On my recent trip to Austria’s Mostviertel I was lucky enough to try some wonderful dry perries.
The quality across the board was startling, and you can read my individual thoughts on each one here. But even among such auspicious company; even in the region perhaps more perry-obsessed than any other in the world, one producer consistently stood out as, to me, the best of the best: Haselberger.
Peter and Bernadette Haselberger are the third generation of their family to live on their farm near Amstetten. Although Peter’s grandfather made Most for decades, it wasn’t until seven or eight years ago that Peter took over production.
Since then they have applied the professionalism, rigour and mindset of a top tier winemaker to their production, and the results were some of the most pristine, elegant, evocative and compelling dry perries I’ve ever been lucky enough to try.
I immediately asked whether they would be interested in taking part in our Perry Month Spotlight series, but was so captivated by the quality of their perry that I wanted to go even deeper than the questionnaire we’ve used as our template this month.
I was delighted when they agreed to speak to me about their family, farm, pears and perries, and our conversation is recorded below, lightly edited for clarity.
It’s my opinion that Haselberger is one of the most exciting perry producers, making some of the best perries, anywhere in the world right now, and I dearly hope that this interview finds itself read by a UK importer. I’m so pleased to be able to share Bernadette and Peter’s story and insights; theirs are names that perry lovers everywhere would do very well to remember.
CR: Tell me about your farm and family. How long have you made Birnenmost for? What are the names of the people involved?
Haselberger: Our farm has a comparatively short history. It wasn’t our ancestors who built the farmhouse, it was the Mayrhofer family. The farm was originally placed 500m to the west, but in 1860 the railway was built there, so Josef Mayrhofer and his family had to build a new farm, including a big new house, which is where we live now. The building is a “Vierkanter” – typical of the region – a traditional farmhouse with four sides and an inner courtyard. In the Mostviertel there is the ancient saying: “the Vierkanters were built by the Most”. It’s because of how much Most the producers were able to sell to Vienna at the end of the 19th Century.
Josef Mayrhofer’s son-in-law wasn’t economically successful so the farm was sold by auction. The Nowak family – our ancestors – bought it, but only produced Most for themselves and their workers. They weren’t typical farmers until one of the daughters married Leopold Haselberg Snr in 1951.
Leopold produced about 120 “Eimer” of Most a year. [An eimer is a traditional measurement c. 56 litres] He sold the Most regionally and customers came with bottles or little tanks. Leopold Haselberger Snr produced the Most until 2014. Since then Peter, Leopold Snr’s grandson, has been responsible for the production, and has made huge changes. In 2016 Peter studied to become a Mostsommelier. This was very important for our development. From now we sell only sell bottled Most, and we also produce varietal Most from our orchards.
This vintage is the first we bottle a part without filtration and less intervention. As a result we’ve seen that the body of the perry is bigger and fuller. So we are on a journey – and we think that development is only possible in steps. So we are looking forward to the next steps…
Ours is a typical farm with pigs and agriculture. And now we want to extend the Most production. This is our passion and we think that the Most production has great potential.
CR: Do you have your own orchards? How big are they/how many pear trees are there?
Haselberger: We have our own pear and apple trees. We have them in our garden or between the fields. The “tree lines” are very special in the Mostviertel. We have about 80 pear trees, but fortunately in the Mostviertel there are amany more. We also pick pears in our neighbour’s garden. Historically every farmer made their own Most so there are a lot of trees. In the seventies and eighties the Most lost a lot of popularity; it was displaced by beer or wine. So there are fortunately a lot of gardens where we can harvest pears. Some of our trees are very old – 120 years or more. They are big and really exciting. The orchards are really great – there is a wonderful diversity of animals and we protect the typical regional landscape. We have already planted a lot of trees and our philosophy is to keep this heritage alive.
The old trees are our focus. We see them as a great treasure and we want to protect this heritage and raise the value of these trees in our region. As you can see on our labels on the bottles there are always small “poems” handwritten by Bernadette. These lyrics should make you feel as if you were sitting under these trees. For example: Unter der Dorschbirn – you can taste the terroir, the air, and the fruit. The idea is that Peter’s “handwriting” is in the bottle and Bernadette’s is on the outside. We put our love, our passion and our soul into the perries, and we hope that people can taste this.
CR: How much Birnenmost do you make from them per year?
Haselberger: It depends on the harvest. We have about 12 different varieties of Most – we also use the apples of the orchards. Actually we have about 6 different Birnenmost. We also have blends of apple and pear Most. It depends on the character of each variety. Overall we produce about 14.000 liters per year.
