So I’ve got this lineup of single variety perries in front of me, and I look at them and I wonder.
Not so much about what they’ll taste like – we’ll get to that, and being Bartestree I dare say they’ll be very good.
No, this lineup makes me think about what’s happened in the world of full juice cider and perry in the last eighteen months, and it makes me wonder what will happen next.
Just about a year ago – perhaps a little less – The Cat in the Glass launched its online shop to the general gawping of the online cider community. It wasn’t so much that it was new; other excellent online retailers like Scrattings and Fram Ferment and the Fine Cider Company already existed. No, to my mind the real excitement of CITG’s launch came from the presence, on its digital shelves, of producers I had never seen available online before.
Cwm Maddoc. Artistraw. Blue Barrel. Charnwood. Bartestree. Producers whose wares I had long loved, but which, without pilgrimages to the Cider Museum or Middle Farm or the cidery’s respective local market I had never previously been able to access. This, to my mind, marked a fold-in-the-page moment; the crossing of a Rubicon. Consumers, across the UK, for the first time, could easily get their hands on ciders and perries that had formerly been the inside tips of in-the-know apple botherers like me. I was confident, once they had tried them, that those consumers would want more. A huge step, to my mind, had been taken.
Fast forward to September 2021, and although the Delta variant remains rampant and there are rumblings of winter restrictions, society in general has largely tumbled back offline and into some semblance of three-dimensional quasi-normality, albeit with asterisks and caveats. The Cider Salon happened and, quoting one cidermaker “doesn’t seem to have been a super-spreader event”. Ross Festival came gloriously back to life and even at half of its normal capacity felt vibrant and energised and raucous and celebratory in all the most wonderful way. Nature, if not fully healed, is certainly off its crutches again.
Which leaves me wondering what will become of the cider scene that was so dramatically reshaped during the long months of lockdown. The 750ml sharing bottle, for instance. Though they certainly pre-dated the pandemic – they’ve been around for years and years – there’s no question that, as Tom Oliver put it “they found their place” as a direct result of people drinking at home rather than in pubs or restaurants. Since people are now returning to the on-trade, and since the average pub is singularly unlikely to cultivate a 750ml cider selection any time soon, what will happen to this fledgling slice of the market? Will the format continue to be deployed apace? Will cider drinkers eschew pubs in favour of sharing more interesting drinks in the comfort of their home? Or will there be a dip? A course correction? I don’t know.
Then there’s the question of cider in pubs generally, of course. So many people have come round to cider in the last eighteen months, but those new drinkers are unlikely to be inspired by a choice of Strongbow or Strongbow Dark Fruits, and I don’t think they’ll pay much notice to Thatcher’s or Stowford Press either. The pubs with a selection of full juice ciders in bag in box might see a bit more change, but if those bag in boxes are hidden from sight, are boringly unlabelled plain white packages or, worst of all, are kept in poor conditions and have developed avoidable storage faults, they won’t snare the eye or the palate if the pub also boasts an attractive, high-quality and significantly larger range of beers on cask and keg and in the bottle fridges. Making cider in pubs as exciting as cider drunk at home has become is unquestionably the most important next consideration for makers and drinkers, and I worry that all too often it is couched in such unhelpfully pugilistic terms as “a battle” or “a fight”, and boils down to a few angry folk railing at landlords for stocking Lilley’s, which I’m afraid won’t make a blind bit of difference whatsoever. People won’t alter their preferences out of a sense of shame, and no one will drink what you want them to just because you have yelled at them. It’s far likelier that they will do the opposite.
But the pub question is an article for another day. What I really wonder, looking at the Bartestrees – and it’s a selfish wondering – is what will happen to all the small producers whose ciders and perries I have, for the first time, been so easily able to access?
In Helen’s excellent interview with Cider Women last November, Bartestree’s Fiona attested that, in normal years, the cidery has sold all of its previous vintage by the end of the Ross festival at the start of September. Their appearance on The Cat in the Glass in November wasn’t because they had increased their volume of production, but because the strangulation of sales through their usual channels of food markets and festivals meant that, for the first time, they still had stock taking up space in the cidery.
