Features, Reviews
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Talking perry with Tom Oliver

Perry is so often treated as the Robin to cider’s Batman. The mash to cider’s pie. The Somerset to cider’s Herefordsh… [Don’t even go there – Ed]. You get the picture. It’s sort of just tacked on, like an overlooked sibling. An addendum included from a vague sense of probably-ought-to. The one extra chapter in a cider book; the one extra bottle in a maker’s extensive cider range.

We’re just as guilty of it here at Cider Review. James, who famously hates perry*, hasn’t covered a single one. Chris has only written about one, though it must be admitted that he wrote about it pretty emphatically. I’ve done a fair few pieces now, though not nearly as much as I’d like, or as perry deserves, and far too often just because I’ve remembered that I’ve not written about it in ages and feel I need to make guilty amends.

Compared to our coverage of cider, we’ve not really scratched the surface. We’ve barely touched on varieties, we’ve not discussed making terribly much and we’ve only done one perry-centric interview, which was over a year ago with Paul Ross. (In fairness, if you’re only going to interview one perrymaker, he’d be up there).

So to balance our books a bit, I thought we’d focus on perry this month, and I hope you’ll join us for the ride. (James flew into a rage at this decision and punched a pear tree to the ground**.) Because perry, though made by many of the same people as cider, is a wholly separate drink with its own history, challenges, varieties and flavours. It deserves more appreciation than it gets, and contains so much for lovers of cider, of wine, of any interesting drink to revel in.

So to kick off, I thought we’d go with a deep dive. A year ago, harbouring notions of a book about perry (which I’d still like to write, if any publishers happen to be reading …) I got in touch with Tom Oliver, who would make virtually anyone’s list of “top three perry makers in the UK” to grill him on all things varieties, growing and making. What followed was an epic interview – a real perry 101 which threw into sharp relief just how capricious and frustrating perry can be for those who bring it to life, and how diverse, mesmerising, unique and delicious it can be once they have.

I’m hugely grateful to Tom for his time and generosity in speaking to me in such depth, and for his permission to reproduce it here in full, lightly edited for clarity. Pop the kettle on and settle in for an epic.

CR: Firstly, five varieties you like. Qualities they bring to the table flavour-wise. Any standout characteristics from a growing/harvesting/cidermaking perspective?

Tom: My desert island pear is Oldfield. I just think it’s a wonderful single varietal perry and it has bags of character and it also is very good whether you want to drink it still, draught or bottle conditioned or bottle ferment. It really is a real proper all-rounder but it’s not just an everyday all-rounder. It’s got all the character you want; it’s got some acidity, it’s got the fruit, it’s got a really good aromatic quality to it and that persists through to the finished perry as well. It just really is a goodie! There’s always a potential downside … in the making there’s not a lot of downsides to it; it’s fairly well behaved if you just do the standard things that you need to do. And the pluses on top of that are it is a pear that can take harvesting by hand or by machine; it’s round, it’s robust. It’s small, but relatively small trees too; Oldfield trees tend to suffer from dieback – they never get too back to the fruit is usually gettable, accessible, and it’s a late season one. So when you’re wanting cooler weather to do say keeving or when you want the ferments to be slow, Oldfield’s one of the last ones we harvest actually. So that’s Oldfield.

I think like Mike and Albert [Johnson] I’m a big fan of Gin. I love the subtlety of it. I like the way it works really well on its own or blends really well. And it brings character to everything that it goes in with. It brings some nice acidity in the sense that I don’t think you ever need too much acidity with perry, but acidity is good. I love the sort of translucence of it – it’s wonderfully clear – and its nuances. It’s a great pear. And, once again, it’s round – relatively – it hangs in great bunches, it’s a relatively easy one to harvest and it can be harvested by hand or by machine with no detriment at all. So that’s another good one.

Blakeney Red. Just because it’s just – I love the idea that something was historically lambasted as being “only fit for women” and whatever, all the sort of things you can’t say nowadays! But it can be so helpful, so compliant, so gentle but with really good character, big fruit. It tries to give you a crop every year, they tend to grow pretty well in Herefordshire. They’re good. The bugger with them is fire blight; they are too prone to fire blight for my liking. But, you know, not everything is perfect. Just generally it’s got quite a decent amount of sorbitol so when you’re trying to make what I call enticing, introductory, accessible perries Blakeney’s a really lovely tool to have at your disposal. Of course it does have a sort of slightly hyped-up diarrhoetic effect; it’s going hand in hand with the sorbitol, but I’m not making drinks you’re going to be drinking 15 pints of and probably if you can do that you’re immune to the effects of sorbitol anyway!

So those three … I’m always happy to see those three varieties in good nick every year. Good single varietals, but good blenders too.

CR: Harvesting. What are the challenges/differences with pears compared to apples?

Tom: Ok. As with all these things when I go through these things I’m not sure I remember everything all the time, and we may go back to things!

