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Three perries from Kertelreiter

Should you ever find yourself in need of an oasis of calm within the hellscape that twitter can so often turn into, let me commend following Barry Masterson.

For the last year or two, what seems like 90% of Barry’s content has been taking his border collie, Anu, for a walk to look at mind-bogglingly enormous pear trees. Indeed in the last month or so the trees have become even more spectacular, as Barry has started taking a drone with him.

Barry is the maker behind Germany’s Kertelreiter, and we have met and loved his ciders in these digital corridors once or twice before. But in 2019 Barry’s local apple harvest was decimated, and so he turned to the enormous pear trees studding the landscape nearby and predominantly made perry instead. Inspired by both the drink and the spectacular ancient trees, perry seems to increasingly Barry’s focus, not least because the harvest pattern of 2019 repeated itself last year. In addition to making perry from the trees already available, Barry has been grafting his own perry pear orchard of international varieties and diving into any amount of historical British and European perry-related literature.

A little while ago, whilst researching for another project which has not yet borne fruit, I reached out to Barry with some questions about his perry-centric escapades, which he was kind enough to answer in considerable detail. And since we are shining something of an international spotlight this month, I thought it was about time our conversation saw the light of publication. So here, lightly edited for clarity, it is.

CR: Can you tell me a bit about your Kertelreiter brand generally? A potted history I guess!

Barry: It was only when we decided to start selling in 2019 that the question of a name came up. I’d been bottling cider and beer for our own use under the name Phoenix, and had considered sticking what that. But something more local seemed more appropriate.

The Kertel is a stream that flows past our property, joining the river Schefflenz just a hundred metres or so downstream. The Kertelreiter are mythical creatures that could be seen in storm waters coming down the Kertel, or who would come to take away children who had been misbehaving. Almost every village has some variant of these myths. Very few know of the real Kertelreiter now, and there was only one written description of them. But as we live on the Kertel, and we, along with the other family and friends who live on our street (there are only two houses on our street) called ourselves the Kertelreiter, it was suggested that Kertelreiter Cider would be a good name. And I think it is!

On the formal side, I’d started making cider in 2012. At the end of 2018 we’d bought our third orchard plot so, as it seemed we’d have a huge surplus of cider and schnapps, we started exploring what we’d have to do to start selling. After some heavy research into the German taxation system, we were able to register as a small farm and sell cider as a self-produced agricultural product. First sales were to the “Besenwirtschaft” (technically it’s not a real Besen, but that’s what everyone calls it) up the hill on draft, but by the end of 2019, he wanted bottles only. This paved the way to selling beyond the village, and thanks to Corona, in early 2020 we began direct sales online. Quite a basic sales process for now, but it seems to be working.

We didn’t start this as a brand to break into a growing market trend. The trees and cider came first. We don’t have investors or a big budget, but we do have lots of space, and a willingness to grow sustainably, if our ciders are received well and people are willing to buy them. So really, every bottle sold helps us along that way.

I had planned to make 2000 litres in 2019, but as the harvest was so bad, we did only about 1000. (update: 2020 was even worse, but we managed 1500, with a third being perry). If the orchard has a good year, we’d manage 5000 easily. But again, we need to grow into that, as we cannot afford to invest large amounts up front. Converting one of the former cow stalls/cellar under the house into a tiny cidery was the first step. If we can cover costs, we’ll covert the other one, or better still, convert part of the barn into a dedicated cidery, with long term plans for a small tasting room, and maybe the occasional Besen.

The trees still play an important part of what we do, and locally we try to promote use of those fruit trees in the surrounding countryside by setting up a Streuobstbörse, a kind of orchard exchange to link people with unused trees to offer to those seeking fruit, but without the means to have their own trees or orchards. And as you can tell from my Twitter feed, I’m totally enamoured with perry pear trees. I would very much like to set up an orchard with just rare or endangered perry pear trees (local and English), so we are looking for suitable land right now.

CR: Can you walk me through the perries you’ve made – where the trees are, what the varieties are, how you’ve made the perries in terms of yeast/fermentation and maturation vessel/styles etc.

Barry: If looking only at perry, I guess I made my first in 2017, but using Conference pears, which were the only ones we had any amount of in our own orchard. I ended up distilling it.

In 2019 the apple harvest was rather poor, meaning we had excess fermenter capacity, so my eyes turned to the many perry pear trees dotted across the surrounding countryside. The vast majority are between 80 to 120 years old, with some outliers reaching maybe 180-200 years (roughly estimated from the girth of the trunks), and they are trees I’ve been fascinated by for the past few years.

