The Huon Valley, south-west of Hobart, is the perfect place to hold a mid-winter cider festival. Apples have been grown here for more than 150 years and the region is still the major orchard centre of Tasmania. It's also bloody cold in the Huon in July and you need to be chilly to fully appreciate the ancient ritual of wassailing.
The wassail ceremony is rooted in the pre-Christian history of England's cider orchards and is pagan culture at its most colourful and raucous: people dressed as forest faeries and sylvan sprites, with faces decorated, carry burning torches to the oldest tree in the orchard, pour cider as an offering around the trunk, poke cider-soaked toast upon the branches, and making a clattering din proclaim "Wassail!" - "good health!" - to ensure a bountiful future crop.
In 2014, Tasmanian cider producer Willie Smith's decided to hold its own wassailing ceremony and the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival was born. The third incarnation of the festival takes place next month, over the weekend of July 16 and 17 at Willie Smith's cellar door at The Apple Shed in Grove. The festival also features the ciders of Red Brick Road from Launceston, wine from the Huon's Home Hill and distillers such as Lark in Hobart, as well as food stalls, live music, storytelling and bonfires to keep everyone warm.
The festival's strong emphasis on supporting friends from the local community is important: the family behind Willie Smith's cider has a long connection with this part of the world. William Smith arrived in the Huon Valley and planted an orchard in 1888. His son, Ron Smith, helped build the RSL in the town of Huonville; third-generation Ian Smith kept the family orchard going in the face of dramatic consolidation in the industry; and more recently his son Andrew Smith converted the 55 hectares of apples to certified organics.
When the Australian cider boom took off in the late 2000s, Ian and Andrew saw an opportunity for an organic cider brand and launched Willie Smith's. They set up their cellar door along with a museum and outlet for regional food producers in the renovated 1940s apple shed in Grove. And a couple of years ago, they hired Tim Jones, former head cidermaker for Strongbow at the CUB-owned Cascade brewery in Hobart.
In some ways this seemed like an odd choice: why would a small company focused on high-quality, characterful ciders made from organic apples want to employ someone who was responsible for making vast quantities of cheap cider from apple concentrate?
It turned out that in his spare time, Jones was as passionate about making real cider from real apples as it's possible to be: he's spent the past few years researching and planting the best traditional European cider-apple trees on his home block - English varieties such as Kingston Black and Yarlington Mill, French varieties such as Frequin Rouge and Antoinette - and making dozens of small batches of experimental cider from the fruit, trialling traditional fermentation techniques, building up knowledge.
Last year Willie Smith's launched a new cider called 18 Varieties, made by Jones from the first commercial crop from his orchard, a marvellously complex drink, full of the spicy, rich flavours of tarte Tatin and hints of funky farmhouse you expect to see in the best English or French ciders. It went on to win the top trophy at the 2015 Australian Cider Awards, cementing the Huon cider producer's reputation.
Recently, Willie Smith's also launched the second, limited release of a strong (almost 10 per cent alcohol) cider that has been matured for 12 months in Lark whisky barrels. And an "apple bock" - a kind of cider and beer hybrid produced in partnership with Hobart Brewing Co - will be offered on tap during the Mid-Winter Festival.
Interesting, innovative mash-ups like this are not unique to Willie Smith's. Corey Baker and Karina Dambergs of Red Brick Road, for example, make a pink cider - called Cider Rosé - by adding a splash of pinot noir to the fermented apple juice to bring a blush of colour and a hint of red-fruit flavour. Red Brick Road has also produced a delicious Dry Hopped Cider: the judicious addition of Tassie-grown hops brings a tongue-hugging savoury character to the drink.
Bringing these local agricultural pursuits together - apple-growing, winemaking, hop-growing, whisky-making - is very much in the spirit of community that old pagan rituals like the wassail evolved to nurture.
Huon Valley Mid-winter Festival, 15-17 July, huonvalleymidwinterfest.com.au