Ok, so. Where do we start? Let’s start with pears on the trees. Now historically a lot of perry pear trees were planted in what I would call really inaccessible places. Slopes, spare bits of ground, and it was used to fill the space that really nothing else was appropriate for. So sometimes just the location of some of the great old trees is bloody ridiculous. Access is often a problem – it’s great when they’re in relatively recently planted orchards with rows and flat areas either side of the trees but for a lot of the really good old trees that’s not the case.

So there’s the physical attributes of the land where they’re planted; there’s the access situation and then when you get to the actual pears themselves – obviously newer dwarfing trees are excluded from this really, because you can get to them, you can shake them by hand or by machine should we wish to, that’s not a problem – but a lot of the big trees, the old trees they’re too big to do anything with, so you’re letting nature take its course and when the right information, the right auxin level reaches the tip, it tells the stalk to abscise away and it’ll fall off the tree. That’s what you’re relying on and that is great for varieties that do that, but you’ll find there are an awful lot of really good perry varieties that will not fall off the tree. Winnals Longdon, Yellow Huffcap, Moorcroft; most of them will, at best, drop half their fruit. Which leaves the other half tantalisingly high, which you’ve got to try and shake off. And certainly with Moorcroft, Winnals Longdon too – they’re quite soft inside. Winnals starts bletting inside, or it’s not rotting, it’s bletting and fermenting and turning brown and the sugars are fermenting. And when that hits a branch or the floor it splits open the fruit. So you would say to yourself “well why the heck is something that does that – why’s it lasted as a variety?” And I think it just has such lovely qualities, as far as some people are concerned, in terms of the drink it’ll make that they are prepared to persist with the problems of harvesting it.

So Moorcroft, Winnals Longdon, Yellow Huffcap – and Yellow Huffcap is another one that rots from the inside out. You know – you can’t get them off the tree, and when you finally do it’s gone! It’s extraordinary, and yet this variety has a reputation, especially for bottle-fermented, that is second to none. And so when I first started I tried tracking trees down and I found two fabulous trees in Gloucestershire. And every year I’d take two guys and we’d go over – an hour journey there, an hour getting into the orchard, and then we’d spend an hour trying to get the fruit off and then another hour cursing! And then we’d load up and we’d find we’d got like three bags and a whole day had gone, pretty much. It was really frustrating and so now I just don’t go there any more. I mean I berate myself sometimes but there comes a point when it doesn’t matter how good the perry is, I can’t afford to spend money on it. You know it would ideally suit a hobby person who didn’t need to make money off it but would be happy to have made 20 bottles from it.

So you know, some of these great varieties have these integral problems. Which makes it fascinating. So the inability to part ways with the tree, the bletting – or the rotting from the inside out – is two of the major problems. The third major problem is the shapes of these fruit, which makes them very tough to machine pick, even using a little hedgehog picker or a Tuthill Temperley – you know, a pedestrian picker which is pretty gentle on things – sometimes because they’re soft they just break up on the belt, and that cakes everything and you’ve got just a horrible wasp-attracting mushy nothing. So a lot of them have to be hand-picked. And then what happens in a lot of the more intensive setups, they end up hand-picking before they’re really ripe to avoid any of these rotting issues, and consequently you are working sometimes with slightly unripe fruit. And I tend to find that pears … apples will do great off the tree, in tumps or whatever, to carry on ripening – but pears, they’re sort of ok and then they’re gone. It’s really tough having them set to one side. So we do it, because we can’t always get to everything in time, but it’s tough. You really are better off pressing them as soon as you pick them if you possibly can. So those are the three things in terms of the fruit and the trees and their situation that start to indicate how tough it’s going to be.

CR: Can you give a few examples of early and later season pears?

Tom: There’s lots of varieties and there’s lots I’ve never worked with, but of the ones I’ve worked with early on are things like Thorn and Moorcroft. They’re the two that for me come in early. Then you’ve got the early Blakeneys. Actually, in terms of picking, some varieties you can pick in one go, but most benefit from picking in two lots. But Blakeney ideally I like to pick through October a week at a time. So four picks, four weeks of October. And then you’re getting them just when they’re ripe and when they fall. And they will fall, but it’s over a four-week period usually. But because they’re good crops normally it’s worth it. But, you know, I wouldn’t be doing that with things like … Gin you can pretty much get all in one go, when they’re ripe, they’re ripe. And they hold up pretty well on the floor. So you can do it in one go. Moorcroft you probably won’t get all in one go, because they won’t all come off the tree. So you’ll have one go and get the ones that have fallen – the easy ones – and then go back and shake and prod a week or so later. So yeah.

Then from Blakeney, let me go to the end. Because as I said Oldfield is at the very end for me, then coming back in from there I quite like Gin if it can be late, Butt if it can be late and then the rest of them are sort of over the month of October. So the vast majority of pears, for me, are picked in October. You’ve got Thorn, Moorcroft etc in September, Oldfield, Butt and Gin end of October-beginning of November and the rest are in October.

CR: In wine early varieties might (very roughly) tend to be higher-acid and the laters might tend to have higher tannin. Is that the same sort of situation?

