By Cori Rhode
ARMAGH, Northern Ireland – In 1898, Thomas David Troughton purchased a farm from a wine merchant named Black. Back then, it was known as “Black’s Folly.” Now, over 100 years later, the farm is the Armagh Cider Company, owned by Thomas’s great-grandson, Philip Troughton.
Philip, 60, sits at his paper-cluttered desk, wearing jeans and a slightly wrinkled Michigan State University t-shirt. Agriculture students and a professor from Michigan State sometimes provide help and advice, but Philip is self-taught. He said he learned everything he could from “the school of life.”
He has been the owner of the farm since 1986, when his father died. Around his desk, half-liter bottles display the labels of Madden’s Mellow, Carson’s Crisp and Molly’s Mulled Armagh Cider. Across the room sits a small box filled with yellowing time-punch cards he dug out of the family archives, from when his father ran the business.
It takes a lot of hard work to keep the farm sustainable. The family has a couple of sideline businesses – a stud farm that sends horse semen around the country, and England and Honeyhill Rosettes, which creates ribbons for competitions all over Ireland. But the key to success is having the best cider in County Armagh, which is known as “The Orchard County.”
In 2006, Philip sold his first cider, 10 years after planting his first cider orchard. He uses Bramley apples, which have a tart, bitter flavor and give the Armagh Cider Company’s product its distinctive taste. These apples also enjoy Protected Geographical Status within the European Union, which means that only the Bramley apples grown in County Armagh are allowed to be sold under that name.
The ciders made at the orchard have won several awards, such as a gold medal at the 2010 International Cider Challenge for packaging and design.
This ought to be a great time for the Amagh Cider Co. to grow. According to a market research study done by London-based market researcher Mintel last year, three in five adults in the UK are now active cider drinkers.
But due to Northern Ireland law, selling Armagh cider isn’t as easy as it looks.
In a nation dominated by the Democratic Unionist Party, a party that Philip calls “Presbyterian,” and that have conservative values, cider-makers are not allowed to sell their product on their farms or at festivals and other public events. The Troughtons are on a crusade to change that law.
Throughout the rest of the European Union, brewers and vineyard owners may apply for a producer’s license to sell alcoholic beverages on their own property.
The producer’s license also permits breweries to apply for “away-days.”which is another license that allows them to leave their property and sell cider several times a year.
“That license in Northern Ireland does not exist,” Troughton says. “It exists in Europe, Scotland, Wales, and Southern Ireland.” But not in Northern Ireland, for which he blames the current dominant political party at the national assembly in Belfast, called Stormont.
“The main party in Stormont is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which would be closely linked to the Free Presbyterian Church.”
Troughton said that the party and its church aren’t “anti-alcohol,” so much as “anti-having a good time.” He related the DUP mindset to that of the Puritans. One of their former leaders, the Rev. Ian Paisley, was also the leader of the Free Presbyterian Church for 57 years.
Troughton said that he knows Paisley’s son well, and that he is quite different from his father in his private life.
“He rides motorbikes and drinks like a fish, but he’s still a puritan.”
Troughton said that he met Ian Paisley Jr. several years ago, and told him about the producer’s license problem. “He said the problem will have to be sorted out, and it will have to be sorted out.”
Helen, Troughton’s wife, was meeting later that day with their local representative in the national assembly at Stormont to discuss the producer’s license conflict.
This fall, the first Armagh Bramley Apple Harvest Festival will be taking place in Richhill. Troughton would have liked to set up a stand to sell cider in the recreation center near the festival, but he cannot because the City Council owns the building. He has no choice but to partner with a local bar and have it sell the cider.
The Troughtons’s elected representative in Stormont, William Irwin of the DUP, ought to be sympathetic. He’s a cattle farmer with his farm only about five miles away, Philip says.
At his meeting with Helen Troughton, Irwin told her he was going to “look into it,” Helen said. The national assembly, however, is in recess until the end of August, so Helen and Philip do not expect any changes to happen until early September.
Photos by Doug Cumming