cider Somerset

Good food and cheap cider on the Somerset Levels

Rich’s is a farm, a factory, a visitor attraction, and a great value family restaurant that feels as if it’s been transplanted from Bavaria.

Rich’s has been part of my life for as long as I can remember.

My dad isn’t a committed cider drinker but, having grown up on the Levels, he sometimes gets the taste.

When I was young, he’d often turn up with a plastic jerry can of Rich’s medium to take to a barbecue or party.

Recently, he’s been a bit under the weather, and it was touch and go whether we’d be able to celebrate his birthday at all.

Then, last week, he decided he wanted to go to Rich’s for lunch.

It’s been a while since I was last there and what I remembered was a barn, piles of apples on the ground in the car park, and a kind of canteen in a Portakabin.

“OK, fine,” I said, with a baffled shrug.

As it happens, it underwent a refurb in 2020, and that canteen is now a substantial restaurant with (counts on fingers) seating for about 150 people.

When we entered, Jess immediately said, “This feels like a German beer hall.”

And she was right.

Not a historic one – the kind you find in a post-war block, or out in the sprawl, or in a neat little village.

It’s something to do with all the polished wooden surfaces, perhaps.

Or the pervasive smell of roast pork.

Or the people: there were plenty of sturdy looking country folk digging into heaped plates.

If it wasn’t Bavaria of which it reminded me, then it was one of those diners Guy Fieri visits on Diner, Drive-Ins and Dives. The type of place that “cranks out” hearty meals to the delight of contented regulars.

Good cider, as far as we can tell

We’re not cider experts. As with wine, we don’t really want to be, though we’ve dabbled. And I suppose, being from Somerset, I ought to try a little harder.

I’m vaguely aware that Rich’s isn’t considered to be in the top flight of scrumpy producers. Its reputation is for being accessible and commercial, without the challenging funk and dryness of some competitors.

What I do know is this: Dad was delighted with a pint of their Golden Harvest at 4.5%. It’s a bright, ever-so-slightly fizzy Thatcher’s competitor but with less sugar than the bigger brand and an extra dimension or two.

I found Vintage (7.2%) good for a half, with some toffee character and sherry notes.

Jess, who has the driest palate in the family, went for traditional dry scrumpy at 6%. It’s still clearly a farm product but with the mud scraped off its boots.

And get this: all of those were about £3.80 a pint, with even Vintage only creeping up to the round £4.

Boak & Bailey eat big dinners

Having got used to increasingly stingy portions in pubs in the past year or two, and based on the prices on the menu, we over ordered for the table. And, again, were transported to Bavaria.

A ploughman’s lunch (£14.95) was served on a hunk of wood the length of a cricket bat, with enough cheese for the whole table. A portion of lasagna (£12.50, I think) seemed to be… a whole lasagna. And the small carvery plate (£10.95) was, in fact, a large carvery plate.

Oh, yes: we wrote about carveries recently, observing their disappearance. At Rich’s, which is pleasingly behind the times, the carvery lives on, seven days a week.

When was the last time you got presented with the bill in a restaurant and felt compelled to check with the waiting staff that they hadn’t forgotten something?

An overwhelmingly filling lunch for six, with drinks and a couple of desserts, came to £120.

Now, we’re not restaurant reviewers, but the point is that this really brought home how diminished the offer has become in towns and cities.

Rich’s has some economic advantages, of course.

First, they own the land on which the sprawling restaurant sits. Planning permission was presumably the main challenge.

And, secondly, they produce the core product themselves, on site, with no middle men or delivery costs.

Thirdly, Rich’s received a grant from the European Fund for Agricultural Development, which contributed to development of the restaurant, farm shop and museum. Presumably nicking in under the Brexit wire.

What can publicans do to compete with that? Not much, really. Taprooms might get closer – but we won’t hold our breaths for a carvery at Lost & Grounded just yet.

And, yes, thanks for asking, Dad had a great time, even if he was a bit knackered after all the excitement and the challenge of a large-small carvery plate.

Rich’s Cider Farm is in Watchfield just outside Highbridge at TA9 4RD. The website has menus.


Do fruit juice sours get people into beer?

There are now beers that look and taste just like fruit juice or pop. Is there a route from enjoying those to appreciating, say, cask bitter?

First, we should say this: we (and especially Jess) quite like fruit juice beers. We have a ready supply from our local specialist off licence, Pat’s News and Booze.

They’re usually available at some of our favourite bristol pubs, too, such as The King’s Head, The Llandoger Trow and The Swan With Two Necks.

Often filed under ‘sours’, and badged as ‘modern sour beer’ or something similar, sourness is, oddly, not always a defining feature.

Or, at least, to us they seem no more sour than a can of Lilt or Fanta, and distinctly less so than a glass of grapefruit juice.

Our notes on Vault City’s Fruit Salad ‘session sour’, for example, were “artificial fruit (as hinted at by garish label) but not too sweet or sour… vanilla notes… raspberry dominates over pineapple”.