Tom: No. That’s more a characteristic identifiable with each variety. What is fairly common is that the early pears are very, very delicate and they need pressing the day you pick them. That’s the common factor in early-mid season ones; they are very delicate, they’re soft, they don’t stand much hanging around. You know, if you’re picking them ripe you’ve got to get them pressed. Whereas once you get to the colder 2nd half of October onwards you can maybe keep them for a week or two without too much of a detrimental effect.

CR: And when it comes to milling and pressing – what are the challenges? Things of note. Any particular problem-child varieties?

Tom: Carrying on from the early ones that are very soft, you can’t really do much to them in terms of bouncing them around and cleaning them and everything. We tend to like to put them straight into the mill to be mashed up. So washed, mashed and then, if you are macerating – laying out in as shallow vessels as you can to allow the tannins to … what’ll happen eventually and show itself in the bottle as not coming back as a cloudy snow-scene – maceration will allow the tannins to drop out and then I think basically what’s happening is the long-chain molecules are becoming short-chain and dropping out. I think my chemistry’s right – it may not be! But what it does enable you to do then is just successfully carry on with the rest of the process in terms of fermentation and bottling and not have too much tannin in the finished perry. That’s not just a taste thing – it’s the physical look of the drink, because these tannins will defy filtration. You can sterile filter it down to a very low diameter filter or whatever you’re going to use and it looks brilliant in the bottle. And then one month later, sure enough, these tannins start joining together again and your snow-scenes and your debris starts accumulating. And it’s not pectin because there’s very little pectin in pears, really, it’s tannins that are causing all the problems. And when the sediment is more than just yeast, 99 times out of 100 it’s tannin-derived. Especially with things like Butt, Rock … they’re all prone to I and think a lot of pears would benefit from maceration. And it’s one area where, when I was much smaller volume-wise we would macerate everything. But now I haven’t got the ability and capacity and time to do it all, so we’ve had to pick and choose what we do. So, as I say, Butt and Rock are two that you absolutely need to macerate in my opinion.

CR: Why is there so much sediment in perry compared to cider? Different tannin structure?

Tom: Yes it is. And there’s more of it. And the chemistry of it is different in the sense that it’s more long-chain and it will defy filtration mostly. And a lot of people will say “oh, I didn’t have any” but they made 200 bottles and they sold it in two weeks. And most of it was drunk. So you won’t see it and it won’t be a factor and that’s fine. But if you’re doing any form of bottle-ageing or maturing or whatever … I mean the number of times we’ve de-bottled stuff, it’s horrendous. But, you know, it has to happen. Some I will let go – some I’m happy with, it’s fine. But as you’ve observed, it’s something that if someone gives you a home-made bottle of perry there’s like an inch of what looks like rubbery stuff bouncing up and down it’s a bit of fun and it’s alright but you can’t have that on Gloucester Services shelves! It won’t work.

CR: I’ve seen Albert Johnson at Ross on Wye is disgorging some of his.

Tom: That’s true, and we’ve done the same, but it’s not quite as straightforward … I mean it’s working but it’s a little wasteful sometimes. If you macerate it properly, honestly, it really is unlikely that you’d have to do anything else other than say break it for say 48 hours between milling and pressing. But you’ve got to have a lot of containers, they mustn’t be too deep otherwise this oxidative process doesn’t get down below the surface. The ideal one would be stainless steel containers that were about 6 inches deep. That would be the ideal, but no one does that. Well the Austrians might!

The physical part of pressing … it doesn’t really matter if you’re using a belt press or a hydro press or a rack and cloth press, pears clog the pores of the belts or the cloths or whatever it is you’re using. They clog it up and the efficiency of the pressing just goes downhill rapidly, because the juice has no way of escaping. And so it always requires a lot more cleaning of the belts on a belt press, a lot more cleaning of the cloths on a rack and cloth press and – I’ve not used a hydro press but I know that in a hydro press or a concertina press pears are a nightmare! Not all of them – something like Gin has got a totally different fibrous setup to Blakeney. Blakeney’ll clog, Gin doesn’t. Oldfield doesn’t. Butt doesn’t. The late season ones are much better. But the early season ones … I mean I won’t have things like Judge Amphlett because it’s just a nightmare – an absolute nightmare – pressing. So I long ago stopped wanting, or stopped accepting any of that. So yeah.

CR: Why do they clog so much? Just how soft they are?

Tom: Yes, once again it’s the physical makeup of the pulp. It just gets in – it is soft, and it clogs that easy. Whereas with a lot of the apples, although a lot of proper cider apples are sort of mealy and soft, they don’t clog it quite as much. Though saying that, people don’t like Yarlington Mill because they do a lot of clogging – they’re not the easiest one to press. Whereas something like Dabinett is much easier.

