Today class we’re going to be talking about Butt. And whichever of you it is sniggering at the back there can go and stand in the corner. (Along with Chris, who has already expressed his hope that this Very Serious Article On Our Proper Grown-up Website will be nothing but innuendo and smut).
Butt Pear is an excellent variety. Indeed at least one of Herefordshire’s most prominent perrymakers reckons it might be close to the best variety of the lot. It seems to have been around for a good few hundred years, possibly originating in Gloucestershire’s Norton (hence its other name – Norton Butt) and now grows pretty widely across the Three Counties. The pears are small and green and round, and much loved by producers, since they ripen late and have, by perry standards, a good wide window in which you can press them, being one of the very, very few varieties that will continue to ripen off the tree. Where the finnicky likes of Thorn and Yellow Huffcap want pressing right now this instant or they’ll turn into mush, Butt is a pear with a little more patience; very much the busy harvest-time perrymaker’s friend.
This ability to keep well once harvested owes partially to Butt’s significant level of tannin; an asset which also gives the variety noted ageing potential. As an old Three Counties saying goes, ‘harvest your Butts one year, press them the next, drink them the year afterwards’. It’s generally thought of as low in acidity, but that isn’t to say that it doesn’t have a certain level of it; thinking of the handful of single varieties I’ve tried in the past, I have come to consider it as something of an inverse of Foxwhelp – where Foxwhelp’s tannin hides under a cloak of massive acidity, so Butt’s nip of acid is the trill of birdsong within its thunder of tannin. (I’m not saying that birds trill in thunderstorms, mind, but folk like metaphor.)
So much for the basics of Butt, and if you wish to learn more of the pomology I advise that you google search with due caution. What I want to talk about now is flavour, the weirdness of perception, and natural gas.
When we write tasting notes or chatter around a shared bottle, the flavours we are describing are not carbon copies of the thing to which we are comparing them. For example, I might write that a young Bordeaux smelled of blackcurrant and pencil shavings and cigar leaf, that a Foxwhelp reminded me of wild strawberries and lemon, or that a peated Islay whisky had notes of bonfire and seashell and medicine cabinet, and you might even nod in agreement. But were I literally to mix those ingredients together, their resultant aromas would be some way from the wine, cider and whisky I had been describing.
One of the most commonly cited aroma combinations for young Clare Valley Riesling is lime and kerosene, often adding a layer of honey as the wine ages and indeed it is this unholy-sounding combination which draws me so frequently to the style. But I don’t find myself feeling thirsty when putting petrol into the car, or thinking ‘goodness, if only I had a glass and a wedge of citrus’.
The aroma and flavour notes we list in describing our various drinks are not literal; they are analogous; suggestion – and they are intensely personal. The implicit but often ignored opening to any tasting note reads ‘this reminds me of’, which is probably why the best tasting notes I tend to read — some of the very few I actually do fully read — are written by Rachel Hendry, and talk about holding heavy silver jewellery in her hands or eating from a breakfast buffet at a very good hotel. I can’t say I have practical experience of the former, at least that I can remember, but it evokes the soul of the wine Rachel describes far more powerfully than ‘grilled gardenia’ might; a reference for which I have, if anything, even less mileage.
There are, of course, those working in sensory fields where consistency of language is of paramount importance. At Waterford Distillery, for instance, where I earn my crust, we have a sensory analysis panel who are all trained to evaluate spirits without knowing their identity, for the purposes of research. It is therefore vital that the panel sing from the same hymn sheet, but in order to accomplish this, the language parameters used in description have to be a little broader. For instance our Head Distiller’s ‘granary bread’ might be our Terroir Specialist’s ‘cheerios’, but both could be grouped within ‘cereal’, and doing so enables them to bolt their individual preferences and experiences onto a shared framework.
My personal touchpoint for this hive-palate mentality comes from my studies for the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET). I’ve previously related my thoughts on their famous Systematic Approach to Tasting, and although those thoughts have evolved somewhat, not least through Rachel’s influence, I still feel that in certain instances there is merit to a communally understood approach to the discussion of flavour. (The questions of who ultimately dictates that approach, their palate, expectations and requirements, and the motive for the particular communal direction are, of course, other matters entirely).
