Interview: Julian Dunkerton, Dunkertons Organic Cider
PUBLISHED: 10:23 27 November 2018
Julian Dunkerton has moved his family's cider-making business from Herefordshire to the outskirts of Cheltenham, where it boasts a state-of-the-art production unit and a stylish new shop. But don't think the heart of the business has changed one whit: it still honours the core values Ivor and Susie Dunkerton held dear when they planted their first apple tree, nearly 40 years ago
Sometimes – sometimes - it’s fascinating to play detective. To dig out the stories that lie behind.
Take, for example, the little ruby apple Stoke Red. I pick one up – dainty as a berry; aromatic as an autumn day – in Dunkertons Organic Cider Shop (with its oak-barrel stands and apple-pallet counter). Its rosy-cheeked robustness hints at why Somerset growers (as they first plucked them from abundant trees at the turn of the last century) would affectionately term them ‘Neverblight’. The dreaded apple-scab packed its bags and abandoned those orchards without a backward glance.
Or Breakwell’s Seedling, discovered more than 100 years ago on Perthyre Farm beside the playful River Monnow where wild brown trout and plentiful grayling tease the patient fishermen.
It’s a lovely-looking apple – cheerful in its blush stripes.
“Ah,” says Melanie Cheeseman, appearing at my side. Official fountain of cider-apple knowledge, Mel nods approvingly at the humble little Breakwell’s Seedling in my hand. “We’ve just won out in America with that. First place in the traditional cider category at the New York International Beer Competition. Two awards, as well as Best English Cider Producer.”
America! I smile to myself. What on earth would old George Breakwell – who first propagated this bitter-sharp apple – have thought of that (all those years ago, as he eyed his 40-gallon barrels, waiting for a first sip on Christmas Day).
At Dunkertons – where all the apples are organic – they bottle it into a single-variety wild and fruity cider that hits a caramel sweetness with a caution of citric astringency.
Mel organises the Thursday and Saturday tours you can book around the shop and production area; (“We had more than 1500 people apply for the first one!”).
“So if I were to taste a Breakwell’s Seedling in its raw form, what would I think?” I ask.
She laughs. “Euwww!” she says.
I give it a polish and take a huge bite. Strangely, I don’t dislike the taste; though its somewhat-challenging dryness is at odds with a juicy exterior.
I’m just wondering how – and, importantly, if - I’ll ever swallow, when someone calls over the shop to me.
“Sorry I’m a bit late,” Julian Dunkerton says, even though he’s really not.
Oh lord, I panic, hamster-cheeked.
“I’m trying your apples,” I garble.
“Oh god,” he says, sympathetically. “They’re not really for eating.”
I know little about Julian Dunkerton. I’ve met him once before – briefly, at his rather lovely Cotswold country home – when I was interviewing (his now-wife) Jade. And he was friendly and welcoming, though dashing to a far-flung meeting.
But – you know how it is. Even though I’d never judge by noughts on a bank statement. Or by the ability to generate headlines.
Truth is, you don’t often meet people who co-founded an empire from nothing. Or whose net worth (‘estimated’, the press always clarifies) is roughly the game-changing extra guaranteed for the NHS each week by Vote Leave. (Lol.)
But the first thing that strikes you isn’t any of this.
The first thing that strikes you is the inordinate pride he feels in this state-of-the-art shop/production unit he recently moved – and expanded - from the depths of Herefordshire to the outskirts of Cheltenham.
And the second thing is why.
So. We stroll around the shop, looking at the cheeses Julian Dunkerton and his crew have gathered (Simon Weaver, Godminster, Greystones Farm, Bath Soft) (nothing but the best) to go with bread from the bakery (La Boulangerie Artisan) he’s recently started.
The bakers who make it are trained by top artisans in Paris and Lyon.