We can imagine why these are popular.

For a start, the cans often look appealing with bright colours, attractive pop art typography, and words like ‘sherbet’ or ‘tropical’ that get your mouth watering. (Don’t tell the Portman Group.)

Secondly, they don’t look, smell or taste like beer, just as berry cider doesn’t look, smell or taste like cider, and the original Hooch didn’t look, smell or taste like booze at all.

This is a major selling point if you don’t like beer, or the culture that comes with it.

Drinking a kiwi, melon and mango session sour this weekend, we marvelled at its similarity to actual mango juice, even down to the viscous texture, achieved with oats.

We then tried to imagine someone starting out on beers like this, perhaps as a student, and wondered if they’d ever find their way to Bass or Young’s Ordinary.

Perhaps the novelty of novelty beers might wear off after a while. We often find ourselves saying things like: “This is good but I couldn’t drink two in a row.”

Or maybe once you’re a fan of a particular brewery you find yourself willing to try their soft and hazy IPA. The one that’s a bit like fruit juice, but couldn’t actually pass for a smoothie. That is definitely beer, with discernible hops, even if we wish it was more bitter.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter at all.

If fruit juice beers allow breweries to connect with customers who would otherwise drink Reef or Bacardi Breezers, that’s good for the industry.

In terms of cash flow, anyway.


What’s going on at Wetherspoon?

After a long stretch without, we visited three Wetherspoon pubs over the weekend. Does any other type of pub prompt such strong feelings or such debate?

As we said on Twitter a few weeks ago, after a run of dismal experiences in Wetherspoon pubs in 2018-19, we struck them off the go-to list.

There were various problems.

For a good run, even at the once impressive flagship central Bristol pub, we just couldn’t get a decent pint. Beers we knew were good tasted bland, and beers we didn’t know tasted rotten.

The fallback option of a bottle from the fridge became less appealing with things like Tucher Weissbier disappearing from the menu.

Even the cheap-and-cheerful food began to seem like bad value, with miserable chips counted out onto the plate, or meals served cold.

The buildings began to feel tatty, too, as if a round of maintenance had been skipped to save money.

And the weird, all-pervasive Brexit propaganda posters and magazines didn’t help the vibe. Why were these pubs so angry?

Then the pandemic came. As our pub trips became fewer and further between, other pubs naturally took priority.

So, what did we find this weekend?

Jess visited The Robert Fitzharding in Bedminster with the local CAMRA women’s group. “Try before you buy!” was the advice the group gave her: “Some of the ale tastes like vinegar.”

She ended up drinking Ruddles, the default option in most Wetherspoon pubs for years now, and…

“Do I like Ruddles now? Has the beer changed or have I?”

Like its Greene King stablemate, Ruddles seems lighter and cleaner these days with a refreshing bitter finish. It still has that hot rubber, ripe apple thing going on, but with the power of good condition behind it, is a satisfying traditional pint.

And when it’s 99p a pint, you do feel like you’ve pulled off a heist.

The pub had the now customary sticky tables and slightly chaotic atmosphere, as if operating with about two-thirds of the necessary staff, and the clientele was a mixture of students in large groups and old men on their own.

Meanwhile, across town, Ray was at The V-Shed, a ‘Spoons in a converted industrial building on the harbourside.

This was never a favourite of ours among Bristol’s various Wetherspoon branches. It’s part of a waterside crawl popular with stags and hens and lacks the essentially pubby feel of The Commercial Rooms or The Berkeley.

Ray also found sticky tables, ketchup under his elbow, and staff who looked on the verge of breakdown. Saturday afternoon, though, is bound to be like this.

His pint of Butcombe Citra, at £2.49, was fine, if a bit warm.

“This feels more like a pub than the last place,” said Ray’s mum. “It’s got a carpet and you can hear each other speak.”

Acoustics are a thing they invariably get right, and which hanging out with people in their seventies really makes important.

Finally, on Sunday, we wandered to the village-suburb of Hanham where we ‘ticked’ The Jolly Sailor for our #EveryPubInBristol challenge.

The Jolly Sailor is one of those mid-period ‘Spoons pubs, the kind we remember drinking in as students and after university, with blue livery and gold script on the sign.

It was busy but peaceful with mostly older drinkers chatting in groups as diffuse sunlight warmed them through big windows.

Ruddles was, again, surprisingly, delightful, this time at £1.49.

Adnams’s Ghost Ship (£2.10) was good, too – a reminder of what a great beer this can be, full of citrus zest.

The tables were spotless and polished and the in-house mag sat there looking harmless, with a cover feature about Curry Club rather than, say, DOES TRUTH MATTER? We didn’t dare look inside, though.

Among many strange, fascinating things about JDW pubs is the status they’ve acquired in the stupid culture war.

As we’ve said before, love them or hate them, they’re now an established part of the pub landscape.

They serve different communities in different ways but right now, especially, offer a way for people to enjoy a session in the pub for less than a tenner.

