The editor of MT said it would be fun. 'We want a warm, brown, autumnal, realistic piece: life on the frontline of a family business.' And he added something about not mentioning the Wurzels, which I didn't get. So off to Ipswich in the rain, its football stadium lowering near the station, then a perplexed taxi driver motoring north though the Suffolk flatlands, the meter clicking past £10, £20, £30. Miles of brown, tilled earth stretch to the horizon. Then the village of Debenham - its biggest shop an estate agent - then a twist in the road and suddenly the orchards start, acre after acre of trees, neatly hedged against the North Sea wind. Welcome to Aspall country.
How does anyone get permission to build a big business here? 'Actually, it's an Area of Outstanding Natural Poverty,' grins Henry Chevallier Guild, who likes a joke. 'So it's not that hard.'
Chevallier Guild is a handsome 43 year-old, sporting a pair of mutton-chop sideburns who sits atop a cider empire that stretches back to the early 1700s. In recent years, Henry and elder brother Barry have transformed their parents' juice and vinegar business, pioneering premium cider, and anticipating the one buoyant sector in a generally downbeat alcohol industry. How did Aspall - named after the hamlet that holds it - spot the opportunity? Luck and heritage, inevitably.
'We were just playing around,' shrugs Chevallier Guild, with a mouthful of sausage roll, explaining how he and Barry found the mix that made their fortune. Lean and well spoken, he greets me in tie, jumper and high-vis jacket, looking a bit like Bradley Wiggins heading a road gang dressed as a country squire. His sister-in-law has put out snacks for us to eat in the dining room of the family seat, the moated Aspall Hall, and Chevallier Guild, former chairman of the National Association of Cider Makers, is full of stories about the building and its associations. It dates from the 14th century and is big enough to have been a lunatic asylum in Charles Dickens' time - Chevallier Guild's great, great, great-grandfather was an eminent physician. One of its patients, Mary Sargeant, was a bride jilted at the altar aged 19, who stayed till her 80s, always wearing her bridal gown.
'Now,' says Chevallier Guild, rubbing his hands, 'I'm not saying it's definite, but Dickens used to stay in the White Horse Hotel in Ipswich and I'm thinking he was in the bar one night, and someone came in and said: "You'll never believe the nutcase at Aspall Hall."' Miss Haversham? Chevallier Guild raises his eyebrows as if to say, why not? Two hours later, we've run through anecdotes about 20 generations of Chevalliers - portraits of whom gaze down suspiciously from the walls - and changed our drink from Aspall's strong, pale Dry Suffolk Cyder to something darker, sweeter, like an apply version of Madeira. When I look at Aspall's online shop later, there are at least six possibilities.
This, it is clear, is no ordinary business. When Chevallier Guild talks about his family's commercial success, it is always with reference to history, as if the past constantly helps define the future. The first Chevalliers arrived in Suffolk in James I's time, emigres from the Channel Islands with hard-won cider-making expertise. The Guilds married in three generations ago. And for this generation, commerce and family still intertwine. The Hall, where we sit, is five minutes' walk from converted outbuildings on a sprawling site that contains offices, laboratory and cider factory, punctuated with lorry park, bottling plants and vast steel vats, each named after a deceased family member. 'We like to keep it personal,' quips Chevallier Guild, when he walks me round later.
Aspall Hall itself, encircled by a 280-acre estate, is now home to Barry, who runs the business with Henry. Barry is chairman, Henry oversees UK and global strategy, after stepping down as operations director two years ago. Mum and dad, who previously ran the firm, live across the orchards in the Old Schoolhouse; Henry is in the Old Rectory. The Hall is held in trust and rented by the business to use for functions and entertaining - an essential part of the Aspall style.
'We learnt that from Dad. The business didn't have much money when he started - if supermarket buyers came in, he'd invite them to the Hall. So a person turns up, often the morning meetings are a bit spikey, then my father would bring them in for lunch, chat about holidays. I saw how disarming that was. And the afternoon sessions would be much more relaxed. They say to me now: "We never get invited to people's homes except here." And we like to see them here, a huge part of what we do as a business is not just about serving a great liquid, but engaging with people.'
