An appetite for innovation keeps Spreyton FreshNews
A focus on growing margins and adding value is underpinning plans for a sustainable future for this fifth-generation Tasmanian business.
- Focus on value adding.
- Investing where best return.
- Fifth-generation family run.
A new point of sale system in the cidery, more automated method of fruit receivals and an upgraded cherry grader are all in the pipeline at Tasmanian-based Spreyton Fresh this season as the business takes aim at labour costs.
At the same time Spreyton Fresh is working to expand markets for its award-winning craft cider and secure premium export cherry volumes through the installation of rain covers, while also positioning itself to tap into the emerging ‘non-alcoholic’ growth market and continuing to grow apples.
The energy going into adapting, leveraging value and building premiums is striking.
“Value adding, and trying to get away from manual anything, it’s the only way you can actually continue to be a viable business,” says Spreyton director Michelle Distill.
An eye for an emerging opportunity and focus on value adding are hallmarks of the fifth-generation business that began growing apples in the Mersey Valley region in the north-west of the state in the 1800s, and has since innovated into fresh juice, cherries and, more recently – in 2011 – cider.
Michelle, who with her brother Simon runs the business, said fresh juice had originally been introduced to help smooth out the peaks and troughs of fresh apple and cherry production. Cider was a natural progression, offering the opportunity to both add value and improve margins, something increasingly difficult to maintain in fresh fruit production.
“You’ve got more ability to actually get a sustainable market with cider,” Michelle said. “You can’t afford to grow apples just for juice. You can, however, afford to grow apples to turn them into cider, because the margins are so much better.
“We can actually set a price, that’s the difference. We can set a price that covers our costs and that actually has a margin in it. As fruit growers we are told what the price is. It gets to the point where we can’t recoup our costs. We are truly price takers. Even with cherries, although they are far more valuable than apples, it is dictated, to a point, by what the market will pay.”
Spreyton Cider Co., under the guidance of cidermaker Damien Viney – son of retired director and orchard manager Warren Viney – now produces a range of highly rated craft cider, in both traditional and contemporary styles, from 100 per cent Tasmanian apples in a purpose-built cidery and cellar door built in 2012.
The cellar door and ‘party barn’ also serve as a venue for live music nights and weddings, further diversifying the business.
Around 20 per cent of Spreyton’s fruit goes into cider and the business prides itself in being one of the few true ‘tree to bottle’ producers in Tasmania, taking apples through the whole process from tree to cider at the cidery. Cider is sold mostly across Tasmania and, via online sales, onto the mainland.
Jorden Distill, Michelle’s son, who returned to the business to learn the ropes in 2022, said having a long heritage as apple growers meant there are also older apple varieties on hand more suited to cider.
“We’re quite lucky that we have older orchards, so we have older fruit varieties,” he said. “Jonathans, Gravensteins, that wouldn’t sell in the edible market, but are still nice apples and perfect for cider.
“We can actually make a blend relating back to that particular apple, so they can be like a specialty.”
Last year juice fruit from neighbouring growers Ayers Orchards, Squibbs Orchard and Avro Park Orchards was blended with Spreyton’s own juice for a speciality ‘four orchards’ blend.
“To be able to do that, is just a little bit unique,” Michelle said.
The fresh juice which put the Spreyton Fresh name on the map still accounts for 50 per cent of the business and is sold locally through IGAs, Woolworths and Coles in Tasmania and through Woolworths in ‘our backdoor’, Melbourne.
With non-alcoholic wine, beer, cider and ready-to-drink sales booming – a recent international report predicted growth of 30 per cent between 2022 and 2026, with the bulk of that in non-alcoholic beer and cider – Spreyton has recently launched a non-alcoholic apple cider.
“Our Sparkling Apple Cider and new Sparkling Apple & Raspberry Cider are growing in popularity in some of the IGA spaces, so we are starting to pick that sort of thing up,” Michelle said.
In the orchard
While Spreyton has invested in the new cidery and tasting centre, and protecting the high-value cherry crop, in the orchard apples are still grown on lower density, more traditional planting systems.