CR: Your mostbirne are very different to the perry pears we have in the UK. Can you tell me a bit about a few of the varieties you use, what their qualities and flavours are, and perhaps which ones are your favourites?
Haselberger: In the Mostviertel we have a great treasure – such an incredible range of different Mostpears. Each has a special character and that makes the work such exciting. Most of them have a lot of tannins. If you bite into them you won´t like it. There are some with a high level of tannins and some with far less. And within that there is a great range of flavour.
A challenge is that we know just a small number of varieties from across the whole of Mostviertel. As we work locally – within just a 20km or so radius – our variety is limited. There are typical varieties local to us, but 50km or so away the varieties might be different, though there are some species which are all over the Mostviertel, such as Speckbirne or Grüne Pichlbirne. Stieglbirne is a more local pear to our region, for instance. It’s a great pear – very gentle with a high level of naturally sweet sorbitol. This makes the Most a real pleasure to drink. We mainly use about 9 pears- we bottle some as single varieties and others we do in a “cuvée”. They include Landlbirne, Dorschbirne, Speckbirne, Stieglbirne and Grüne Pichlbirne,
Two of Peter’s favourite pears are the Speckbirne and the Grüne Pichlbirne. They are completely different in their characteristics. That makes it so exciting. If you want to drink Most with a substantial dish Peter would recommend the Grüne Pichlbirne. It is a full-bodied Most with strong character. In comparison the Speckbirne is more delicate. It is perfect for sharing with friends just to enjoy the drinking pleasure.
Peter’s actual favourite Perry is the Landlbirne. It’s strong, full bodied and has a lovely direct acidity.
CR: Can you tell me about the different Birnenmost you make, and how you make them?
Haselberger: We have about six different Birnenmost in our range, each with a different character. The production of each sort is similar: the most important factor is clean and precise work. The harvest of the Mostpears has the most important impact to the quality of the Most. It is essential to the quality to work cleanly and quickly because this determines if you end up with a fault-free product or not.
First we harvest the pears – picking most of them up after ripening. We don’t shake the trees, we wait until the ripened pears are on the ground. This takes a lot of time but we think it is important. Then the pears get washed and crushed. After this the pears get pressed and the juice is collected in a tank. Peter controls the acid, sugar and the ph-value. After then he binds turbidities and adds selected yeasts. After the fermentation the Most is split into turbidities and Most. Then the Most is filled into bottles.
We like to do as little as possible but the most important thing is that it tastes good. That’s not easy and we are starting to see how different each vintage is. We just produce it like wine – still perry. We also have a sparkling perry, with a second fermentation in the bottle. A local vineyard does the secondary fermentation for us.
CR: What would you say is your philosophy towards making Birnenmost as a producer?
Haselberger: Our philosophy is to produce high quality and characterful products. That means that we have a high level of tannins. Most of our Mosts are dry; we only have 2 Most which are semi-dry. And that makes it so special – to focus on the character and the flavour.
Another philosophy is to inspire local people in our region with the product. Unfortunately Most is not as popular as wine, for example. This is caused by the former Mostculture when Most was not as high quality as today. It had a high level of acid and was very sour. So we see it also at our mission to convince people to try a modern Most. And that is great fun and makes us proud to see the reaction after trying a swallow- or sometimes a bottle! It’s awesome to change somebody’s mind of Most and that makes us proud.
We are lucky that our work has been honoured. The greatest award we have won was the “Falstaff Mosttrophy 2019”. There were 6 categories and we won 3. We submitted 5 products and the lowest valuation was about 90 out of 100 points. That was great success and we have seen it with deep humility and gratitude. We don’t take it for granted, because quality is very high in this competition. There are a lot of great products. To participate you have to demonstrate a “governmental verification number”. Similar to the wine industry the orcharding industry has launched a governmental jury to establish high quality products with a governmental verification number. There the products are inspected in laboratory and a commission evaluates the products sensorily too.
In 2019 we also won the “Goldene Birne” – Golden Pear – for our Stieglbirnenmost. This is a big competition in direct marketing by farmers. It was also the winner of the whole category. So we felt blessed and honoured. The quality is not so easy- because we can´t pick the pears. They are lying on the grass or soil and there are bacterias which are influencing the natural yeast etc.
Our challenge is now to reach consumers who appreciate our way of production. In comparison to other producers in the region we’re very expensive. But we know, that the market isn´t in the Mostviertel. We sell to gourmet restaurants in Vienna – that’s the group we’re targeting. We also want to sell abroad, but that’s a goal for the future …
CR: We don’t really see any Birnenmost in the UK. Can you tell me a bit about the culture and heritage of Birnenmost in Austria, and what it means to you?