So yeah, the physical characteristics of the flesh is quite variable, and you can go from getting a juice extraction of say 70% and it can drop down to 40 in about ten minutes if you don’t clean your belts. When we’re doing things like Blakeney at home the cleaner is running all the time. This’ll give you a rough idea: when we’re doing a really ripe Blakeney the cleaner will be running all day on the belt press. If we’re doing a ripe Dabinett say, we’ll run it before lunch and we’ll run it in the evening – we’ll run it once. For like five minutes or ten minutes. It’s a huge difference. And you’re using power, you’re using water and it’s slowing you up. All things that once again makes perry … I’ve already listed enough things to put most people off! You’ve got to be prepared to take these on the chin. And so do the people you’re working with because I know with Jarek and whoever’s pressing they’re getting really frustrated and saying “you know, we’re not getting through things – we’ve produced like half as much juice today as we did yesterday” and you just have to say “yeah I know, I know”. And they say “but you’re not charging twice as much for your product!” And I go “I know, I know”. And so these are things that you have to build into your setup, build into your product as much as you can and just be aware they’re going on. But they’re also obviously reasons why large concerns do what they do. It’s why Westons, basically, if you ever go to Westons in the perry bit, literally everything comes in within a week, one week. And they press it on a Saturday – everything in together. And they’re using enzymes and everything to help break the tannins down and clarify the juice and all sorts of things – let’s call them chemical aids or whatever they are; enzymatic aids – to combat what we try and do in a more sort of, I dunno, less technical, more time-consuming way.

There are ways round these things, you know, let’s not pretend – Westons don’t go macerating any fruit at all; they can’t. But there are ways that you can achieve a very similar result, but you make your choices, don’t you? And for me, though I’m aware of them and I could go and buy them off the shelf tomorrow, I choose not to. That’s part of the deal for me.

So you’ve got the juice now and you pump the juice. As I say some people will be using enzymes and everything – we don’t, so I can’t speak to them. We just pump it into whatever container it’s going to ferment in, and that will be an indication to us as to what we think the end use of the juice will be. So you know we’ll be looking at stuff to go into barrels for still perry; quite a bit will go into IBCs for keeving and some will go into just a general tank blend so that we can blend up a sort of good perry base for use in the next year because most of the perry we do is a blended perry. We do some singles, but it’s volume really – I couldn’t face doing 200 batches of things. The scale we’re at, there only being two or three of us, one of the things is we’re looking at compiling blends both as we press and then as they ferment out. So that’s what we’re working towards.

CR: Fermentation: any differences in yeast/time/requirements compared to cider?

Tom: The general situation with perry is that is has, within its juice, a couple of things. We’ve mentioned already sorbitol – varying levels of sorbitol in different pears – but the other thing they all tend to have is a lower level of nutrients for the yeast. And that will quite often exhibit itself with less nitrogen and maybe things like less thiamine because they just aren’t naturally at the same level as they might be in apples. So the yeast are just generally struggling for a complete menu of all the nutrients that they need to ferment properly at a reasonable pace, or ferment out. Which is why stuck fermentations in perry are not uncommon at all – they’re far more common than stuck fermentations in cider. That’s down to a lack of nutrients as a rule. And also of course you’ve then got the sorbitol which means that even if it’s fermented out in terms of the fermentable sugars there’s unfermentable sugars that will leave you with some residual sweetness. So this is the dual reason why perry had the reputation for having some sweetness is because one or both of those things could be happening. And I think it’s a lovely, lovely gift. I mean the amount of sugar we have to add – if any – to sweeten things out is so small, because we’ve got enough between the keeved and the stuck ferment and the sorbitol to just have natural sweetness. So that’s the sugary side of things.

So they tend to be slower ferments. But they finish quicker because there’s less fermentable sugar to work on. The thing that I do notice a lot with perries is how the juice can look incredible milky or murky sometimes when it’s not fermented. And then in the barrel or in the container it can drop beautifully bright. Not every variety, but it does have that ability. But then after that you can then come and blend these beautiful, bright perries and it doesn’t stay as bright as it was. Things can go milky – I’ve had things go milky a couple of times. That was with Rock – I would never blend Rock with anything. You can go from a beautiful, crystal-clear perry to a milky thing. And after that even enzymes won’t shift it. I even resorted one year to using enzymes to try and clear it. So Rock, in my mind, has to stay a single varietal.

CR: What is it that causes that milkyness?

Tom: I think once again this is a colloidal thing. And of course colloidal can refer to any number of juice qualities, so whether it’s tannin – I think it is all tannin-based, I mean the tannins are basically responsible for everything anyway. You know, there’s water, acid and sugars, but it’s the tannins, they’re everything else. They’re the whole character of all juices really. So there are certain things we won’t do, and other people say “oh well I did this” and I go “fantastic!” You know, you can get away with things, things may or may not happen, but we try to be a little more circumspect these days. If something has historically given us a problem we try not to do it again. Because once again it’s time and money and it’s not productive.

