Many readers will be aware that Alex Peckham, founder and cider maker at Peckham’s Cidery and Orchard, passed away on Tuesday, April 12. Alex’s passing was a shock to many, coming only three months after being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour. The void Alex leaves in the lives of his family and friends is immense. My heart goes out to his wife Caroline and his three children.
The story of Peckham’s cider has been wonderfully told in their profile in Pellice Magazine.
For this piece I would like to focus on the man he was, and the legacy he leaves. For without a doubt, the shadow his life and work casts over the cider industry is a long one.
In 2006 when Peckham’s started, the quality of most cider made in this country could be summed up as ‘pretty dire’. The contribution Alex has made to pushing forward the quality and diversity of New Zealand cider cannot be understated. Their orchard is perhaps the most well developed and diverse planting of heritage cider apples in the country. Likewise Alex was a true trailblazer in terms of adopting both traditional and contemporary cider making techniques.
His barrel ageing programme was a wonder to behold: stacks of barrels in every corner, spilling out into sheds and outhouses. Scrawled upon them were codes such as: FIRE19KA — fire cider, 2019 vintage, Kingston Black and Sweet Alford juice. To be set loose in there with a glass and a wine thief was a cider enthusiast’s dream.
Alex’s record at cider awards was also truly impressive. Looking back through the catalogues of the New Zealand Cider Makers annual awards, the only years they didn’t win trophies were the years they didn’t enter. Which brings me to the qualities of Alex, the man himself.
I got to know him quite well and considered him a good friend. I spent a week helping out at the cidery in 2020. The first thing he said to me was “you’re a New Zealander, so you know how to drive a tractor, right?” The answer was no, so he replied “just the forklift, then”. It was a joke but he did later send me down a pot-holed dirt road piloting the forklift with what must have been thousands of dollars worth of bottled cider loaded on the front.
As a cider maker, he was exacting. I would rank his palate and sensory skills (ability to taste and analyse flavours) as among the best I’ve ever seen. I was fortunate enough to help develop a blend with him for one of Peckham’s limited releases: The Bee Knees Vintage Cider with Honey.
We lined up glass after glass with iterative blends. Alex would go down the line, smelling, tasting and then suddenly say something like “too much honey, it needs more Yarlington Mill” or “let’s try adding a bit of this”. He’d stride over to a barrel and extract a splash of cider and drop it into the glass. As a process it was inspiring to watch.
Making cider like painting
He once explained to me his philosophy as a cider maker: it was like painting. Every apple variety, every ferment, every barrel, were like colours on a painter’s palette. His job then, was to bring them together to create something unique and beautiful.
This was coupled with an inability to compromise on his vision of what he wanted his cider to be. During my trips to the cidery, Alex would pass me samples and say “I’m not happy with this, I’m thinking of tipping it out.” Without fail it would be at least to my taste, excellent.
This skill and dedication resulted in the bevy of medals and trophies. Yet despite his amazing talent and winning record Alex was also incredibly humble. The last year he entered ciders in the awards was 2019. That year Peckham’s won Champion Cider, plus five trophies out of eight categories.
After the awards Alex confessed that he’d found the whole experience mortifying. He told me that while the awards were announced, he’d been drowning them out by playing music through his bluetooth hearing aids. What kind of music? Viking Metal.
A surprising guy
His taste in music was a surprise, but Alex was a surprising guy. He was a very quiet, softly spoken and almost shy Englishman, yet he liked to argue politics like a German. I say that because my partner is German he would debate with us for hours. Yet even though we disagreed on things strongly and frequently, he had such an openness and warmth that I felt our views were always listened to and respected.
Which brings me to what I would say was Alex’s defining characteristic: His generosity. He was generous with his cider. After helping them pack down the Peckham’s stand at Beervana, he tried to convince me to take home a 20-litre bladder of spiced cider. Getting it home would have been an issue and I genuinely don’t know how I would have managed to drink it all. He was also generous with his knowledge. Alex could be relied on to answer all the cider making questions, and I personally owe a lot of my knowledge to him. But most of all, he was generous with his passion.
In between Covid outbreaks last year we organised a tasting at my bar with both Alex and Caroline. It was the sort of formal, sit down, guided tasting that we used to do all the time 10 years ago. Gathered around the table, he took guests through eight different ciders. It was probably too many and we all got a bit toasty, but that’s how he rolled.
“Is this too technical? Stop me if I’m boring you.” he’d say. He never was though, we were rapt. The passion for cider was flowing out of him and clearly he loved sharing that passion with others. Ultimately this is one of the defining images I have left of Alex: sitting with friends, glass in hand, sharing the beautiful product of his hard work.
There are other images I have of Alex in my mind: striding past row after row of apple trees, pointing to them in turn: Dabinett, Harry Master Jersey, Browns, Foxwhelp, Porter’s Perfection. Or rolling along the bumpy orchard roads on a tractor, Benji the border terrier perched on his lap. These are the memories I hold close now that he is gone.
I have a lot of faith that Peckham’s Cider will go forward without Alex. After all, the orchard will still bloom in spring. The fruit will ripen in the summer sun, and the yeast will do their work turning excellent apple juice into fabulous cider. This is his legacy, his gift to those who love fine cider. Again, my thoughts go to his family. Their pain at his passing is incalculable. To all of us I say raise a glass, share a toast: To Alex Peckham.