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The shining secret: a journey through perry

Imagine there was a drink that you loved; one whose history was long, story fascinating and quality and breadth of potential flavours mesmerising and delicious.

Imagine this drink was made, at its best, with the utmost care despite offering its makers some of the most challenging hurdles of any fermented liquid on the planet. Imagine the plants that produced this drink were, in some cases, over three centuries old, and imagine that some of those plants numbered fewer than ten in the world.

Imagine this drink, this wonderful, wonderful drink that you loved had been in genuine peril of disappearing altogether in the last ten years, and that the threat to its existence was still not entirely gone. Wouldn’t you want to tell everyone you knew? Wouldn’t you want to share it?

When my job in wine comes up in conversations people make interested noises and ask me questions about whether I get to taste a lot of it. When I wrote about whisky, friends would tell me about the Glen-xyz they’d tasted recently, or the distillery they visited on holiday in Scotland. When I shifted my remit to cider the interested noises took on a politely confused “oh really” tone, as though it was all a bit earthy and eccentric. But if I mention to people that I write about perry, the most common response is “what’s that?”

Perry, in the year of our Lord 2021, is in the rudest health it has enjoyed for years. Both in terms of the number of people drinking it and the breadth of bottles available to those who live outside its heartland regions. Its resurgent popularity has been underlined to me by the exceedingly generous reception our Perry Month has been given by Cider Review readers. The interview we published with Tom Oliver to open the month sits comfortably in the top ten most-read articles of the 160 we’ve published to date and the bread-and-butter review articles and accompanying preambles, though a fraction down on the numbers we tend to see for cider, are a lot closer to parity than I had expected when the idea of a perry spotlight month was first mooted. The articles by Barry have also, deservedly, been tremendously well-received, with his brilliant piece, The Quest for the Turgovian Pear, proving a particular favourite. Perry’s devotees are a passionate and curious bunch and any drink would be lucky to have them.

But, so far as perry communication goes, the map for the new drinker remains more blank space than ink. Cider is getting there, and has been brilliantly served in the last year by the likes of Burum Collective, Neutral Cider Hotel, Pellicle, Cider Voice and many more besides – not to mention the excellent and timely publications of Modern British Cider and Cider Country by Gabe Cook and James Crowden respectively. Perry, for the meantime, lags behind. Not so much an afterthought as the quiet, nervous character in the corner; happy to let cider do most of its talking; grateful just to be noticed at all, and shuffling a little uncomfortably in the spotlight of attention.

Although we’d written a fair bit about perry previously, Perry Month was our attempt to address this to the best of our amateur-blogger capabilities. We’ve not covered as much ground as I’d have liked – it was always going to be a big ask given how few of us there are here, and that we’re all writing outside of another 9-5. I’m particularly remiss, as was gently pointed out on twitter, in not spotlighting the brilliant work done by Jim Chapman as well as Ragged Stone’s Chris, Alice and Lucie in championing perry at the Three Counties Autumn Show (and for the rest of the year).

But fudging and fumbling this month into some sort of shape; thinking about perry as the main dish rather than the side order, I’ve built a clearer picture in my head of the shape of what I hope Gabe won’t mind me calling modern British perry. And although I couldn’t possibly hope to summarise it in a single article, it occurred to me that the best way of walking through its rich and varied landscape; its fruits and flavours and styles and regions and challenges and characters and pitfalls and triumphs might be to take inspiration from James’ epic explorations of Dabinett and Yarlington Mill and dive deep into the bottlings from which the story of perry is stitched.

So here follows a sort of structured stream of perry consciousness. An upending of the tasting notebook in the form of twenty-one perry bottlings from producers across the south of England, stitched into what I hope is at least a vaguely coherent narrative. Advance apologies for the lack of anything from Wales – I used up the last Welsh perries in my collection when I covered Monnow Valley, and I was having too much fun at the Ross on Wye festival to write notes for the (excellent) Llanbethian Orchards I tasted there.

But, that aside … some perries, shuffled into a semblance (I hope) of order:

Perry is a drink made from the juice of fermented pears. Like cider it can be diluted, sweetened, flavoured and made from concentrate, but the best examples come entirely from fresh-pressed pear juice. And most of the best of all – certainly in the west of England and across the Welsh border – are made from varieties whose varying properties of tannin and acid paradoxically render them all but inedible as a source of food.

Historically harvested to feed pigs and scavenged as nourishment for the very poorest, it was discovered that they made a glorious drink, and when England found itself embroiled in continental wars in the seventeenth century, perry ascended. Today, the descendants of those pears (in some cases, like Barland, the very same varieties) are collectively termed “perry pears” even though (as we’ll see) perry can also be made from pears used for cooking and eating too.

The most common modern perry pear, by some mileage, is Blakeney Red. Tom mentioned it as one of his three most-important varieties in our interview, and I thoroughly enjoyed his 2015 way back in March of last year, when I wrote my first perry article. It’s a ripe, juicy, open and appealing variety that adds body and fruit to a blend and is frequently bottled on its own, but as little as a century ago it was derided as a sub-par variety best suited to animal feed and for using to dye the uniforms of soldiers on the Western Front. Certainly it doesn’t tend to have the same intensity and complexity as one or two other varieties, and its structural properties of acid and tannin are on the low side, but this shift in its appraisal is, to my mind, an interesting one. A change in tastes? A change in the way the pear manifests? Or just the result of orcharding expediency? Who knows?