The closest thing cider has to a group approach to tasting notes is the Long Ashton Research Station’s famous bitter/sharp axis, which categorises apples by their tannin and acidity. So far as actual flavours are concerned, besides seventeenth and eighteenth century texts which generally only used comparisons to various wines, there has long been a virtual lacuna of information. So much so that one of the first articles I wrote was an amateur attempt to understand the flavour of apple varieties, and our Glossary of Apple Varieties by Flavour continues to be a slow work in progress to this day.
Perry, as always, lags even further behind. I’m long overdue an equivalent article of that which I wrote on cider apples, and despite tasting a good few single variety perries in the course of writing this blog, I often find their individual flavours — or the way my brain interprets those individual flavours — to be curiously elusive.
There are a few exceptions; Thorn, possibly my favourite English pear, consistently expresses itself in my brain as a mélange of lime and pronounced elderflower. Blakeney Red talks to me of melons, and Gin makes me think of pine needles and the scent of the earth after rain. Hendre Huffcap is honey and apricots in my head, and Yellow Huffcap is lemons and white flowers. But when I taste Flakey Bark, for instance, though I cast around in the vague direction of earthiness, autumn leaves, cured meats and dried fruits, the only thing that really enters my brain is ‘smells like Flakey Bark’. Its aromas sit almost entirely outside the bandwidth of my organoleptic experience; when I reach for specific tasting notes, I am largely stumbling around in the darkness. I find the same thing true of several other pears, and for a long time one of those pears was Butt.
Until James said ‘natural gas’.
Yes, alright. The smart alecs among you are now pointing out that natural gas doesn’t have a smell. We’re talking, I suppose, about the smell that is added to natural gas; the whiff of mucking around with taps and bunsen burners in secondary school laboratories when you should be paying attention to Chemistry. Of the scary whiff that comes off the hob when you’re used to electric and the new flat’s gas only.
I know, I know. It doesn’t sound terribly appetising. But neither does petrol, and Riesling is one of my all-time favourite drinks. Neither, really, does liquid smoke, but just try and keep me away from peated whisky, Rauchbier, Lapsang Souchong.
And I know, too, that many perrymakers; perrymakers vastly more experienced with Butt Pear perry than I am, who will have tasted far more samples and have a far more established profile in their mind than I do, may well be thinking that I’ve taken leave of my senses. I can practically hear Albert Johnson’s intonation of ‘baffling’.
All I know is that last year, at the opening tasting of Ross on Wye’s festival, making our way through the new releases, I was clutching about for the character of the Butt Blend when James said ‘it’s like natural gas’ and an organoleptic penny dropped with a clang.
Suggestion, of course, is a powerful, powerful factor when one is tasting. I don’t like to ask what other folk are getting when I’m writing my tasting notes, not least because I need a bit of time and space to figure my own opinions out for myself. Anyone who’s done any tasting in a group will have experienced the ‘oh yeah,’ factor when someone confidently asserts a flavour or aroma, and may well have been led, by noisy group consensus, away from the flavours they were honestly finding for themselves.
And yet despite knowing all that, and despite the seeming outrageousness of the note, ‘natural gas’ stuck. I agreed with James. It was a key part of what the perry smelled like; indeed it was central to why I found the aroma so compelling.
Perhaps more surprisingly, the next time I tasted a perry made from Butt Pear, there it was again. ‘I recognise that,’ I thought. ‘Natural gas’. Different producer, different method, different sweetness, yet this same characteristic that I had assumed to be idiosyncratic merely to Ross’s take on the variety. Curiouser and curiouser.
Most significant though was when I tasted a perry – can’t remember which – without knowing whose or what it was. Very different to the single varieties; its flavours driven in a markedly different direction. And yet amidst all that, something familiar. A touch of that secondary school chemistry lab. ‘Is there Butt in this?’ I asked. Wouldn’t you know it? (Not a trick I expect I could pull off a second time, incidentally.)
