EADT Business Awards: Sweet taste of success for family-owned cider firm

Barry Chevalier-Guild of Aspall, centre, receives the Business of the Year trophy at the EADT Busine

Barry Chevalier-Guild of Aspall, centre, receives the Business of the Year trophy at the EADT Business Awards from Sarah Howard of Suffolk Chamber and Tom McGarry of EDF Energy, joint main sponsors of the awards. Aspall also won the Family Business award, sponsored by Birketts.

Firmly established as a leading Suffolk brand, Aspall was a popular winner at the recent EADT Business Awards. Owner and chairman barry Chevallier guild tells ROSS BENTLEY about the firm’s incredible recent success and his plans for the future.

Barry Chevalier Guild of Aspall at the company's base near Debenham.

Barry Chevalier Guild of Aspall at the company's base near Debenham. - Credit: Lucy Taylor

When the owner and chairman of Aspall, Barry Chevallier Guild, picked up the EADT’s Business of the Year award last month, it marked another milestone in the company’s impressive rise to prominence.

The family-run business, based in the countryside north of Debenham, has experienced extraordinary growth in the past decade driven predominantly by the popularity of its cider brands. which have made the firm a household name in Suffolk and beyond.

According to Barry, the business has increased three-fold since 2008 and this year is on course to see 12million litres of cider go out the door together with 3m litres of vinegar and 3m litres of apple juice.

In the past 12 months it has invested £4m in new machinery and buildings, and now employs around 100 staff.

I meet Barry at the family home, Aspall Hall, an impressive, moated farmhouse set among orchards and a stone’s throw from the production facilities. The location has the air of a French chateau vineyard ? an impression he is keen to cultivate as part of his crusade to encourage connoisseurs to take premium cider as seriously as high quality wine. Before too long we are discussing some of the key moments in the firm’s recent history.

The eighth generation to work for the family business, Barry came into the fold in 1993 along with his younger brother, Henry. He took control of the company’s sales function and Henry managed the production while they agreed to both look after marketing. At that time the business was based on selling vinegar and apple juice with only a small quantity of cider being sold to local shops and pubs.

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Convinced there was a gap in the market for a premium cider, the brothers set about making plans. Henry began experimenting with different blends of apples and various styles of liquid until in 1999 they were confident they had hit on a good recipe for what would become their 7% Premier Cru product.

Marketing the drink’s East Anglian origins was also a key part of the strategy.

“We are proud of our Suffolk roots ? our family has been here since 1702 ? so we wanted to make a point of the fact that we were from this part of the country,” says Barry. “It was also a point of difference with the rest of the market because most of the cider makers are from the west of the country.

A big break came when supermarket chain Sainsbury’s agreed to take their cider but the lead up to hitting the aisle shelves wasn’t without its dramas.

Henry’s original cider recipe had been made entirely from eating apples but with only a few months before they had to make their first Sainsbury’s delivery, the brothers decided to change the formula and temper it with 10% bittersweet cider fruit. The supermarket also quadrupled its order to 1,200 cases per month – no mean feat for the business, which in those days had not invested in mechanisation and filled each bottle by hand.

“Those were busy times,” remembers Barry. “No sooner had we breathed a sigh of relief as the lorry carried off the last of the month’s consignment – than we would be straight back at it preparing the cases for the next month.”

Then there was the challenge of actually selling the product off the shelf.

Barry continues: “It’s down to word of mouth, how you raise your profile and understanding what promotional mechanics you use. We’ve been through the whole thing.

“At the time we were retailing at £1.79 per bottle and when the buyers said it wasn’t selling we naively reduced the price and bore the cost. Another six months went by and although we had sold a little bit more, it wasn’t enough to justify the price reduction. We learnt a lot from that.”

He adds: “The supermarket environment is tough and as we have seen during the recession some are cutting their prices. But that is not necessarily what everyone wants. When people talk about price they are actually talking about value for money. In hard times, the market polarises – some people buy the cheapest thing they can because that is all they can afford and there are others who will cut down their consumption but will save their pennies for something nice.”

Another landmark for the business came in 2003 when Aspall launched it keg cider product for pubs, which at first it sold through Adnams. The draught cider at round 4% is made with more apple juice and tends to be sweeter and have a more abundant apple nose than the Premier Cru.

Luckily, 2003 was a really hot summer ? just right for a pint of cider ? and the launch, which was initially focussed on East Anglia, exceeded all expectations. A few years later, the company decided to go national with its pub products – again with success - but, as Barry concedes, a few factors were on their side.

“Our big breakthrough was in 2006 when Magners adverts started to appear on television,” he says.

“They made it socially acceptable for a 25-year-old man to walk into a pub and order a pint of cider. Alchpops had died away. There was nothing in the marketplace that 18-plus drinkers could come into the world of alcohol with.

“Magners put cider on the map and probably spent more than the whole of the rest of the industry was spending on advertising.

“We were fortunate – companies like Westons and Thatchers were also producing premium ciders at a time when the market for cider was expanding. We were riding the back of Magners’ advertising but also appealing to the discerning drinker.”

Barry says he has never resorted to gimmicks - such as offering landlords financial incentives - when selling his cider and believes the quality of the product should speak for itself.

“It’s a basic thing – people will eat a certain food or drink because they like the taste,” he says. “If you change that taste don’t be surprised if they go elsewhere. We have stuck with that mantra from day one and that is what I tell anyone coming into the business.

“They have been brought into the company because of their expertise and as long as they don’t change the taste of the liquid for the worse they can do whatever they feel may improve the company. If there is a better logistics system out there or a better way of testing then they should do it. It’s all too easy to micro-manage people and not let them get on with their job.”

Today, the day-to day running of Aspall is left to managing director, Des Smith, while the brothers have taken on what Barry describes as “brand ambassadorial roles” which involves “flying the flag for the company both here and abroad”.

Currently, Aspall is on sale in more than 30 different countries including Russia, China and Brazil while Australia and US remain its largest foreign markets.

“We’ve been in the American market for 15 years - cider is still a micro-brewery type market but having been in that market for that amount of time brings us some respect,” continues Barry. “We aren’t Johnny-come-latelys. We know the American market takes time and what they appreciate is you actually taking the time to visit the owner of an outlet, shake his hand and say: ‘Thank you for stocking our cider’.”

Barry also has high hopes of expanding the Aspall brand in Germany.

“There is an interesting opportunity because there is a big apple wine market In Germany,” he says. “I went to Munich recently and was sitting in this fantastic beirkeller when the owner, who is a well-respected man in the business, came up and told me he thought our cider is fantastic.

“It was a great moment especially in that market where beer has been dominant. It’s times like that when you sit back and realise how far we’ve come in a relatively short time.”

And with a major product rebranding of the Aspall bottle labels and tap badges just launching and plans for a new mulled cider product for the winter months on the drawing board, it would seem the business’s impressive success story is set to continue.

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