Cider's First Lady

Related tags Cider National association of cider makers

Helen Thomas, managing director of Westons Cider has just become chairwoman of the National Association of Cider Makers. Jo de Mille talks to her...

Helen Thomas, managing director of Westons Cider has just become chairwoman of the National Association of Cider Makers.

Jo de Mille talks to her about what it's like to be the first woman to hold the position in the Association's 85-year history

As a member of the Weston family, and granddaughter of the founder, was it inevitable that you would end up in the cider industry?

I was brought up on cider - when I was little I used to drink the non-alcoholic Gay Perrie and Sambo ciders Westons used to produce. I also used to help out in the fruit-picking season and worked on the production line in the holidays. There was never any pressure placed on me, though, to work for the family business.

How did you end up where you are now?

I did a Business Studies degree at university, then became a secretary. It wasn't until my mid-20s that I carried out some sales analysis work for Westons, then became company secretary and worked my way up from there. I moved from director to joint managing director, and then became managing director in 1996.

I also have two sons and two brothers who work for the business - both my sons have very hands-on positions, working in vehicle maintenance and in blending filtration. They worked their way up like I did. It's the only way - you learn so much more.

Were you surprised to be made chairwoman of the National Association of Cider Makers?

I had been deputy chairwoman for the last two years, so it wasn't a huge surprise. It will be a challenge, though, as the first female and also as it's the first time Westons has held the chair. It has always been the larger companies which have held the chair in the past. Now, the Association is giving smaller companies like us a chance, having realised that the industry needs to open up to provide a good range of products, at a fair price. We need to make it fairer for the smaller companies.

Do you feel under more pressure because you are the first woman to hold the position?

You do have to work harder than your male counterparts, but once you've proved you can do it, people forget that you're a woman and stop thinking about it.

What do you see happening to the cider market during your two-year position as chairwoman?

We're now beginning to see growth again in the cider market, and I'm really keen to push that forward. Everything works in cycles, and I think it's cider's turn once more. Youngsters who've been drinking alco-pops in the past are starting to look for something new, and older consumers who drank cider in their youth are returning to it. Similarly, the more discerning customer is realising that, just as the beer market has got more adventurous, there is a vast quantity of different ciders out there now. Draught, scrumpy and organics - there's something to suit all tastes, the problem is, people don't know about them yet.

What would you say to people who had a horrific White Lightning experience in their teenage years and never went back to cider again?

Come and try it again, and you'll be pleasantly surprised. I would definitely say that all ciders have improved over the last 10 years. People are looking more at what and how they pro-duce it, and improving their methods accord- ingly. There truly is something for everyone - if you are a wine drinker you could try some of the stronger ciders, or if you like beer, opt for draught cider. There are also a number of very low-alcohol ciders out there - for example, Westons Stowford LA has an abv of 1.2%, but unlike non or low-alcohol beers, it's a drink in its own right and doesn't taste as if something's missing.

What else is driving the market?

The summers are getting hotter, and that helps - you can't beat a glass of cider on a sunny day. Cider also has a 'good for you' element, being made from apples and natural ingredients, which again, is encouraging growth. Provenance is another key word here - people are increasingly wanting to know what they're drinking and where it came from.

How do you think the new licensing laws will affect the cider market?

They have certainly caused a lot of pubs a lot of problems, but hopefully this time next year we'll see the benefits. Come November, I think there could be all sorts of teething problems, but I believe everyone will work together to overcome them.

What do you hope to achieve for the association in the next couple of years?

Our main concern is to raise awareness of the association and of the great cider brands out there. We have just developed a membership mark which can be stamped on any products to show they are approved by the Association.

We are also focusing on sustainability, as we need to ensure we have a sustainable industry for future generations. Many of the smaller makers don't necessarily have the expertise to do everything on site - we'll help them with that. You can't stand still, you need to be thinking about the future all the time to help the industry grow and develop. It's important that we look at responsible marketing and advertising of products, and sell it sensibly, to ensure that cider maintains its good image.

If you could have one wish for the next year, what would it be?

I really hope we'll see more cider in pubs - both sparkling and still. That would be the best thing that could happen.

Related topics Cider

Property of the week


£ 60,000 - Leasehold

Busy location on coastal main road Extensively renovated detached public house Five trade areas (100)  Sizeable refurbished 4-5 bedroom accommodation Newly created beer garden (125) Established and popular business...

Follow us

Pub Trade Guides

View more