I’ve two Blakeneys lined up today, both from Ross on Wye, who need no introduction. Both were at least partially fermented in oak casks and, true to usual Ross type, both were fermented with wild yeasts and then bottle conditioned. Curiously, both are also a blend of two different vintages – the first a mix of 2016 and 2017, the second a 2018-2019 hybrid. The earlier vintage bottling I found at Middle Farm in Sussex and can’t now find online; the latter is available from Ross itself, as well as from Scrattings and Cat in the Glass for between £7.50-£10 for 750ml.

Ross on Wye Blakeney Red Batch P21 2016-2017 – review

How I served: Lightly chilled

Appearance: Very pale gold. Light fizz.

On the nose – Good Lord, oak in a perry. One of the first times we’ve found that this month, now I think on it. Doesn’t obscure the pear and melon and honeysuckle of the Blakeney though. Rather, it paints a deep and dusky vanilla and malt whisky and white currant layer onto it. Pear fruit has dried, deepened and developed nicely with age. More depth than most I’ve had this month, but the primary freshness has remained too.

In the mouth: Rounded and complex. Again the pear fruit is the star – fresh and dried. All shades of melon, hints of honey. Dry, but very juicy. But the sweet spice and savoury oak give it an extra dimension which, given its low acidity and tannin, it really benefits from. A thread of saline smoke (not peat).

In a nutshell: Complex, soft, developed, matured. Lovely fusion of variety, barrel and time.

Ross on Wye Blakeney Red 2018-2019 – review

How I served: Lightly chilled

Appearance: Same, but with a light haze and more fizz.

On the nose: Less overtly fruity, or indeed overtly Blakeney on the nose, though florals and melon fruit come through with time and swirling in the glass. A slatey seam of petrichor and a light whiff of struck match. Honey, vanilla and oak. Bourbon cask? [Apparently not – Ed] It’s a sweeter nose than the previous. A little greener in its fruit too. Very fresh.

In the mouth: More acidity and fizz than its stablemate. Flavours are a transplant of the nose – a more floral iteration of Blakeney, with oak that is sweeter – coconut, vanilla – than the duskier, richer tones of the ’16-’17. Fresh and fruity and rounded.

In a nutshell: More exuberant than its predecessor, if less complex without that extra maturity. Still a lovely Blakeney with the clear Ross thumbprint.

Despite having made these excellent bottlings, I’ve heard Albert Johnson make sniffy remarks about Blakeney Red as a variety on more than one occasion. So let’s move on to one he has praised in the highest terms – Gin. I forget the exact quote (it was a whatsapp from about a year ago) but it was something along the lines of it being the best looking, the best pressing, the clearest juice, the best smelling, the best tasting and the best-named. Which all seemed pretty effusive.

Gin is certainly one of the most striking trees I’ve ever seen. Tom Oliver called it the most beautiful of all varieties, but as gorgeous as the vividly-emerald pears are, what really strikes me, when looking at a Gin tree, is the way the grapes cluster around the branch like bunches of grapes on a vine. Photo below, which doesn’t do them justice.

Gin pear appeared at some point in the 19th century, was likely named for its characteristic traces of juniper and is absolutely not a pear for eating. Since Albert praised it so emphatically, I’ve lined up another Ross, the 750ml 2019, alongside a 2020 single variety Gin from Cwm Maddoc, the first time I’ve tried a Gin perry from that cidery. The Ross is available from all the same sources as the Blakeney was as well as from Fram Ferment, and the Cwm Maddoc can also be found on Cat in the Glass for £8.95.

Ross on Wye Gin 2019 – review

How I served: Medium chilled

Appearance: Bright gold. Same fizz as the last Blakeney.

On the nose: Very typical of this variety. Lime skin, juniper, pine needle and rain on rocks. Aromatic, but not in a billowing cloud way – it’s very detailed and defined. Green but not in an unripe sense. Shows all the unique qualities of Gin pear. A trace of reductiveness blows off after a minute or two of swirling.

In the mouth: Beautiful Gin pear sticky-grippy, crystalline perry tannins all wrapped up in fruit and body. Again the theme is woodland green. Elderflower, juniper, lime (though only in flavour – there’s not much acidity here). A walk through a northern forest. Off-dry to medium. Pretty low alcohol for Ross, just 4%.

In a nutshell: A great showcase of the properties that make this pear so strikingly individual. Deliciously refreshing as well as a glass to contemplate.

Cwm Maddoc Gin 2020 – review

How I served: Chilled

Appearance: Elderflower pressé with moderate fizz.

On the nose: Lots of green pear juice; ripe and giving a strong impression that this will be sweet. A very fruity and floral Gin – buckets of elderflower. (Looking back at my review of their Thorn, a theme for their 2020 perries!) Still little dabs of juniper and pine in the background though.

In the mouth: Sweet indeed – this wants chilling well, especially without the zip of acid to balance the natural sugars. Rounded fruit – it’s fleshy for Gin – big green pear and honeydew melon plus that enormous elderflower. Just a smatter of juniper. Tannins are very well-behaved, just lending structural support – no astringency.

In a nutshell: Not the most classically ‘Ginny’ Gin ever, but a big ripe, juicy fruit-and-flower basket of a perry that will have broad appeal.

A sad and striking feature of reading through Charles Martell’s brilliant Pears of Gloucestershire and Perry Pears of the Three Counties is seeing how many varieties are rare or critically endangered. We touched on this in our article on Flakey Bark, one of my favourite varieties and boasting only six known mature trees. A perry I’ve not seen for years is the single variety Coppy from Tom Oliver – though, in his defence, only one adult tree exists.

Perry pear trees are very sensitive to the bacterial infection of fire blight, and it would be all-too-easy for some of these varieties to be completely lost to the world. It’s this that makes endeavours like Barry’s International Perry Pear Project so immediately crucial. From our own perspective as consumers, the best thing we can do is to keep drinking and championing perries made from these fragile and often superb-quality pears. So often, when it comes to agricultural products (and indeed most things), proof of demand is the first step in conservation.