Problems galore with perries! It’s a wonderful delight. And I think if people are doing talks or lectures and stuff on fault-finding, grab two or three perries and you can pretty much guarantee that you’ll have every fault under the sun in these perries. Some of the obnoxious faults: mouse, derived from lactic acid bacteria, and that horrible, horrible bottom-of-the-mouse-cage effect when you drink it, in the mouth. There are some similarities to the biscuitiness of champagne or Brettanomyces in beer and these things you can taste and sometimes you go “uh oh”. Our phrase is “mouse, not mouse”. Is it real mouse, in which case it just keep escalating in the mouth and it is vile. If it’s not mouse, i.e. biscuity it’s fine. There’s elements of it that mimic brett slightly as well. It’s something that you get in bottle conditioned beers – it’s a temporary phase (this is the brett aspect which they go through) which means that you shouldn’t release them too soon, you should let them do their thing in the bottle and give them time so that when you do sell them it remains clean or at least through the worst excesses of brett. And that’s the same in perries; you can pick that up as well.

Then there’s a couple of things. One is ethyl acetate – nail varnish, solvent, paint-thinners type of thing. Very, very common aromatically in perries. And a little bit is ok because it can add complexity to the fruitiness on the nose and slightly in the taste. But once you go over a very, very fine line you’re into something that, as I say, is like nail-varnish or paint thinners or whatever. That’s a highly common problem. And then you’ve got the citric acid pathway where the alcohol is converted in the presence of citric acid into acetic acid. So you get a sort of vinegary perry, which is once again very common in poorly-kept perry or in half-full barrels of perry. And once again, some people like a little bit of it and other people can’t stand even a hint of it.

So those are the main things, and as with anything good, clean fruit, treated appropriately, filled into full containers, with a fermentation that does happen whether it’s with a pitched yeast or spontaneous and then as little air as possible you stand a good chance of a decent result. I don’t quite understand why people find perry as hard as they do. Especially year-in, year-out. I mean I hate to say anything, because as soon as you do you’re asking for trouble. But you know, we’re 22 years on perry and a lot of perry really, and yeah we get the odd … I should think we lose one barrel or one IBC a year. To either vinegar (which is fine, because we’ll just turn it into vinegar) … or sometimes we do lose a few to mouse as well. But touch wood, this year not a hint of it anywhere. And I can’t tell why because, you know, we can start using sulphur when we press, but we don’t – we don’t use sulphur until we come to bottle – and I know you could easily sure things up by using sulphur but it’s what happens with the good, the bad and the ugly in that initial first few days of the fermentation that absolutely fascinates me in terms of what it gives you. And sulphur would deny you the privilege of those either gorgeous experiences or horrendous experiences!   

CR: You’ve mentioned that there’s far less pectin in pears than apples. So, keeving. Does it work the same was as for cider? If not, what are the differences?

Tom: Traditionally in Herefordshire perries almost keeve themselves! Because of the tannins and because there’s enough material (let’s call it that!) in the pears; the very thing that clogs up your hairs actually is what’s going to help you when it comes to a successful keeve. Alright? So once again the colloidal effect that is keeving, the material in pears is tailor-made for it. Which is why some pears keeve themselves. Butt, if you just do Butt on its own and press it, you come to the tank or barrel a week later and there’s this wonderful, rubbery whatever it is on top and beneath it you’ve got clear juice. That’s a self-keeve. I know Martin Harris at Butford, he frequently gets “auto-keeves”. We find the keeve is potentially easier – the issue is later on with keeving perry. As the weather warms up, if the fermentation was slow because of something that, say, temperature will substitute for or kick off again … you can have a perry that behaves beautifully in terms of keeving; ticks over beautifully, it’s dropping slowly and then the weather warms up in the spring and suddenly the perry just starts fermenting much more violently out of nowhere. Even though you think you had a great keeve and you’ve racked it a number of times. And it’s because there’s something in that juice that’s just been activated by the warmth or some other aspect. So they usually keeve great, but they can always throw you a curve ball!

CR: Barrels? Do you find pears interact best with different ones compared to cider?

Tom: Well certainly I love rum barrels for perry. Absolutely love rum barrels. Perry in rum barrels it’s a wonderful natural fit. Having said that, in the old days I was able to go to a barrel guy and I could sniff every single one of his rum barrels and I would only want 25% of them. Because there’s rum and there’s rum. And it was very clear to me the ones that would work and the ones that wouldn’t work. And unfortunately recently I’ve not been able to get my hands on any rum barrels at a price I’m prepared to pay. So we’re struggling a bit for suitable barrels right now, if I’m really honest. So what we are doing is we try and use – if it’s whisky barrels, we’re using barrels on a third fill. So it’s two ciders in and the third will be a perry. And by then we’re hoping that the cider has taken the whisky out of it, for the most part, has taken the tannin out of it. So we’re really just having a much more neutral container that will just let the oxygen’s effects go on. It won’t pick up much from the barrel. But yeah. Brand new rum barrels of a certain type of a rum – and I’m not even sure what it is – you put perry in and the combination of the two’s just “aw. Yeah.” But I struggle with whisky barrels – perry in a fresh whisky barrel can be pretty unsubtle!

CR: Maturation potential of different varieties? You’ve mentioned the Blakeney red 2013 that’s been in barrel since? Can some varieties just stay a longer course?

