Purbeck Cider Company back from the brink of disaster

Only two years after fearing that his cider making business wouldn’t survive the Covid lockdowns, founder of Purbeck Cider Company Joe Hartle is now looking to expand.

The business near Corfe Castle has now recovered enough to invest in more storage, a new apple press and even an apple-shaker to help make the harvest easier.

Apple orchards ready for harvest at the Purbeck Cider Company

Purbeck Cider Company is now based at Lower Bushey Farm, just off the Studland Road near Corfe Castle

500 tonnes of fruit to make 700,000 bottles of cider

After harvesting is completed on the second crop of apples by mid October 2022, it’s expected that 500 tonnes of fruit will be turned into the equivalent of up to 700,000 bottles of cider.

That will equate to around 300,000 litres of top-quality tipple, almost 50 percent up on figures at the end of 2010 and unthinkable progress from the dark days of 2020 when Joe took on other farm work to help keep the company afloat.

And following the remarkable two-year turnaround, Joe hopes to be in a position soon when he can turn his attentions to his dream of helping to preserve threatened Dorset varieties of apple for generations to come.

Traditional apple varieties for premium Dorset ciders

Premium cider from traditional trees

Joe launched the Purbeck Cider Company in 2006 from his family’s farm at Kingston, near Corfe Castle, with the intention of producing premium cider from some of Dorset’s long-forgotten traditional trees.

And although his earliest, hand-pressed experiments were not a complete success – the first batch was bright orange – Joe planted traditional varieties of apple trees, including Woodbine, Tom Putt and Slack-ma-Girdle in a 15-acre orchard in Church Knowle.

By 2010, having produced 3,000 litres of dry cider, the Purbeck Cider Company was officially launched, and the addition of sweet cider, sparkling cider and a blush cider with an infusion of berries saw a surge in sales.

Once a second orchard of 6,000 trees was planted in 2018 and following a packaging rebrand for their whole range of ciders, the future seemed bright – until the country went into lockdown in March 2020 and sales plummeted by nearly 50 percent.

The Purbeck Cider Company press house near Corfe Castle

“Frankly, there was one point I didn’t think we’d come through”

Joe said:

“We dropped 45 per cent in turnover due to Covid and frankly there was one point where I didn’t think we would come through.

“I employ seven full-time members of staff here and I went back to working for other people during Covid to make sure that we could carry on.

“But I made sure that we consolidated the business during that period and we have seen almost 30 percent growth this year alone, with a really good summer and a crop of 70 to 80 percent.

Joe’s apple shaker in action this summer

Trees now big enough for an apple shaker

Joe added:

“We have just invested heavily in more storage and we have a new press that will arrive here next year which the public will be able to see in action. We are hoping to grow the business even more on the back of it.

“We had an apple shaker for the first time this year as a lot of the trees are big enough to take it now; harvesting will go on for about another month and we will be pressing the apples probably until mid-December, when the cold fermentation period will start.”

2022 saw a bumper crop of fruit in the apple orchards

Dorset once home to 10,000 acres of orchard

Dorset was once home to more than 10,000 acres of orchard, but over the past two generations that figure has fallen by about two-thirds, with many of the traditional county apple varieties almost disappearing.

Although community orchards have been cropping up in the county over the past decade, the problem is that rarer trees are only grown in small numbers and the fruit is not always very useful for cider production.

The Purbeck Cider Company is hoping to be eligible for grants to help keep traditional orchards alive, but Joe is very aware that some lesser known varieties are prone to disease, or have a low crop yield.

Purbeck Cider’s Forgotten Orchard range comes from traditional apple varieties

Traditional apples like Tom Putt and Golden Ball

Joe said:

“We are actively looking to plant new Dorset varieties of apple, but it would take some time to earn any money out of them. They need to be commercially viable and managed properly.

“We do have traditional varieties here like Tom Putt and Golden Ball, both old Dorset apples and we would like to plant others, but the problem is that many Dorset varieties are commercially unproven, and in this day and age they may not be so viable.

“They are expensive to plant and manage, and it is such a long game that if we were to put that kind of investment in, we need to know before planting that they would give a viable crop.

Small orchard plantings are not always commercially viable

“It would be a fantastic project to take on”

Joe continued:

“But if we can get financial help before planting, some of that pressure is taken off, and we could grow threatened varieties with a view to seeing if we can take on more. It would be a fantastic project to take on.

“Some small plantings have failed for lack of management. Community orchards have been set up in the past by some very committed individuals with huge knowledge and drive, but when they move on elsewhere that expertise is lost.

“Then you have a half-acre orchard with 20 different varieties which ripen at different times and their value to a business is negligible. It almost has to be done as a hobby.”

Draught Dorset ciders have gone down well in Purbeck pubs

Record sunshine has helped with energy bills

While Joe is a little concerned about the ongoing effect of the summer’s drought on his orchards, he has found that the record number of sunshine hours in 2022 have helped with his energy bills.

The production site that Purbeck Cider shares with his family’s Purbeck Ice Cream business has large solar panel arrays on all of the buildings, and enough energy has been produced to cover the firms running at full capacity.

Company sales are predominantly in Dorset, Somerset and Hampshire, especially with a lot of draught ciders in local pubs, but it is hoped to spread the reach nationally in the coming years.

Ripening Tom Putt apples are ready to eat, press for juice or make cider from

Dorset and Devon both lay claim to Tom Putt

Purbeck Cider’s four main apple varieties at the moment are;

  • Tom Putt, an apple which originated in the west country – Dorset and Devon both lay claim to it being theirs – which is a dual purpose apple for eating, juicing and cider.
  • Golden Ball, an old Dorset cider variety, which is late maturing and produces a medium sharp juice. It comes from the Netherbury or Stoke Abbott area and has been well known for over a century.
  • Prince William, an excellent tree which produces good crops used for quality single variety ciders.
  • Three Counties, a top-quality apple produced from the Long Ashton research centre at Bristol, which has regular crops of premium fruit.

Newly planted trees at the farm, and an ideal place to picnic

“Good fruit and happy bees!”

Joe said:

“The important thing is they all crop at a similar time of year for us to harvest and they are in the same pollination group, giving good fruit and happy bees!”

Further information

  • More about Joe’s cider is on the Purbeck Cider Company website

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