I was fortunate to know some of the farmers on whose land some trees stood, so I arranged to take on Patenschaft (a kind of sponsorship) of several large old trees, whereby I would have the harvest rights in exchange for caring for them. So we ended up having custody of ten or so mature trees within a couple of kilometres of our home. In 2020, the harvest was even worse due to late frosts killing at least 90% of our apples, so we got rights to I think 25 or more large perry pear trees. A hell of a lot more work, but worth it, I hope.

I have yet to identify them all, however I’ve been able to identify Oberösterreicher Weinbirne, Schweizer Wasserbirne, Kirchensaller Mostbirne (very heavy tannins and generally recommended for distilling), Luxemburger Mostbirne, Gelbmöstler, Bayerische Weinbirne, possibly Sülibirne, and a couple more really interesting trees.

In terms of the 2019 perries, No Remorse is 100% perry pears, with a blend of 60% Oberöstereicher Weinbirne, plus Kirchensaller, Luxenburger Mostbirne and an unknown. It’s very heavy on the tannins, and I’ve kept a portion of it to blend with ciders, though I think it’s a fun perry in its own right. It was fermented using the popular champagne yeast, EC 1118, though I don’t think I like the character of this yeast, and probably won’t use it again.

Pale Rider is an in-press blend of 40% Conference dessert pears and 60% perry pears. Again, the majority being Oberösterreicher Weinbirne. This was also fermented using EC 1118. The amount of Conference has resulted in an incredibly hazy perry compared to the others. Even while pressing this was a notable feature, but I was surprised it didn’t clear at all!

Levitation is an in-press blend with 20% Conference and 80% perry pears, most of which was Oberöstereicher Weinbirne. This was fermented using S6U wine yeast. This was a bit of a surprise, as it formed what looked like a chapeau brun during fermentation, and the perry underneath was crystal clear. The final gravity is 1.006, but still dry, I would say, given most of that is probably sorbitol.

All three were fermented in plastic Speidel fermenters, and all three were left for seven months, resting on the lees, before being racked to stainless steel kegs prior to bottling.

Suffice to say, in the 2019 season I was experimenting, and tried to let them all do their thing with minimal interference. In 2020 I tightened ideas up, somewhat. We got access to more mature trees and made several single variety perries, including Schweizer Wasserbirne, Gelbmöstler, Bayrische Weinbirne and an unknown variety from a magnificent nearby tree, as well as trying to recreate the Levitation. And as I like to experiment, I did a recreation of an 1806 recipe for a spiced pear wine, a few blends of pears, and a 1:1:1 mix of an apple, pear and quince (one variety each). Pomme cubed, perhaps. And taking things a little beyond the regular ferments, I have some Oberösterreicher Weinbirne pear juice and smoked malt and want to make a smoked pear Graf for personal consumption, but let’s see if I get around to it!

CR: What would you say are the key differences in your perries compared to those we might be used to in Britain?

There may be historical differences in processes but, just like with cider, the main difference will of course be the varieties used. With cider, this makes a huge difference, as Bittersweets are practically unheard of here when it comes to making Apfelwein, so varieties used here tend to be more acid-forward. However, we can at least say that there are basic similarities between German varieties typically used for Birnenwein and English varieties used to make perry. In general, tannins are usually high in Mostbirne, such that they are inedible, so in Germany as in England, the general rule of thumb seems to have been the more inedible they are (like, even the pigs won’t eat them), the better wine/perry they will make. We also know that there seems to have been some exchange of varieties in the 17th century between the German-speaking regions and England, during the formative years of perry production there.

So I think there are close similarities, as the basic qualities of the pears used are similar, but as you know, there’s a huge breadth of varieties and what they can bring to a perry, so there’ll also be huge overlap in traditions.

CR: What can you tell me about the tradition of making perry in Germany? Where are the trees? And are they wild, or planted in orchards?

Barry: There is a lot of old literature about apples and pears in Germany, but comparatively little to be found on the history of ciders and perries (Apfelwein, Birnenwein). What does exist discusses processes for Apfelwein, and I have not seen much mention of Birnenwein, other than the process being similar, and texts outlining which types are best for perry. One farming handbook from 1806, for example, mentions that apples are preferred for making ciders (and they interchanged between calling them Apfelwein and Cyder), while saying pear wine doesn’t keep well, with some exceptions. But nothing yet on quantities being produced.

However, pears were used for so much more than for making wine/perry, and were clearly an important part of farm life at the beginning of the 19th Century, and presumably long before that. Though relatively speaking, today at least, pure pear wine is not very common at all here. Apfelwein/Cider seems to be gaining in popularity outside the traditional stronghold of Hesse but even there, pears play second fiddle to apples.

I recently read an 1844 description that classed German perry pears into three sorts: Mostbirne, Weinbirne and Bratbirne, with Bratbirne being the highest class suitable for creating very fine Birnenwein. One example would be the Champagner Bratbirne (I planted a few last year) which, as the name suggests, was used to produce a Birnenwein comparable in quality to the best Champagnes. There is at least one maker, as you already know, Jörg Geiger, still using this for SV wines.

