As Gabe Cook points out in his recently-published Modern British Cider, apples and pears don’t follow geopolitical boundaries. So it is hardly surprising that, just over the border from the three counties, there is a thriving Welsh cider and perry scene and an abundance of fruit in both English and Welsh varieties.
We’ve covered this passingly on Cider Review – most recently when I visited the Welsh Mountain Cider Co, and previously through appearances from Skyborry and Llanbethian Orchards. But overall we’ve certainly not given Wales the coverage its cider and perry deserve.
In an effort to adjust that slightly I reached out to a Welsh producer whose wares have recently become more easily available to consumers across the UK. Monnow Valley caught my eye when a large array of single variety and blended ciders and perries all descended onto Scrattings at once. I bought a selection of them – most eye-catchingly a Betty Prosser, a super-rare pear I’ve only previously tried from Cwm Maddoc – and, as is so often the way, the bottles sat for a few months waiting for the opportune review (and angle) to arrive so that I could put them in an appropriate spotlight.
And today’s the day. I’m very grateful to Monnow Valley’s Kevin Garrod, who was tremendously quick in responding to my questions about his perry making, his local pear trees and the Welsh perry scene more generally. Our conversation is below, lightly edited for clarity.
CR: How did you get into cider and perry and how long have you been making it for?
Kevin: A chance meeting whilst trading with a very different hat on in the castle grounds at Abergavenny Food Festival in 2005, I walked into the CAMRA bar there looking for refreshment and noticed a small bar on the side which was a cider bar selling Gwynt y Ddraig Ciders, manned by Bill George who was one of the founders and subsequent directors of [the company]. Cutting a long story short, I got on board with them in the autumn of 2005 harvesting cider apples and perry pears from Monmouthshire, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Somerset and then hauling them back to their farm at Llantwit Fardre near Pontypridd.
So after I few years working for them in the harvest season I had learnt about different varieties of fruit and their attributes, so began to make a small amount of cider for personal consumption and family and friends. This was, I think, about 2007.
CR: How did Monnow Valley Cider and Perry come about? How much do you make?
Kevin: In 2015 I decided to start making a quantity that made it worthy of selling to the general public and coupled also with the fact I was comfortable that I was producing a product that was good enough to let out into the public domain.
I had kept good relationships with the small orchard owners along the Monnow Valley, west of Monmouth, so these were natural orchards from which to source my fruit supply from – hence why I named my brand Monnow Valley Cider – and I still harvest fruit from these orchards to this day. Old, traditional, full standard tree orchards, only grazed by sheep and no pesticides or herbicide used at all. Very much working with nature and to look after the biodiversity of these wonderful old orchards.
Some of the perry pear trees I use are well over 250 years old. They stand majestically even in winter. Some rare varieties amongst them; the wonderful Betty Prosser included. I currently make around 2000 litres of cider, 1000 litres of perry and 2000 litres of apple juice.
CR: What’s the attraction of perry to you?
Kevin: Since working in the orchards I’ve been fascinated by these majestic perry pear trees and the range of fruit they have borne. I first only tried perry blends with say 3 or even 4 varieties, which turned out pretty well, so then I thought let’s try just making single variety perries and the results I thought were wonderful – very varied in their flavour profiles from citrus tones to almost acetic notes.
CR: You make lots of single variety perries – why?
Kevin: I love making single variety perries, as I feel so blessed to having access to such fabulous fruit. It’s a delicate beverage and works so well in my preferred format of Bottle conditioned 750ml champagne bottles. They truly work so well with a bit of pizzazz – or dare I say ‘Pearsecco’!
I will be making some more unusual Welsh Varietals of single variety perry this harvest season; such great names as Chapman’s Orange and Cil Hal Clusters alongside the more well-known varieties such as Thorn and Red Pear.
CR: The perries of yours I have to try today are Betty Prosser and Taynton Squash. What are they like to work with, what do you like about them?
Kevin: Ahh the wonderful yet well-publicised Betty Prosser. Indeed a wonderful pear. After several years of puzzling over this pear, trying to find out its true identity, and numerous liaisons with the ultra-knowledgeable Jim Chapman of The National Perry Pear Collection at Hartpury, it was finally proven that from two orchards that I harvest from there were/are five Betty Prosser trees. And literally both orchards are just over the hill from the orchards of Mr Jeremy Harris.[Ed: Of Cwm Maddoc – whose own Betty Prosser is reviewed here.] After all, the origin of Betty Prosser is well thought to be from Monmouth. Betty Prosser makes a fine full flavoured perry – I find it best as a sweet or medium. It’s wonderful to use a pear of such rarity and after the years of hard work that went into its proving.
