There’s a phrase from Pete Brown and Bill Bradshaw’s magnificent World’s Best Ciders that has always lingered with me – that cider “is a uniquely insular drink”. This idea that every cidermaking country (or at least those in Europe) believes theirs to be, if not the only one, then the most important and best.
One of the joys of the last few years (there have been a few, amidst the grimness) has been seeing this once-truth gradually erode. We’re certainly not where I’d like the drink to be, but it is far easier now to buy international ciders than it once was, thanks to the importing work of such folk as re:stalk, among others. Ciders from France, Spain, America, Ukraine, Sweden and Switzerland are all available to the UK customer, just off the top of my head; we’ve had a chance to write about them all here on Cider Review, and bottlings like Eve’s Albee Hill, the Ice Ciders of Eden and Brännland and the creations of Eric Bordelet are enjoying almost as much appreciation among UK cider enthusiasts as they do in their countries of origin.
But it’s not just about the availability of bottles. Increasingly interested drinkers – crucially, not just makers – are curious about the ciders made in the elsewhere of the world. The introduction of international competitions is a proof of that; this year I’ve had the opportunity to judge for both the ICC and the IWSC, the latter of which saw particular success for Sweden’s Brännland. (Which, for the record, was not a surprise to this particular judge!)
Cider competitions are still, in my opinion, a work in progress on several levels; I think ‘style’ categories need a bit of thought generally (but I’m admittedly biased, having made my feelings on the problem with style fairly clear in our taxonomy here). I also feel that the price of submitting entries is a bit of a barrier to the majority of excellent small producers, and although these competitions are businesses with costs, I wonder whether some sort of sliding scale based on cidery size would be workable. (The answer to that question may well be ‘no, it isn’t’, incidentally – I don’t know). And finally, since I’m offering my hot takes, I think that the IWSC, in future competitions when it is perhaps able to bring in a broader panel of judges, could possibly consider tweaking its balance of wine specialist vs cider specialist, which in this inaugural year was perhaps weighted more in favour of the former. Nonetheless, its existence is an important and wonderful thing, its first outing was overall a grand success, and the job that it and other cider competitions have the potential to do in raising international awareness of cider is of huge significance.
But most important of all are the conversations that are now happening between cider lovers of different international cultures. We’ve tried to be a part of that at Cider Review, through things like our international spotlight month in June, our Instagram conversation with French cider specialist Camille and, before the formation of this site, the international spotlight series that James led and I participated in on his own Instagram in January. Blogs and drinks commentary, being an inherently parasitic and reactive activity, requires a healthy host to feed off and hold a mirror up to. Which is a roundabout way of saying that our various activities here are only made possible because of the increasingly visible connections that are being made across the cider world. America’s CiderCon, apart from bringing makers from across the USA together, has featured a number of British speakers over the years, from Tom Oliver to Gabe Cook and from Susanna and James Forbes to Martin Berkley and Felix Nash. Similarly, American experts like Ria Windcaller and Eleanor Leger have featured at the UK’s equivalent, CraftCon. At CidrExpo last year I was struck by the conversations between the French producers and their counterparts from Belgium, Denmark, Spain and beyond. And again, guest speakers included Jane Peyton and Gabe Cook (he’s on the billing everywhere!) Cider is getting chatty. Bridges, from island to island, are gradually being built.
Perry, as it does in every respect, lags a little way behind. Partially this is simply because of relative scale – there is far more cider made globally than perry, there are far fewer makers and those makers tend to have more focus on their ciders. There are, accordingly, far fewer drinkers, with far less associated conversation, writing and coverage. We’ve been so grateful for the support our perry month has had, but (as expected) there’s been rather a dip in our article by article numbers when compared to a usual month in which cider plays an equal or, more usually, majority role.
It’s hard for those of us who love perry, who are so immersed in its world and vocal in our belief of its quality, to accept this. Anyone who has tasted the likes of a Pacory Domfront l’Ideal, a Bartestree or Ross on Wye single variety, an Oliver’s keeve or a great Austrian Birnenmost like Preh, Brous or Exibatur knows that these are drinks you could not only pour for anyone, but could do so confident that the reaction would be “wow”. From my own experience, when I’ve poured a flight of ciders for any wine loving friends and included a perry, the perry, more often than not, has taken the majority vote. Which isn’t to say, of course, that perry is solely of interest to wine lovers, as the wonderful Beer-Perry co-ferment we reviewed at the start of this month so beautifully proves, in addition to brilliant perry articles written by such beer stalwarts as Matthew Curtis.
