The flavours of cider and perry are poorly understood. Until relatively recently, the only way to find any information at all about the flavours of individual cider apple and perry pear varieties was to trawl through rare old books. In England, apple and pear varieties were traditionally categorised as bittersweets, bittersharps, sweets and sharps, but these terms refer to relative proportions of tannin, sugar and acidity, which are structural properties rather than flavours in the strict sense. Some varieties were additionally accorded superior or “vintage” status, but “vintage” definitely isn’t a flavour either. The discourse around cider and perry was pretty much a flavour-free zone.
This all started to change with the explosion of single-variety bottlings onto the market. These bottlings showcase the flavours of individual varieties in their diverse and multifaceted glory, and their increasing availability has allowed cider enthusiasts to begin to come to grips with varietal flavours. With repeated exposure to these flavours, we can learn to identify the characteristic Seville orange of Dabinett, the wild strawberry of Discovery and the leather and mixed spice of Yarlington Mill with a reasonable degree of accuracy.
As a result of this fresh focus on flavour, the reviews of cider and perry posted on social media have started to become more flavour-driven than they were a few years ago. Cider lovers who might once have simply described a cider or perry as “tannic” or “acidic” are now using an ever-expanding range of flavour descriptors in their tasting notes. As the cider scene continues to grow and mature, cider discourse is slowly inching closer to the language of wine tasting.
Overall, I see this as an extremely positive development. Flavour is a wonderful, life-affirming thing, and I firmly believe that it deserves to be valued and discussed. Many wine enthusiasts chase after the flavours expressed by fermented grapes with a passion that verges on religious fervour, and I see no reason why the flavours of cider and perry couldn’t inspire the same kind of reverence. While the wine scene will probably retain its privileged status among aficionados for some time to come, it’s likely that our burgeoning understanding of the flavours of cider will eventually cause them to flock to the cider scene like pilgrims to a relic. As an avid wine and cider lover and a devout disciple of the flavour cult, I welcome the imminent invasion of the flavour chasers. However, I also suspect that the worship of flavour can sometimes leave us prone to certain excesses, especially when it comes to the question of how we approach tasting.
Among wine buffs, there is a widespread belief that tasting is the process of detecting flavours, and that we should strive to accurately identify as many of them as we can. According to this doctrine, the most authoritative tasting note is the one with the most comprehensive list of flavour descriptors (as any psychoanalyst will tell you, obsessives experience an intense longing for completeness). Unfortunately, tasting notes that follow this doctrine tend to end up reading like shopping lists for a fruit salad. Besides, when we strain to detect every single flavour and aroma in our pursuit of the most complete description possible, our flavour descriptors become increasingly obscure, until they start to veer into the realm of absurdity. Before we know it, we’re referencing “singed alder” and “wheelbarrows of Ugli fruit”, (both of which appeared in tasting notes by prominent wine critics), and no-one has any clue what we’re on about. Those of us with an incurable addiction to such descriptors are on the slippery slope towards public derision and a period of much-needed rehabilitation in Pseuds Corner.
There is, however, a handy alternative to this obsessive penchant for describing drinks as a fruit basket of flavours. We can focus on their structure, i.e. the relationships between their various textural components. I think that on the whole, we don’t pay sufficiently detailed attention to the texture of drinks; the tactile sensation that they produce in the mouth, and the visceral reaction that this feeling induces. Western traditions of eating and drinking have typically conceived of texture as a secondary consideration to flavour. People often only remark on the texture of their food to complain about it, such as when their steak is too chewy or their custard is lumpy. This is not the case in some non-western cultures. In the Chinese gastronomic tradition, for example, texture is prized for its own sake. Kou gan or ‘mouthfeel’ is one of the most highly esteemed qualities of food, and there is a marked appreciation of textures that many westerners would find unappetising, including the slimy, rubbery and bouncy textures offered by such ingredients as sea cucumbers, chicken feet and duck tongues. Consequently, Chinese culinary terminology comprises many more textural terms than we have in English, including such phrases as guang hua (smooth and slippery), tan xing (springy and elastic) and ruan gao zhuang (ointment-like).
I believe that we have a lot to learn from Chinese culture about the importance of texture in food and drink. It is, after all, the vehicle through which flavours are delivered, so we shouldn’t relegate it to a secondary status or reduce it to relative proportions of sugar, tannin and acidity. If we find the texture of a food or drink unpleasant, then no amount of flavour can compensate for it: Soggy crisps and flat Prosecco just don’t feel right, no matter how flavourful they might be. Conversely, a food or drink can be forgiven for a lack of flavour if it has a sufficiently compelling texture. We eat papadams for their crunch, not their explosion of flavour, and our enjoyment of effervescence is the sole reason for the existence of sparkling water. When all’s said and done, texture is the sine qua non of tasting.