So a couple of perries from uncommon varieties. Butt, by comparison to some of the others mentioned, is not high on the endangered list. But it’s relatively lesser-spotted as a single variety perry, and its resultant drink is frequently magnificent. The Ross bottling I reviewed with James earlier this month has become one of Caroline’s favourite things of the year and was bought at the festival by friends of ours who had never tried perry before and absolutely loved it. Butt is a late-harvesting variety and a rare example of a pear that can keep for a little while after picking and before pressing, giving rise to the phrase “gather your Butts one year, mill them the next and drink them the year after”. In my glass today is a single variety Butt from Seb’s Cider, a producer who is a feature of the Ross festival, but who has only recently crept online via Fram Ferment. Annoyingly, in between buying this bottle and posting the review, it appears to have sold out. But perhaps more stock will make its way back in.

An altogether rarer prospect, discovered and made into perry for the very first time in 2020, and boasting only three known mature trees, is Cefnydd Hyfryd, a Welsh pear harvested by Cwm Maddoc. I covered the full story of this variety in a profile of Cwm Maddoc on Pellicle and was excited to try the finished perry from the moment I first heard of it. You can also find the full details of the perry written by Cwm Maddoc’s Jeremy here. Only around 100 bottles were made, and most went into the cases put together by CraftCon. At the time of writing an online perusal for more hasn’t borne any fruit.

Seb’s Cider Butt 2019 – review

How I served: Very lightly chilled. Cellar temperature.

Appearance: Similar to the Cwm Maddoc Gin but cloudier

On the nose: High-toned by my mileage with this variety. Almost slightly citrusy. Nettles, grass, sherbet lemons. There’s a little acetic acid and ethyl acetate creeping in – just a bit of nail polish. The fruit is by no means obscured, but perhaps slightly smudged.

In the mouth: Full-bodied, pretty dry and again on the bright end of Butt perries I’ve tasted. Waxy yellow pears, pear skins and more of those sherbet lemons. Not in the same league of tannin as the Ross, just some prickles here and there. But lots of overt yellow fruitiness. There is some volatility here – the acetic and ethyl acetate are just a bit too much for my own preferences. But definitely not to the degree that fans of the wilder stuff wouldn’t find plenty to enjoy.

In a nutshell: A slightly rough-edged but nonetheless high-toned and bright sv Butt. An unusual take on this variety.

Cwm Maddoc Cefnydd Hyfryd 2020 – review

How I served: Chilled

Appearance: Similar to the Ross Gin in both hue and fizz.

On the nose: Very aromatic. Super fruit-driven. Ripe yellow pear, lemons – both flesh and rind – slightly unripe fresh pineapple and some honeysuckle. Has more depth than a lot of perries its age.

In the mouth: Really great acidity – enough for a zing but not in the puckering leagues of Thorn or Foxwhelp. (Chris, you’re safe with this one). Full, ripe body with balanced mousse. Another that’s a carbon copy of its nose – only difference being that here the pineapple has fully ripened. A smatter of tannin and a distinct lemon-tonicy finish.

In a nutshell: Has conditioned into a lovely, distinctive, full and expressive perry. Very nice. A variety worth cherishing.

The bulk of my reviews during this month long perry voyage have been of drinks made in the Three Counties. Hardly surprising, given this is by some mileage the area of the country most associated with the drink (even if the world’s most famous perry comes from further south). Perry’s history in the Three Counties goes back hundreds of years; the place and the drink are indelibly linked, as evocatively explained by Gabe Cook in his original book, Ciderology. (Gabe, being a Gloucestershire boy, has a special connection to it – rather charmingly, the first drink he made was apparently a single variety Thorn from a tree in his grandmother’s garden).

Almost all of the most famous perry pear varieties have their origins in Three Counties soil and I would imagine that Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire collectively account for comfortably the largest acreage of perry pear orchard in the country. The National Perry Pear Centre is based here, and the annual Three Counties Show includes a magnificent exhibition of pears and perries which, to my great shame and regret, I’ve not yet had a chance to visit and see. An amend to make next year.

Although Herefordshire is responsible for the bulk of perry and perrymakers, the Three Counties jointly have such a connection to this fruit and this drink that it has given rise to the historic suggestion that the best perries have to be made in sight of Gloucestershire’s May Hill, a rather beautiful landmark rendered easy to spot by the pimple of pine trees planted on its crest. I’ve long disputed that suggestion, and I doubt it’s one truly believed by any but the most ardent Three Counties disciples, but there’s no doubt that this is a special place, and that perries made in this part of the country include many of the best made in Britain, and indeed some of the best in the world full stop.

So let’s try a few. (NB, the single varieties above are also all from the Three Counties).

I’ve four set out in front of me today. Firstly, a traditional (champagne) method bottling from Cleeve Orchard, the only orchard within the town limits of Ross on Wye itself. (The cidery of the same name is based a little to the north, in Peterstow). This was a bottling I picked up from Middle Farm, but it sporadically appears on cideronline too.

Chris, Alice and Lucie of Ragged Stone must be three of the biggest perry advocates anywhere. In addition to lining up over 100 different perries at the Ministry of Perry Bar for the Three Counties Show, they make a bewildering variety of single varieties and blends which I have formerly had to look on with envy from a distance, since none of their sales are online. So I was especially pleased that a perry of theirs, a single variety Merrlylegs snuck into the CraftCon box – Chris led the discussion on perry at this year’s online event – and I’m tremendously excited to try it today.