Yet behind that charm, the Chevallier Guild brothers run a very serious operation, many times bigger than it has ever been before. For centuries their family has sold cider to local hostelries - in good years even to inns in London. Now distribution stretches nationally and is pushing into international markets. The aim, says Henry, cradling his glass, is to persuade Britain and the world to view Dry Suffolk Cyder as a genuine alternative to French wines.
'This a product that was held in higher esteem than champagne 300 years ago, then everyone here got greedy and started cutting it, and mixing water with the mash to ferment again, and calling it ciderkin and selling it to ale houses. When you take the drink to the masses and dress it up as a super premium when it's not is where it goes wrong, it's not true to its roots.'
That actually is an edited version of what Chevallier Guild says - he switches so rapidly into brewerspeak that I am left floundering. He ran production when he entered the business in 1993 and can give you as much on technicalities such as vinegar's polyphenolics as you could ever want to hear.
But the enthusiasm is infectious. He backs that with an obvious restlessness, seen in the firm's continual desire to push on. Chevallier Guild's latest plan is to diversify into beer - he launched a lager, Suffolk Blonde, in 2010, and later this year is rebranding it Outlier. The idea came from his conviction that British lager is poor by comparison to German varieties. More beers will follow. Yet in commercial terms it defies common sense: this is such a crowded market and it not even being made by Aspall. It is brewed under contract by Shepherd Neame. That is not where Aspall's heritage lies.
But guess what? 'Actually, my great, great-grandfather cultivated a strain of barley that was the mainstay of the brewing industry for hundreds of years.'
Oh please. Given that Chevallier Guild can trace his family back to William I - 'he's our cousin 28 times removed,' he says, not in jest - then surely he can justify any decision by reference to someone in the lineage? 'Probably,' he chuckles.
So how does the beer launch play with brother Barry, by reputation the more cautious of the two? Oh he's supportive, says Chevallier Guild, while admitting they do have different approaches. 'He's more traditional than I am. I'm more outgoing. He's definitely the one who stops my stupid ideas.'
Barry laughs when I repeat that to him later, but says he too sees beer as an opportunity. 'And if we listened to what others said, we'd never have done what we did in cider.'
As for how he and Henry work, he says they have always been close, born less than two years apart, and thrown together because their parents were often out, across the way at the business. Hence they grew up doing everything as a team. That closeness now enables them to manage without the sibling rivalry that everyone else expects.
'The thing is, we complement each other. Henry loves the detail and throws himself in, he's more creative and he likes doing everything himself. I work out how we do it, I cross the Ts and dot the Is, and am a better delegator.'
The oddity is that when both started at the business - at the same time - outgoing Henry did production, and shyer Barry headed sales. 'Well,' explains the younger Chevallier Guild, 'I had been on this extraordinary three-year trip to Cambodia and India, I had long hair and a beard, and it took me nine months not to look at the door every day and ask: "Should I go back?"' In those circumstances, Barry - who had worked in London - was the safer bet for buyers than ex-hippy Henry.
But Barry says they learnt from their parents to double-team at buyer meetings. 'Mum and dad would go together, one would always notice what the other missed. So Henry and I would go together, and he's the secret weapon. Let him explain in detail what we do and they feel the passion.'
What was Aspall like then? Barry says his parents 'basically modernised a 1728 production facility'. Henry says their targeting of organic juice and vinegar was smart. 'Dad built it up to around £4m turnover. Around 85% of what it did was own-label fruit juice for all the supermarkets, and vinegar for Sainsbury's and Waitrose. We were only selling about 30 cases of cider a month to local places then.'
But in a family business, each generation must adapt to the times. The key to Aspall's latest incarnation was a call nearly two decades ago from a supermarket buyer, asking if it would bid for the own-label cider contract, supplying two million litres. As Chevallier Guild tells it, he worked hard to come up with a price of 36p a litre, and the buyer just laughed at him. 'He said: "That's hopeless, I'm paying 14p now and looking for a reduction, stick to making apple juice."'
