Shane and Tessa McLaughlin used to have cider vats in their bathroom.
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Actually, they used to have vats in most rooms of their house. And under their house. But it wasn't just that they loved cider - it was the start of a wonderful business.
Shane and Tessa are the proud owners of Hillbilly Cider at Bilpin in the Blue Mountains of NSW, and for them, it is not just a business - it is an identity.
Shane grew up on a sheep property near Nyngan, and it was here his dream began. After retiring from being an Olympic rower, Shane went home and started up a 32-hectare vineyard in 1998. Canonbah Bridge Wines was the first commercial winery in the region, exporting for more than two decades.
"It was about diversifying," Shane said. "It was doing something for me."
He met Tessa at the Henley Regatta in 2000, and after that she came to Sydney. And she never left. She moved from London to Nyngan. "She went from England to Nyngland," Shane said. "Big Ben was the local lumberjack."
Tessa said she was madly in love. "I loved every second of it. I thought the sheep farm was the most beautiful place," she said.
But 13 years ago they made the move to an orchard in Bilpin to grow their wine business. And it was here, living among apple trees, they caught the cider bug. "Moving to an orchard with a wine maker - soon the house was full of vats. Vats in the bathroom, under the house - hillbilly style," Tessa said.
But there was nothing hillbilly about how Shane learned to make cider - he travelled to Somerset and Herefordshire in the UK and Normandy in France - the greatest cider-making regions in the world - over a three-year period. "I wanted to learn how to do it historically and then bring the techniques home," Shane said.
But then, as he calls 'the Australian way', he tore up the rule book and combined old and new. Shane said the process of making cider was much like wine. "The apples you put in are the most important thing."
They use 100 per cent crushed apples, which are sourced from local growers. "The great part is we are using the apples that don't have a home," Shane said.
Shane and Tessa make all their cider with fresh fruit and no added sugar or artificial flavour. The apples are crushed and fermented in pressurised tanks, which trap the carbon dioxide. The cider is bottled under pressure. "This is why you get a really creamy bead (bubble) from our ciders."
Hillbilly Cider has distributors in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, as well available on tap in bars in Sydney, in restaurants and at independent bottleshops.
If you ask Shane and Tessa which is their favourite cider, you'll see it's like choosing a favourite child.
The award-winning cider makers have a soft spot for each of their creations, and it is a tough call to make. Their Scrumpy - a cider inspired by Somerset style and means 'to steal' - is made in a rush, just like it traditionally was made using stolen apples."It's rough, a bit wild - you never know what you are going to get," Shane, who is also the treasurer of Cider Australia, said.
Their Classical Cider is made using a Granny Smith base with seasonal reds. They also have pear and non-alcoholic cider. In fact, they were the first cider company to make a non-alcoholic cider.
But a really special creation is their Sweet Julie Cider. It is made using a very special apple, which showed its little red face one day at the orchard owned by Bill and Julie Shields, which is where the Hillbilly Cider cellar door lives at the moment. It was a chance seedling and started a new breed. "It was the first new apple in the Sydney basin since the Granny Smith 100 years ago. Ours is the only cider in the world made from that apple," Shane said.
They also have a Hillbilly Champagne, aged in French oak, and a blackberry vintage, made to celebrate the start of spring.
A wall of flames 90 metres tall. That's what Shane McLaughlin faced as he tried to save his Hillbilly Cider business from the firestorm that tore through Bilpin in December.
Their new cellar door, which will include tastings, food, a chance to see how cider is made and even to fill up a growler - a two-litre flagon - with cider on the spot, was meant to open in December.
But Hillbilly Cider was lucky to avoid decimation as the huge fires roared through. Shane and his neighbour Jason Barret fought the flames with garden hoses.
"He came down especially to be with me when it hit," Shane said. "It was so hot the water coming out of the hose was vaporising. The roar is something I will never forget."
Some of their trees were lost, as well as their pump shed. But they survived - and now their new cellar door is set to open in March. "And the support we've had from people after the fire has been incredible," Shane said. "It was quite significant for us."
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