From booze to berries, Herefordshire’s food and drink brands are now sold in more than 50 countries around the world.
We're on the main stage, we're playing with the big boys. And still people get us mixed up with sodding Hertfordshire.
Reporting for Herefordshire Live, food writer Bee Costello spoke to producers big and small to find out what challenges they face when selling outside the county boundaries.
The relatively remote location of our county is often confused with Hertfordshire, 24 miles from Central London. Restaurants, bars and food retailers in the capital are routinely bemused when they realise a visit to a Herefordshire farm or producer is in fact over 150 miles away.
“Once a month I get people who want to pop up for the day to taste our ciders who are confused about where Herefordshire is, yet we get hundreds from all over the world who know very well where Herefordshire is,” said Tom Oliver, the man behind Oliver’s Cider & Perry.
Dubbed ‘The Cathedral Line’, the return train journey from London to Hereford can take over six hours.
Julie Joseph of Trecorras Farm, which recently introduced a new goat charcuterie range to top restaurant owners at a food expo inside the Tower of London, said people understand better when she explains that her farm is near Ross-on-Wye.
‘We border Wales’ is often the answer that Tigg’s producer Jacob James gives to his customers when they confuse Hertfordshire with Herefordshire.
“It can draw some puzzled looks,” said Jacob, who produces Tigg’s salad dressings and sauces with his brother Sam at Broadfield Court in Bodenham.
“Most people think that everything west of the M5 is basically Wales. People just don’t realise how big Herefordshire is,” said Will Chase, of Williams Chase Distillery. But, he adds: “Nobody will ever tell me there is any disadvantage in promoting Herefordshire.
“We always stay very true to our Herefordshire farming heritage in making products with real provenance that consumers love.”
Chase believes Herefordshire’s location and the fact that everything he sells is grown, fermented, distilled and bottled on a single estate, can give Herefordshire products a real point of difference and a very good marketing story.
“I hate twee marketing stories, but unfortunately we are in a space in the market where it is full of them,” he said.
“We really try and communicate our uncompromising approach to everything we do and the real provenance we actually have, and this is sometimes difficult to really get across against some of the fog created by masses of ‘craft’ producers.
“Some aren’t even producers, they just buy in spirits from big industrial plants and stick a fancy label on it and name it after a town.”
Craft cider makers Tom Oliver and James Marsden, of Gregg’s Pit, agree. Both said the challenge is providing products with a real point of difference for high-end London restaurants and bars.
Oliver, whose bottle-conditioned cider and single variety perry sells at Michelin star Fera restaurant in Claridge’s as well as your local, said he deliberately does not sell sparkling cider in London because it gets him away from the ‘mass market’. Yet, he adds, his customers across the pond – Olivers are a major exporter to the US - genuinely feel that cider “really is sparkling”.
Marsden said: “Our cider is 100% fresh pressed juice from named varieties, so we’re not dependent on clever chemistry, or dilution with water to achieve a consistent product range each year.”
Both Oliver’s and Gregg’s Pit are distributed across London by Felix Nash, who runs The Fine Cider Company. It’s Nash who points out that many mass-market ciders are only made with 35% apple juice.
Herefordshire-based beer and cider distributor Alice Churchward, founder of the Real AL Company, said in London “people love the fact we’re bridging the gap between the rural countryside and one of the busiest cities in the world.”
But with craft cider a rapidly expanding category – there are more than 100 producers in Herefordshire alone - ‘contemporary’ branding could be the key to the future success.
“Contemporary cider makers are coming onto the scene with products that are more accessible, easier drinking and better branded,” said Churchward.
“Brands such as Seacider in Ditchling and Turners in Kent.”
Churchward advises those looking to source a distributor to choose a good ambassador for their brand, “a friendly face who you can feel confident to work with and who has built their reputation both offline and online”. She knows what she’s talking about - the Real AL Company regularly hosts pop-up restaurants such as the recent Cider Pig event, which showcased pork with cider tastings to key clients.
Herefordshire’s location and stiff competition from mass-produced brands aren’t the only challenges facing producers in this county. Some artisans said it’s so difficult to make deliveries around London, to sit in hours of traffic, to host customer tastings and then return to Herefordshire all in a day that the only solution is to find a distributor.
“You have to have the patience of a saint and the energy of a herd of antelope for this,” said Oliver, a cider guru who speaks for many Herefordshire producers when he says: “It’s soul destroying!”