The paramount importance of texture for our appreciation of wine was indelibly etched into my mind a few years ago, when I tasted Heymann-Löwenstein’s 2012 Von Blauem Schiefer (“from blue slate”); a dry Riesling made by one of the Mosel Valley’s top producers. It tasted of lemon juice, sea minerals and precious little else. Flavour-wise, it was the very antithesis of a complex wine, yet every sip was spine-tingling due to its crystalline sense of clarity and the current of electric acidity that I felt coursing through my mouth. It was as if the blue slate stones of the vineyard had absorbed the light from the sun and discharged it as pure energy directly into my taste buds, inducing an effect that was pretty much identical to how I imagine it feels to French-kiss an electric eel (don’t try this at home, kids). When it seems like your tongue is wired to a potent power source, flavour becomes almost immaterial.
Very few of my experiences with wine have been as texturally compelling as this one, but perry regularly sends me into raptures with the sensations that it offers. Many of the flavours found in perry are also to be found in wine, yet its mesmerising array of novel and variegated textures are entirely its own. Where else could one encounter the rounded softness of Blakeney Red, the luscious viscosity of Plant de Blanc, the rasping angularity of Thorn or the full-bodied fleshiness of Flakey Bark? The sheer diversity of styles is breathtaking, but perhaps my favourite one of all is the airy, featherweight style of Oldfield and the Huffcaps, with their diaphanous, gossamer-fine texture that trips and dances over the tongue like a mountain stream over smooth pebbles. These varieties have little in the way of tannin and the most delicate and graceful acidity, producing a drink that feels so ethereal as to be almost insubstantial. But this impression of weightlessness is deceptive. Within the sylphlike structure, a profusion of flavours gradually ebbs and flows. In this liminal space, each flavour fades in and out of our awareness or hovers at the edge of our perception, occupying an interval between presence and absence. It strikes me as positively miraculous that such a fragile frame can hold so many twists and turns and exude such breathtaking vitality.
For a committed flavour chaser, this experience is frustrating, humbling and eventually enlightening. The gently oscillating flavours resist our powers of analysis. They are almost impossible to pin down, to the point that we start to doubt our tasting abilities and resent the perry in our glass. But then, in a sudden moment of clarity, it all clicks into place. We are struck by the dawning realisation that grasping the essence of this drink is not a question of analysis, but rather of synthesis: What makes this style of perry so special isn’t a list of individually identifiable flavours, but the way in which the texture alternately reveals and conceals each flavour, generating a complex and ever-shifting whole that exceeds the sum of its parts. Our realisation that the truth lies in this dynamic textural totality immediately alleviates our frustration, leaving us in a Zen-like state of serenity in which all is right with the world. As experiences go, it’s truly mind-bending. You should probably try it sometime.
Anyway, I should probably come back down to earth for a moment and consider some of the constituent components of texture. After all, Cider Review was not designed as a platform for me to take my readers on a psychedelic trip through the recollected contents of my mouth. The major components of a cider or perry’s texture are alcohol, glycerol, tannin, acidity and sugar. They can and should be described both quantitatively (how much is there?) and qualitatively (what does it feel like?). Let’s briefly go through them one by one.
- Alcohol: This is the result of the fermentation of natural sugars by yeasts. It is largely flavourless, but we would miss it if it wasn’t there! I am firmly convinced that, quite apart from its obvious intoxicating effects, alcohol is a vehicle for flavour. Although I have had some excellent ciders and perries that are relatively low in alcohol, I have yet to try a non-alcoholic cider that tastes like the real thing. Having said that, I don’t believe that more alcohol is always an indicator of higher quality. High ABV typically results in a fuller body, which is welcome in some styles of cider, but I don’t think that cider or perry should produce a ‘hot’ sensation in the mouth. The alcohol shouldn’t stand out, but should rather be well-integrated with the other structural components of the drink.
- Glycerol: A sticky, gloopy byproduct of fermentation that contributes viscosity and body to cider and perry. Glycerol is transparent and odourless, but it has a major impact on the mouthfeel of a drink. Ciders and perries that are high in glycerol feel thick in the mouth and can taste slightly sweet. Conversely, insufficient glycerol can result in a thin and watery texture. The glycerol content of a cider or perry is dependent on a wide range of factors, including the apple or pear varieties from which it is made, the ripeness of the fruit, the fermentation temperature and the choice of yeast strain.