As wonderful as it is for a cider and perry lover like me to be able to log on at any point and buy bottles of Bartestree from the comfort of my kitchen table in Reading, there seems scant incentive for the company to continue selling to retailers at trade price when they can make more money selling direct to customers at food festivals and be confident that they’ll get rid of all their annual stock in doing so. And for Bartestree, read also Cwm Maddoc, read also Artistraw. Why leave the local market and why make less money if you don’t have to? Speaking to Chris at Brennan’s, another cidery whose products I have been delighted to be able to buy, he said that a key aim for the immediate future was to identify opportunities to sell direct to customer. Why wouldn’t it be?
Neither Bartestree nor Cwm Maddoc have any intention of growing bigger than they already are. Their ciders and perries are labours of love as much as they are small businesses. Gregg’s Pit was originally an antidote to James Marsden’s intensely gruelling day to day job – there were no plans for it to become a large, full-time concern and to the best of my knowledge that remains the case today.
Then there are the producers who might be interested in scaling their business up, but who feel constrained by the current laws around duty. On the one hand, compared to other drinks, duty on cider is relatively low. On the other hand, under 7,000 litres there is no duty whatsoever, and the lack of a sliding scale thereafter, such as is available to craft breweries, means that producers have to significantly increase production to start seeing the financial benefits of having left the zero duty zone. And increased production necessarily demands more space and more equipment whilst introducing more pressure to sell and more associated costs. So it’s hardly surprising that so many of the cidermakers over that threshold primarily (or at least to a significant degree) deal in products that have been diluted or sweetened or flavoured according to what the business owners see as the tastes of the mass market. The likes of Little Pomona, Oliver’s, Ross on Wye – makers over the 7,000 litre threshold dealing exclusively or almost exclusively in full-juice ciders are few indeed. But they are the sort of producers that cider desperately needs if it is to solidify its burgeoning moment in the sun. Consumers like to order from producers with whom they are familiar and comfortable. They like to recognise names in shops and on taps. They like to re-order things they have enjoyed before, and if they can’t do that they will look elsewhere; they will slip back to wine or beer or to the macro brands.
And so I look at these Bartestrees and I wonder whether I will still be able to buy their wonderful ciders and perries from my kitchen table in Reading next year. Or whether the last 12 months will prove to be an aberration, and the wonderful, tucked-away cideries who have peeked online for the first time will slip back into their nooks and cheerfully sell through all their bottlings at festivals and market stalls again. Selfish though it might be on my part, it would make me sad if they did. And it would feel, somehow, like a backward step; not for individual producers, but for cider as a whole.
But this is all back-of-a-napkin speculation, of course. Duty laws may well be reconsidered; Modern British Cider certainly has a good crack at campaigning for such a thing; and some small cideries may grown. Online retailers aren’t going anywhere – indeed they’re going from strength to strength. And cideries may decide that keeping a portion of their stock in the public eye is a useful thing to do, in any case. So perhaps I’m wondering and worrying for nothing. Shall well stop all the introspection and drink some perry? Yes, I think so.
Bartestree produce a huge and ever-changing range of bottlings, but always retain a good number of single varieties, and it’s to their single varieties that my eye has turned today. All are bottled pét nat (see our taxonomy or this article if that’s a new or unfamiliar term) but since they cover a range of pears and sweetnesses, I’ll save the details for each individual review as I go. I bought some bottles from The Cat in the Glass (links, again, accompanying each review below) but a couple of them are also available through Fram Ferment and the Herefordshire Beer House, so where relevant I’ve linked to those too. Another safe bet for Bartestree, if you are able to make the trip, is Hereford’s Museum of Cider.
Let’s get cracking.