Other artisan producers looking to expand their sales to markets beyond Herefordshire say the sauce, charcuterie and alcohol markets have become so competitive that it is a struggle to even find good distributors, or they have been forced to drastically change their artisan labels to designs with a more general appeal.
To make her brand’s name on the world stage, Jo Hilditch of British Cassis said she found she had to be “one thing or the other”. Hilditch, who famously took her fledgling British Cassis brand to TV’s Dragons’ Den then walked away from an investment offer, said the BBC show was the catalyst for turning her drink from a spirit she sold at local markets and farm shops to the international brand it is today.
After significant investment designing a new label, bottle shape and size, along with new packaging and a glitzy new website, Hilditch brought in two sales people and new distributing partners.
She now sells in Australia, the Cayman Islands, Europe and, soon-to-be, Canada and China. Fortnum & Mason sell it as an own-label as ‘English Cassis’ but proudly announce that’s made by Jo Hilditch in Herefordshire.
“Some distributors don’t do as much for you as they say they will because they have so many brands in their portfolio,” said Hilditch, who added a White Heron logo on the label of British Cassis to reinforce the fact her spirit is made at her family farm of the same name. It was a thought-out move she made in order to stand out on-shelf and emulate what vodka owners such as ‘Grey Goose’ do.
Celebrating Britishness of the product is reflected by Tigg’s, a sauce made by two Herefordshire brothers who have evolved from their former ‘Granny Tigg’s’ artisan-style labelling to a more generic label that appeals to a wider market.
Having ‘updated’ their brand and secured new distributors in the past 12 months, Jacob and Sam James have had to think outside the bottle when it comes to marketing. Their new labels carry the words ‘Perfect Match’ to encourage more food pairing.
“To be successful we needed to increase our presence and stockists nationally. We tweaked our brand to a play on dating amongst food, in which different all-purpose sauces and dressings might find their match with different foods as well as different customers,” said Jacob.
“There just isn’t space for dozens of sauces and dressings to flourish and therefore we wanted to bring that something different to the customer to enable us to stand out. To do that we thought of adding our personalities, as well as a bit of fun.”
As if that wasn’t complicated enough, some Herefordshire brands have found that it was specifically the county name that helps them stand out.
Castle Brook Vineyard found that despite redesigning their Chinn-Chinn sparkling wine label to a more classic design, they attracted more attention when they promoted Herefordshire on the label. Supermarket chain M&S currently stocks the newly designed Castle Brook sparkling wine, but opted to keep the original back label featuring the Chinn family’s Herefordshire story.
“We don’t have an established presence in restaurants and bars,” said producer Chris Chinn. “Because of the volume we produce it’s never going to be a huge business, so we have largely relied on friends and associates to grow organically to a local audience. That said, we did redesign the front label to a more classic sparkling wine design and it was well received.”
The Chinn’s ‘Wye Valley’ brand of asparagus and blueberries is largely kept with its original Herefordshire labelling when it sells outside Herefordshire in wholesalers, restaurants, delis, farm shops and greengrocers. It clearly works – 100% of the asparagus that M&S sells is produced by the Chinn family and the supermarket chain notes that it is made by ‘Wye Valley’.
As Herefordshire’s entrepreneurial farmers continue to diversify into successful, national food and drink brands those who have established their brands and grown into bigger companies are finding other challenges.
Chase, who diversified from potato farming into Tyrell’s Crisps before starting Williams Chase gin, vodka and whisky, said: “Hiring for specific roles can sometimes be difficult when we are so heavy on innovative design and marketing.
“They tend to be roles more associated with the big cities than rural Herefordshire.”
One thing is certain - as one of the largest food and drink-producing counties in the UK, Herefordshire is only set to grow as a serious food destination.
Hilditch of British Cassis and Chinn of Castle Brook Vineyard believe that growing tourism to the Hay Festival, Symonds Yat, the Brecon Beacons and the Wye Valley, as well as a new university, will only raise awareness of the true location of Herefordshire on the UK map.
Right now, our producers are all happy to explain to customers where Herefordshire is, even if they do get quizzical looks. Summing it all up, Will Chase offered: “We always look to promote Herefordshire on the world stage. In our county we have so much to be proud of.
“Our use of Herefordshire and British goes very much hand-in-hand and I wouldn’t dream of changing it.”
Tile and banner illustration: Adam Knight