Gregg’s Pit and Little Pomona have both featured in these pages several times before, the former a long-time Three Counties perry champion, the latter one of the most talked-about cideries in recent years. The quality of Gregg’s Pit perry is long established, but Little Pomona have historically only bottled one, perhaps two in any given year. I have a suspicion that’s set to change with the 2021 harvest, however; just yesterday James Forbes told me that they pressed over 1000 litres of hand-picked perry in a single day.

Up for review this time is a still 2020 blend of Aylton Red, Blakeney Red and the eponymous Gregg’s Pit Pear from Gregg’s Pit, available from Fram Ferment for £11.40 per 750ml bottle or the Fine Cider Company at £37 for three. And, for something rather different, the Hard Rain Ghose Perry 2020 from Little Pomona – a perrykin made by pressing the rehydrated pomace of three French varieties of perry pear, aged briefly in barrels containing apple and damson lees before bottling at a very gentle 2.9%. It’s largely sold out online, but Painted Wines still have some stock for £9 per 750ml and Pullo offer it for £7.90.

Cleeve Orchard Celebration Perry – review

How I served: Chilled

Appearance: Pale gold. Fine mousse.

On the nose: Super high-toned. Cut grass, clover, lemon zest. There’s a saline doughiness from the lees and a really intense combination of mineral stoniness and fresh spring flowers. Clean, fresh, complex and quite unusual.

In the mouth: Really vivid and citrusy in its arrival. Lemons, limes, kumquats and more fresh meadow flowers. Lovely mouthfeel and mousse.

In a nutshell: Absolutely in sparkling wine territory here. Would be very popular as a fresh, crisp aperitif or toasting fizz. A celebration indeed.

Ragged Stone Merrylegs Sparkling Naturally Medium – review

How I served: Chilled

Appearance: Lord of the Rings letters. Medium mousse

On the nose: Honeyed and floral, but not high-toned blossomy flowers, more the dense perfume of more exotic blooms left in a steamy atmosphere. (I’ve been introduced to this by Caroline leaving flowers in the bathroom). Light caramel and rich, golden poached pear. This isn’t too far off the Cwm Maddoc betty Prosser 2018 actually. Perhaps a shade less fruity. A smattering of lightly nutty oxidation in the background doesn’t really intrude at all.

In the mouth: Sweet, but balanced beautifully by acidity and fizz. Big, rich, ripe pear juice, beeswax and honeycomb. More of that exotic floral tone from the nose. Again there’s a lovely depth and richness to the flavours, and that touch of nuttiness from the nose has vanished completely. Definitely a perry for pudding fans, but it’s balanced enough to cope.

In a nutshell: A sessionable perry in the very best way – sits perfectly beside the pair Chris covered earlier this month. A particular favourite of Caroline’s, too.

Gregg’s Pit Aylton Red, Blakeney Red & Gregg’s Pit 2020 – review

How I served: Medium-chilled

Appearance: Very pale white wine. Still.

On the nose: The floral end of floral. Blossom, hedgerow, light pear, even fresh hay. There is a slight mustiness to this aroma that, set against the delicacy of the fruit, stands out a little, but overall a good nose.

In the mouth: Very crisp and fresh and again treads a floral pear-and-blossom path. Somewhere between Pinot Grigio and Alsace Pinot Gris. Tense, concentrated, with a nice viscous body. Dry. Its flavours should open up over the next year or two but are very nice already.

In a nutshell: An easy-to-recommend alternative to the table wine whites of France and especially Italy. Refined, balanced and delicate perry.

Little Pomona Hard Rain Ghost Perry 2020 – review

How I served: Chilled

Appearance: Hazy Provence rosé. Lively fizz. A bit of nucleation from the sediment but nowhere near kitchen redecoration levels.

On the nose: A typically vivacious and bright Little Pomona Ciderkin nose full of pink grapefruit, raspberry and zesty, citrusy pear. All high-toned and fresh and frivolous.

In the mouth: Picks up where the nose left off. Pink berry fruit, limes, pink grapefruit and rhubarb, fresh, clean acidity and a spritely mousse.

In a nutshell: The sort of drink that I feel almost slightly daft reviewing. This isn’t for analysis – it’s for glugging down by the pitcher. Bottled giggling is what this is.

And for the ultimate “May Hill Factor”, how about two made on the slopes of the hill itself? I met Rob of Rob’s Cider in person for the first time at the Ross festival earlier this month and was delighted to try a wide range of his excellent ciders and, particularly, perries. Especially memorable were an oak cask Rock – the first time I’ve encountered it as a single variety since the Hecks I reviewed last year and, even more excitingly, the only perries I’ve ever encountered that include Flakey Bark in their makeup and weren’t Ross on Wye. (Rob also harvests from those same six trees).

As with the earlier-mentioned Llanbethians, most of what I bought was opened at a bottle share, sitting lazily on the orchard grass without even the slightest thought of opening a tasting notebook. But I did squirrel a couple back, which are reviewed below. A Taynton Squash from 2019 (a variety we last saw when I tasted the Monnow Valleys) is joined by a blend (the constituents of which escape me) called Pet Cat, a nod to the fact that Rob’s not sold on the idea of “pét nat” entering cider parlance. I’m not sure I fully agree with that sentiment personally, being a biased wine industry sort, but someone else in our household thoroughly approved of the label …

Rob doesn’t make an enormous amount; mainly just for personal consumption and selling at the Ross festival (he hand-drew the labels on his bottles specially!) so you won’t find these online. Consider them yet another reason to make sure you book your ticket for the festival next year. (I am impatiently waiting for the opportunity to book mine).