Haselberger: Birnenmost and the perry pear has a long tradition in the Mostviertel. It had an incredible wealth of pear trees in the 1930s. In the district of Amstetten (where we are from) there were about 1.000.000 trees for Most production. Nowadays there are about 300,000.
Historically Maria Theresia and Joseph II supported the planting of fruit trees. Maria Theresia instructed that fruit trees should be planted along public streets and Joseph II supported this. So a lot of fruit trees were planted in the 18th century. And this was the cornerstone for the Mostculture because it provided the raw material. The climate in the Mostviertel was perfect so they grew brilliantly.
From around 1850 the Mostculture gained economic prosperity. A main factor was the so-called “liberation of peasants” in 1848. Now the farmers had land ownership and the economic success and the Mostproduction was a great opportunity. Also the industrialisation in the cities gave the farmers a customer base for their Most. City workers had higher prosperity and they became good new consumers. Especially following the building of a train line between Vienna and Linz in 1858 which made it easy to transport barrels.
The modern image of Most is not as good as wine. Historically Birnenmost was drunk by the poor – which is also one of the reasons why Most has not been so popular in the last decades. Fortunately we beginning to see a positive development.
Once upon a time every farmer made his own Birnenmost, which was drunk by everyone working on the farm. Nowadays there are fewer producers – in our neighbourhood (about 10 farms) only 3 families produce Most and only we sell it – but we see that the real quality producers make more.
CR: What inspires you about perry?
Haselberger: Often it’s thinking about our roots. We have this treasure and we want to make it “golden”. We want people in the area to see the trees as we see them: priceless. We love the pleasure of good food and drink. To celebrate life and to think of the most important things: family, love, the magic of life. When I think of our single tree Grüne Pichlbirne, my heart goes ‘wow’. Honestly – I’m not just saying that as marketing – it is real. Thinking of what this tree seen in its life is truly humbling. It was there before we were born and hopefully it will be there when we are gone. That inspires a deep respect of nature and the environment. And also a big responsibility. We want to keep the orchards alive and to plant more trees – both for future generations and for the environment.
We love the great variety perry has. From very delicate flavours to far stronger – it’s great. We are very curious. And we taste and try a lot; we order ciders from other nations, which we always find very interesting.
CR: What are the challenges facing Birnenmost producers, and how are you meeting them?
Haselberger: As I’ve said, the modern image is not especially good. But we see that winning awards such as the Falstaff earns a good response. Falstaff is a well known magazine for food and wine or spirits. So taking part in the competition was a great opportunity. We also see that communication and marketing is vitally important. We can learn a lot from the wine industry – how we position ourselves, for example. And that makes us very optimistic. We need to learn what we can, and then communicate all the advantages Birnenmost offers in comparison to wine (less alcohol for example…)
It is really funny – sometimes we have people who say: “Most? No, I don´t like that.” So we say “Do you want to try a pearwine?” and this works easily. When we say that it is a perry – Most – they often can’t believe it! Which is great, but is also our challenge – the bad image of Most in Austria.
Another challenge is that the harvest is often only possible by hand. Trees are often planted between fields and the ground is very rough and bumpy – so exhausting hand-picking is necessary. Then naturally if the weather is bad – too cold in spring or too dry in summer – we’ll have a bad harvest or even no harvest. This year is not easy but it is ok. We have to live with it.
CR: What are your hopes and plans for the future?
Haselberger: We think there is a great opportunity for Most. But we have to invest a lot of money in marketing and presentation. We think that we can find success by communicating the features of Most and the stories behind it.
We would love our Most to be widely known and popular and for that to happen it is very important to become associated with quality – premium quality. We know that we can surprise people with our products and we want them to be preserved for future too. Birnenmost should be a term everybody knows – a positive one. We want the Mostviertler people to become and stay proud to be a part of this great place. We want them to appreciate the roots and the culture of Most.
CR: And, finally, what is your all-time favourite of your own perries … and your all-time favourite from another producer?
Haselberger: We think that the Stieglbirne is great- with its own sorbitol sugar- it is very drinkable…
Our favourite drink from another producer is the Mostello from Destillerie Farthofer Mostellaria. We love to taste it and see how different each vintage is.
We also see a great ageing potential in the perrys. You can see it in the Pyrus; each vintage tastes totally different, and we’ve learned that you don’t have to drink it young and early – you can mature it. That’s great.
Huge thanks to Bernadette and Peter for giving their time and insight to this article. A reminder, for full disclosure, that my trip to Mostviertel was paid for by the regional tourist board, Mostviertel Tourismus, but that had no bearing on any of the content of this piece, which was compiled entirely independently.