Our senses are funny things. They are rooted in memory, in individual perception, and collectively they form the world around us and a huge part of who we are. I have no way of knowing whether you see blue in exactly the way I do, or exactly how the buzzing of bees forms itself in your head. Smell, so dependent on where and how you grew up; so uniquely and directly linked to memory; is probably the most personal sense of all.
I have no way of knowing whether anyone besides James and I (and Caroline) think of natural gas when we smell Butt Pear. That particular aroma sits, no doubt, in the rather loosely defined collection of smells which we often refer to as ‘mineral’. So perhaps my natural gas is your coastal air, or petrichor, or even a certain sort of smoke. Maybe you perceive it in an entirely different way; as something green, or herby, or of the woodland.
Besides, ‘natural gas’ is hardly the sum-total of Butt Pear’s aromatics and flavours, just as ‘kerosene’ doesn’t come close to summing up the full profile of Australian Riesling. There’s far more to it than that; what I perceive to be ‘natural gas’ is merely a reference point amidst it all, something I can grasp with one hand as I try to sift through its many other characteristics.
And of course I can’t say with any certainty that Butt Pear from outside the Three Counties would manifest itself in my olfactory in the same way. The Little Pomona Pét Nat Perry 2017 was predominantly Butt, and its character was markedly different. But I drank that when it was four years old, so perhaps the way that Butt progresses with age cracks open that mineral character to reveal greater ripeness of fruit, not unlike a Semillon or a Riesling or a white Rhône.
But I think, as we chart our individual maps of flavour, that we need these little waymarkers; these lanterns to our palate. They are what build our individual understanding of preference; they are the bookmarks we can return to when we taste something which we think might be familiar, they are the anchors around which we can drift as we try new things. I can’t say that all Butt Pear perries, or all perries with Butt Pear in them, will remind me of natural gas, but I can say that enough do, and have, that I have been able to build my own organoleptic picture of the variety. And, by so doing, develop a greater familiarity with and fondness for it as I go.
A few years back we weren’t really talking about Dabinett as ‘orangey’, about the red fruits of Foxwhelp, about Kingston Black as tropical in its tone, or about the rich Christmassy spice of Yarlington Mill. Our conversation around the flavours of cider and perry has moved forward immeasurably in a comparatively short period, and what is more exciting than anything is that the records we leave of our impressions of flavour are being composed, largely, for the first time.
It may well be that ‘tannic’ is the most important thing you need to know about Butt Pear – and it probably is the first thing I’d say to someone I was pouring it for. Texture, as Chris has wisely observed, is central to a perry’s profile after all. But my world of flavour in cider and perry is more comforting and navigable for thinking that aspects of Butt’s aroma remind me of natural gas. A little bit more of my personal map feels filled in; where once I groped around in the dark, I now have a little more light.
But perhaps I’m talking absolute rubbish*, so let’s taste a trio of single variety Butts and see.
All three of today’s offerings come from within sight of Gloucestershire’s apocryphally all-important May Hill. Seb’s is based in King’s Caple, South Herefordshire, whilst Castle Wood Press Perry is made by Rob Castle on the slope of May Hill itself. Rounding things off, I’m retasting the Ross on Wye Butt that first planted the ‘natural gas’ seed at last year’s festival to see a. whether we had simply been sitting in the sun too long that day and b. whether it has developed in the intervening year.
I picked up Seb’s and Rob’s at this year’s iteration of the festival, the former for £10 per 750ml, the latter for (I think?) something like £3.50 per 500ml. Neither currently has an online shop, though Seb’s have been sold by Fram Ferment and The Cat in the Glass before (and hopefully will be again). Seb’s website also suggests that you can place orders via email. The Ross on Wye is on Cat in the Glass for £9.50 or Fram Ferment for £10.20.
Castle Wood Press Butt – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Appearance: Pearlescent gold. Light fizz.
