there were no major brewers or pub owners. Taunton Cider found itself supplying pubs of numerous area or regional brewers who all needed a good brand of cider in their pubs to meet the demands of West Country drinkers. But in the 50s and 60s the British brewing industry began to rationalise via a series of takeovers and mergers. Most of Taunton’s customers fell victim to this process; for example, the Oak Hill Brewery on Mendip was acquired by Courage, Brutton Mitchell Toms, in Chard, was bought by Bass, Starkey Knight & Ford in Taunton became part of Whitbread, and Arnold & Hancock (Taunton and Wivelliscombe) went to Watney.
This proved to be good news for Taunton Cider as the larger brewers all needed to stock cider in their pubs and they naturally chose one that was proving so popular in their West Country acquisitions. Sales increased, and the Norton Fitzwarren mill became a very different scene as it was necessary to invest heavily, both in plant and in capable staff, to meet new demands. The Company’s size and profitability became significant, so much so that Bass, Courage and Watney decided to take shareholdings and help to fund the necessary growth. Part of this growth required the widening in the product base; customers in other parts of the UK were already used to bottled beer and other products. Production of cider in half-pint and two-pint (flagon) bottles began, to give the brewer outlets an alternative to the traditional draught cider.
This growth, however, was in a fairly settled part of the drinks market. Over the same period, the UK saw the establishment and growth of Tesco, Sainsbury and other supermarkets. Taunton Cider was only available in the on-trade, and couldn’t be found either in these new
supermarkets or in the more traditional off-trade licensed outlets. At the same time brewers were increasingly putting their beers into steel kegs, rather than wooden casks – should Taunton Cider follow suit with its cider?
These two major strategic challenges were addressed via a single step; the Company invited Arthur Guinness & Co. to take an investment alongside other national brewers. Guinness would have input in two key areas; firstly, it would guide Taunton in establishing national marketing practices which would make the Company’s brands known across the on- and off-trade and, secondly, the Guinness investment would enable Taunton Cider to establish a kegging plant and dispensing equipment for pubs.
Branding , and the Move to TV Advertising
It was agreed that the strategies would require the creation of a new brand of cider, and a move into TV advertising.
In 1972, following very careful market research, the Company launched Dry Blackthorn, and produced its first TV commercial that featured Taunton Cider, Dry Blackthorn, and an important existing brand, Autumn Gold.
As a result, the number of off-trade outlets stocking Taunton brands grew, alongside similar growth in keg cider dispense units in pubs.
Inevitably the Company became an important player in the British cider market. a single figure percentage share in the 1960s became 10% in 1973, and by 1992 the company enjoyed a share of over 1/3 of the UK market, which itself had grown four fold, in no small part due to the Taunton Cider marketing drive.
By the early 1990s Norton Fitzwarren’s production volume had increased twelve times over.
Successful growth placed strains on the business. The best cider is made from special apples – bitter sweet and bitter sharp in particular. It was essential to ensure adequate supply, so in partnership with landowners in Somerset, Devon and Dorset the Company planted over 1,000 acres of cider apple orchards. Accompanying this were increases in storage capacity for juice and maturing cider, new packaging capacity, expansion of the local and long-distance delivery fleets, and a parallel increase in sales, technical and administrative staff. By 1993 the company employed 550 people of whom 80 were sales staff based elsewhere in the UK and the remainder in the village of Norton Fitzwarren.
Decline and Fall
The 1990s proved to be years of change and turbulence. The mighty UK brewing industry was under great pressure, and the large brewers were required to break up their empires by the UK Monopolies Commission. The then Board of Directors of Taunton Cider saw this as an opportunity to break away from the consortium structure of the Companies shareholding. In May 1991 a management buyout was instigated, which saw most of the remaining brewers also withdraw. The Company shares were distributed amongst the staff. In the short term it was a popular move, which led to the public floatation of The Taunton Cider company in July 1992. In 1994 it was taken over by Matthew Clark plc.
Matthew Clark had previously purchased Showerings Ltd, which produced Cider and Perry in Shepton Mallett, Matthew Clark decided to consolidate cider production at their existing plant, rather than at Norton Fitzwarren. Production of all brands progressively transferred to Shepton Mallett. The Norton Fitzwarren site finally closed in 1998.
Sadly, the great majority of those 550 employees were made redundant over the final three years (a handful were luckier in being offered jobs with Matthew Clark, either in Bristol or Shepton Mallett). and here tribute should be paid to those 550, for it was the people who worked for Taunton who made the Company what it was. Their pride in their Company, and the jobs they undertook, was always evident to see in their hard work, their unfailing cheerfulness, and their unswerving loyalty – Taunton cider was fortunate to be so well served by so many for so long!
The New Century
In the first decade of the 21st Century, Matthew Clark was itself taken over by Constellation, an American company primarily known for wine production. In 2011 Constellation sold 80% of their European business to the Australian company, Accolade Wines; a few months earlier the rump of the cider business at Shepton Mallett was sold to Cantrell & Cochrane (C&C).
The Taunton Cider Company effectively disappeared until it was re-registered in 2015 by a group of cider enthusiasts.
The first bottles of the re-born company rolled off the cider press in November 2016.
With thanks to Alan Reeve, former director of The Taunton Cider Company who authored much of the history contained here.