Rob’s Cider Taynton Squash 2019review

How I served: Lightly chilled

Appearance: Rich gold, gently sparkling.

On the nose: A big, ripe, burly perry aroma (this is a hefty 8.4%). Loads of fruit, in the yellow tropical direction, but tempered with dusky layers of pear skin, wet slate, almost meatiness. Not just a fruit bomb by any means – it’s more complex and visceral than that. Great aromatic concentration.

In the mouth: Very full-bodied. There’s a tingle of fizz but mainly that mouthfilling texture is coming from huge, ripe fruit. Apricot, passion fruit, dried mango and again that earthy-slatey thing. Pear skin. Peach. Just dabs of tannin and acidity, which are really well integrated and balanced.

In a nutshell: A full-bodied, big-boned, muscular perry that is delicious on its own but would stand up to even robust, autumnal food.

Rob’s Cider Pet Cat Perry 2019 – review

How I served: Chilled

Appearance: The hue and mousse of prosecco.

On the nose: This one’s the fruit bomb! Higher-toned, super-juicy aromatic nose packed with melon and pear and white grape. Elderflower and dandelion stem. A little lemon pith. Full of life and joy, this nose.

In the mouth: Fresh, dry, juicy and with a level of fizz that adds to the brightly-fruited exuberance of the perry. More citrusy than the nose, with lots of lemon and gooseberry and zingy yellow pear, but they’re all buzzing around a cheerful, plump, juicy centre of melon and meadowflowers.

In a nutshell: Just a great example of the fresh, fruity, bright, juicy style of Three Counties perry. Full of delight – could pour this for anyone. Refreshing, delicious stuff. 

Strangely, given how interwoven cider is into the fabric of both the Three Counties and the South West, the heritage of South West perry pales by comparison to that of either its own cider, or of perry from further north. Nonetheless, perry has been in this region for centuries, with examples found in every county – from Somerset to Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. I remember years ago tasting a Sandford Orchards “single tree” Devon perry, and a real highlight of the Cider Salon this year was a new, first, perry from Find and Foster, which I cannot wait to be released.

Although Somerset will forever be most famous as the home of Babycham, the best perries of this region easily bear comparison with the most lauded of Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. Indeed for a long time I’ve held the 2016 and 2017 Downside Special Reserves as possibly my perries ne plus ultra, and all signs point to Paul Ross’s creations at The Newt eventually scaling similar heights. More recently, in August, I was blown away by a pair of perries I tasted from Cornwall’s Gould, whose orchard, I have learned, boasts even more French varieties than it does English. In short, the pickings might be slimmer in this part of the world, but they are frequently no less choice. Those of my acquaintance seem, like their counterparts around May Hill, to be based purely on perry pears rather than culinary varieties, and that holds true for the four in my glass today.

Starting in Somerset, we’re eschewing Babycham in favour of Sheppy’s 2019 vintage, available from their website for £59 per 12 750ml bottles. There’s a lovely little description of the backstory to this bottling here, written by David Sheppy. In brief, this is their first perry from their own little orchard, a blend of Hendre Huffcap, Red Pear, Blakeney Red, Butt and Gin. As cidermakers Sheppy’s are very easy to find – even making incursions onto the shelves of certainly supermarkets. Perry is a very marginal concern for them, volume-wise, but it’s really wonderful to see a bigger producer make a perry, talk about the varieties, showcase it in a sharing bottle and generally demonstrate a commitment to the drink. We’ve not featured anything from Sheppy’s since James wrote up their Dabinett here and I’ve not covered anything of theirs full stop. So I’m looking forward to putting that right. Big thanks to Ridiculously Good Perry Monday stalwart and general perry supporter Jack (not connected to Sheppy’s in any way) who kindly furnished me with a bottle.

Talking of overdue coverage in these pages, I’ve barely reviewed anything from Dorset whatsoever – the county’s sole previous entry on these pages being the West Milton perry last year. Given the country’s history at the heart of ciderland that’s a pretty shocking state of affairs on my part (though testament to how many wonderful things are now being made all around the country and world). A proper correction is long overdue; in the meantime I’m tasting a pét nat (sorry Rob) perry from Cranbourne Chase. It’s wild fermented from perry pears grown in maker Bill Meaden’s own orchards, and a 750ml bottle will set you back £7.42 from Orchard Explorers. One important caveat – I got my bottle (batch P001) a couple of years ago from Middle Farm. There isn’t a vintage on it, but I’d wager the bottles currently on sale may well be from a new and different batch. So it’s worth checking, especially if your experience doesn’t tally with my tasting note.

Our South West tour concludes in Cornwall (apologies to Devonians for overlooking them this time) with another pair from Gould. After the quality of the two I tried in August I’m itching to get these two open. Like their predecessors both detail varieties and vintage on their labels, are made without sulphites and are bottled before fermentation had finished to create a natural sparkle. We’ve a blend of Yellow Huffcap and Oldfield to start – one of my very favourite varieties teamed up with Tom Oliver’s desert island pear, and that’s followed by a blend of Parsonage (seen and much-enjoyed in this lineup of Bartestrees) with Stinking Bishop, a perry made famous by Charles Martell’s cheese of the same name, which is washed in the perry. Scrattings have both of the above for £12.50 a bottle.

Sheppy’s Vintage Perry 2019 – review

How I served: Chilled

Appearance: Rich, clear, buttery gold. Light sparkle.

On the nose: Not an enormous aroma – a little closed perhaps, even when the drink warms – but clean and attractive. Fresh pear, honesysuckle, haribo hearts (both the strawberry and white sides). A little lemon. Fresh, floral and delicately fruity.

