Cider business must grow ‘in way that adds value to brand and to Suffolk’

PUBLISHED: 06:40 26 January 2020

Aspall factory near Debenham   Picture: RACHEL EDGE

Aspall factory near Debenham Picture: RACHEL EDGE


When American drinks giant Molson Coors bought an historic Suffolk cider business which had been in the same family for eight generations, its first move was to assure residents that it was staying put.

Aspall factory near Debenham   Picture: RACHEL EDGEAspall factory near Debenham Picture: RACHEL EDGE

It has remained true to that commitment, and underlined it with a massive £10m investment - now well under way - on a number of important upgrades and improvements at Aspall Cyder's site near Debenham.

At the time of the acquisition in January 2018, the cider and vinegar firm - established in 1728 - had been brought to new heights under the stewardship of the eight generation of the founding family - brothers Barry and Henry Chevallier Guild.

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They still play an ambassadorial role for the historic brand - which is highly regarded for the quality of its products - now found in top bars around the world as well as Suffolk locals. The factory lies next to grade II* Listed Aspall Hall, which is still occupied by the family.

But operational control at the factory, which employs more than 120 staff, has been passed to general manager Dale Scott, who has worked for Molson Coors many years, was tasked with taking the business to the next stage - something the brothers felt the business needed and part of the impetus for the sale deal.

Aspall factory near Debenham   Picture: RACHEL EDGEAspall factory near Debenham Picture: RACHEL EDGE

Building work started in June 2019, and is now well under way and expected to be completed 
by the end of this year. Importantly, Dale explains, the business, while expanding through new plant and improved efficiencies, is sticking to same the footprint - but just using it better and modernising it, while protecting its precious heritage. Crucially, it will result in fewer vehicle movements through a new weighbridge and effluent plant. New storage tanks are being installed and others relocated.

Improvements include a new process building, adding a sub-station, building new concrete pads, and renovating the vinegar barn facilities. Cider and vinegar production equipment, including bottle fillers and labellers, have been upgraded. "Anything to do with cider and vinegar making is happening here," stresses Dale.

There's also a very strong emphasis on sustainability and a drive towards zero waste.

Molson Coors' approach to the Aspall factory is modelled on its highly successful takeover of Cornish craft brewer Sharp's which it acquired in 2011, and which has since seen Sharp's Doom Bar cask beer brand rise through the ranks, and its workforce grow considerably as the brand expands. The Chevallier Guild brothers visited the site prior to the sale deal going through and were impressed with how it kept true to the brand and its roots, which they wanted to see replicated at Aspall's.

Aspall factory near Debenham   Picture: RACHEL EDGEAspall factory near Debenham Picture: RACHEL EDGE

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"Our experience is when we have bought a small business we actually grow the amount of people on site," explains Dale.

Part of the success of the brand is based on its cider recipe, explains Dale, and how they develop a combination of bitter and sweet apple varieties to create the perfect cider drink under the expert direction of master cider maker Colin Hamilton and the fermentation team.

All the "magic" happens in the giant kegs: "The art of a cider maker is once you have got your bases ready, how you blend them together," he says. "We know we can't really make a really great cider without that bitter-sweet element in it. It's like cooking - it's about building complexity and depth."

Aspall factory near Debenham   Picture: RACHEL EDGEAspall factory near Debenham Picture: RACHEL EDGE

He adds: "It's like a wine - the longer you leave it, the more correct it gets."

The success of Aspall relies on four elements, he believes: where it is, the history, the brand and the people. The aim is to continue to build its reputation as the premium cider brand.

Dale, who lives between Badingham and Framlingham, has criss-crossed the country in the course of his career, to Wales, London and Burton upon Trent, but says it was "amazing" to get the opportunity to head up the flagship Aspall project, a "beautiful rural business".

"I started probably a couple of months before acquisition but I have worked for Molson Coors for about 29 years," he says. In his first few months the emphasis was in getting to know the business and how it operated.

Aspall factory near Debenham   Picture: RACHEL EDGEAspall factory near Debenham Picture: RACHEL EDGE

"From my perspective it has been a dream job," he says. "What we want the business to be is a proud locally-based business that really understands its history, its heritage, and is very respectful of it."

This, he says, is priceless, including the still intact historic apple press building from which it all began, and its lineage from founder Clement onwards, with each generation striving to make the business bigger and better.

Its Suffolk roots remain key to its future success, he says. "Everything this brand makes we want to come from Suffolk. We want to make sure we grow it appropriately and consistently and in a way that adds value to the brand and to Suffolk."

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