Craft cider a big attraction for tourists in County Armagh

Published on : Thursday, May 5, 2016

MacIvors Sam Greg in OrchardOn a 160-year-old family farm in Ardress in County Armagh, a fifth generation grower is proving ‘the apple never falls far from the tree’ with a cider making business hewn from the family’s fruit growing heritage.

Greg MacNeice of Mac Ivor’s Cider launched his craft cider company five years ago after a decade with the family business, MacNeice Fruit cannery and processing. Influenced also by his mother’s French heritage, Greg launched with two core products, a medium and traditional dry made mainly from the company’s own orchards. Now with a fruit cider ready for launch as well as plans for the US and European markets, the company has firmly established itself in the Irish craft cider market. However, the seed of the idea remains firmly rooted in family legacies, not just paternal and maternal but down the generations.

“My dad Sam and his brother Joe established a cannery for Armagh Bramley apples in 1969 and we’ve been growing on an acreage of over 100 and processing Bramleys ever since,” explained Greg.

“Because my mum is French we’d be used to drinking this gorgeous cidre and I couldn’t understand, what with all the gorgeous apples here in Armagh, why we didn’t have an equivalent. So I broke out some old demijohns, which belonged to my uncle Peadar and experimented with a number of recipes, mainly using heritage varieties. With positive feedback from family and friends I thought I’d try a bit more volume and we had our first commercial batch back in 2011.”

That paternal uncle shared Greg’s commitment to heritage varieties as well as his passion for brewing, albeit on a smaller scale. Making his own home brewed cider from the heritage apples he catalogued and pressed, Peadar is considered a forefather of Armagh’s blossoming craft cider sector. In addition, his personal characteristics have been added to the brand, incorporated as they are into the logo for Mac Ivor’s. The name of the company itself also resonates with family tradition as homage to another branch of the MacNeice family tree.

“Peadar was a bit of a character and I wanted to get his story in there, so he is the fox in the branding and our ‘follow the fox’ tagline. Mac Ivor was my granny’s maiden name and as it was her who started growing the heritage varieties it was important for me to bring her name back as an acknowledgment of what she started. My grandfather died quite young which left her with nine children and a farm to run so primarily it was an emotional decision to have her name there. It also gave us the opportunity for the brand to have a real personality and an authentic sense of place and of our apple growing heritage.”

That heritage also helped when Greg brought the first of his batches to market, selling into local outlets where business relationships were already established. After engaging distributors, north and south, to improve market penetration, the first official launch took place in August 2012.

“The first year was tough,” he acknowledges, “our volumes were very small and the big brands at that time were extremely dominant. Cider was a little bit behind the curve in terms of craft brewing and distilling and it took a lot of hard work and selling, particularly with the bars.

“What really sold it however was the taste of the product, people understood the difference from the big brand producers. With both the dry, which was the traditional cider that I’d always wanted to make, and the easy drinking medium cider which ‘big brand’ drinkers happily shifted across to, the product spoke for itself once we got it out there. The demand for provenance and craft was also growing at that stage and was met by our fresh pressed apples and purely artisan processes.”

The shift towards food matching is also an area the company has embraced, highlighting the versatility of cider as well as an innovative use of Bramley by products. A current collaboration with renowned local restaurant, Uluru has Lough Neagh eels smoked with Armagh apple wood and served with Mac Ivor’s Cider.

“If Lough Neagh eels are to be smoked with anything, it should be with Armagh apple wood, what with the PGI status of both the eels and the Bramley,” Greg insists. “We also have 40 hives of local honey bees that will be producing lovely apple blossom honey for the beekeepers that we work with in order to pollinate the Bramley.”

A new plum and ginger flavour has also been added to the Mac Ivor’s mix, the company having identified a gap in the market for a quality fruit drink. The move wasn’t without its considerations however with Greg holding out for the perfect combination before expanding the core range on which they are building their success.

“I was wary of moving away from our craft roots and ethos so held off until I was certain of a well-balanced flavour that works really well,” he explains. “The plum and ginger are an excellent pairing with our existing medium cider base and we’ve taste tested at a couple of festivals, where people have gone mad for it.”

European and US drinkers are to get the same opportunity as Mac Ivor’s looks to extend its presence in overseas markets. Already exporting to northern Europe, namely Denmark, Finland and Germany, the first shipment of Mac Ivor’s Cider arrived in Rome last week. The next big target is the US market, which although not renowned here for its cider heritage, has a fascinating past as well as a future filled with opportunity.

“Thomas Jefferson was an amazing cider maker at a stage when cider was bigger than beer but with the onset of Prohibition, cider apples were widely grubbed. However, ‘hard cider’ as they call it is one of the fastest growing market sectors, a growth that’s also fuelled by its gluten free status.

“The business in Italy is another encouraging development in the international marketplace and is a market in which premium Irish ciders are becomingly increasingly popular. Our busy social media presence is hugely beneficial in staying in touch globally and provides us with a direct link between us as producers and our buyers.”

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