So I think perry making was probably a lot more common historically, with varieties with Weinbirne and Bratbirne in the name being a safe indicator that certain varieties were valued for the quality of wine they produced. That plus the fact the there are so many large old trees that remain from what was once a rich tapestry of fruit trees lining tracks, roads and fields. In the 1950s, in this region at least, there were great changes in the landscape (due to the Flurbereinigung, a kind of rationalisation of the older land divisions), and many rows were ripped out. In addition, as apple trees don’t live as long as the pear trees and as they were never replaced, it has left solitary pear trees dotted all over our landscape.

In our region, and most especially further south, the Streuobstwise was the traditional setting in which to grow big standard apple and pear trees, and this way is still treasured as producing the best apples and pears for cider and Apfelwein, as well as having huge significance in the cultural landscape. Basically, meadows with large standard trees at wide spacing, so cattle could graze between them or hay be made, early agroforestry, if you will. This form of growing is especially important to the pomologist society, and there is a big focus on growing old varieties as large, standard trees on seedling rootstock, but it is also beloved of nature conservation societies, as important biotopes for insects and animals, not to mention the diversity of apple and pear varieties.

I would guess that for the more traditional Apfelwein producers, more intensive orchards are the usual way, and certainly in Hesse, where historically the production of Apfelwein was already quite industrialised by the end of the 19th Century, compared to other old apple-growing and Apfelwein-producing regions like Württemberg, so that growing methods by the late 19th Century had already turned to mass production.

I think it’s worth noting that in the 17th Century there was some comparison of perry and pears between Britain and the continent, and hints that German-speaking countries had been at this for quite some time already. Letters from the British Ambassador to the Swiss Cantons to his contemporaries in Britain talk about Swiss perry and pears, the processes, and how some English approaches may also benefit the Swiss. And some of this is then hinted at in Evelyn’s Pomona from 1664.

I’ve written a piece for Graftwood volume 5 that goes more into details on some of these historical aspects, if anyone is interested in pears in Germany.

CR: Can you tell me a bit about your particular area of Germany and why it’s good for orchards/cider and perrymaking?

Barry: Historically, there were two main regions famous for growing apples and making Apfelwein. Hesse, that most people know about, and Württemberg, which merged with the state of Baden in 1952 to create Baden-Württemberg. We live in what was north Baden, just north of the area of Württemberg that was most associated with apple growing. Indeed, that is the region in Germany that is probably most strongly associated with Streuobstwiesen. Württemberg, Baden, Hesse.

Having said that, this entire region, and indeed southern Germany as a whole, has a long history of cider making. While today, Frankfurt is most associated with Apfelwein, we know that practically every farm and homestead in this region made their own Most/Apfelwein/cider. Even within living memory. We are in a rural area, and the old farmers, and even their sons just a little older than myself, remarked on what I was doing, and reminisced about how they made Most every year, and that was what they drank. Beer was too expensive and was “for Sunday”, so Most was the staple alcoholic drink around here.

I feel it’s a shame that these traditions seem to have fallen by the wayside, and I’m happy to say that since I started 8 years ago, four others have started, using my presses and a bit of guidance. One to the extent that he has stopped drinking beer! He grew up on Most, and seeing us in our Hof pressing brought him back to it 🙂

CR: This is a pretentious way of putting it, but … do you have a particular philosophy when it comes to making perry (and cider)?

Barry: Oof…

We fell into this almost by chance. I’d been brewing beer since 2006, and simply wanted to try making cider. But when we bought our first orchard plot, it turned into something more than just making a drink. Caring for the trees, preserving pieces of a cultural landscape that was being eaten away, learning about varieties and their history, buying and restoring old apple mills and presses… it all took over. By the time we bought our second, and then third plot (each purchase doubling the size of our orchard), we’d basically turned into farmers. And as of 2019, officially so!

So for me, a guiding principle is the trees. Trying to rejuvenate a 60 year old orchard, while also planting new trees, both classic French and English cider apples, endangered or local German varieties, and exploring the surrounding fields to rediscover and put abandoned fruit trees to use. This also led us to join the German Pomologist Association.

When it comes to the cider, it’s just something we do. But what we do, I want to do as well as we can. Hygiene is top of my list, something I learned as a homebrewer, and keeping oxygen away as much as I possibly can. I experiment with yeasts, and am increasingly smitten with our local wild yeasts, but I’m always looking for an edge to get the most out of what we have.

Apfelwein outside Hesse is often seen as old fashioned in some way, and it irritates me to read some newer brands denigrating the style made here, adding concentrate to turn Apfelwein into “cider” and such.