Tom: There’s an argument that would say that that is beyond the sense of anything, to have Blakeney Red in a barrel for 7 years – it’s madness. But the madness is that every year we tried it we went “we can’t believe this – this is still alright – this is Blakeney in a barrel and yet it’s still clean, it’s still … the fruit is much more deep and much more wine-like”. And then we came to it this year and we went “right. This needs using now. This is right on the spot.” So I’m just hoping we got it in time because it is absolutely extraordinary that it’s survived so long. I would normally say to you 2-3 years, max (in barrel).

Because we’re doing relatively large amount of keeving and most of the late variety fruit goes into keeving – so the late Blakeney, Butt, Gin, Oldfield, and anything else that’s in good nick, they tend to go into keeving now, they tend to be part of the character. You know the keeved perry is a blend, it’s a lot of Oldfield and Gin in there. Because I believe blends are infinitely superior in complexity and balance compared to single varietals. So we tend to only do single varieties where we have a lot of that variety, and Blakeney we have a lot of. So it’s an obvious one for us, to be able to do singles with and everything. But you know, if I do Coppy that stays as a single, Rock stays as a single. We just haven’t had any for a couple of years. But we do get them, and when you’re talking one or two barrels they go so quick!

So some are more suitable for maturing – Coppy isn’t a good one, but Rock, wonderful. Wonderful. You can leave that for four years, easily, and it will be gorgeous. I think Butt you can leave for that length of time. They’re pretty robust and characterful varieties, so that’s why I feel confident that they’re suitable for ageing.

CR: Does the different sorbitol content of different varieties affect the way they behave?

Tom: So Blakeney has a decent level of sorbitol. There’s a variety called Homer which is not common around here, but is still about. We used to get some of that and we would make a special perry for people – people who I didn’t particularly relish! Who I wanted to get rid of! It’s a bit of a killer. It’s a 20 minute one – you drink that and you’ve got 20 minutes to get to a toilet and if you don’t, you’ll – pardon the expression – you’ll shit yourself. Some varieties some years are dynamite and other varieties people do in other years aren’t so dynamite. It’s just one’s own experience with the fruit one has I suppose. Sorbitol wise … Oldfield’s not got much, Gin’s not got much, if any. Moorcroft’s not got much in my experience. Coppy has got a little bit but not a huge amount. And in terms of its effect on the fermentation I don’t know if it has a blocking effect at all … as I said, when you get stuck fermentation and you get sorbitol as well, you can get really ridiculously sweet perries that are very stable. And they’re absolutely gorgeous – when I was doing single varietals (because we’ve all gone through these phases!) I had a Blakeney Red that was so sweet, sterile-filtered in wine bottles with a cork. (Which I hear somebody thinks is a nice new idea!) And they went very well in terms of the drink they made was wonderful, but that was 18 years ago when the idea of presenting perry as a still drink in a wine bottle with a cork … we were asking a lot of people then to understand what we were doing. But this particular Blakeney was incredible. One of the sweetest things I’ve ever tasted, absolutely gorgeous. The alcohol was about, you know, below four per cent. And the sugars were great. And the strange thing is, the thing I don’t understand still about some fruit, is that the acidity was enough to make it work. And there was no bubbles, you know, it was still. But Blakeney hasn’t got any acidity. So why, in this strange situation, was there enough to make it sensible? And I can’t answer that. All I can do is taste something and go “that works”. And it’s one of the things that’s stunned me about James’ Enter the Dragon with the Dabinett. The perception of acidity was fantastic. But I know Dabinett has no acidity. So that was really, really interesting. Because it absolutely worked for me because there was a perception of acidity where I would not be expecting it. And it happens, you know, it can be yeasts or you can manage to do something to it. And yeasts you know are very powerful, they really can summon stuff from nowhere, which is why I think people should use yeasts far more than they do. But, you know, I hope the next generation doesn’t move away from spontaneous fermentation. Because my God you could make some perries if you understood your yeasts. But that’s for someone else.

CR: Favourite things about working with perry?

