Suffolk to the core
PUBLISHED: 12:35 25 November 2014 | UPDATED: 12:35 25 November 2014
Frances Hopewell-Smith talks to to Barry Chevallier Guild, of Aspall Cyder, about running a family business that's nearly 300 years old
There’s no escaping history at the home of Aspall Cyder.
My morning meeting with Barry Chevallier Guild, the eighth generation of Chevallier cyder producers, takes place in the peaceful drawing room of the family home near Debenham which has that hushed, gentle air peculiar to old houses. I start with a couple of basic questions.
Me: Why cyder with a ‘y’?
Barry: Because when Clement started the business in 1728 that’s how cider was spelt.
Me: Why Aspall?
Barry: because that’s the name of this house, Aspall Hall.
We move on quickly.
Brothers Henry and Barry took over the running of the business about 20 years ago and I ask Barry if he feels it onerous, following his forefathers and carrying the weight of centuries of tradition.
After a pause he admits it’s not something you take lightly, but the joy of being part of the history, of having something so secure and stable far outweighs any downside. He offers to let me have a copy of the family tree to help place all the different generations.
He is justifiably proud of his heritage and has so many stories that the sentences tumble into one another and I have trouble keeping up.
He tells me about Harry Sparrow, their cyder maker for 50 years, who fought in the First World War, now pictured on his eponymous cyder. Then there’s his grandmother, Perronelle, after whom one of their latest cyder varieties, Perronnelle’s Blush is named.
A founder member of the Soil Association – the orchards have been organic since 1946 – this extraordinary lady took up travelling aged 70 and practised mountain walking by going up and down stairs for hours. I suspect cyder might be the clue to this spectacular energy.
There is talk of Aspall joining the elite group of ancient family-owned companies called the Henokiens (look it up, it’s fascinating) where 200 years is the minimum requirement and one Japanese family can chart its company history back to 718. We muse on that for a moment then jolt back to now and I ask what’s new. There’s quite a lot going on it seems, although Barry qualifies that by explaining that at Aspall they practise evolution not revolution.
They have planted 4,000 trees, all of them taken from their own proven apple stock. They’ve had the labelling re-worked to make more of the history and installed a state-of-the-art bottler and filtration unit in the factory. Out in the orchards, under the stewardship of the new estate manager, they’ve started growing the trees espalier-style so they look like grapevines. This is one of the Chevallier dreams, to model the hall and surrounding orchards on a chateau vineyard, but in this case the rows stretching away are not vines but English pedigree apple trees.
The latest project is the monumental task of making a digital record of a hoard of papers which were found in the loft, boxes and boxes of notes, documents, letters and invoices dating back to 1702 when the family first moved into the hall.
Barry is working with a team from the University of East Anglia who are thrilled with the discovery because it’s an insight into everyday life in the 18th century and not just a sterile collection of facts and figures. It turns out that some of the observations are written in rhyme too, not something that you find much nowadays.
The aim is to finish this epic job well in time for the big one, their 300-year anniversary in 2028. Fourteen years and counting.
Aspall is a famous, instantly recognisable brand which seems to pop up in a lot of places I go on holiday, which isn’t surprising when I find out they export to 37 countries. They have perfected a range of fine products over the years and the pressing and blending of the cyders, vinegars and juices is still all done on the farm. Barry is smiling with delight as he tells me how he organises tastings of cyder against wine, when their vintage cyder not only holds its own but very often is voted better than comparable wines.
They run cyder tasting and food-matching evenings at trendy London venues, and even one event in Soho where a mixologist made cocktails based on Aspall cyders. You see, he says, we have a Suffolk heart with an urban pulse. Couldn’t have put it better myself.
My last question is to ask about the next generation destined to take over. Are his children keen? Barry is clear about this and says they will have the same choice as he did and won’t be under any kind of obligation.
The signs are good though. Barry’s young son, Edward, insisted on making his hand print in wet cement outside the office door with his initials and the date, ‘for everyone to see’. Which they will, hopefully, for another few hundred years.