Chevallier Guild asked round the industry and soon found his mistake. 'I was making cider from apple juice. But you can use concentrate, sugar syrup, any number of liquids. I thought this was just bizarre. I'd been on a cider-making course, and read up the history of it, how cider makers - not champagne makers - were the first to bottle ferment, all the work that had been done on varieties of apples, how cider used to be drunk from these amazing flutes, and I just thought, why can't we take cider back to the 1700s?'
So they had that 'play around'. The result was snapped up by Sainsbury's, selling at £1.79 for 500ml - 7% strength, gently carbonated 'to lift the flavour', bottled in a replica of what his great-grandfather had used.
'People in the industry said you will never sell it for £1.79. There had been a vicious price war in cider, presentation and ethos had got into a bad place. But I said if the product is good enough people will buy it. It's not made from concentrate and syrup, and we'd worked so hard on the blend and alcohol level.'
That was 1999. Now the market is awash with craft, premium varieties, and the whole cider sector has boomed following sharp marketing by Magners - 'over ice' - and others. But even before that, industry insiders realised the Chevallier Guilds had something desirable. By 2003, the family was rejecting a big bid from by a former brewery boss, backed by private equity.
'We'd just launched on draught, things were going well for us, and we were beginning to make decisions on "are we juice, cider or vinegar?" and this guy asked to meet us. He said: "We believe cider is about to take off, we've looked at all the premium brands and the only one that will survive the rapid boom and inevitable fallback will be Aspall, as it is the only one that says the most important thing it does is in the bottle." We said: "Um, no thanks, but if we ever change our minds ..." Hahaha.'
That's the advantage family ownership gives them. But it was also the nudge they needed. Cider would be their priority and has proved a profitable niche ever since. How profitable? Chevallier Guild shifts a little in his seat. Figures for Aspall, as with many family firms, are not easily available. So let's start with the simple questions: who exactly owns what now?
The business, he says, is a partnership held in equal share by himself and his brother, father and mother. Later, he revises that, adding that he thinks his parents have 51% to his and his brother's 49%.
And Aspall's turnover? 'You can find something on us in Companies House but it doesn't give you the whole piece. Our turnover is £27.5m, and profit changes year by year. I'm not sure I should divulge.'
Oh go on. 'Well,' he smiles, leaning forward, 'we won't be as profitable this year as last because apple prices are higher and because of our high juice content - you can't hide that. But on the basis of Ebitda, our aspiration is to make over 10%.'
Have they? 'Not yet!' he laughs, before adding: 'We know what we need to do, we have to invest more in plant and machinery. It's not about owning more orchards - we'd just like to have more under our control, which means increasing the number of people we have under contract. It's better than owning the land.'
So how much is the business worth? As in any valuation, only what people are prepared to pay. It is clear that Aspall, as Chevallier Guild contends, 'punches above its weight' as a brand, it's drenched in heritage and its reputation for quality is undiluted - although you would think its rapid expansion in draught might have dented its craft appeal. That, when I mention it, clearly strikes a nerve.
'You've got to be very specific about where you go - it's what Barry and I are very concerned about. When friends say to us, "You're absolutely everywhere", I'm not sure I'm that comfortable. We've got really good partnerships; the danger is people wanting to upsell the range in groups we don't feel comfortable with.'
What have been the toughest lessons to learn? Red tape, health and safety, product development, brand building? No, people, he says. 'When I started as production manager here I just did things badly with people. Everything was a constant battle. When I told people I wanted to do things differently, they pushed back.'
Now he thinks he should have been firmer and clearer, paying off those who didn't want to make the same journey. Barry says Henry's weakness is he takes on too much - his strength is his passion. 'When Henry moved up to operations director he was swamped eventually, as he wanted to do everything himself. Now we have a great team in place and can both concentrate on networking and outside work.'