On the nose: Clean, pure and rather juicy aromatics. A hint of you-know-what, though it’s actually fairly quiet and a good bit of petrichor — Butt is a very mineral variety, I think. But also lemon and pineapple jelly, quince and russety pear skin. Really clear and defined; manages to be both fulsome and delicate. A rather mesmerising nose.
In the mouth: Lovely, full, dry texture though the tannins have softened beautifully and integrated entirely. Then that gorgeous dovetail of juicy – very juicy – yellow fruit, nibble of ripe, lemony acidity and intense minerality. A glass of quince and pineapple by the seashore with a small incongruous gas tap turned on next to you. A little zip of fizz. Crystal clear, idiosyncratic, supremely harmonious and totally enthralling.
In a nutshell: A classic dry Butt Pear Perry that manages to be both full and gentle at once.
Seb’s Butt 2021 – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Appearance: Clear gold. A touch of fizz.
On the nose: An enormous, wonderful, pillowy Butt Pear nose. The natural gas element has upped from the Castle Wood Press, but so has everything else; the yellow fruits have turned tropical and very ripe – apricot, lychee, passion fruit – and there’s a lovely vanilla and dried tropical fruit too. Less mineral than Rob’s – except for that distinct Butt natural gas note. More fruity. Complex, pristine, epic aromatics.
In the mouth: Even bigger here. Off-dry, and loaded with so much dried pear, tropical punch, vanilla, lychee, wet slate and natural gas, alongside huge, full body, that the significant, mouth-coating fuzz-grip of archetypal Butt Pear tannin is all wrapped up. Only mild acidity, yet incredibly fresh. Balanced to a T despite its enormousness.
In a nutshell: An all-time great Butt Perry (by my limited mileage) and one of my perries of the year.
Ross on Wye Butt Blend 2019-2020 – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Appearance: Deeper gold, getting towards brass. A little more fizz, but not much.
On the nose: We continue to clamber the scale of aromatic (and natural gas) intensity … and we started on a high point. Bellows from the glass with that huge mineral, gas, seashore, petrichor and rough green pear skin alongside bright, zingy, vivid lemon’n’lime juice and pith. Amazingly pure and defined – Butt at its most intense.
In the mouth: Most intense arrival too – huge, fresh, ripe, grippy perry tannins alongside electric lemon and juniper acidity, lime (both fresh and marmalade) wet slate, natural gas, kerosene and — amidst everything else going on — even some floral tones; lilies for me. Enormous body; so full in all respects that its medium sweetness almost goes unnoticed. An utter riot of a Butt Perry, and one – I think – which has increased in both definition and harmoniousness in the last year. Will continue to drink well for a good while to come.
In a nutshell: The IMAX, surround-sound edition of Butt Pear. Ultra full-on … there’s a reason Caroline and I have got through two cases this year.
Some pears are mild and delicate. Some pears taste pretty similar to other pears. Butt is neither.
Butt is a pear and a perry which makes a statement. It is enormous, idiosyncratic, immensely characterful, utterly itself; a complete one-off in the world of perry, of drinks and probably of flavour, and for that I love it so very, very much.
Singularity of character is perhaps my favourite trait a drink can possess, when that singularity is expressed in a compelling and delicious way. It is why there is so much love for Springbank whisky, why wine lovers are so enthralled by Riesling (and, though the more wonkish may grind their teeth at this, why so many other wine lovers fell and remain in love with New Zealand Sauvignon). It is unquestionably why Foxwhelp holds such cult status. Butt Pear, I believe, deserves consideration in the same terms.
This outstanding (and fantastically good value) trio has only deepened my love of this pear. Such intensity and idiosyncrasy of character inevitably won’t be for everyone — just as Springbank and Riesling are not mainstream tastes — but I would recommend this pear and these perries to anyone who is interested in flavour. Even if your flavours aren’t quite the same as mine.
*I very nearly wrote ‘talking out of my arse’ at this point, but propriety (and cowardice) prevailed. Just letting Chris know here as an early Christmas present.