First they brought us organic apple juice, and then came their award-winning apple syrup. And now the Bridgestone Guide-recognised Highbank Orchards have introduced an organic cider.
It’s currently in limited production and is available only from the Hole in the Wall, the Kilkenny Design Centre’s new evening restaurant, Carroll’s pub in Thomastown, and from the Highbank shop at their farm near Cuffesgrange. But, like their previous products, it’s already becoming a hit.
It’s simple, really. Known as Highbank Proper Cider, it has a natural colour, and because there is no added sugar it simply tastes like ... apples.
(There is also a non-alcoholic, unfermented version called Driver’s Cider.)
In many ways, the cider is a reflection of the changes in food production that have taken place over the past few decades. When Rod’s parents took over the farm from in the 1960s, they grew 40 acres of hops and then expanded their operation to include 32,000 apple trees.
But the years after Ireland joined the European Economic Community (the precursor to the European Union) saw French apples come to dominate the market, and the Irish hops market also went into sharp decline.
The problem with competing against the French apples, Rod says – despite the flavour of Irish apples being “indisputably superior” – is that the changeable Irish weather means that the skin and shape of apples grown here are not as appealing as that of their French counterparts.
“And people buy an apple because of its looks, not its flavour,” he says. “So we decided, A., that we would grow organically, and, B., that we would grow them not for the fresh market but in order to process them.”
In other words, they would rely on the taste.
“And we have been proven right in that the products we are making from apples are very high flavour value,” Rod says.
So whereas many apple juices and ciders are made from “reject, C-grade apples,” he says, “we only grow varieties for flavour. They are not particularly nice to eat because they don’t have the required crunch, but their flavours are superb.”
And with artisan food now becoming more popular in a world of globalised food production, Highbank’s organic, locally made products are securing a niche in the market.
In fact, their cider came about as a by-product of their other recent success, their honey-like organic apple syrup.
“One of the problems we had was that we filter the juice before we can turn it into a syrup, and when we take all the solids out we’re left with a sludge on the wrong side of the filter,” Rod says. “We didn’t know what to do with it – we thought it was a shame to feed it to the animals.”
So they decided to add some yeast, and the result is the cider.
Although they have only a limited amount, their aim is to make it every year as a by-product of the syrup; and part of the beauty of it is that, in the same way that wines vary from year to year, so will the Highbank Proper Cider.
It’s also something that can contribute to the local agri-tourism industry, including the Taste of Kilkenny food trail. “I would like to keep it local so that when people come to Kilkenny they get something different,” Rod says.
One thing that makes the cider uniquely local is reflected on its label, which includes a picture of Henry Flood, who once owned the farm that is now home to the Highbank orchards.
Rod’s own family’s connection to the farm dates back to when his great-grandfather came to work as the steward on the Flood estate around 1880 amid the forced emigration of the “Highland clearances” in Scotland, his family having been farm managers since the 1600s.
Of Henry Flood’s era in the 1700s, Rod notes: “It was a very rich time in Kilkenny. Kilkenny was full of people who made a tremendous impact intellectually in Britain.”
Henry Flood himself, after being sent to Trinity College Dublin at age 16, went on to study at Oxford. His return to Ireland saw him subsequently elected as a Member of Parliament.
Among other things, he is remembered for a duel he fought in 1769 against James Agar in Dunmore Park. And when Agar was mortally wounded in the duel, Henry was tried for murder but was acquitted on the basis of self-defence.
Incidentally, inside the Highbank shop is a table that Rod made from an oak tree from the farm. Lodged inside its inner rings are the fragments of two bullets – which, they suspect, date from Henry Flood’s time.
Although they are waiting for the dates to be verified, Rod notes: “There weren’t many people who had guns at that time.”
And with the tree standing just outside the gates of Henry Flood’s walled garden, and at that time being about the size of a man, it could have been ideal for perfecting his aim before a duel, which were quite common at the time.
As Rod says, “He must have been thinking, ‘I have a duel on Wednesday, I’d better do a bit of target practice’.”