There is no fancy new packhouse and fruit is graded straight into bins ready for juicing or sending to market.
Director and production manager Simon Langworthy said with rising costs and stubbornly low prices there were better investment opportunities elsewhere in the business than in new orchard systems.
Located on the edge of the expanding Devonport urban area, the future for fresh fruit production was also uncertain.
“We’ve focused more on value adding to our existing crop, which has kept our orchard somewhat viable,” Simon said.
Another approach to further reduce labour costs in the orchard is to investigate the use of tree shakers for the older varieties of apples destined for juice.
“If you were taking the fruit to market it wouldn’t be possible because it would get bruised and damaged,” Jorden said. “But we are lucky enough that we can juice that fruit. So, those older varieties that we can make into a cider we can just shake off the trees and use them for cider.”
Jorden said if shaking fruit became a regular approach, some restructuring of the operations in the juice room and the cidery would be required to manage the shortened storage potential.
“At the moment if we are doing delicate hand picking and using SmartFresh™ on that fruit, we can hold it for 12 months and then still juice it, so we’ve always got a coolroom under CA which is security for use if fruit deteriorates locally.
“But with shaken fruit, once the bruising starts, you’ve probably only got a month.”
Current blocks are 80 per cent Gala, with some grafted over to Nicoter (marketed as Kanzi®) and RubyFrost®.
The push for more and more high-colour varieties prompts a wry recollection from Simon of the fickle nature of trying to please consumers from the early days of exporting Cripps Pink (marketed internationally as Pink Lady®) in the 1990s.
“We were exporting Pink Lady apples to the UK back then,” Simon said. “They stopped taking our pinks because they were too highly coloured. They said ‘no, we don’t want your fruit because it will ruin the export market’.”
Spreyton has been exporting cherries to Hong Kong and other Asian markets since 2007, markets it hopes to leverage to sell cider into also.
“We export most of our cherries. We do send a reasonable amount to Sydney, but most of them we export,” Michelle said.
Freight has become very expensive, and Michelle said there was very little difference between freight costs of cherries to Sydney and to Hong Kong.
Maintaining relationships and sending quality product are key.
Spreyton handles its own exports. Michelle said they were lucky to have good customers who were very supportive, but the markets were niche and there were challenges including the high production costs in Australia and ensuring fruit reached the market in good condition.
“It is worth it,” she said. “The biggest advantage with sending cider to export is there’s no taxes attributable to it. So, there’s no GST and there’s no excise, just landed costs.”
As Tasmanian fruit competes directly with low-cost producer Chile, Simon said attracting a premium meant continuing to supply quality fruit that lived up to its reputation and the Tasmanian growers were working together to share learnings.
“We still have a really good presence in the Hong Kong market and our customer over there has done a lot of work educating his customers and they look for our fruit because it does taste better,” Michelle said.
She said they had also invested in rain covers for the last two years. “We want surety that at least our export blocks of cherries are going to be good quality,” she said.
Future is in cider
The return of Jorden and Damien to the business ushers in a fifth generation of the Langworthy and Viney families, who partnered to establish Spreyton Fresh in 1998. Heritage is very much part of the story, but Michelle said the business that Jorden carries into the next century will be far different from the one her great-grandparents began way back in the late 1800s.
“The future of this business is not going to be orcharding,” she said. “We will always grow something, but orcharding won’t be the main focus. The future of this business is going to be cider or something along those lines.
“We are always thinking about the next thing that can make the business more vibrant and viable going forward. Jorden coming into the business is sensational; he’s our secret weapon!”
Despite the outlook for fresh fruit, Jorden is optimistic about the business’s future and its ability to continue to evolve.
“We’re lucky we have some really good managers and, with their help and Simon’s, I’m slowly learning the ropes,” he said.
Given the business’s long history of evolution, where does he see Spreyton in the future?
“I think there will be less apples grown here, and cider will make up more of the business, with juice going more to our cider and the local market,” he said.
This article was first published in the Spring 2023 edition of AFG.