Matt Curtis argues it’s time for the pear to step out from the shadow of the apple
Thursday 03 September 2020
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On my desk is a bottle of the appropriately named Writer’s Perry. Produced by cider and perry maker Tom Oliver with journalist Dan Saladino, this 2018 vintage perry sits at a healthy 7.3% ABV and slinks elegantly into my glass, pouring the colour of golden straw as it catches the last of the evening sun.
From my first sip it rasps at my palate with sharp notes of lemon zest and green apple, the acidity forming my mouth into a duck-bill pucker. A second sip reveals more detail: lime juice, gooseberry, leathery tannin, and is somehow softer than before. On my third sip I am smitten. It’s as deep and complex as a Cantillon gueuze, but also somehow drinks as easily as a freshly poured glass of helles. The label tells me that it’s made with whole pressed Thorn, Blakeney Red, Coppy, and Winnall’s Longdon perry pear varieties, and has been fermented in former whisky barrels entirely with wild yeasts.
Cider is seeing an incredible resurgence at the moment. But while the apple is stealing much of the limelight, behind it the pear – perhaps one of the most culturally significant and intrinsically British fruits – is getting far less attention. This might be because, historically, perry hasn’t had great PR. Its association with beverages such as Babycham and Lambrini perhaps unfairly colouring peoples opinion of the pear’s potential. And potential is the word, because judging by the depth and breadth of perries I have been fortunate enough to taste, we are at the tip of the iceberg in terms of how much deliciousness is out there, waiting to be experienced.
“The most important reason to be excited about drinking perry is that it tastes very, very, very good,” says Albert Ross, who together with his father Mike runs Ross on Wye Cider and Perry. “It has a totally unique flavour profile and the experience of exploring and drinking good perry is rewarding, satisfying and enjoyable.”
Albert, who in 2019 picked up the prestigious BBC Food and Farming best drinks producer award for his expressive and characterful ciders and perries, shares an equally great passion for producing drinks with pears as he does with apples. “It is a privilege to make perry,” he says, as he tells me how remarkably old perry varieties can be, with some dating back to the 1700s. Some of these are still in use today and many of the trees that produce this fruit have survived several human lifetimes, something Albert believes provides us with an “intense and truthful connection to the past.”
He also tells me that perry is a difficult beverage to produce. One that presents numerous different challenges and what Albert describes as “wildcard moments” that require just a little bit of luck on top of great skill. How is the wild yeast going to behave? How porous is that barrel it’s maturing in? How good was the harvest this year? When these elements align, the results can be astonishing.
Harvesting, fermenting, blending and packaging perry is all more perilous than with cider
“Harvesting, fermenting, blending and packaging perry is all more perilous than with cider,” Albert says. “So when a really good perry is in your glass you should be doubly grateful.”
One of the main challenges for me when it came to discovering more perry is that it shares its stable with cider. And there are so many exciting ciders out there right now! Producers like Tom Oliver, Ross on Wye, Little Pomona, Wilding, and Find and Foster, to name just a handful, are pushing the envelope, making it easy to see why it’s having such a moment. And these producers are still saying that they need more people to become cider or perry makers. It’s such a tiny market, and a long way off having something comparable to our 2500 breweries. In its present shape, it’s simply not able to make the same impact on the drinks market as craft beer has over the past couple of decades.
For drinks writer Adam Wells, the reasons for getting excited about perry are exactly the same as those that might already be causing you to get excited about cider. “Perry’s almost always tagged on as a sort of cider sidekick,” he tells me. “It just needs to be really shouted about as something diverse and worth exploring.”
Wells explains to me how diverse the perry world is, with over 100 varieties of perry pear (which can be different to eating pears, often being smaller, juicier and generally far less sweet). Like Albert he also enthusiastically tells me about the old trees, referencing the mother tree at Gregg’s Pit Cider and Perry in Herefordshire, which predates the French Revolution of 1789. “There’s virtually no [grape]vine in Europe that can say the same thing,” he says.
It was fascinating to learn from Adam just how difficult it is to make perry: the trees are tough to harvest due to their size and fruit coming into ripeness at different times, the skins can clog up presses leading to lengthy, backbreaking days and nights of labour during harvest. Perries are also highly susceptible to faults, such as presenting vinegary acetic acid or the dreaded “mouse”—a flavour caused by a chemical which can develop during fermentation known as tetrahydropyridine (THP) that smells like mouse droppings and tastes like stale breakfast cereal.
Then there’s the association most people make with the sweet, mass produced “pear ciders” that dominate the market, and are a million miles away from the complex drink he espouses. In fact perry has more in common with wine than what you might find labelled as pear cider on a supermarket shelf. He even admits that there’s a lot of faulty stuff out there, which is an obstacle to getting people into perry, but the good stuff makes all the time and effort more than worthwhile.
It has more in common with wine than what you might find labelled as pear cider on a supermarket shelf
“Whenever I lead cider tours, or share ciders with friends, if I open a really decent perry, that tends to take the majority vote at the end,” Adam tells me. “It’s wonderful stuff. And I suppose I’m extra-intrigued by it because of how overlooked it is relative to that phenomenal and clearly crowd-pleasing quality.”
As someone whose love for cider only really came into bloom over the past two or three years, my perry moment came when my friends and cidermakers Colleen O’Sullivan and James Mann shared a couple of, frankly, incredible perries with me on a visit to their flat/cidery in Furzedown, South London. Colleen and James produce cider under the name DuckChicken, and while they don’t make perry (yet) they are quick to share its virtues with anyone willing to listen, and will always excitedly thrust a glass of something delicious into your hands.
“I would like to see more single-variety, fully fermented perries out there,” Colleen tells me, “For beer or wine drinkers, we often associate with particular hop or grape varieties that we like. With the perries being fully dry, single variety you can really get a sense of what each pear can bring to the table.”
As well as being a cidermaker, Colleen’s day job is as a tree surgeon, so it’s not surprising when – just as with Albert and Adam – she cites the immense importance and history of perry pear trees within the UK. “Perries are just exquisite,” she says, speaking of the trees this time, and not their fruit.
My takeaway is that perry is an immensely complex and exciting beverage. One that comes in many different flavours: bitter, sweet, acidic, tannic, juicy, funky, and many a blend of all these elements and more. It’s another string to the bow of the incredible fermented products already being produced in the UK at breweries and cideries, and 100% worth investing your time in discovering.
But what should we call its producers? Perry is not cider, but there is no similar term such as perrymaker or even, err... perriey (in fact, how would we even spell that!?). With education being so important I asked everyone how they think we best describe a perry producer.
“An orchard... A perry farm... Perreries!” says Albert, who as a maker of both cider and perry would like to be thought of as a farm first and foremost. Adam echoes Albert's thoughts, suggesting “perry farm.” Colleen, however, suggests something perhaps altogether more progressive…
“How about fermentery,” she says. “A lot of makers who produce perries also make cider, so we can cover both bases with one term.”
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