“You’ve got to put yourself on a world stage; you can’t put yourself on a Cheltenham stage,” Julian says, gesturing towards the lusty, rustic, golden loaves piled next to a shelf of relishes. “We use organic French flour, which has a different consistency to English flour. I’m sure gluten-intolerance has come about from the way bread is now made. Modern mass-production uses accelerators; the whole process should take – whatever it is - 48 hours. And they do it in an hour!
“I’m addicted to it - I crave it – and so is my 12-year-old daughter. I said to her, ‘You’ve just eaten an entire baguette!’”
Then we move onto the main event – the cider: a sweet, a medium and a dry; intriguing single varieties; a vintage more than a year-and-a-half old.
“Twenty-eight days is what an industrialised cider will take to make.” He calls over to Bean (AKA Jeremy Benson, founder of Bensons Fruit Juice company), his stalwart MD, business partner and friend: “How long does ours take, Bean?”
“Minimum of a year,” Bean calls back.
Julian nods. “With both bread and cider, what you’re talking about is doing it in the way it should be done. Taste. Quality. Body. Like cheese, ours just gets better in the body.”
And it’s organic, of course.
He nods. “When I was a kid, I worked on a blackcurrant farm in the summer holidays, where something like 17 different sprays were used. The farmer wouldn’t let his children drink the product it ended up in.
“I was dealing with tons of fruit off every field - and what was interesting was that one field would be all earwigs; the next all slugs; the one after all ladybirds. The biodiversity wasn’t there: It became a mono-insect culture.”
He moves over to a corner defined by rotund oak barrels, clustering round a stand of empty glass flagons. This, for him, is the heart of the shop.
“Here you can fill your cider jug and it’s £2 a pint.”
£2 a pint for organically grown, lovingly made, time-lavished cider.
“The important thing with retail and me is that it’s democratic. Not something that’s so exclusive it’s out of bounds. I like it to be accessible to everybody.”
And then there are the photographs… The photographs my eyes are drawn to, that brighten the walls over the cider barrels.
Photos from the early 80s. There’s one of a smiling, wellington-booted man standing in an embryonic orchard, satisfied spade in hand. Another of a woman driving a red tractor, emerging from a cloud of apple-blossom white.
Ivor and Susie Dunkerton – Julian’s father and stepmother - who moved from London to Herefordshire in 1980. Ivor was an award-winning BBC producer (Man Alive; Bafta-quality documentaries); Susie worked at a Shelter charity centre; both turned their backs on successful careers to buy a smallholding – 40 acres in the middle of nowhere. First they tried keeping pigs, chickens and cows, but there was no money in that. So they wracked their brains, looked for a gap in the market, and landed on cider. Why not make cider in the same way as wine, they mused. Why not blend the tannins and the acids just as the French lovingly blend their sophisticated grapes.
Julian was 15 at the time - London through and through - his brother two years older; still coming to terms with being a teenager when the family upped sticks from the bustling capital to the beautiful back of beyond.
As we make our way up steps to the office, we turn to look down over the new Dunkertons production plant; even the huge gleaming vats are things of beauty.
He purchased them from Germany. “Madness!” Julian says, grimacing. “But we can’t buy them in the UK and that’s very upsetting. Now, if we had tax-free manufacturing, which I’m a massive proponent of, and which would cost the economy nothing to achieve…”
I let it pass. I’m not qualified to quiz him further on this.
Besides. I’m thinking about something else. I’m thinking about having to move from London to Hereford at the age of 15. Because that’s something that could break you.
Or make you.
“So,” I ask Bean. “Were they alike? Ivor and Julian?”
Ivor mentored Bean; taught him the business until he died, two years ago, aged 83. (I read the moving obituary that Susie – who still lives in their Herefordshire home – wrote in the Guardian.)
“Yes,” Bean says, weighing the question up, “there were definite similarities. Warm, loving. That’s the bit I got from Ivor – very caring, towards me as an individual, right from day one.”
I can see that. And – let’s face it - if he hadn’t been caring, he probably would have stayed in London, where he was well-heeled and well-thought-of. How old was he when he left?