In the mouth: Full-bodied, with an upping of the fruit – still on the sweetie side – imagine a mouthful of Haribo starmix! Some grippy tannins too though, which offset the sweetness and touch of fizz. There’s not much acidity and its confected nature does cloy at times to my palate, but this is nonetheless a clean, fruity and accessible perry which shows off its varieties well.

In a nutshell: An attractive easy-sipper which might benefit from a touch more acidity but will certainly appeal to a broad range of people.

Cranborne Chase Naturally Sparkling Farmhouse Perry P001 – review

How I served: Medium-chilled

Appearance: Hazy mid-gold. Medium fizz.

On the nose: Jellied green and yellow fruit upfront – lemons and limes plus green chewits alongside tinned pear and pineapple. There’s a little peardrop too, and some volatility of acetic acid which throws things a touch off balance to my taste.

In the mouth: Very bright and high-toned, with grassy, citrusy elder-and-gooseberry topnotes around a juicier pear fruit centre. Gentle nibble of tannin. Zingy and fresh, with perfectly-judged mousse, however the acetic element is a bit distracting to my personal taste. With the acidic varieties though it melds well enough that those less acetic-sensitive than me will find lots to love. It’s possible, of course, that I’m drinking this past its best, though I don’t suspect that the characteristics less appealing to me derive from excessive maturation.

In a nutshell: Refined rusticity. A few wild edges amidst the otherwise bright fruit, but the folk who enjoy that style will love this.

Gould Yellow Huffcap and Oldfield 2020 – review

How I served: Medium-chilled

Appearance: NEIPA perry! Opaque lemon. Bright mousse.

On the nose: Again not hugely aromatic. Quite dense notes that tend in the Lilt direction but with an added earthiness. The pineapple tone grows as it warms. A bit of a whiff of sulphur – this may still be fermenting slightly.

In the mouth: Just like the nose, except the fruit is brighter. Pineaple and general Lilt with a bit of waxy lemon rind remains the theme. A touch of pithy bitterness, a low nibble of acidity and more of that mineral earthiness. However, unfortunately, there’s also a touch of mousiness on the finish of this one. It’s not to earth-shattering amounts, but it does linger once detected. Not my favourite from Gould, personally.

In a nutshell: Has its moments, but not quite as refined, clean and expressive as previous Goulds I’ve experienced, and there are one or two elements that are not for me – sorry!

Gould Parsonage and Stinking Bishop 2020 – review

How I served: Lightly chilled

Appearance: Clearer. Pearlescent. Vivacious mousse.

On the nose: Green tones of lime juice, green pear, cut grass and nettle with a little vanilla and melon giving it all ripeness. I don’t think this has been in oak but there’s a richness, perhaps from the lees, that almost lends that perception. A complex nose.

In the mouth: Floral and citrusy delivery but again it’s anchored by a ripe, yellow-fruited centre. Full-bodied and the fizz doesn’t distract at all. Creaminess and vanilla on the finish. Lovely and ripe, but gentle tannins and acidity give it good freshness too. There’s a teeny, teeny whisper of volatile acidity, but it’s so quiet that Caroline, whose palate is more sensitive to many things than mine, didn’t pick it up. So I’m just being the pickiest shade of picky.

In a nutshell: Closer to the Goulds of August. A complex, flavourful perry.

Time to leave the west and head across the country. Mirroring eastern counties cider, the bulk of pears grown in Kent and East Anglia are dessert fruit, predominantly planted originally to serve the eating requirements of London. As we’ve established both earlier in this article and in our perry coverage generally, perry can be made perfectly well and perfectly legally with dessert and culinary fruit, just as cider can be made with any sort of apple.

A difficulty in making perry from culinary pears occasionally arises in the form of their relative dearth of acidity in addition to their lack of tannins. My co-editor, James, has encountered his problem before which, in addition to affecting the perception of freshness, can lead to problems of microbial infection or mouse. To counteract this, it’s common to find dessert pear perries which have included a percentage of a sharp apple in their blend – most typically, given its availability in this part of the world, the Bramley.

Of course this isn’t to say that perry pears are altogether absent from eastern counties perry. There are certainly historic records that suggest they were more widely available hundreds of years ago before being largely cleared to make way for dessert fruit, and there are pockets either clinging on or replanted by perry-dedicated producers. As in cider, geographical generalisations always open up cracks through which bottles and producers can slip. Your best bet is always to read the label, and to treat every perry on its own individual characteristics.

The trio lined up here demonstrate that amply. First up, from Norfolk, is Whin Hill, another producer we’ve yet to feature on Cider Review, and certainly one that thumbs its nose at the idea of eastern counties being culinary-fruit only. Their cider range spans a broad range of single varieties made from classic cider apples such as Dabinett, Kingston Black and Browns, and their orchard blends add Ashton Bitter, Ellis Bitter, White Jersey, Major ad Michelin, none of which will be featuring in the average lunchbox any time soon.

Although cider is their mainstay they also boast an impressive 153 perry pear trees, virtually unknown in East Anglia. All were planted by Whin Hill themselves – 60 in 1994 with an additional 93 planted in the winter of 2004-2005. This is an orchard I have to visit! The pear varieties aren’t specified, but we can safely expect a rather broad range. Their perry, described as medium sparkling, is bottled without sweeteners, dilution or additives, and 750ml costs an almost-unbelievable £3.60 directly from the producer. But this is another bottle I have Jack to thank for furnishing me with. Cheers Jack!

