Wilding Cider, a small-batch organic and natural cider company, sprouted from a simple hobby. In 2013, Sam and Beccy Leach started fermenting cooking apples from a friend’s garden in their spare time. They were running a restaurant in Bristol – the popular seasonal eatery, Birch – so their spare time was limited, but the side project grew fast. “We quickly realised that we enjoyed making cider and that it might be a long-term thing to do,” Sam says.

The restaurateurs always knew their involvement in the industry had an expiration date. “It’s quite intense, having a restaurant,” Beccy says. “We wanted to get it going, make a success of it, and then move on to some other project.” With a fledgling plan to go into cider-making full-time, it was a way to dip their toes in the water and gauge their community's response. “When we had the restaurant, we had a huge array of ciders on our drinks list, and we put it front page to make sure everybody saw it first.”

Their years working in restaurants introduced them to natural wines, providing a picture of what producing cider could look like. “We started to visit wineries in France and Italy, and seeing the lifestyle and the combination of agriculture and production was a big inspiration,” Sam says. He grew up in Somerset’s cider country, and the regional beverage felt like an equivalent he could work on from home. Having cultivated their own produce for Birch, they were already familiar with farming. “We've always had an interest,” Beccy says. “Once you start growing stuff, it is quite addictive.”

The search for an orchard began while their restaurant was still open, and it soon became clear that what they had in mind would require a stroke of luck. The lack of replanting and the growth of mass cider production has led to a steep decline in traditional orchards across the UK. So when the unlikely happened – an offer to purchase part of a mature orchard – they were so stunned that their first instinct was to turn it down. A woman they had been buying apples from for years offered to sell them a section of her land, close to Bristol, with a small stone cottage they could live in. “It was beyond our wildest dreams,” Beccy reflects. “It's a traditional orchard, some of the trees still there are about 100 years old.”

The custodian, Bryony, approached them because she was confident their visions aligned. She has replanted many trees on the land, considering native wildlife and how the orchard affects it at every step. “We share an agroecological approach,” Sam says. “Wildlife is involved in the whole farm system, it’s about integrating things.” Since moving onto the farm and setting up Wilding Cider, the couple has continued to plant altruistically with future generations in mind. They won’t be around to see many of the trees reach maturity, but they hope the orchard will be preserved for centuries.

“One of the things that causes problems in agriculture these days is that everyone has a very short-term way of thinking,” Sam says. “With bush-style orchard production where herbicides and insecticides are used, the trees have a relatively short lifespan and then they’re dug out, releasing all the stored carbon in the soil and the trees.” Taking a 100-year view, as Sam and Beccy have, requires patience to create a system that works, and it’s generally more expensive due to its reliance on human labour. But once established, this route is far more sustainable.

Patience is paramount to Wilding Cider’s style of production. Sam and Beccy wait for the apples to drop from the trees and then they pick them all up by hand. Typically, they have to visit each tree between two and six times to harvest all the fruit. The apples take several weeks to ripen even after falling, allowing the sugars and tannins to develop their full flavour. They mill the ripened fruit and put it through a modern press before running the juice into tanks to ferment, opting for stainless steel over wooden casks which are harder to maintain. “Stainless steel doesn't impact the flavour much, so you get a very soft fruit-forward taste,” Sam says. “Wood-influenced cider can be really nice, but the casks are complicated to work with, especially as a small producer.”

They use many different apple varieties, pressing them separately so they can evaluate the flavours, taking note of the sugar and acidity levels for future production. “We work with five orchards in addition to our home orchard, so we compare what the same variety tastes like from different locations.” Many environmental factors determine the taste of the apple, but Wilding Cider’s creators have committed to working with this uncertainty, rather than railing against it. “It makes us stay in touch with the seasons,” Beccy says. “We feel very close to the changes in the orchard.”

Wilding Cider is pure apple and pear juice, free from added sugar and sulfates. The natural sugar levels vary year on year, depending on the climate – sunshine is generally important in creating a depth of flavour and sweetness, but in the few years Sam and Beccy have been producing, they have already witnessed exceptions. “In 2021, we didn't have much sunshine at all until September, but I think that was some of the best cider we've ever made,” Sam says. Even the presence of grazing lifestock affects the apples. A local organic farmer keeps sheep on their land, leading to a decrease in soil erosion and better water drainage, all of which impact the trees.

“It does put us at the mercy of nature,” Beccy laughs. “But the flip side is we're so invested in the climate throughout the year. If we're getting an early frost and it's affecting the blossom, I love that connection.” Of course, this means it’s near impossible to recreate successful ciders or predict how a season’s bounty will taste. “It does make our cider-making inconsistent – not in a bad way, necessarily, because it’s a reflection of the year as a whole.” The name Wilding Cider honours the untameable processes which are an intrinsic piece of the puzzle. It captures the couple’s passion for rewilding; for conserving their stretch of countryside and its delicate ecosystems.

Beccy tells me about the creatures they see flourishing in the chemical-free habitat: foxes, woodpeckers and bluetits – even a barn owl has seemingly planted roots. “We're really lucky, you know,” she says. “We look out of our window here, and we can see the orchard from our home. We feel so immersed in it, personally as well as professionally.”

Beccy wears the TOAST Gingham Linen Dress and Boxy Hemp Cotton Canvas Jacket. Sam wears the TOAST Fisherman Rib Cotton Wool Sweater and Norv Cotton Linen Tapered Trousers.

Words by Bébhinn Campbell.

Photography by Elliott Cole.

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