Tom: The whole thing is about the drink. Even though I know what goes into these perries, I know that I can’t really charge what it’s cost to make, but the quality of some of those perries … every year we get two or three that I go “ah. Everything is going on here. It’s got character, it’s got balance, it’s got interest, it’s got a beginning a middle and an end”. And this is with things that shouldn’t be going together, or this was not a great year for that. And somehow you can do that. But the thing … and I’m touching a large chunk of a very solid oak desk here … is we’ve been really lucky. We’ve been doing this for 22 years now, turning out perries that people seem to really like and … not that competitions are a mark of anything, but year in, year out they’ve done us proud. And consistency with perry is the toughest thing. Everybody finds. And we’re not state of the art people, we are far from rigorous in all aspects of hygiene and all that – we are not expert people at all – but there’s something generally about the way we do things where we can turn out most stuff as decent and 40% as fabulous. And that for me is what perry is all about. That fabulous experience where you drink it, and establishing in your mind what a particular perry is good for. So “is this a dry perry – is this going to shine when it’s dry, or is this fruit going to be good for keeving, or is this going to be work, or what about the character of it, what will blend with it, should we blend the fruit at pressing? (The answer is usually “yes” by the way – I much, much prefer blending fruit at pressing, I think you get much, much less problems later. But at the same time I’m not afraid to blend fermented perries – I hope I know enough now to not put things together that shouldn’t go together. And I say that with no confidence at all!) But it’s that drink, honestly. Cider’s great, and I drink far more cider than perry, but if I want to show off to somebody it’s usually a perry I go for. And it can be a dry still one or it can be a keeved sweet one, and you know, for me, the keeved perries, you get people saying “no I don’t like sweet, I only drink dry” and you go “well ok, drink this.” Bloody hell. You know, they’re drinking something as sweet as Kopparberg or something, but that’s not what they experience. They’ve got this lovely zingy acidity, they’ve got this marvellous raw tannin and it’s just like “aw. What a drink. What a drink.” So for me that’s the be all and end of all of it. And if it didn’t make a great drink we would stop making perry tomorrow. It’s too demanding, it takes too much that doesn’t fit in with apples – bloody making cider’s a piece of cake compared to making perry, the risks are not there – and then you can’t sell the bloody stuff once you’ve made it! I’m exaggerating slightly, but the market for perry has plummeted in recent years. I think I detect it coming back a bit, but is that because there’s so few people making it now? I don’t know. I used to think it was much more common – even when it wasn’t common I found it easy to find.

Tom gave us this interview almost exactly a year ago, back when we were a column on Malt. It’s fair to say that there have been some changes in the landscape and fortunes of perry since then, so I thought I’d go back to Tom with one last question …

CR: A lot has changed for perry in the year since we had this conversation. Can you tell me about what you’ve seen happen, what you think has triggered it, and what you hopes for perry are going forward?

Tom: In a strange way Covid might have a positive legacy for some perry makers. The demand for perry increased and it was ALL bottled or canned perry. Whether people saw it as an ideal time to try perry I don’t know but sales increased. I am not the only producer who has limited amounts of perry available and we are only half way through the selling year, I know at least another 4 in Herefordshire.

I think fruit ciders stole a big chunk of the draught perry market , then with no CAMRA festivals for 2 years the demand for draught was minimal so we have concentrated on bottling and canning for 2 years and it has paid dividends.

This coupled with not quite as much fruit on the trees over a period of time and so maybe perry is seeing a slight sense of resurgence. The number of smaller “crafted”

producers also means perry might be getting a rising profile and availability in certain markets.

However, there are growers who put in bush orchards about 10 years ago who are grubbing them out because they cannot get a profitable return on growing perry pears. Plus there is that ever-present danger of fireblight. Whatever you do in terms of planting perry pears, I think an interstem of the Canadian pear “Old Home” is vital as it does seem to help combat fireblight.

So with more “craft” producers making cider, finding routes to market and then turning their hand to perry, it will have a slightly raised profile. The overall lack of confidence in growing large amounts of pears due to fireblight etc. remains, so volume perry tends to come from industrial units using pear conc. and therefore a drink that has little of the wonder of carefully made perry.

Considered and carefully made perry remains a truly wondrous drink and one that as a maker, one has immense pride in and as a drinker you, in one simple sip, might appreciate and realise that you are tasting hundreds of years of this wonderful fruit growing in the wild or an orchard, the skills of many generations, handed down by practice and word of mouth and the resolute determination of yeasts, whether pitched or wild, to give you the greatest drink on earth.

***

Thanks once again to Tom for being so free of his time and expertise. Now, since we’ve been told in no uncertain terms just how fabulous perry can be, I thought we ought to drink some.

We touched on Tom’s Keeved Perry in the interview, so I thought that would be a good place to start. I’ve two batches on hand; a recent release, #6, from the 2019 vintage, available from Scrattings, Fram Ferment and The Cat in the Glass, all between £9.50-£11.30 for 750ml, as well as the original in this series, a 2016, which has long-since sold out online, but which I found at Middle Farm in Sussex, and which I thought was worth tasting just for comparison. I don’t usually comment on the strengths of what I review, but here it’s worth an aside, as both are eye-catchingly low, both beneath 3.5% with the 2019 at just 2.8; the result of the keeving process.

Following that we head into weird and (hopefully) wonderful territory with La Saison des Poires 2020, a collaboration with After the harvest Brewing and Alex and Gabe Cook. It’s one in a long line of Tom’s collaborations with brewers. In this instance a wort of 80% pilsner and 20% wheat grist with aged Bramling X and Goldings hops fermented by Belle Saison yeast was co-fermented at the end of October 2020 with a spontaneously fermented perry of 30% Blakeney Red, 30% Gin Pear, 30% Red Longdon and 10% Butt Pear. I’ve had a fair few cider-beer hybrids, but my only reference point for a perry-beer was another of Tom’s collaborations, done last year with Cloudwater. So this territory remains relatively uncharted for me. (And I apologise in advance to any beer-loving pals if my notes and references are on the primitive side – in this field I am a virtual neophyte.) 750ml Bottles of La Saison des Poires can be bought from Tom’s own website for £12.