The Early Taynton Squash is from a young tree of say 25 years of age. It makes a fresh-tasting perry I believe and I am always interested in the difference of flavour profiles from an old tree to a young tree. I always think the older the tree the more “vintage”* a perry it may make. Having the sap travelling through so much more cambium layer to get to the fruit and indeed leaves I believe gives a perry so much more character than from a young tree (the same is true I feel with cider apples).
CR: What is Monnow Valley itself like as a place for apple and pear trees – do you get all your fruit there?
Kevin: The Monnow Valley is littered with small farm full standard tree orchards. I harvest from five separate orchards (differing landowners). All of them have a good range of cider apples and perry pears and small amounts of dessert and culinary fruit too. 90% of the fruit I use comes from these orchards both for cider and perry, with the exception of dessert and culinary fruit I use in my apple juice products.
There are some pretty special varieties in these orchards aside of the Perry Pears. There are such Cider varieties there as Brown Thorn and Cherry Norman.
CR: What’s the Welsh cider and perry scene like at the moment? Any other producers we should especially be on the lookout for?
Kevin: Times obviously haven’t been easy for us here, the same everywhere lately, but I’m involved with the Welsh Perry & Cider Society and we are keen to put on a full programme of events in 2022 starting with our Wassail at one of the Society’s museum orchards and progressing through the year to our own Perry & Cider Festival back again at Caldicot Castle. So keeping positive vibes for next year.
There are new producers emerging with their first fruits of their labours of 2020 harvest, too. Like Austringer Cider which is Bianca & Phil Samuel in the Afan Valley. So keep an eye out for them.
I also really like Alex Simmons at Llanbethian Orchards. He makes a cracking Ice Cider.
CR: Have you seen more people getting into perry in the last few years? What are your hopes for the future and your plans for Monnow Valley Cider?
Kevin: I think Perry is slowly but surely gaining some much-needed attention. When I sell at markets and food festivals I almost insist on customers tasting it, to see their faces light up and go “OOOOOhhhhh this is really lovely”. So it’s great to inspire folks to seek out perry in future and to help with the perry education.
My sales of perry to all outlets is healthy – not just to those specialist online retailers. I even supply Bag in Box perry to a few pubs! So yes I believe the awareness of perry is set to grow strong and I don’t mean from just the folks who are old enough to remember a brand with a Deer on its label!
I hope for Monnow Valley Cider to grow consistently, year on year, but in small incrementations. It is only me after all, with sometimes the picking assistance of my partner and a woofer!
Many thanks to Kevin for taking the time to speak to me. Let’s drink some perry.
The bottles I have today are both from the 2019 vintage, both came from Scrattings and cost £7.50 per 750 ml. Thanks to my tardiness, the Early Taynton Squash seems to have sold out, however the Betty Prosser remains available here.
Monnow Valley Gunpowder Plot Perry Early Taynton Squash 2019 – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Very light, clear Gold. Tiny fizz
On the nose: Bright, floral, lemony springtime sort of nose with some rounder, fleshy pear and a touch of peach. Tends in that leaner, more citrusy direction though rather than a rounded ripe kind of thing. There is a flutter of acetic acid, but not so much that the aromas are thrown off balance or dominated.
In the mouth: Sharp arrival. Yellow citrus moving into green pear and a little melon. Acetic acid does take over a bit too much for my personal taste though.
In a nutshell: A vibrant and piquant perry. Acetic component isn’t for me, as usual, but those less sensitive will find this very fresh, crisp and zingy.
Monnow Valley Monnow Magic Perry Betty Prosser 2019 – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: A tone deeper. Bright fizz, nice conditioning.
On the nose: Deeper and broader in its aromas. Rich pear. There’s a kind of forest floor aspect here too, and an unusual tone almost of caramel wafer.
In the mouth: Follows the nose note for note, fizz brightening that deep, almost slightly-bruised pear and sweeter toffee waffle note. Doesn’t quite have the freshness or fruit intensity of the Cwm Maddoc Betty Prossers I’ve had, but there are certainly interesting things going on.
In a nutshell: Betty Prosser on deeper, almost autumnal form.
When a producer makes as many different bottlings as Kevin – and particularly when so many are single varieties, it’s hard to get a clear sense of them as a whole from tasting just two. But certainly on this evidence I’d be intrigued to pick my way through more of Kevin’s range, and especially his rare Welsh varieties as and when they become available.
Another reminder of the breadth of flavour, producer mindset and fruit available to the Modern British Cider (and Perry) drinker. And a timely spur to me to dig deeper into the Welsh scene generally.
*NB In case of confusion, Kevin is using “vintage” as a signifier of quality here, rather than to refer to a specific year. This is common parlance across a lot of the British cider and perry scene. The author’s own hot take on the subject can be found here. (Though, as always, it is only his take!)