- Tannins: These are bitter and astringent compounds that offset sweetness, fruitiness and acidity. Ciders made from bittersweet and bittersharp cider apple varieties and perries made from perry pears are often significantly more tannic than ciders and perries made from culinary and dessert varieties. Drinks that have very prominent tannins produce a distinctive drying sensation in the mouth, but there are various methods that cider makers can use to reduce or soften the impact on the palate. For example, keeving lessens the astringency of tannin to produce a rich and gentle mouthfeel. Maturing cider in an oak barrel can also help to soften tannins, as can extended bottle ageing.
From my perspective, the wonderful thing about tannins is their qualitative diversity. They can be ripe and rounded, green and hard, sleek and supple or big and burly. They can stroke the tongue like a velvet glove or assault it with overwhelming bitterness. If you’re brave enough to want to encounter them in their more extreme manifestations, then I recommend seeking out ciders made from Chisel Jersey or Tremlett’s Bitter.
- Acidity: This produces the tart, mouth-watering sensation of cider and perry, but different types of acid have subtly different textural properties. Apples mainly contain malic acid, which has the sharp sourness of green apples, whereas pears can have a much higher percentage of citric acid, which is weaker than malic acid and comparatively odourless. Bittersweet apple varieties are usually quite low in acid, but so are some other apple and pear varieties, including Egremont Russet and Barnet.
In my view, acidity is an even more important textural component of cider and perry than tannin. There are great ciders and perries with little or no perceptible tannin, but none without sufficient acidity. This is because a cider or perry’s first task is to be refreshing, and acidity is the primary source of refreshment. When it comes down to it, drinks with insufficient acidity tend to taste insipid. However, excessive acidity can make our mouths pucker and cause us to feel like the enamel is being stripped from our teeth. Certain apple and pear varieties, such as Foxwhelp, Bramley and Thorn, can sometimes be uncomfortably high in acidity, and ciders and perries can also taste overly acidic if the fruit was picked before it fully ripened. Thankfully, there are various ways in which cider makers can reduce the perception of acidity. Perhaps the most notable amongst these is malolactic fermentation; a secondary fermentation that converts malic acid to the weaker and softer-textured lactic acid. Malolactic fermentation often produces a creamy, almost buttery texture, especially if the cider has been aged on its lees. It is, however, generally contraindicated for perries, because their citric acid content can easily be converted to acetic acid. Acetic acid causes a distinctive sharp prickle in the nose and throat and leaves a cider or perry tasting quite vinegary. It is widely perceived as a fault, and I have to admit that I have a strong antipathy towards it.
- Sugar: Whether residual or added, sugar contributes a richer mouthfeel and fuller body to a cider or perry, and enhances our perception of fruitiness. However, it needs to be suitably counterbalanced by acidity, or the drink can easily become cloying. I find that high levels of sugar usually clash with prominent tannins, which might well explain why the tannic ciders of the West Country are traditionally bone-dry. One property of pears that distinguishes them from apples is their higher proportion of sorbitol; a relatively non-fermentable sugar that causes even the driest of perries to typically retain a little sweetness, and that also contributes a soft texture to perry.
This list of textural components is by no means exhaustive. We could also consider carbonation, which enhances our perception of acidity (carbonic acid is mildly acidic in its own right), and which is almost as qualitatively variable as acidity and tannin. Force carbonation produces larger, coarser bubbles than the Traditional Method, which typically generates a fine mousse of tiny bubbles that gently tickle the tongue. Pét-Nats often occupy a space between these two extremes, but bottling while fermentation is still ongoing can yield quite unpredictable results: Some Pét-Nats are explosively fizzy, while others have more restrained levels of carbonation.
The process of micro-filtering is also worthy of our attention. This removes yeast sediment and haze, leaving a brighter and lighter final product, but it can strip a cider or perry of body, causing it to feel thinner and less satisfying. I’m no great fan of this method, because I don’t think that it accomplishes anything that couldn’t be better achieved by racking, but it remains popular among cider makers who are determined to remove every last trace of sediment before their products hit the market.