I’m happy to be using the kinds of apples that have been used for centuries here and to try and make an honest, natural representation of a regional style that has always been made here. Perhaps with some tweaks to get the most out of them and satisfy my desire to experiment, and delving into historical sources to rediscover and recreate historical recipes. But, unlike with brewing, it is such a long term process the risks are high.

I’m not sure if any of that counts as a philosophy. An addiction, perhaps.

CR: Finally, what sort of place is cider and perry in generally in Germany?

Barry: I really get the sense that cider is growing as a sector here in Germany. You see a lot of contract brands popping up, some craft breweries dabbling in cider, and of course big companies like Bitburger releasing cider brands (though I use that term loosely). But also quite a few small orchard-based makers starting up or on the horizon, which is really encouraging. And it’s on that side, the smaller makers that I am keeping my eye on when it comes to perry, as that’s definitely being mentioned more in our small corner of the orchard. So here’s to more perry, and more perry pear tree planting!

Hear hear! And hearty thanks to Barry for taking the time to answer my questions in such detail. At which point we should probably taste a few, don’t you think? Barry already detailed Pale Rider, No Remorse and Levitation (all 2019) in the questions above, so if you need any further extrapolation you’ve obviously not been paying enough attention And Therefore Don’t Deserve Any.

They cost me about £4 a bottle back in the days of easy shipping from Germany to England, and all bottles are 330ml.

Kertelreiter Pale Rider 2019 – review

How I served: Chilled

Colour: Opaque lemon milkshake

On the nose: Light and fresh. More delicate than you expect something of this hue to be somehow! Pear skins and green leafiness. Maybe a little soft apple and stone fruit but I’m straining.

In the mouth: More here. Nice and plump and fruity. More of that pear flesh and lightly earthy skin. Pretty much dry. A brush of tannin and just a lemony flicker of acidity keeping this lively. Really tasty, if not super complicated. Surprising intensity of flavour after that quite reticent nose. Could drink a good bit sitting on the grass in the sun.

In a nutshell: Very nice. Big intensity step-up from nose to palate. Round, fruity, fresh.

Kertelreiter No Remorse 2019 – review

How I served: “Cellar temperature” (Half hour in fridge)

Colour: Fresh-pressed, hazy pear juice

On the nose: Label says “dry”, but this nose is so ripe and juicy that it has that perception of jellied sweetness. Peach jellybeans, poached pears and a reddish blush of raspberry. Again not the biggest nose (though bigger than Pale Rider’s) but lovely and fresh.

In the mouth: Perry is such a wild drink. I’m reminded of the Oliver’s Red Pear I tasted from the Barrel Room series last year. Imagine you’re tasting a Provence rosé – all rounded, delicate red berries, light citrus and tangerine and then you’re suddenly gripped in the jaws of a bear-trap of gnashing tannin. That’s this drink. So fresh, so clean, so delicious – and you get due warning about the tannin on the label! This is a perry you sip with respect – and I’m here for it.

In a nutshell: Wonderful, fruity perry with a crowbar of tannin hidden behind its back.

Kertelreiter Levitation 2019 – review

How I served: Lightly chilled

Colour: Clear light rose gold

On the nose: This nose, to me, is a cross between Flakey Bark and Thorn. It certainly has the broad stone fruit, peach pit and slateyness of the former (even a light touch of meatiness?) but there’s an energised freshness here too that reminds me of the latter. A zingy not-quite-citrus, not-quite-elderflower that lifts the bigger, broader aromas. Really good nose. Great blending. Jumps from the glass too with fruity brightness.

In the mouth: Follows through note for note here – intensity and freshness don’t miss a beat and the flavours match the aromatics pretty much exactly. There’s a lovely, fresh, citrusy zing of acidity behind the full-bodied, dry fruit and some firm, grippy tannins. A spritz of fizz, but nothing intrusive. Structural, needle-bright and packed with flavour. For drinking with something like a ploughman’s platter, a pork pie or perhaps a Massive Sausage Roll as part of the best picnic ever.

In a nutshell: Ridiculously Good Perry™.

Conclusions

Kertelreiter remains in my top three cider and perry brands I want to see imported to the UK. If these three represent the quality of Barry’s first perry vintage, the 2020s are likely to be showstopping. Our German readers should hoover up any they come across.

Levitation is my favourite, but I’m very glad I bought multiples of all three. What a marvellous drink dry perry is, in the hands of a producer like Kertelreiter.

Thanks again to Barry for talking to me in such detail and providing the gorgeous pictures of his local pear trees.

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In addition to Cider Review I co-edit Graftwood Magazine and contribute to other drinks sites and magazines including Full Juice, Distilled and Burum Collective. I share my home with several hundred bottles, one geophysicist and a small fluffy whirlwind called Nutmeg. CiderReviewAdam on Twitter and Instagram.

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