Nightingale is an increasingly familiar face both on the cider scene generally and this site in particular. Their new range of full-juice ciders dazzled me just a couple of weeks ago and both James and I have covered others of their Kentish creations besides. Their Kentish perries of 2017 and 2018 gave me mixed impressions, admittedly – I wasn’t particularly fond of the 2017 – but my general impression of Nightingale is that quality has been rapidly rising in the last few years, and I’m very excited to try their 2020 (not yet officially released – many thanks to Sam for passing on today’s sample).

Like its predecessors it’s a blend of Commice, Conference and Concorde, all dessert pears to which Sam has added around 20% Bramley for the balance of acidity. That’s a little less than the amount that would turn a perry into a pider, but certainly more than average.

Rounding things off is the new perry, ‘Pearfect’ from Kent’s BEARDSpoon. This article has included a few first-time appearances on Cider Review, but I almost can’t believe BEARDSpoon hasn’t previously featured, as both James and I have enjoyed Steve’s ciders immensely in the past. They recently celebrated ten years of cidermaking with the launch of three new special editions, which I believe Chris intends to cover in this space soon. But as an appetiser to that later review, I’m covering the perry included in the trio today.

I can’t see any details about the particular varieties used, but sniffing around the BEARDSpoon website yielded the description that in 2019 they used “two ancient perry pear varieties grown in Kent”. Whether the same holds true for today’s 2020 I couldn’t tell you. But let’s see what we can glean from tasting it. Bottles cost £10 for 750ml from Scrattings.

Whin Hill Medium Sparkling Norfolk Perry – review

How I served: Medium chilled

Appearance: Rose-blushed Gold, light fizz.

On the nose: Very nice. Lightly peachy and also blushing red with ripeness – a touch of red berry, the ruby glow of sun-kissed red pear skins. Even a little plum. Petrichor and just-pressed perry pears. Tangerine. Really lovely perry nose.

In the mouth: Don’t know what varieties are in here, but the tannins and fruit, which are grippy and ripe respectively, have me thinking of the Oliver’s Red Pear from last year’s Barrel Room series. Or perhaps the swathe of red and orange fruit is giving me confirmation bias. Some sweetness, but this doesn’t just taste of pear juice – it’s more complex. Peach and mango. Tremendously balanced. Very good all round.

In a nutshell: A complex, characterful perry wit lovely fruit and tannins. Another favourite with Caroline.

Nightingale Kentish Perry 2020 – review

How I served: Chilled

Appearance: Incredibly pale. Bright mousse.

On the nose: Definitely a new ball game, but a wonderfully fresh, clean, bright and gossamer-delicate one. Soft pear and crisp apple. Blossom and geraniums. Sherbet, and those lemon Refresher Bars, which were a tuck-shop staple and my personal catnip back in the day. Fragrant and springtimey.

In the mouth: Bright, fresh acidity – a streak of green that gives energy and structure to the soft pear and florals. The Bramley has been judged just right, stopping short of sharpness but lifting all the other flavours and preventing either the florals from becoming soapy or the low-acid pears from feeling heavy-going. Lovely bright burst of bubbles contribute to the delicate, vibrant joyfulness of this drink.

In a nutshell: A floral, green-fruited, lightly sweet and very tasty thing. Sam’s best perry by miles, for me, and an ace Prosecco alternative.

BEARDSpoon Pearfect 2020 – review

How I served: Medium chilled

Appearance: Light hazy gold, still.

On the nose: Rather unusual. On the one hand some big, ripe honeydew melon and pear juice notes interlaced with an attractive green nettle and stalk element and a touch of nectarine. On the other, there’s a musty, slightly sour note that doesn’t quite gel. It’s not acetic, I don’t think, nor any other specific fault I could name. It’s just not my thing.

In the mouth: Exactly the same. So much here that I really love; all this fleshy, melony, ripe juicy fruit – about medium but well-balanced with acidity (not much tannin). But there’s this weird sort of sour lactic tone that to me knocks it all off kilter.

In a nutshell: Close to being a really good perry, but just doesn’t quite land. Caroline suggested that fans of some sour-style beers may love it though, and I think she’s right on the money.

Almost there now, but let’s end with a flourish. Everything we’ve tried so far has been on the relatively young side, besides that very first ‘library vintage’ Ross Blakeney Red. There’s a slight generalisation that I occasionally see pop up in cider and perry suggesting that these aren’t drinks with capacity to age. In my experience, that depends entirely on the drink, the method of production and, most importantly, the varieties involved. Just as the majority of wine isn’t designed to be kept for terribly long, but can be when there’s sufficient tannin, acidity and concentration of flavour, so the same holds true for perry. Sure, the concentration of phenolics might be lower than it is in a wine – we might not see any forty, fifty, sixty-year-old perries on sale any time soon – but the likes of Thorn, Butt, Flakey Bark, Champagne Bratbirne and more besides all have capacity to go a considerable distance further when bottled in their natural state than is occasionally attested.

So to celebrate this, a couple of perries from the “special occasion” end of the rack. We’re back in Herefordshire again now, and first up is a 2015 traditional method bottling from Gregg’s Pit blending Blakeney Red with the cidery’s eponymous pear. And to round out the month in the way we kicked it off, I’m back at Oliver’s with Tom’s Bottle Conditioned Medium 2015. (Which, given its very low strength, I strongly suspect to be another keeve – the predecessor to my previous article’s 2016). As usual, with Tom, it’s a blend of several varieties not stated on the label. I picked up both of these bottles from Middle Farm, but I have in mind that I saw the latter on shelves at the Cider Museum for around £8 a couple of weeks ago. You may have to get your skates on and hie thee to Hereford if you want to bag a bottle.

Gregg’s Pit Blakeney Red & Gregg’s Pit In-bottle fermented 2015 – review

How I served: Medium chill.

