Perry, as has been reiterated many times before, is a hard drink to make.
In this article of last year, Tom Oliver enumerated the many hurdles the prospective maker must vault. Besides the usual anxious weather-watching that is a feature for anyone involved in an agricultural product, there is the often-laughably-slender window in which certain pear varieties are ripe. Too early and they’re rocks, too late and they’re mush, and there’s no good perry to be had either way. What’s more, unlike a large number of apples, perry pears generally don’t ripen off the tree (Butt being one notable exception). It’s straight to press as soon as they’re picked for the most part, which adds understandable logistical complication when making perry at any sort of scale.
Responses to our perrymaker spotlight series have elucidated perry’s vindictive tendency to develop faults almost at random without the most careful of attention. Then there are the pears that grow so high up that harvesting them is nightmarish, the pears that begin rotting from the inside whilst still on the branch, the pears which seemingly exist for the express purpose of gumming up a cidermaker’s belt press; turning a couple of hours of work into a day, and the pears which, blended with almost any other, louche almost on contact into something the colour and density of milk. Not forgetting the pears which are quite capable of doing that without any help from another variety whatsoever. I will never forget Albert Johnson’s tale of manually disgorging every bottle of his 2019 Thorn to remove the sediment which had formed, only for it to reform again after disgorging. In the memorable words of Barry Masterson: ‘pears are assholes’.
So why on earth would someone make life even more difficult for themselves?
Organics are not something we have discussed in detail on this site before, though they play a fundamental role in several producers’ approach to agriculture and have been mentioned in passing by several makers we have spoken to, notably all three of the Finger Lakes producers I was able to visit in April.
As it happens, organics are something I take an increasing interest in professionally, now that I spend my 9-5 working for the biggest producer of organic whisky in the world. If I’m entirely honest, I’d probably not spent half as much time thinking about the subject beforehand as I ought to. Although I am a regular visitor to cider farms, conversation tends to flow around the output — the ciders and perries themselves — with perhaps a little left over for the tree varieties and the cider and perry scene in general. Having no practical experience of farming, and having lived an entirely urban or suburban existence to date, I’m guilty of thinking of ‘organics’ simply as a word I sometimes see on bottles, on food labels and on the rare occasions I found myself at farmer’s markets.
Yet organics — the practice of organic agriculture — is so fundamental to today’s producer that it forms part of their very name: Butford Organics.
“Very,” says perrymaker Martin Harris when I ask about the importance of organics as he sees it. “We support organic principles as the most healthy way to produce food, protect biodiversity and mitigate climate change. Having it in our name gives it more prominence and hopefully encourages people to look into it more”.
Butford Organics are one of that embarrassingly large number of producers who really ought to have featured on this website by now, but somehow have slipped through the net. (Though, like the proverbial bus, you’ll be seeing them again on Wednesday). Indeed as I mentioned on Thursday, a visit to Martin was an integral step on my own road to perry Damascus.
Their website gives some hints as to the practices involved in organic agriculture. ‘We are as non-interventionist as possible’ … ‘we only use wild yeasts and do not use sulphites’ … ‘100% freshly pressed juice’ … ‘we bottle condition to produce sparkling products rather than carbonate’. Most intriguingly — and whether or not this is still the case I’m not entirely sure: ‘probably the only naturally produced organic bottle conditioned perry in the UK’. (Go on comments section — prove them wrong!)
But organics goes a great deal further than this. Indeed most of the copy on Butford’s website pertains to the making of cider and perry, yet the majority of organics — of what determines whether or not a producer will receive certification — is to do with the growing. The husbandry. The agriculture. The all-important stuff that dictates the potential quality of our cider and perry yet is often paid little attention by drinkers.
I don’t have space to list every hoop that a producer has to jump through to be officially certified as organic by the EU, or by the UK’s Soil Association, or by any other global equivalent, but if you’re feeling really brave, or are considering conversion to organic agriculture yourself, you can take a peek here. There are over 98 pages, and I can’t tell you how quickly I gave up on reading them — and not just because the font, tracking, kerning and leading choices were the work of an obvious sadist.
“Put simply,” says Martin, “no artificial fertilisers, no pesticides, compassionate animal welfare although dispensations are very occasionally granted to commercial producers”.
Apart from the numerous strictures to do with the work in the orchard, there are regulations around additives, around conditions in the cidery, around bottling procedures and materials, even around such things as record keeping, storage, transportation. There is paperwork to do, there are forms to fill in, there are regular checks to be endured, during which time nothing is allowed to be off-limits to the investigators.
What’s more, it costs money. Not only for the certification itself, but often in terms of the yield the organic grower is able to expect. Whilst I can’t speak for apple or pear growers, the organic barley farmers I have met in Ireland see markedly less return at harvest than do their conventional counterparts. After all, they’re banned from using anything which might give the yield a bump, or deter the weeds and other sundry pests from nibbling away at, competing with or otherwise spoiling the harvest. One farmer I met, who had converted from conventional agriculture, said that it took two years for the original chemicals to dissipate from his land — two years of going through the various difficult organic practices, but during which time the condition of his soil, with its residual chemicals, could not be certified as organic.
