"We've been around for almost 300 years - we never rush things" - Interview, Aspall Cyder's Henry Chevallier Guild and Molson Coors UK MD Phil Whitehead

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Over the weekend, Molson Coors announced its purchase of UK cider producer Aspall Cyder. Earlier today, just-drinks spoke to Henry Chevallier Guild, from the family that owned Aspall, and the MD of Molson Coors UK & Ireland, Phil Whitehead.

Aspall will celebrate its 300th anniversary in 2028

Aspall will celebrate its 300th anniversary in 2028

just-drinks: How did you get to the point where your family could countenance the sale of a company that was founded in 1728?

Henry Chevallier Guild: Initially, we were looking to get some private investment in, that's where this journey started. We spent a lot of time talking to various people who we could potentially work with. From a diligence perspective, we wanted to be sure we were really testing every avenue, so we decided to reach out to some potential trade partners, of which Molson Coors was one. Our initial intention was to do no more than that.

But, when we met Phil, we were very surprised to hear more about Molson Coors. I didn't realise they have a number of other premium brands and products in their portfolio that I liked. The other thing that really stood out at that stage was that they shared a vision for what the future of our segment of the cider category could actually reach.

We were still quite sold on going down the investment route, however. As the summer progressed and we reached out again, things weren't going quite as we hoped on the investment front. We had a more in-depth conversation with Molson Coors and they offered to take us to Sharp's Brewery (which Molson Coors acquired in 2011) to meet some of the people that have been there from the beginning. We really wanted to get a feeling from them of what the journey had been like and what it was like on the other side. When we got there, the investment that had been made in the site was apparent. So was the level of passion the people still had about their business and how highly they valued Molson Coors' investment. We got an overwhelmingly good impression of how good Molson Coors' purchase has been for the Sharp's business.

Henry Chevallier Guild, right, with his brother and Aspall chairman Barry Chevallier Guild

Whatever investment route we went down, that's how we wanted to come out the other side. Molson Coors ticked all those boxes for us.

j-d: Why were you looking for outside investment in the first place?

HCG: The business has grown very quickly in the last five to ten years. We've put a lot of personal investment in, including bank debt. We looked at the trajectory of the business and the strategic vision of where we were going and we felt the family was a bit exposed. To do the next phase of our journey properly, we felt we needed a sizeable investment, one that we didn't feel would have been responsible for us to take on our own. The right thing to do, then, was to look to bring some external investment in.

The whole family was aligned that this was the right approach, not only for the business, but also for the brand and for the people.

j-d: In this weekend's statement, you say you had been in talks with Molson Coors for over a year.

HCG: It was a big decision that needed a lot of thinking and talking about. We've been around for almost 300 years - we never rush things. We had to be really comfortable and we had to develop a high level of trust - you don't do that in a couple of meetings, it happens over time.

j-d: What's meant by the claim that members of the family will remain part of the business and "will play a key role in shaping the strategic direction of Aspall"?

HCG: Barry (brother and chairman) and I are staying on in an advisory capacity. We always said that we wanted to stay involved in the business whatever way it went. We also had to have an involvement that was meaningful and added value to what the business is doing.

We've got ideas about innovations we'd like to introduce. Previously, the day job didn't allow us to do that, now they're much more likely to come to fruition.

Initially, we're staying on for two years, but we're all talking about 2028 - the company's 300th anniversary.

j-d: What does Molson Coors' cider portfolio look like in the UK?

Phil Whitehead, MD of Molson Coors UK & Ireland

Phil Whitehead: We've got a cider portfolio that we've been building over the last three or four years. It's a combination of brands we've built and some partnerships. We are the exclusive distributor for AB Abro's Rekorderlig brand in the UK; that plays into the fruit-based cider segment in a very premium way. We've also got Carling Cider in apple and black fruit variants. Then, we've got a Sharp's craft cider - Orchard - that we've built in partnership with Sheppy's Cider.

We see Aspall as a very credible build to that portfolio. The brand will help premiumise the portfolio, that's why we think it's complementary to what we've got. It also gives us a cider manufacturing facility, something we didn't have before.

j-d: Had you explored an extension of your relationship with Abro?

PW: Yes. We're constantly talking to all of our partners about how to grow our partnerships and take them to different levels. The acquisition of Aspall is very complementary to Rekorderlig. They play very different roles in our overall category.

j-d: What future plans do you have for Aspall?

PW: The strategic rationale behind the deal is to lock down the UK and Ireland. We want to grow the brand off the back of all the hard work the team has been doing. There's real potential in investing behind the brand and the manufacturing facility to do that.

We also believe the Aspall brand can become a figurehead for international growth. It's a strong example of a well-made English cider. It already has a presence in the US and Australia, so we definitely see an opportunity in these markets.

This isn't a vanity play on volume, this is about building the credentials of an English cider and growing it in the right way.

HCG: Presently, our export presence accounts for about 3% of business.

j-d: No cost has been mentioned. Can you enlighten us?

PW: That's something that the family wanted to keep confidential and I 100% respect that.

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