Tom Oliver is unquestionably a perrymaking legend. Renowned around the world for his creations, mentioned almost whenever I speak to any other maker, and on a humbler level, featured on this website umpteen times besides. The in-depth conversation on perry he was generous enough to share with me as the opening post of last year’s Perry Month remains my all-time favourite interview published on this site to date.
Since Tom, of all people, really doesn’t need any introduction, I’ll crack straight on with the spotlight … only pausing to add that Tom is doing a Perry Tasting with Gabe Cook, The Ciderologist, tomorrow at the London Cider House, and if you’re very nippy (and probably local) there may still be a ticket or two left…
CR: Introduce yourself and your company.
Tom: Tom Oliver from Oliver’s Cider and Perry in Ocle Pychard, Hefordshire. Making cider and perry from cider apples and perry pears. As the website says our aim at Oliver’s is to make a selection of fine Herefordshire ciders and perries with an emphasis on “balance” and “character” coupled with “drinkability”. Based around the spontaneous ferment of selected varieties of cider apple and perry pear from fruit grown in Herefordshire.
CR: How did you come to start making perry?
Tom: Fascinated by this beautiful fruit growing alongside apples but capable of giving at it’s best, a drink that far outweighs the elegance and poise of any other drink I have ever tasted. We started by making small batches from individual trees to work out what worked and what didn’t. We sailed on from there!
CR: Tell us about where you are. Its connection to perry and pear trees. The landscape (perhaps even the terroir!) and any perry culture (or lack thereof).
Tom: We are on a farm in Ocle Pychard, Herefordshire. We have planted some 100 Perry Pears trees over the last 40 years, many of which are now succumbing to fireblight. Our privilege is to live in an area where there is still some outstanding trees and a few orchards remaining plus there are those brave enough to plant new orchards. Typically almost all perry pear trees can thrive in this area of Herefordshire, hence the number still remaining, though most now exist due to the tolerance/enthusiasm of the land owner rather than as a financial resource. Growing up Perry was made by the more canny of the cider makers who knew the best trees and varieties and when they should be harvested etc. but would leave many varietals to fall for the sheep or cattle. We have tried to expand the use of varietals but there are still some that fall for the animals due to being too early, too fragile or just unpleasant for perry. Perry culture, I am not sure what that might be, a shared enthusiasm for the great drink when well made coupled with the knowledge that it may well not turn out quite like that every time.
CR: Tell us about some of the pear varieties you work with. How they are to grow and work with and the different flavours they bring? Tell us about any of your favourites.
[Answered pretty comprensively here – Ed]
CR: And about the sort of perry you make? Your methods of making it as well as the styles you make.
Tom: This is as much about instinct and practicalities as everything is to do with perry and cider.
Varieties from different places, possess different characteristics and I am not knowledgeable enough to pin that down to any one thing but I am flexible and open enough to understand what the potential is but to always be patient to wait for the initial ferment to complete before I place any pressure on the Perry to become anything.
We use our experience to harvest and press and ferment and then our palates to decide on the fate of each container of Perry in the next spring and summer as we blend our way to create some , hopefully, well made perries.
So we make everything from draught to bottled (still, carbonated, bottle conditioned, pet nat and bottle fermented or method traditional), canned, kegged or boxed! We utilise keeving as a way of preparing the juice, especially when it comes to trying to make non stinky sparkling in bottle and keg conditioned perry.
CR: What are the challenges you find in working with perry? Making, growing and selling?
Tom: Making: At pressing mouse when wild fermenting with no sulphur. Otherwise we think we can blend our way out of trouble and into paradise sometimes.
Growing: Bloody fireblight is killing trees hereabouts. Anyone planting must focus on making sure no hosts in hedges (hard in old hop yard areas) and using inter stems likes Old Home versus fireblight and focus on the more restart varietals . So that means avoiding Blakeney Red which fireblight loves.
Selling: when something so wonderful is made in such small quantities, you will always be able to sell the Perry. The skill is making the best quality and so attracting a price that reflects the effort and risk involved.
CR: What is it that inspires you about perry? What do you love about it, both as a maker and a drinker?
Tom: The challenge as a maker and hence the reward as a drinker when successful. As a drinker, the most perfect drink. Perry should rarely be a volume drink. Quality not quantity. Just allows a good palate to have a field day. If you don’t have a palate and nose that allows you to explore subtlety and nuance then much of what Perry has to offer will be lost on you but for the lucky few……heaven.
CR: And what is your greatest frustration around perry?
Tom: That there will not be enough R&D funding to find our way out of the disease issues with growing these varieties and so perry will become something of a “hobby” drink. Some might say we are already there of course!
CR: Your perfect perry and food pairing – and/or the time you most like to drink perry?
Tom: Oysters and Bottle Conditioned Oldfeld Perry.
In place of champagne as a single glass celebration or an aperitif before a fine dinner.
CR: What would you most want to tell a new drinker about perry to convince them to try it?
Tom: I would not want to waste any time on trying to persuade anyone of the merits of any drink. If you can’t taste it then move on, you are either not ready for it or will never be, so circle back sometime.
CR: And, finally, what is your all-time favourite of your own perries … and your all-time favourite from another producer?
Tom: It was an 8.2% Fine Perry that was blended back in 2008 and was the very best effort so far.
On a regular basis, our Keeved Perry is a delight, showing off keeving and how sweetness and lack of alcohol is no problem for Perry.
UK-Martin Harris at Butford every so often.
Europe- Always Jorg Geiger and his https://www.manufaktur-joerg-geiger.de/Birnenschaumwein-CBB-brut/A000031
USA-Always Wes and Laura Cherry at Dragon’s Head with any of their Perry.
Back in the Day-Kevin Minchew.
It’s not too late to take part in our Perry Month Spotlight series! If you’re a perrymaker reading this, be it in the Three Counties, Domfront, Mostviertel … or anywhere else, we would love to learn about you too. Just drop us a message with your email, and Adam will get the interview out to you.
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