Bartestree Barnet 2020 – review
Lot No.07/DEF. Not a single variety I’ve reviewed here before, or even tasted on more than a few occasions. The back label tells me, intriguingly, that it’s a russetted pear that “looks like a hedgehog”. Charles Martell’s invaluable “Pears of Gloucestershire and Perry Pears of the Three Counties tells me that russetting is a rare quality in pears. In apples it often seems to concentrate flavours and alcohols, as the russetted skin allows for a degree of transpiration. Let’s see if the same holds true here. £9.50 for a 750ml from Cat in the Glass or £4.50 for a 375ml.
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Lightly sparkling Sauvignon Blanc
On the nose: Lovely purity and freshness. Citrus peels, jasmine and sea shells. Good ripe pear. A walk between hedges. A brush of pear skin roughness – perhaps the impact of the russetting? Pretty good aromatic intensity – just lovely and delicate and fragrant.
In the mouth: Really delicious. Just the right, small touch of off-dry to balance the light acidity. Gentle tannins. Flavours tend in the direction of very, very ripe lemons and limes, with a pronounced minerality and that lightly earthy pear skin. Some ripe, juicy pear too. Not too far off some French perries, actually, though drier than the French mean.
In a nutshell: Absolutely lovely. Refreshing, balanced, full of flavour. Could drink loads, would pour for anyone.
Bartestree Oldfield 2020 – review
Lot No.23x. Described by Tom Oliver in our recent interview as his “Desert Island Pear” for being a great all-rounder, but not an “everyday” all rounder, with bags of character, decent acidity, lots of fruit and aromatic quality. Intriguingly, another perrymaker I spoke to said that he wasn’t a fan, as he found the variety too “twisty-turny” in the expression of its flavour. I’ve only previously reviewed an Oldfield in the form of Cwm Maddoc’s 2019 here, so I’ll reserve judgement for the moment! Also available from Cat in the Glass in both 750ml and 375ml formats, both at the same prices as the Barnet.
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Very pale lemon-green. Spritzy fizz.
On the nose: Really unusual – though I’ve not drunk enough single variety Oldfield to say whether this is varietally typical. Very, very floral – daisies and blossom. White grape, lime, petrichor. I see what the other maker meant about “twisty-turny” – the aromas seem to shift; they’re hard to pin down. But I don’t think I mind that much, myself. It’s an aroma to conjure with. And again, very fresh and high-toned.
In the mouth: Light, bright, vivacious, delicately sweet and a carbon copy of the nose. Florals, pear. Not quite pear drop. Lime, blossom. This reminds me, in a wonderful way, of drinking white wine by the glass at seaside bars in Sicily. Flavours tend in the direction of so many unoaked Italian whites.
In a nutshell: Fresh, flavourful, delicate and floral. Makes me very intrigued to try more Oldfield.
Bartestree Parsonage 2020 – review
Lot No.03A. A vivid green pear described by Martell as “very rare” and “an irregular cropper”, which is probably why, off the top of my head, I can’t recall seeing it as a single variety before. (Though I’m sure it exists or has existed as such – anyone with more precise knowledge, feel free to put the comments section to good use). Like the others in this lineup it’s hand-picked and bottled pét nat. Cat in the Glass seem to have sold out of this one at the time of writing, but when I bought mine it was the same price as the bottles above.
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Pearlescent Gold. Bright mousse.
On the nose: Another lovely nose, combining gummy fruit – think wine gums and jelly beans in green, yellow and orange – with lime skin, cut grass, floral tangerine oil and the pronounced stoniness seen in the Barnet. This is the sort of nose that convinces romantics like me that surely, surely, terroir can whisper through the pear tree as much as it can through the vine. (Possibly even more, given respective ages).
In the mouth: Super-zesty acidity. Wasn’t expecting that from the nose! By far the zestiest yet, with a brush of cat’s-tongue, crystalline perry tannins too. Lemons and limes, vivid green pear. Yuzu, gooseberry, rhubarb. One for Thorn fans, which definitely includes me.
