Everyone involved in a family business dreams of the day their children join the firm. That dream may be a long harboured ambition for the children to follow in the footsteps of forebears, or it might be a horrible vision, seeing them trapped in a stifling and difficult situation.
It definitely depends on the business you are in, I have spoken to many chefs and people involved in the food industry that would hate to see their children end up in it. For many family enterprises though, the involvement of a new generation can bring about wonderful changes and developments and that is exactly how Long Meadow Cider was born.
For 50 years the McKeever family have been tending to their orchards in Portadown, Co. Armagh. After his father passed away, Pat McKeever returned home to take over the farm and began expanding the orchards. “There was about 30 acres at home, then I started to take on rented orchards and we were growing apples for Magners so we were. We were growing about 120 acres of apples and sending maybe 80% of our fruit, roughly 1000 to 1500 tonnes every year, down to Magners.”
Pat now manages the orchards with his son Peter and together they have developed the business further by creating their own range of cider and juices. “I didn’t think Peter would want to come home to work on the farm so when he did that’s why we decided we’d do something. It was actually Peter who said, why not do apple juice or cider? And that’s how the whole thing kicked off.”
Peter, just as his father had done before him, helped to bring the business into a new era of opportunity. In 2013 they pressed their first apples and began making small, trial batches. They began trading in a cousin’s pub, also McKeever’s, where the locals really took to it. The locals in Portadown are still supporting the family business by offering their services as tasting guinea pigs. “There’s a lot of tasting goes on at night too you know, you’ll get neighbours come round to give you a hand and I’ll tell you what you won’t be long getting volunteers now!”
All the tasting and experimenting is very important to Pat as he wants his ciders to be just right before they go out to the public. He and Peter have blended different combinations of apples together to reach the perfect recipe but they all have one thing in common, they’re Armagh apples.
They are the best, you’re in god’s country. It could be part of the climate, the ground up here has a good acid content, good acidity in the Bramley. That’s why they [Magners] use it for their cider so they do. It’s good for baking, there’s a lot going for the processing market too but we started using it in the cider end and its going down well.
At Long Meadow they also blend with sweet apples. They experiment with grafting, creating new types of fruit to go into their ciders. Most of these are top secret but some of the varieties they use are Dabinett, Jonagold, Katie, Keady and Golden Delicious.
In the course of their experiments, the McKeever boys have developed a range of ciders including a sweet Blossom Burst, the Medium Cider and the Oak Aged Cider which is a bit stronger due to its resting in the cask barrels. It is also a dry cider and that’s what makes it very popular with chefs in Northern Ireland. “Some of them have come up to the house and tasted it but they still go through the suppliers and get it. A couple of chefs have used our blossom burst. There’s one there recently, a girl called Paula McIntyre, she has used our blossom burst for making custard.”
Pat appreciates the backing of people in the industry and the support they receive at craft festivals and shows. Their recent stint at the Alltech Craft Brews & Food Fair in Dublin’s Convention Centre saw Long Meadow Cider awarded two bronze awards. “It really helps to sell. When people come to shows they see the Great Taste Awards 2014 and 2015 and you’re getting two or three stars, it really makes a difference. Like people know that it’s a good product.”
The awards are obviously helping business as sales figures are on the rise year on year for Long Meadow. Last year they sold over 70,000 bottles and they are now retailing all over Northern Ireland, the Republic, Norway, France, Spain and the UK. Pat puts their success down to the fruit content in the ciders, “There’s 100% apple and fruit juice in our cider, there’s no water added. That gives it the real good rich taste. 100% apple and apple juice. That’s why we do our blending and our flavouring.”
This year is an important year for Long Meadow in terms of promotion as they are taking part in the Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink. The initiative is shining a spotlight on local producers, suppliers and establishments to promote the food culture of the region. As part of this celebration, the McKeevers have created a promotional video that tells the story of their cider.
You can see right from the very start, from the prune, the flower growing, the harvesting, the pressing, right to the very last bit we decide to do here. It will be like a show. It will let people see the orchards, see that it is done from the home farm. Showing people the story, showing people where it’s coming from.
Part of that show will also include inviting the public in to the farm as part of tours. Based on the success of brewery and distillery tours, Pat wants to allow fans to come and see the farm at blossom time and harvest time. “Hopefully people can come and do a bit of sampling and we’re hoping to have a wee bit prepped with the different varieties of the ciders and what you can do with the apples.”
Pat is hoping this will all grow the business further but a vital factor in this year’s success will depend on the weather so he is praying for a good summer. “The summer means a lot to us. If you get real warm weather, starting from spring, you get people out on their barbeques drinking. That’s a big key factor so hopefully we’ll get a good summer this year and we’ll be able to promote more of it and push it.” As the business grows, Pat intends on expanding the range. He and Peter are already experimenting with grafting and blending, with some help from the neighbours, and they hope to have something released by the end of the year.
Pat has another reason for expanding the business as he has other children who want to get involved. His daughter Alanna wants to come on board to help with sales and marketing and she will join her brother, father and mother Catherine who looks after all the administration for the company. In time Long Meadow Cider could become even more of a family business and this would make Pat very happy. He wants to create a business that they want to be involved in and look after for future generations.
Create a legacy, that’s what we hope to do.
Long Meadow Cider is available from independent retailers nationwide. Come and meet the McKeevers at the Beer and Whiskey Festival at the RDS, Dublin from 16th-20th March.
Alison has been writing since she could hold a pen, which came in handy for her degree in English, Media and Cultural Studies. She has been working in media since graduating and is the latest features writer for TheTaste.
Writing for TheTaste allows her to combine her passion for the written word with her love of food and drink. Find her on Twitter @AliDalyo