Bottle Kicking is an ancient English custom. So is cider-making. And so is drinking…
Every Easter Monday, cider-maker Rob Morton and his wife Tracey quietly sip their latest brew with friends while watching grown men wrestle just beyond the end of their garden.
The turf they look out upon in Hallaton, south-east Leics, has hosted the same mass brawl annually for at least 200 years, although the origins of the spectacle are thought to stretch back over 1,000 years further. Called the Hallaton Bottle Kicking, it is a good old fashioned scrap between the neighbouring villages of Hallaton and Medbourne. After kick off, the aim is to force three 5kg bottles – filled with ale, naturally – over your village’s ‘try’ line. Each try line is a stream, and each stream is 1.6km apart. The only rules are no eye-gouging, no strangling, and no weapons.
This eccentric ceremony – which also includes the baking and distribution of a large hare pie – is the inspiration behind Rob and Tracey’s Bottle Kicking Cider Company, which was launched from their Hallaton home in 2012.
“In many ways, the annual Bottle Kicking gave birth to my cider company,” says Rob. “The event ties in perfectly with cider making: it takes place at the start of spring each year – traditionally when the cider you pressed with last year’s apples is ready to drink. The sap is starting to rise, the days are getting longer, so it all fits together. Also, the Bottle Kicking is an ancient English custom, and so is cider-making… And drinking.”
Rob’s cider – made the traditional way, but in this case using local Leicestershire apples blended with Gloucestershire cider apples – is on the up. Combining the complex flavours found in English farmhouse ciders with almost-dangerous drinkability, it has gained many fans and is on sale at a growing number of local pubs and shops, from Waitrose to JD Wetherspoon. Rob has also teamed up with the region’s oldest and biggest brewer and pub owner, Everards Brewery of Leicestershire.
“The association with Everards – another family-owned brewer with roots in Leicestershire – is fantastic for us,” says Rob. “Our cider is on sale at a growing number of Everards’ 175-odd pubs in the Midlands and it’s great to be working so closely with them.”
Rob, who originally trained as a flour miller, set up his Bottle Kicking Cider Company in 2012 with Tracey’s unstinting support. Rob explains: “I was working for a large food company in London and one morning, stuck in traffic on the M1 yet again, I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore’. I’d been making cider for around 10 years – since moving to Hallaton – so decided to take it up professionally.”
Two years on, things are moving fast for Rob and Tracey. “Our draft bag-in-a-box cider is doing well and is our biggest seller,” says Rob. “People like to buy our three-litre boxes and keep them in the fridge at home, while pubs can keep the 20-litre boxes behind the bar or in the cellar connected to a handpump.”
With interest in authentically produced local food and drink still on the rise, and with Bottle Kicking Cider being so drinkable and having such a memorable name and inspiration behind it, the future looks rosy for Rob and Tracey.
How Rob makes his cider…
“In autumn, our cider apples are hand-picked from an orchard in Gloucestershire, delivered to Hallaton, and pressed within 48 hours. High in tannins, the juice is big in flavour, giving depth and complexity in the final blend. Our Leicestershire apples are naturally more acidic, giving a sharpness that balances the finished brew.
“The apples are washed, milled and pressed as soon as they arrive at the farm. The juice is then left to slowly ferment. The apples contain natural yeasts, but we also use a Champagne yeast to enhance the process. We allow all the natural sugars present in the juice to turn to alcohol, and we are left with a dry, draught cider. We do not add any sugar during fermentation to increase alcohol production – we just let Mother Nature run her course.
“The cider sits on the residual yeast for a short time before we ‘rack off’ into large airtight containers, to ensure the cider maintains its freshness. It is then left to mature and develop gradually over the cold winter months.
“In spring we blend our base cider into our range of draught ciders for your enjoyment.”