For perry to continue gathering traction it needs to step out of cider’s shadow more. I’m not suggesting it disassociate itself entirely – I’ve no doubt that much of its turnaround in fortuned has been driven by well-loved cidermakers also offering perries. But in terms of the way it is celebrated and spoken about, it deserves the same individual focus that is so often given to cider. I’m talking about dedicated perry tastings. Perry festivals. Perry books, rather than a tucked away perry chapter in a cider book (heavens forfend). Instead of “you’re here for the cider, would you also like to try this”, I’d love to see perry given centre stage. And of course, in doing so, I’d love to see the same lines of communication that are being so admirably built across cider regions being constructed around the marvellous juice of the pear. Even if Brexit continues to stuff up import-export for the foreseeable, I’d love there to be conversations between makers from the Three Counties and makers from Domfront. Online tastings. Collaborative thinking. Not only can I barely get anything from Austria’s Mostviertel region in the UK, but perry makers and perry drinkers over here barely know the region exists, and it’s one of the three biggest perry heartlands in the world.
As Barry pointed out in his excellent article recently, as far back as the seventeenth century there was communication at the most interested level between perry lovers in central Europe and perry lovers in the UK. Discussions about varieties and styles and flavours. A meeting of minds and a sharing of ideas. Surely, surely, in this most connected of ages, the same is now possible again?
Barry himself is at the forefront of promoting this very ideal. He touched on his International Perry Pear Project in his last article, but was too modest to go into much more detail on it. His aim is to plant a meadow in Schefflenz with rare, endangered and high quality perry pear trees from around the world. Not just German varieties, but the likes of England’s Flakey Bark as well as examples from Switzerland, Austria and (I certainly hope) France. Supporters of the project can sponsor individual trees or areas of meadow. Cards on the table, I signed up straight away and am delighted to think that, abetting those six trees on May Hill, is a Flakey Bark sapling in Germany that I’ve helped make possible.
Aside from the importance of this work from the perspective of conservation, cross-border plantings of great perry pears can only be good for the health of the category in the long term. It broadens the palette with which makers and blenders can work, and it is of eye-catching interest to drinkers. The Ross on Wye Spanish Apples blend was fascinating for this very reason and, I believe, has sold well accordingly. An upcoming Little Pomona Perry made from French varieties will likely have a similar result. I think Halfpenny Green could possibly have made more of the use of French varieties in their own bottlings, reviewed here yesterday. The modern drinker is curious, is interested in new flavours and wants to try things from other countries and cultures as much as they want to try things made just down the road. Crucially, the planting of international varieties does some of the same job as the importing of international bottles. It makes people aware that these other cultures exist. It starts building those bridges.
Of course most significant of all is the fact that Barry is an active participant within the British cider bubble of communication as well as that of his local market. Admittedly he’s aided in this respect by being a former member of Irish beer twitter as a co-founder of Beoir and has the advantage of being able to communicate fluently in both German and English. But nonetheless, effort has been made to be a part of both conversations, and in this respect he is virtually unique. The net result has been a corps of UK drinkers who have been particularly interested to try Kertelreiter ciders and perries, buoyed by the happy fact that they have, in my experienced, consistently ranged from good to excellent in their quality. I’ve reviewed and loved them several times here, and it remains my fondest hope that a route to the UK market can be found for Barry’s necessarily small volumes. (I know it’s being worked on.)
To judge by Barry’s twitter feed, perry has comfortably superseded cider in his affections, and it’s three of his perries that I have to try here today. (Usual admission – Barry kindly sent me samples). All are from his 2020 vintage. Firstly, a recreation of a spiced perry based on a recipe from 1806 – Good Lord, flavoured ciders and perries aren’t a new thing! This one, unlike many of the diluted, sweetened, duty-constrained flavoured bottles in the UK, is a full juice perry that has been bottled at full strength and flavoured with elderflower, honey and various spices. Next up is the new vintage of Levitation, the 2019 of which I absolutely adored. The 2020 is a blend of Oberösterreicher Weinbirne, Schweizer Wasserbirne and Luxemburger Mostbirne, which to my GCSE-level German sounds an admirably international gathering. Last of all is *insert chef’s kiss emoji* – no, honestly, that’s its name, and is clearly the work of *cough* genius. It’s a wild fermented blend of five unidentified varieties picked from individual trees around Schefflenz and aged on its lees for eight months.