If you’re competing with Wetherspoon, that’s no doubt frustrating, but that’s not a problem the majority of drinkers are currently in a position to do much about.

At the same time, they have, on the whole, got worse. Standards have slipped.

And those prices can only now be achieved and maintained by reaching beyond efficient, into stingy.

In the current touchy climate, that feels as if it might be a controversial statement, but we can only speak as we find.

We wrote at length about the history and significance of the Wetherspoon chain in our book 20th Century Pub. Do check it out if you haven’t already.


Pubs and loneliness

How do you make friends when you’re in your forties? Instinctively, I feel as if the pub must be the answer.

Recently, I found myself alone for the weekend and after a while, solitude got the better of me and I decided to go to the pub.

As I wrote years ago, I’m generally fairly introverted and happy with my own company

Two years of working from home has probably intensified that tendency, as has getting older and more set in my ways.

Sometimes, though, I need to be around people, even if I’m not joining in – and sitting in the pub with a book, part of it but separate, usually does the job. (Ross agrees.)

This time, though, pleasant as it was, I felt a sort of hollowness.

Separation tipping over into alienation, perhaps, as Saturday afternoon whirled around me.

I realised after a while that what I wanted, truthfully, was a pint with a mate.

When you’re young, arranging pints with mates is easy:

  • shout ‘Pint?’ across the hall to your flatmate
  • text ‘Pint?’ to whoever happens to work nearby before they get chance to begin the commute home
  • catch the eye of a workmate and make a wavy pint-drinking gesture while wiggling your eyebrows

But people have kids, move away, get busy with work and family, get weary…

Before you know it, a pint with your best pals is something you do once a year, if you’ve booked it well in advance.

What I miss is low-commitment, low-intensity, spontaneity.

Problem one is a shortage of friends in the city I moved to in 2017.

I’ve been working on it, and I’m getting there, but it’s not easy. Certainly not as easy as when I was six and I could just wander up to other kids on the estate and say “Can I play?”

People keep telling me to join clubs and societies and, yes, that’s one way.

My weekly writers’ group has become important to me, especially as it met via video all the way through the pandemic.

Otherwise, though, that’s not my thing.

Pints are my thing.

The pub isn’t a big deal. It doesn’t require a subscription, demand regular attendance, or have prescriptive rules.

And the conversation isn’t limited to a single topic. Quite the opposite. If a session in the pub doesn’t range from telly to telephone boxes to the problem with the world today, the pints aren’t doing their job.

I sometimes find getting into a sulk is a necessary step in making things better.

Since my low-key freakout the other week I’ve convinced a couple of my fellow writers to detour to the pub after a group meeting, seen an old friend for the first time in almost a year and arranged to meet someone from Twitter for a pint.

Let’s see if I can keep this up.

buying beer

Liquid popcorn: finding a time and place for non-alcoholic beer

Tough day. Lots on your mind. Open the fridge, grab a bottle, loosen and lose the cap. Sip. Close your eyes. Sigh.

The after work beer is a ritual or ceremony for many people. It’s about scrubbing dirt and dust from the throat. Cooling down. Stamping a firm full stop.

We’ve seen it enacted in hundreds of films and TV shows over the years, too. Sarah Lund in The Killing springs to mind, slumped by her fridge, clinging to a green lager bottle for comfort as the corpses pile up.

Oh, yes, the green bottle. This is a job for a small amount of a small beer – something without a big personality.

A few months ago, with a plan to watch a film on an uncomfortably warm evening, I fancied one or two unwinders. With that in mind, I let my evening walk take me past the CO-OP. I wandered in and up the beer aisle and after a moment decided, to my surprise, to buy a four-pack of Heineken 0.0.

Let’s be clear about what happened here: I looked at it on the shelf and wanted it. I’d had it before and retained, it turned out, a fond memory of the encounter. I could have had Pilsner Urquell, or Krombacher, but Heineken 0.0 was the one that grabbed me.

So I grabbed it.

And over the past few months, that’s become a habit.

I’ve always been resistant to non-alcoholic beer. Those I’ve tried over the years simply haven’t tasted good. Or, at least, less pleasant than a glass of sparkling water.

I’ve tried quite a few other brands and, no, they don’t do the job.

Some low alcohol craft beers are technically impressive and enjoyable in their own way. The problem is that they often end up being rather intense. Very bitter, or very sweet, and heavily hopped to fill the hole. They’re not green-bottle after work brews.

No, it’s Heineken 0.0 that works for me. It is, first and foremost, not disgusting. It doesn’t taste cooked or artificial. More than that, though: it’s actually pleasant. I find it light, lemony and dry.

Other opinions are available, of course:

When I say non-alcoholic beer in this context is like liquid popcorn, that’s not a tasting note.

It’s about the part it plays in my personal slow shutdown rituals.

The bottle feels right in the hand. The foam prickles, refreshes and slips into the background.

And it certainly doesn’t make a fuss when you’re trying to concentrate on Randolph Scott, Gloria Grahame or some black-gloved killer roaming the streets of Milan.