Oliver’s Keeved Perry #6 2019 – review

How I served: Chilled

Appearance: Pearlescent Gold, frothy mousse

On the nose: Aw. Just the juiciest, fruitiest, most inviting of perry aromas. Everything’s bright and crisp and clear and aromatic. Big clean pear juice, honey and white grape. Huge Vouvray energy. Just want to keep smelling and smelling.

In the mouth: Well it’s fizzy dessert wine made of pears. Yes, it’s sweet, but the acidity balances it beautifully – just so refreshing. Massive, high-toned flavour intensity. Young Sauternes meets Coteaux du Layon. That fruity honey and clean pear juice joined by yuzu and lime and tropical fruit. Dangerously easy to drink.

In a nutshell: A classic. Easily one of the best things you can drink for the price. Not just in the UK.

Oliver’s Keeved Perry 2016 – review

How I served: Chilled

Appearance: Bright gold. A touch less fizz.

On the nose: Still fruity, but less overtly so. (Not sure anything’s more overtly fruity than #6…) The aromas have deepened with age and much more emphasis is on the richer honeys. This is very mineral too, there’s a touch of stony austerity – a grown up kind of thing – that wasn’t there in its younger sibling. Some golden syrup and marmalade. Icing sugar and crystallised lemon. Not as exuberant as #6 but full of elegance and depth.

In the mouth: Again, richer, deeper, more luscious. Acidity is still great, though reduced a touch, still balancing beautifully without being as overtly tangy. Honeys and dessert wines. Orange marmalade, vanilla. Still that pronounced minerality – makes me think of Oldfield perhaps? Has definitely retained a brightness – wonderful clarity of flavours – but it all seems more relaxed.

In a nutshell: More developed and melded together than the 2019, as you’d expect. Another that I can’t imagine anyone not loving.

Oliver’s x After the harvest La Saison des Poires 2020 – review

How I served: Chilled

Appearance: Cloudy lemonade. Frothy.

On the nose: There’s a nose on this. Definitely get the Pilsner – the crisp graininess and the floral hops – but there’s a lime jelly fruitiness that wraps around them too. A bit of peardrop (not too much – not acetone) and some summer berries. Yellow pear. Some foam bananas too, which grow and grow. (Is this a wheat thing? Beer fans please point me right in the comments!) I’d say this nose strikes the balance of its constituents nicely. Light, fresh, high-toned, lots happening.

In the mouth: The beer seems to take the lead here, but perhaps that’s because it’s less familiar to me. Again the grain and the floral hops seem surrounded by a plumper pear-fruity sweetness. (Though this is definitely not ‘sweet’). Nice acidity. Bright and light. Bitters in a pithy way. Lime zest and a good bit more foam banana. Quite full-bodied, but crisp and refreshing.

In a nutshell: Something different for sure, but the beer-perry balance has been struck well. A successful experiment.

Conclusions

We’re all guilty of taking classics for granted at times, and that certainly happened to me with the keeved perry. I’d not had it in so long I’d forgotten how good it was, and since it’s almost always available I’d just not bought a bottle in a while. This was a delicious reminder that Tom makes perry as well as anyone in the world, and I certainly shan’t leave it as long before my next bottle. [Update – I opened another one the next night. I can’t remember the last time I did that with any drink].

The perry-beer hybrid is tremendous fun whilst also evincing a huge amount of thought and skill. An experiment well worth repeating and which I’d like to see from a few more perrymakers. Anything that tastes good and brings new drinkers to the perry fold gets two green ticks from me. What a smashing way to kick off our perry spotlight month.

*He doesn’t

**He didn’t

(Photos included from Tom, Barry Masterson and James Forbes as well as the author).

This entry was posted in: Features, Reviews

by

In addition to my writing and editing on Cider Review I contribute to other drinks sites and magazines including Graftwood, JancisRobinson.com, Full Juice, Distilled and Burum Collective. I share my home with several hundred bottles, one geophysicist and a small fluffy belligerent called Nutmeg. @CiderReviewAdam on Twitter and Instagram.

11 Comments

  1. Wow! What a truly great article. Looking forward to what the rest of the month brings now!

    The only problem is that I now really want a perry and don’t have any in the house 😦

    Like

    • Hi Andrew
      Apologies for the delayed response, but really glad you enjoyed the article, hope you’ve liked our perry pieces since, and especially hope that you’ve managed to rectify the perry drought in the house!
      Best wishes
      Adam W.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Brilliant read. Great to hear about this in so much fascinating detail. Tom is such a great ambassador and this gives him an excellent long form platform. Thank you!

    Like

    • Hi Alison
      Sorry for the delayed reply – hiding in the orchards at Ross until yesterday, part ignoring the phone, part with no reception anyway!
      It was such a joy to speak to Tom and he was so generous in the level of detail he went to. I’m really glad you got so much out of reading it.
      Best wishes – and thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment.
      Adam W.

      Like

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