Here’s a paradox for you (perry is full of them). The place in the UK most closely associated historically with perry is the Three Counties – Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire. Yet the perry that is, by a million country miles, the most famous of all time, came from Somerset. Yes, friends, I’m talking about Babycham.
It had to come up eventually. Babycham is the elephant in perry’s room. There will be many many people – perry’s most passionate devotees – who will decry Babycham’s right to the moniker, but perry – proper, full-juice, all-fresh-pear perry – is what the drink started life as, and perry is what it technically continues to be today.
Virtually everyone has heard of Babycham – it’s unquestionably more famous than perry itself (another paradox). The number of people who have commented on one of my perry articles with a previous-Babycham-experience-related remark is significant, almost always with a tone of fond nostalgia for ‘70s dalliances and the deer (a Chamois, for anyone interested) on the label. I remember my sister, who is distinctly not from the ‘70s, drinking it with Christmas dinner aged fifteen or thereabouts, just so she could say she was drinking something alcoholic and thereby underscore her credentials to perceived maturity. She certainly didn’t know it was a perry, and even if she had, that certainly wouldn’t have been her motivation for insisting that my parents furnish her with it.
Babycham transcended its category so completely that it can be hard to remember that this often-derided (or, if not derided, then certainly gently chuckled at) drink began life as a bona fide perry-drinker’s-perry with serious clout. Before it was a global institution, churning out a scarcely-believable 2,800 dozen bottles an hour, capturing markets with “Rather Have a Babycham” campaigns and losing lawsuits against people who implied it was blatantly ripping off champagne, Francis Showering’s perry, made in the traditional (champagne) method, was cleaning up at agricultural shows and competitions.
It’s mid-boggling to think of traditional method perry being advertised as such in nationally-noticed campaigns, but in the 1950s that was what Babycham was. But even before the usual laws of “production up, production values down” impacted the quality of the drink, the point of Babycham was not that it was a perry, but that it was a celebratory perry.
The marketing minds behind Babycham recognised that here was a drink that had been made in the same way as champagne, whose flavour profile (honestly, it once did) leant at least slightly in the direction of champagne, which could be served at the same occasions and from the same glasses as champagne, and which – crucially – could make people feel the same way as they did when they drank champagne. Make them feel special. Make them feel important. And it could do that at a conveniently much lower price.
It will come as no surprise that the Babycham you can still buy today bears no close relation to the drink that set it on this path, nor to the drinks we have been writing about throughout perry month, but there are important lessons that perry can learn from its most famous iteration. Perry, particularly young perry from the less tannic varieties, is a joyful, high-toned, fruit-filled drink which takes fizz superbly and whose flavours – whilst distinctly not the same – tick enough of the boxes that sparkling wine drinkers are looking to be ticked to market itself as an entirely credible alternative. Almost any one of the five Bartestrees I reviewed on Wednesday could easily have taken the place of a wedding reception fizz and, what’s more, would have comfortably delivered more flavour than any sparkling wine of nearly the same price.
Obviously no one has a Showering’s budget to casually drop on marketing – I’m not expecting to see “I’d rather have a Flakey Bark” on television any time soon, and not just because Flakey Bark is certainly not very much like champagne or Prosecco. But there is something to be said for conjuring these associations in the minds of as-yet-uninformed potential perry drinkers.
As fascinating as wonks like me find the stories of centuries-old trees, innumerable rare varieties, unique tannin structures and so on, visually demonstrating to a consumer that a drink is fun, frivolous and will make them feel as special as a Prosecco, Cava or Champagne might has far broader potential for selling a newcomer that first bottle. And when it tastes delicious in an entirely new and unique way whilst hitting many of their preferences and expectations, they’ll probably come back for a second. And we can tell them all about Betty Prosser and sorbitol then.
Someone who has long grasped the importance of making a new drink feel special and familiar is Tony Lovering at Halfpenny Green. My in-depth interview with him last year remains one of my all-time favourites on this site – as fascinating a conversation as I can remember having. Where discussions with other makers almost invariably tack in a fruit-centric direction, Tony – an engineer by trade – is primarily interested in the different ways he can work with that fruit, generally to make it various sorts of sparkling. I’ve yet to visit the Halfpenny Green cidery itself, but accounts from other visitors describe it as a Willy Wonka’s factory of home-made machinery designed to make ciders go pop. Just last week he told me that he’s working with 200kg of damsons this year, and therefore spent two weeks building a contraption that would remove all the pits. Apparently, once it was finished, the de-stoning took ten minutes!