Writing about the quantitative dimension of texture is relatively straightforward. It is, for instance, pretty uncontroversial to state that single-variety Russet ciders are generally high in alcohol and glycerol and low in acidity and tannin. However, this statement doesn’t describe the relations between these textural components, or provide much insight into how we experience them. Even the most comprehensive quantitative analyses of texture leave little room for the subjective dimension of tasting. For example, the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting, which Adam discussed in this article, requires us to consider each individual textural component of a drink, but it primarily focuses on the quantities of these components (i.e. whether the levels of acidity, tannin, etc. are low, medium or high). We are not expected to describe how these components actually feel, which is surely the most significant feature of our experience of texture. I’m convinced that painting a clear picture of this experience requires us to move beyond quantitative analysis and describe what we feel qualitatively, using language that captures the effect that texture has on us.
Writing qualitative descriptions of textures is no easy task. All drinks writing is metaphorical, but writing about mouthfeel is especially figurative, because our language has not really evolved to express the sensations that we feel in our mouths. We therefore have no choice but to rely on analogies, which relate unfamiliar textures to things that we are better acquainted with. There are four types of analogy that I find particularly useful for expressing texture in drinks. Firstly, I often refer to textures of fabric, describing drinks as silky, velvety, or scratchy like sackcloth. Fabric is a useful textural metaphor because we are intimately familiar with how it feels on our skin, and we can therefore clearly associate those sensations with the mouthfeel of a drink. Secondly, I describe drinks in terms of architecture. A powerful and boldly tannic cider often seems monolithic or imposing, and highly complex ice ciders and keeved perries can appear positively Baroque. Thirdly, I use anatomical analogies. A dry, understated drink with noticeable acidity and supple tannins seems lean and lithe, whereas a drink with too much sugar and insufficient acidity comes across as flabby. I sometimes describe ciders with elevated alcohol and firm tannins as brawny or muscular, and those that combine fruit-forward flavours with a high level of glycerol as voluptuous. Finally, I use personification; attributing human characteristics to the textures and flavours that I sense. A cider or perry with plenty of refreshing acidity feels lively or vivacious, while an excessively tannic cider with little apparent fruit seems stern and tight-lipped. Sweet and intensely-fruited drinks are showy and opulent, especially when the fruit flavours are tropical in character, and Pét-Nats always strike me as both literally and figuratively bubbly!
Learning to use textural analogies successfully takes time and effort, and there’s no shame in frantically searching for an appropriate descriptor before coming up with something entirely inadequate. As with most things in life, practice makes perfect. Speaking of which, it’s probably time that I get some exercise under my belt by reviewing a couple of perries. With any luck, I’ll discover some exciting textures and derive some perverse pleasure from my struggle to describe them.
The first perry that I’ll be reviewing today is the still “pear cider” from Somerset’s Bridge Farm. I usually think that people who sell “pear cider” deserve to be publicly pilloried and pelted with perry pears until they see the error of their ways. However, I’ll make an exception for Bridge Farm, because their “pear cider” actually contains a small proportion of apple juice, alongside a range of different perry pears and culinary pears picked from several orchards in Somerset and Dorset. I bought a 750ml bottle from Scrattings a little while ago, which now seems to be out of stock, but a 500ml bottle of the sparkling version of this perry will cost you £3.75 from Cork & Crown.
Bridge Farm, ‘Pear Cider’, 5.5% – review
How I served: Lightly chilled (12℃).
Appearance: Translucent gold and almost completely still, with very little in the way of sediment.
On the nose: Ripe, sweet dessert pears, freshly grated lemon zest and the slightest hint of stony minerality. I also get a touch of kerosene, which is reminiscent of mature Riesling. Overall, this is relatively straightforward and linear on the nose, but the aromas are pure, precise and eminently refreshing.
In the mouth: The breezy, easygoing face of perry: Light in body, medium-sweet and not particularly tannic, but animated by a zingy, citric acidity that enlivens every sip. This is definitely crowd-pleasing stuff, which could easily be quaffed by the pint in a pub garden, yet it also discreetly gestures towards a subtle complexity. The impression of lightness disguises an almost oily viscosity, and slight whiffs of wet slate and acrid woodsmoke hover darkly in the background like a special adviser at a prime ministerial press conference. As the glass begins to warm, the brisk acidity drifts in the direction of a mild astringency, which makes me imagine eating a lemon from the inside out and suddenly biting into the pith. This perry has an esoteric dimension: I strongly suspect that to the uninitiated, it’s all ripe pears and sweetness and light, but that true perry enthusiasts will be able to peel back this luminous veil and catch a glimpse of the underlying tannin structure and minerality.