In a nutshell: Vivid, arresting and full of flavour. Should age well, but I love its youthful exuberance.
Bartestree Brandy 2020 – review
Lot No.07X. A bit of a cheat, as this is in fact a blend of 5 varieties, but described by the label as “starring the Brandy pear”. No clues as to the exact percentages or what the other varieties are. But you can have fun guessing. I’ve included a picture from Pears of Gloucestershire here, as it’s such a striking-looking pear with its sun-blushed pinky-red hue. Don’t be put off by the colour on the inside of the cut-in-half pear, incidentally – that’s what’s called “bletting”, and it’s something makers look for in certain varieties as providing additional richness and depth of flavour. Mentioned in a bit more detail in this article by Jonny Garrett. Again, 750ml and 375ml options are available at £9.50 and £4.50 from Cat in the Glass.
How I served: Chilled, but left out of the fridge half an hour.
Appearance: Mid-gold. Deepest so far. Sparkling.
On the nose: As suggested by the colour, that’s the deepest nose yet, though there’s still lots of freshness and high tone. Citrus is joined by cantaloupe, peach and light apricot, lightly drizzled with honey. There’s a tiny, tiny smidge of reduction when I open the bottle, but after 5 minutes it’s blown off without trace.
In the mouth: Again, fuller-bodied. Mouth-filling mousse. Ripe. A light touch of tannin, not much acidity, though just enough to stay fresh. Dab of sweetness. The fruit is very full, leading with pears poached in white wine and then tending down that nectarine and tropical direction. One for fans of aromatic whites – Pinot Gris, riper Chenin Blanc, even Viognier.
In a nutshell: Indulgent perry, full of flavour. Love this.
Bartestree Hendre Huffcap 2019 – review
Lot No.12A. Couldn’t possibly say anything about this bottling that Chris didn’t say more emphatically and lyrically in his beautiful paean here. But given someone of his experience had written so enthusiastically about a bottling I couldn’t resist adding it to the lineup. Hendre Huffcap’s certainly a variety I know I often enjoy, but I’ve not written one up on Cider Review since the Hecks I covered here. This Bartestree is currently sold out on Cat in the Glass, but the bottle I bought appeared on the website after Chris had written the same thing – so keep your eyes peeled for a restock. Price was the same as the other 375ml bottles – I never saw this in 750.
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Lighter. Back to the Barnet.
On the nose: The most aromatic of the set – not intense and focussed; more a soft, billowing cloud of heather honey, mandarin oil and apricot. Certainly similarities to young Loire Chenin. There’s a flutter of peardrop in the background, but it doesn’t intrude too much on the fruit to my nose.
In the mouth: Very harmonious delivery Like the Barnet, it has just enough acidity to balance the sweetness, though we’re really not talking much. No tannin to speak of. Combines dewy freshness with dabs of runny honey, apricot oils and peach skin. More delicate than the Brandy – lighter bodied – it suggests, rather than shouts, its flavours. But everything has a wonderful clarity and definition.
In a nutshell: The softly-spoken person who holds the room with their every word. Another excellent, wine-like (sorry Rachel) perry.
A gorgeous quintet from Bartestree. A real journey of flavour, though, unsurprisingly given their youth, all united by a refreshing, high-toned vivacity. I would also say that these are five perries which all nod in the direction of various unoaked white wines. This may be an unpopular opinion in some quarters, but I’d argue that perry’s flavour palette nods far more emphatically in a vinous direction than does cider – a hypothesis borne out by the many times I’ve put perry in front of wine drinkers.
That notwithstanding, it remains very much its own drink and, in the hands of Bartestree, a truly delicious one. My favourites of the set? After much to-ing and fro-ing I’d probably nod towards the Brandy for its indulgent richness and the Parsonage for its vibrancy and chutzpah. But I wouldn’t hesitate to buy any one of these perries again. I just hope, as the world returns to normal, that those of us outside Herefordshire will continue to be able to.