Meet Elizabeth Pimblett, Director of the Museum of Cider in Hereford and co-founder of Cider Women.
When Malus Magazine asked me to write a feature about Britain’s Cider Women I sent the same questions to several of the UK’s leading orchardists, cider makers, advocates, and retailers. With limited space in the magazine I was unable to include all their responses but did not want to waste their fascinating comments, so I have posted them individually on this blog. I cast the interviewees in an imaginary film called ‘Sisterhood of Cider, The Movie’ and I asked them not to be modest in their answers because I was ‘bigging’ them up for feature. Please meet The Historian.
What is your role in cider (if you have more than one please include it)?
In my role as Director of the Museum of Cider in Hereford I could say that I’m a keeper of the flame passed down to us from the ciderists of the 17th century. I help preserve the history of cider for future generations and seek to convince people to share the same enthusiasm cider-makers have felt and continue to feel about the culture of cider.
I’m a co-founding member of the support group Cider Women and I’m currently doing some research of my own into 17th and 18th century cider.
What does your work entail?
In essence, recording history and educating. But in actual fact, running a museum is mostly about maintaining a building, writing policies, training staff, overseeing work and conservation programmes, marketing, writing budgets. The best periods are when I can interact with people, whether they are visitors to the museum or through outreach and networking. We have a cider shop, tearoom and meeting rooms, and run an annual cider and perry competition, events and exhibitions.
What is your favourite aspect of your work?
I love helping to respond to research queries – someone coming to us with a new research angle means that we pull things out of the archive or collection that we may not have focused on before. Earlier this month we were measuring the dimensions of all the 18th century cider glasses for a researcher intending to write a definitive book. I also love sharing my understanding of the subject through talks, and once again you can get new information given back to you by attendees. The last one I did, someone from a farming family came up to tell me how they used to add raisins to cider to make a deep sherry-like drink, which is something I’d come across in 18th century recipe books.
Possibly best of all, though, is attending cider events such as the Bath and West Show or Craftcon when I get to meet cider makers or when they visit the museum. It’s a really supportive and interesting community of people.
Describe cider to a person who is unaware of it.
A versatile drink with a long pedigree, that can be fine like wine or a longer refreshing drink all depending on the quality of the apples used and the methods used to make it. It’s not brewed, it’s seasonal, it can be complex but it’s rarely boring. And historically, it has been drunk by all ages, genders and classes. More recently, in the UK, commercial companies have recorded that drinkers are a 50:50 male-female split since at least the early 1980s.
What does cider mean to you?
I feel with cider, I have finally found the subject that has the ability to fascinate me for the rest of my life, and a community in which I want to stay. People tend to come to cider for the right reasons – because they respect the land, the produce, the traditions and see that there is untapped potential. It’s exciting. I drink wine, cider and dark beers but fine cider would be my first choice for a celebratory drink.
Why should a person drink cider?
If they are interested in provenance, sustainability and quality, then you can’t beat a well-made cider from someone who knows what fruit they’ve used, where it came from, what methods they’ve employed. It comes with a story of its own.
But they should drink cider because it is a broad church and there is something delicious for everyone, from a traditional farmhouse cider to a co-ferment. They should also support local!
If you were to be nominated for an award for your ceaseless work for cider why should you win it?
I am not best qualified to answer this question as I was actually lucky enough to win a CAMRA award in 2021 for my services to cider, as one of 50 people who’ve contributed to its aims since it was set up 50 years ago. And I’m still trying, with a very pleased grin on my face, to work out exactly why. But I’m thrilled.
Why did you choose cider and not wine or beer?
Cider chose me. I grew up in Herefordshire and it was part of the fabric, mostly due to the firm of Bulmers’ in the county, which was in its heyday then. When I saw the job of Director of the museum advertised, as a museum professional I was interested, and because I’d specialised in Early Modern food history I thought I could translate that interest across, rather than purely because I wanted to work with cider. Then I discovered that what I actually knew was just the tip of the iceberg, and that growing up alongside cider was just an introduction to it.
Almost straight away I met Susanna Forbes from Little Pomona, Tom Oliver, and Gabe Cook, who have been great influences, helpers and advocates. I hosted a Three Counties Cider and Perry Association meeting at the museum and my eyes were opened by the new season ciders they were sampling. My palate has changed since then, and for the better. And so, why cider? Because of the people and the quality of what they produce, and the fascinating and relatively unsung history. Wine and beer are also rich subject areas, but cider has been the underdog in recent centuries and that’s always interesting to address.
If you have a favourite apple what is it and why?
I love Cider Ladies Finger, purely because of the name. It also has a fascinating elongated shape. I love the treacly juice of freshly pressed Yarlington Mill. And I love the wicked astringency of Medaille d’Or.
Do you think the UK’s cider sector is in a better position than it was before you started working in it, and if so how?
When I started back in 2016 there were not that many voices on social media advocating for cider in the UK. I think that joining Twitter at that time, when Dick Withecombe and Cath Potter from Manchester Cider Club were also highly active, and drawing attention to cider makers, events and orcharding is probably one of the better things I was able to do. The networking and contacts that brought, across the world, have been of benefit to the museum but also helped the nascent scene.
What a time it was to become immersed in the world of cider, when so many exciting makers were coming to the fore! I think since then so many good cider and perry writers have contributed – the likes of Cider Review and Burum – that my contribution to social media is now less important, and I am so happy at the quality of contemporary work out there. I think there is room for me to write more about the history of cider and what light it reflects on current trends, which I intend to do as my part.
I’ve been really pleased to have stocked up and coming good cider makers in the shop and have helped to make them more accessible to the public. And I think that what we have done in terms of profile and confidence raising of the position of women & people who identify as women in the industry with Cider Women has been very positive, and something to be proud of. To have been part of setting that up gives me a lot of personal satisfaction. They’re a great lot!
What would you change about the UK’s current cider sector?
For there to be a scientific research station like there was at Long Ashton to really invest in cider again, and perhaps Environmental Health Officers could be taught about cider making and its methods to be able to support traditional makers. I’d love for people in the trade to be able to agree on the higher juice content for cider and for the definition of cider to be changed accordingly, with public awareness raised.
And I’d love to see cider makers being able to make better profit margins but also for fruit growers to get better prices for their fruit to encourage the sector as a whole to keep orchards going. This is wishful rather than realistic thinking, perhaps.
What is the biggest challenge we face as cider advocates.
Perception. Cider may have a relatively small share of the total alcohol sales in the UK, but it is one of the biggest cider makers in the world – yet we come up against a collective forgetfulness about the historic importance and huge variety of cider, and we don’t necessarily show the pride in the product that you get in countries like Norway or the Basque Country.
People may claim they know about cider, but actually they know very little beyond ‘industrial’ or farmhouse, and may not have a willingness to try again, especially if they had one bad experience of cider when they were a teenager. Trying to get across that a 75cl of bottle conditioned cider is worth a higher price point can be difficult outside cities, and even amongst traditional farmhouse cider makers. But it doesn’t have to be that one size fits all – it was never simple, there was always ‘fine’ and farmhouse cider since early 1600s to the 1830s, and cider with fruit and added hops or clary.
Is there a cider out there for everyone? Possibly. The fun is trying to find that cider or perry for the person.
What slogan should be on cider t-shirts?
‘British Cider, since 1295’ celebrating the fact it’s part of our landscape and culture.