Perry is a relatively new venture for Tony. In last year’s piece I tasted a couple of his earliest creations, which were still very much in the prototype stage. Today’s bottles are from his second vintage. I remember when we went to CidrExpo together in February 2020 that he was particularly taken with the Domfront perries we tried (as was I) and I’m fascinated to learn that the three perries below were made with French varieties, including Antricotin, albeit with methods that deviate from those deployed in Normandy.
Ultimately, Tony’s plan is to cultivate a range that mirrors his ciders in reflecting every different method of sparkling production. (For details of all the ways to make bubbles, see our taxonomy of cider). Today I’ll be tasting the new vintage of Farthing, his bottle conditioned, the previous iteration of which I enjoyed tremendously last year, alongside Thrupence, a charmat method – the technique used to make Prosecco – and Penny, a still, medium perry. Bottles aren’t currently advertised on the Halfpenny Green website, as sales are mainly at fairs and directly from the cidery, however all are available by contacting Tony directly here. There’s also, since the writing of this article, a post on their facebook page advertising the Penny at £7 per 750ml bottle and the Thrupence at £8.50.
Halfpenny Green Penny 2020 – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Pale lemon. Still
On the nose: Lots going on. Very aromatic, straddling citrus and tropical fruit. Quince, yuzu, pineapple. Squeezed lime juice and a little hawthorn blossom. Fresh, clean, delicate stuff – and you can certainly nose the French connection.
In the mouth: Juicier arrival than expected. Quite a lot of sweetness but the acidity and very light tannin balance. Juicy pear plus more quince and pineapple. Lime chewits. All about the fruit. Sits just inside the border of volatile. Well caught!
In a nutshell: A fruity, expressive table perry which certainly nods towards its pears’ country of origin.
Halfpenny Green Thruppence 2020 (charmat method) – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: As above, but with nice, controlled fizz.
On the nose: Here’s something interesting. Looking back at my notes for Tony’s Charmat Cider there is a very similar tang here of something almost disinfectant-chloriney that sits on top of otherwise very bright, floral, peachy-peary fruit. It isn’t a specific ‘fault’ or anything, just something unusual. Presumably derives from the method or the machine then. To my taste it works better here than it did with the cider.
In the mouth: Rounded, fruity apple’n’pear softness with lovely white petal florals, a little dab of lemon and a vivacious but non-intrusive mousse that sets all the flavours alight. Just a smidge off-dry. No sign of that disinfectant thing here. The fruit and the method compliment each other superbly.
In a nutshell: I defy you to pour this to a Prosecco lover and not get a rapturous reception.
Halfpenny Green Farthing 2020 (bottle conditioned) – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Similar to Thruppence but with a slight haze and a slightly livelier fizz.
On the nose: Gosh, love that. Lees impact has given this a wonderful layer of biscuity toastiness on top of green pear and apple, lime leaf and freshly-mown lawn. It’s a really beautiful fruit-lees balance actually; ripe fruit and savouriness in perfect harmony.
In the mouth: Lovely again. The fruit is broader than on the nose, expanding into honeydew melon and passion fruit beside the pear and the seam of ripe greenness. There’s just enough acidity and gentle tannin to balance it all structurally and again those toasty lees and the juicy grren-yellow fruit find a gorgeous interplay, buoyed by creamy, richening mousse. The driest yet – just a whisper off-dry. Super.
In a nutshell: The most complex and layered of the three, and my personal pick. Delicious perry.
This trio collectively captures the celebratory nature of perry with vibrant, super-appealing fruitiness across the board that is springboarded by the fizz in both of the latter bottles. The method has made a big difference to each – the Charmat is all fruitiness (unusual element on the nose notwithstanding) whereas the lees have played a beautifully judged part in just painting an extra layer onto the Farthing, which is my personal pick of the crop.
A tasty reminder of the quality that Tony so frequently produces. I’d rather have a Halfpenny Green.