So who will inherit the firm? Henry gets serious. 'This business has stayed in the family because it's never been split up. Barry's got family and I haven't. I'm married but I've never wanted kids, so my share goes into one pot.'
Meaning Barry's side of the family will inherit? Henry nods. Is that a sacrifice he's making for the family firm or just common sense? He shrugs. 'Bear in mind that for eight generations the next generation has been able to wander in with long hair and a beard and say: "I'll run the factory." In this business now, with 100 employees, you couldn't do that any more.'
And he adds that he could always have done something else - he grew up with no pressure to join the family firm and at one stage had set his heart on being a racing driver. His father had taken on the firm after a career in the Royal Navy.
As children, Henry and Barry worked on the bottle lines in the summer holidays. 'But mum and dad were very good, they just said: "Great if you do, great if you don't". The funny thing was Barry and I reached a decision to commit at the same time.'
Crucially, before his three years on the road, Chevallier Guild had got himself a business studies degree from Oxford Polytechnic, which included a year out in Grand Met at the Truman brewery in London. 'It still had fantastic brands. It had just bought Ruddles County, fabulous beer, then produced Ruddles Best, which was a pale shadow.'
And Chevallier Guild is off again, comparing beer brands, unpicking the history of brewers, the keg versus cask debate, the role of the Campaign for Real Ale. He likes keg, though he understands why beer buffs want cask. As far as taste goes, he says: 'Cask is the safe bet, get oxygen anywhere near beer and you kill it stone dead, that's why Watneys led the revolution for keg beer but the beer was not very good and they oxidised it, it was a disaster. But there are economic reasons why you want to put it in a keg.'
Why doesn't he put Aspall's name on his lager, which is labelled Chevallier Brewing Company. Is he frightened of tarnishing the name?
No, he says, just acknowledging that Aspall doesn't brew it. 'But my aim is to build a brewery and bring it in-house.' At a time when all other brewers are consolidating? He looks sheepish. 'Yes, that is a bit off-trend.'
Ever tempted just to chuck it all in and travel again? Chevallier Guild grins. 'I do the export for our business and can achieve it doing that.'
He still keeps a 1996 Triumph Tiger motorbike - back in the early 1990s he rode round India on an old Enfield. 'Even at my advanced age, there is nothing I like more than going on motorbike trips. Load up and take off to Scotland or France; my mind just empties.'
And as the rain tips down on Suffolk outside, he chats animatedly about Aspall's vinegar, the family's links to the Soil Association, the unintended consequences of government legislation - whether against alcohol or inherited wealth - the cynicism of alcopop producers, new theories for planting apple trees (in May not November), the varieties that cope best with extreme conditions, to spray or not to spray.
He has a view on everything, which he later expands in long emails. His love for the business, and his family's role in building it, is explicit and very different from that of a professional executive. Whether that makes him a better manager, or any easier to deal with, or more rational or ruthless or answerable in deciding Aspall's future - perhaps others can judge.
So what's the endgame? 'My vision for Aspall is for it to be seen as the default premium global cider brand. You walk into bars around the world and always find a bottle of champagne. Why not English cider? By the way, do you want another one? It's all good research. Then I'll order you a taxi. The great thing about going back to London from Ipswich is that you can't fall asleep and end up somewhere else, hahaha ...'
FOUR CHALLENGES FACING CHEVALLIER GUILD
CHEVALLIER GUILD IN A MINUTE
|1968:|| Born 20 December
|1970:||Helps with apple picking, aged two, and goes on to work most holidays|
|1981-1990:||Educated at Uppingham and Oxford Poly|
|1993:||Heads production while brother Barry heads sales|
|1995:||Appointed operations director, made partner of firm, relaunches organic vinegar|
|1997:||Parents hand over full control to Barry and Henry|
|1999:||Relaunches Aspall Dry Suffolk Cyder|
|2006:||Appointed export director|
|2009:||Chairs the National Association of Cider Makers|
|2012:||Becomes strategy director of Aspall.|