In a nutshell: An enigmatic perry, which comes wrapped in an accessible and comforting package and only reveals its idiosyncrasies to those paying close attention. Extremely well-balanced and cleverly done – a class act by a highly skilled blender.
The second perry that I’ll be tasting today is the Shropshire Perry from Warwickshire’s Napton Cidery. This is a dry, still perry made from a blend of Gin, Brandy, Hendre Huffcap, Judge Amphlett, Green Horse and Taynton Squash, all grown at a single farm in Shropshire. The juice was fermented using wild yeasts and the perry contains no artificial additives. This perry was kindly provided to me free of charge by Chalmers News PR on behalf of Napton Cidery. As always, this won’t affect my tasting notes and opinions, which remain entirely my own. A 750ml bottle costs £10.70, direct from the producer.
Napton Cidery, ‘Shropshire Perry’, 2019, 4.6% – review
How I served: Lightly chilled (12℃).
Appearance: Cloudy rose gold, with barely a bubble in sight. I love the beautiful pinkish hue.
On the nose: A fairly reticent and delicate nose, with fleeting hints of mown grass, meadow flowers and preserved lemon. The fresh scent of pine forests emerges as the glass begins to warm, and I also detect juniper berries, presumably from the Gin pear.
In the mouth: This is one of those twisty-turny, unpredictable perries that takes you on a textural rollercoaster ride. It seductively caresses the tongue like satin sheets on a warm body, before becoming richer and creamier on the midpalate. Just as all this softness has lured me into a false sense of security, I’m ambushed by a big hit of sinewy tannin and the cheek-sucking, sappy astringency of limonene and pine resin. Flavour-wise, it’s like gin and bitter lemon mixed with a little retsina and aged in French oak barrels. As a flavour combination, this sounds truly unhinged, but it’s strangely compelling and maybe even moreish. I wasn’t sure if I liked it at first, but each sip seemed to invite another, until I was happily enjoying the undulating flavours and textures, while pulling some very odd faces at the swirling maelstrom unfurling in my mouth. There’s just a hint of pear drop and a barely detectable touch of volatility on the finish, but definitely not enough to be in any way alarming, even to a reviewer who is decidedly averse to acetic acid.
In a nutshell: At a mere 4.6% ABV, this might be called a ‘session perry’, but there’s nothing easy or simple about it. It is texturally complex, intellectually challenging and very unusual, and it definitely deserves the attention of devoted perry enthusiasts.
It’s tough to pick a favourite from today’s tasting. Bridge Farm’s “pear cider” is undoubtedly the more accessible of the pair, which seems perfect for sunny summer days and picnics with friends. It’s an ‘everyday’ kind of perry, and I don’t use that term to disparage it. An everyday drink should be easily quaffable, but must also maintain our interest, because one-dimensional drinks soon become tiresome. It’s to Bridge Farm’s immense credit that they have managed to produce a perry that is sessionable enough to please the masses, but that possesses enough complexity to appeal to the perry cognoscenti. I just wish that they would actually label it as perry, because the apple content is not particularly noticeable. Besides, producing good perry should be a source of pride, and “pear cider” always calls to mind the confected commercial stuff, which is a far cry from Bridge Farm’s authentic perry.
Napton’s Shropshire Perry is an altogether different and more formidable proposition. It took me on a whirlwind journey of texture and flavour, which left me wide-eyed and a little disconcerted. The experience won’t be to everyone’s taste and I definitely couldn’t have it every day, but it scratches a particular itch that very little else can reach. It’s perry at its most serpentine and tempestuous, catching us off-guard and confounding our expectations. It is rare and precious, because it does something that only perry can do. I strongly recommend it to those looking to expand their tastes and come to grips with unfamiliar textures.
Today’s tasting has cemented my belief that texture provides the structure, the energy, the lifeblood of a drink. Neither of the perries that I tasted would have been anywhere near as arresting were it not for their bountiful array of different textures. In my view, when you taste a cider or a perry, it’s well worth swirling it around in your mouth and asking yourself how it feels before going on to consider what it tastes like. If you’re lucky, you might just be led down a winding road of shifting textures, replete with spectacular vistas and intriguing diversions. Some ciders and perries are comparatively uncomplicated in their textures and don’t produce this kind of effect, but I believe that even more straightforward textures deserve our attention. Ultimately, texture ties together the various components of cider and perry, constituting them as the multilayered, harmonious and captivating drinks that we know and love. If we overlook it in our pursuit of new and exciting flavours, we are missing the forest for the trees.