Kertelreiter 1806 Spiced Perry Trocken – review
How I served: Chilled.
Appearance: Pearlescent lemon
On the nose: That is right up my street. I’ve always loved the smell of nutmeg (though that wasn’t behind the naming of our kitten) and it’s certainly presenting here, with ginger and possibly clove and mace. But it’s beautifully delicate – a lacing on top of fresh, crisp pear fruit. Just an absolute delight to nose. Fragrant, clear, perfumed.
In the mouth: See nose. The full-strength nature of the perry means that there is enough body and bright, juicy fruit to stand up to the tingly spicings of nutmeg and ginger. (There’s actually a little heat from the ginger too, which as a ginger beer obsessive is well in my wheel park). Elderflower and honey come through more here for me, complimenting the citrus and orchard fruit of the perry. But what’s marvellous is how clear and refreshing it all is, despite the spicings. There’s nothing heavy here at all.
In a nutshell: Springtime meets Christmas. My favourite flavoured cider or perry ever by miles. Repeat please.
Kertelreiter Levitation 2020 – review
How I served: Medium-chilled
Appearance: Pale Gold. Mid sparkle.
On the nose: Very fruity. Big pineapple and lime, but there’s a green seam of almost tomato stem too alongside elderflower and a note of almost parma violet that makes me think of Downside Special Reserve 2017, albeit this is younger and higher-toned. Less depth than the 2019 – this is more in the aromatic and fresh zone. Very lovely.
In the mouth: The theme of freshness continues. Brighter than the 2019 was, less broad in its fruit and although there’s a brush of tannin it’s far less pronounced than in last year’s. This is definitely an adjusted style of blend. Flavours again show green citrus, elderflower and that hint of parma violet. I’m reminded of Thorn, but I’m also strongly reminded of young Hunter Valley Semillon – which I love. Intense flavours, long finish.
In a nutshell: If 2019 was for Flakey Bark fans, this spritely, exuberant 2020 is for Thorn fans. Whistle-clean, expressive, super-tasty dry perry.
Kertelreiter *insert chef’s kiss emoji* 2020 – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Appearance: A tone deeper. Same fizz.
On the nose: Again, super fruity as well as incredibly pure in the expression of its fruit, but as the colour suggests it’s all a few tones deeper and riper than the Levitation. Less green, more gold. Juicy pineapple chunks, poached pears, dired quince and quince jelly too. Fruit expresses as both fresh and juicily gummy. A lovely husky pear skin in the background stops it from just being a fruit bomb. Adds a tone more complexity. Epic perry nose.
In the mouth: When perry meets lilt! Not as much as Barry’s own Straumr, which I’m pretty sure was literally lilt plus alcohol, but this is huge on pineapple and ripe, tropical tones. There should be a cocktail umbrella in the glass. One of those perries that’s so fruity it’s hard to realise it’s completely dry (or at least as dry as perry can get – and there’s not much sorbitol in this, I don’t think). Huge, ripe, juicy flavours with exactly the right level of acidity and tannin to offer structure without imposing. Fresh pear fruit and yellow citrus buzz around the tropical tones giving them energy and lift and zing. Really refreshing, mineral finish.
In a nutshell: Superb. My perry of the month. Possibly my perry of the year so far.
I’ve been an open fan of Barry’s ciders and perries for a while now, but these three, to my mind, collectively represent his best work to date. Gun to my head I think I slightly preferred the 2019 Levitation to the 2020, but the 2020 remains delicious, would be the favourite of many, many drinkers, and I’d stock up on loads if I was able to.
The other two are quite simply world class. 1806 is easily my favourite flavoured cider or perry ever. The spicings dovetail with the perry far more harmonious, in my opinion, than other fruits might, and the net result is something truly different, surprising, refreshing, and delicious. I would buy a case if I was able. Then *insert chef’s kiss emoji*. Just the most compelling and eloquent argument for dry perry that you can imagine. I want to both share it with everyone I know and hog it all to myself. It is still, having given it some thought since tasting, as good a perry as I’ve had this year. And I have been very, very lucky in the perries I’ve had the opportunity to buy.
To our German readers – hello and thank you! – I say: buy anything Kertelreiter makes. And to those who are trying to bring Kertelreiter to the UK, I say – please keep trying. You are doing the Lord’s work. Quality like this is what those international bridges will be built on.