Appearance: Bright gold, fine mousse.

On the nose: The honeyed richness of mature Blakeney Red is in gorgeous song here, augmented by apricot, ripe cantaloupe and pronounced passion fruit. It’s so rich and ripe that there’s almost a touch of mead. Toasted croissants, Turkish delight and quince jelly. A nose to luxuriate in.

In the mouth: Epic blending. All the rich, ripe fruitiness of Blakeney given structure and direction by Gregg’s Pit. Big, complex, shifting flavours through honeys, stone fruits and exotic flowers, all buttressed by creamy mousse and lovely, unintrusive acidity. Very rich, despite its dryness, but there’s still so much freshness here – this isn’t even at the top of its maturation curve yet.

In a nutshell: Superb perry that shows how well this drink can age, given the right varietal combination and method.  

Oliver’s Bottle Conditioned Perry Medium 2015 – review

How I served: Chilled

Appearance: Lightly honeyed. Bright fizz.

On the nose: Intriguing. Looking back at my note for the 2016, this has gone in a strikingly similar direction in its maturation journey. Which makes sense, I guess! Wish I could now compare the two side by side! This still has the fruit brightness – the candied lemons and peach juice offsetting floral honey – but as with the 2016, most striking is the intense, stony, washed-pebble minerality. This isn’t just fruity, it has become more.

In the mouth: Remains bright and yellow-citrusy on the palate, offset by a delicious rum-like tropicality. The acidity and lightly-clutching tannins have gone the distance and balance the lemon and lime marmalade sweetness. Ripe honeydew and touches of hazelnut. This one, I think, is at the top of its maturation curve – and what a glorious view. The refreshing minerality lingers and lingers alongside the fruit.

In a nutshell: A balanced, complex, mesmerising and beautifully-matured keeved Herefordshire perry.

Conclusions

What is the point of lining up twenty-one perries and thumping out a barrage of tasting notes for the lot of them all in one piece?

There are a few reasons that reviewers occasionally drop tasting notes in bulk. It could be an outturn from a particular producer such as we saw this month from Ross on Wye, Little Pomona and Nightingale. Irregularly there might be a “deck clearance” – lots of samples that deserve writing up, but which have accumulated such that the reviewer doesn’t have time to cover them all individually in detail.

What this is, I hope, is more a demonstration of just how broad and diverse the landscape of British perry is today. In twenty-one perries I’ve not covered more than a fraction of what’s available, but the range of flavours and styles and mindsets and approaches was a fascinating joy to taste through and, I hope, serves as a symbol of what is available to the modern drinker, no matter where in the country they happen to live. Perry certainly isn’t the finished article, and of course not every perry will be for everyone, just as not all of the perries covered here were my personal bag. But there is a treasure trove here to be mined, and in my opinion there has never been a better time to start mining it.

Just the other day I was at my local pub with a half of draught perry from Nuthurst Orchard. If I’d had my notebook on me I’d have reviewed that here too. It was a blend of Oldfield, Hendre Huffcap, Green Horse and Thorn, and it was delicious. A beautiful balance of fruitiness and elegance, acidity and gentle tannin. It was exactly what the time and place called for, and it was different to every perry here, yet recognisably connected in its expression and its DNA. Perry, step by step, pub by pub, glass by glass, is permeating the territory of the British drinker, and that is a very comforting thought.

We are indescribably lucky to be in one of the very few places where this marvellous drink is made – and made available – on any sort of scale. Thanks to the likes of Cat in the Glass, Scrattings, Fram Ferment and the Fine Cider Company, wherever you are in Britain you have the chance to order a mixed case of perries and tread your own journey through the flavours and textures and styles they have to offer. Only one or two other countries in the world can say the same thing.

Perry is a national treasure, and it deserves to be framed as such; presented in its own shining light. But to achieve that will take a huge and continued collective effort on the part of those of us who know how good this drink can be and how many people would adore it, if they only discovered it; if they only found themselves with a glass of good perry in their hand.

Tasting those last two was a poignant reminder that perry survived its darkest years through the bravery of producers who refused to let it die, and the valiant persistence and tireless campaigning of a small corps of devotees to whom I and we owe an enormous debt of gratitude. In the advent of the #rethink cider movement, that corps of perry lovers has swelled, and has given perry, finally, the chance to truly broaden its audience. If the last month on Cider Review has had any real point, it has been to underline the importance of that continued vocal advocacy. Of giving perry a limelight of its own.

If you are reading this, it is more than likely that you are already a perry disciple, with no need to be converted to the cause. So my challenge to you today is this: invite a friend, a neighbour, a member of the family – someone who has never tried perry before – round for a drink. Open the best bottle you have – the one you’ve been saving for a special occasion – and pour them a large glass. Because what could be more special than sharing the secret of perry with someone you care about? Seeing the lights switch on as they find something they never knew existed that is special and delicious.

Because after all, if you knew there was a drink that was ancient and storied and from centuries-old trees; that took so much effort to make; that was so rare and precious and offered flavours you couldn’t quite find anywhere else – a drink that, for the first time, you could thoroughly explore at any time wherever you are in Britain … wouldn’t you like to try it?

2 Comments

  1. Mike Shorland says

    Sorry! Finally finished reading this article. It’s a big word counter!! But it’s brilliant and the last few paragraphs are perfect. A call to action for existing Perry fans to share the story

    Like

    • Hi Mike
      It’s a bit of a beast! Thanks very much for getting through it all, and glad you enjoyed it. I’m sure with a few more perries like yours the good word will spread.
      Best wishes
      Adam W.

      Like

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