“We have had two pest problems,” Martin tells me. “The pear midge and something similar in one of our apple varieties – but they both disappeared in time. Fire blight could be a problem and would need attention probably by pruning. In essence though good orchard management is needed – pruning, encouragement of beneficial insects and regular tree and fruit inspection.”
So why on earth would you bother?
It was Autumn Stoscheck, of Eve’s Cidery, who gave me the best rationale I’ve heard. She listed all the challenges, the logistical and administrative headaches, the motives behind the orchards who bulk-produce for the huge American juice industry, then added this:
‘Some of what’s in the cider is minerals. There’s more than just sugar and water and acid and tannin and fruit. So when you have really shallow-rooted plants, and if they’re growing in a dead soil, they’re not actually interacting with that soil. So I think not only is the quality of the cider reduced but also the tree’s immune system is reduced, and that’s kind of a downward spiral. So we put a big focus on our soil and what’s happening in the soil and how you’re going to balance having a thriving, microbiologically active soil with diverse plantlife growing in it and how you balance that with weeds competing with the trees – so all those things become an art and a tweaking that we’re very interested in.’
Organic farmers — or at least the organic farmers I have met — operate under the belief that not only does organic farming revitalise one’s soil (after all, these are practices which were more or less de rigeur until very recent history) but that the soil will then, in turn, impart greater quality to their crop. It is, as in so many things, a case of taking the harder road in search of the greater reward. For the maker, for the drinker … and indeed for the land and that which grows on it.
I can’t pretend to fully understand everything that goes into organic farming, and there are clearly better people to speak to about its nuances and implications than me. It is also a term about which, I realise, many people are somewhat cynical — stoked no doubt partially by the huge amount of produce which is fraudulently and incongruously labelled as organic.
Nor is the word or certification ‘organic’ a guarantee of quality. I have had plenty of faulty ciders and perries which have been wholly organic — after all, the producers are taking inherently greater risks. What’s more, ‘conventional farming’ is an exceedingly broad and un-nuanced tent cast over an impossible number of producers engaging in an overwhelming spectrum of agricultural practices, from the lightest touch for security to the heaviest use of chemicals for efficiency and yield. Suggesting that if organics equals good, non-organics equals bad is binary thinking at its most intellectually bankrupt, and is, in any case, objectively wrong.
But the word — or rather the certification — ‘Organic’ on a label has, nonetheless, come to pique my interest. It tells me that someone is doing things the hard way. That they are interested in the health and condition of their soil to the point that they are happy to go to a level of expense on its behalf, despite any ramifications on yield. It tells me that they care deeply about the nurturing of their crop and their land, and it gives me hope that they care about the nurturing of their product, too. It is not simply a cynical marketing word on a label; it has meaning, weight and resonance, and whilst it shouldn’t be to the detriment of other producers, it is a term that nonetheless deserves respect and consideration.
So much for organics. Shall we drink some perry?
The pair of Martin’s creations that I have lined up today are both, besides being organic, pét nat perries from the 2020 vintage. The former is a Hendre Huffcap, a variety which has certainly found favour in these pages before, and which, at its best, offers a lovely juicy palate and big, ripe, peachy-apricot flavours. The latter is Martin’s Aurora blend, which has been made from 11 unnamed varieties.
Butford Organics Hendre Huffcap 2020 – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: All-but-clear sparkling gold.
On the nose: Stunning Hendre Huffcap nose. At once pure and defined in the crystal-clear expression of its variety whilst luxuriating in apricots both fresh and dried, mango slices, ripe peach, Turkish delight, heather honey and exotic marmalades. Bold, billowing and beautiful. A nose to get lost in.
In the mouth: If anything, even fuller and more decadent here. Plump of body, with sweetness, fizz and alcohol levels which perfectly balance, forming a plinth on which those huge, ripe, tropical flavours can truly swagger. Massive notes of apricot — fresh, tinned, dried, jam, even a creamy touch of apricot yoghurt. Juicy nectarine, floral honey, golden poached pear. Just enough acidity for freshness and no tannin to speak of. A must for Vouvray lovers, but wholly its own thing.
In a nutshell: Best Hendre Huffcap I’ve tasted. Gorgeous, luxurious advert for the variety.
Butford Organics Aurora 2020 – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Sparkling pale straw
On the nose: Lighter, brighter, higher-toned. Nettle, green pear, lemon sherbet and wet rock. Not as intense in its aromatics. A touch of lime fruit and a light autolytic hint of saline dough. A very nice perry nose, if not as star-spangled as the Hendre Huffcap.
In the mouth: Nice level of zesty acidity interplays with fleshy pear, honeydew melon, green vegetation after rain and a little more hay and dough. White flowers, green apple skins. White grapes seem to emerge the more I sip. Drinks somewhere between Prosecco and Crémant de Loire. A lovely, elegant perry.
In a nutshell: A very nice aperitif perry you could pour for anyone.
Two very good perries here, though the Hendre Huffcap was my favourite by some way — indeed it would comfortably be in the conversation for the best perry I’ve tried in 2022, and is by some mileage my favourite Hendre Huffcap ever. (Sorry Chris). This isn’t to disparage the Aurora though, which is also well worth your time trying, simply to urge you to buy any of the Hendre Huffcap you are able to.
It’s taken two and a half years and 470 reviews for me to get round to covering Butford Organics, but I’m pretty confident it won’t be as long a wait before I cross glasses with them again.