That’s quite a crackers time to change tack.
Julian laughs. “They went on their honeymoon to Wales – Brecon – and fell in love with Herefordshire. They just wanted to be together; to work together.”
But hang on. Was Julian not awfully cross to be pulled out of a dynamic London into the heart of the regressive countryside?
“I balanced it with fishing. The River Arrow was about a mile away… I think my brother struggled a bit more.”
“Did you go to school there or did you board?”
“No, no, no, no!” he says – kindly, but as if the question is a slight affront. “I went to state school. The Minster Comprehensive.”
Sounds interesting. Was it interesting?
He pauses. “It was a tricky time of my life. You know… being a Londoner in Herefordshire, at the age of 15, was quite interesting. I got beaten up a few times. Leominster was quite a violent town.”
Real pockets of deprivation.
“Yeah. It was tough. I had one skinhead on either side of me, smacking my face, on week one of landing in Herefordshire. They didn’t like strangers particularly. Not ones that came with winklepicker shoes. My brother arrived with pink hair - he was a punk.”
I can imagine. Sort of. What I can’t imagine – what I admire – is implicit in the way he tells the story. He doesn’t rush into any description of bullying – I have to drag it out; and he’s fulsome in his praise of Ivor and Susie’s own courage in following their dream.
“I felt like an immigrant. Or I felt like I was in some different country, almost. But, if you think of a lot of businesses, they’re started by immigrants who bring a different viewpoint; a different perspective. There’s so much dynamism that grows from immigration.”
Yes, importantly. Because it wasn’t just aggression he had to cope with; it was the lack of ambition that went hand in hand: teenagers in Herefordshire at that time became farmers; if they weren’t farmers, they joined the army.
“I remember a 10-second interview with the careers officer at school, who said, ‘Well what are you going to do?’
“’I’m going to be a doctor!’
“And he went, ‘Yeah; right. Have you thought about the army?’”
But there was a third way; another way of earning a living. Self-employment. Setting up his own business.
“There was this guy selling carpets in Pembridge, a few miles away, who I really liked as a human being,” he says. “It was retail - quite raw retail; a barn on a busy road, where he would sell off-cuts of carpets. I got very excited working out how much money he was making in a day.
“Watching him gave me a sense of: I think I can do this.”
“Can you remember his name?”
“Roy. Strangely, he was born in the house that we lived in. But, yeah, he was probably the most defining single human-being in terms of what I actually ended up doing.”
So now I’m beginning to understand. Yes, he’s proud of the Dunkertons cider-brand; of what his parents achieved. But the cider is more than the sum of its parts. That move to Hereford didn’t break Julian Dunkerton; it made him.
“To be a teenager in London, you were a tiny speck; you were anonymous. To then be the only Londoner in Leominster – it had its downfalls; but it made me feel different and special. And I liked that. And I always clung onto the fact that I was from London. If you listen to my accent, I’ve still got a bit of a twang.”
He’s on a mission, Julian Dunkerton. A mission to get people to appreciate the subtleties of cider; of Dunkertons Cider. Posh restaurants are now stocking it. People are drinking his perry from proper wine glasses.
And soon – within the next 18 months – the space we’re in will be transformed once again. He’s planning an organic food market to go with the cider – predominantly British; predominantly organic food – which will mimic the good old much-missed British high street. Greengrocers selling alongside butchers and bakers. Individual traders; the best of the best.
An antidote to the modern, aggressive supermarket.
Julian Dunkerton has a gift for making money – of course he does; but that’s actually not what he talks about. He talks about farmers sending him photos of leverets in their organic orchards. He talks about regenerating British towns: “I like to do good things,” he says. “It makes me feel good.”
And he talks about arguing politics with a dad who moved him from London to Hereford – a move that could have broken him, but didn’t.
About a dad whose aim was to make the very best cider he possibly could.