We’ve met Martin Harris of Herefordshire’s Butford Organics a couple of times this month. I tasted a couple of his stellar perries — including possibly my perry of the year to date — and, as I mentioned in our opening article of the month, it was a visit to Butford Organics, as well as Little Pomona, that really crystallised my fascination with, and subsequent love of, perry.
In short, no Butford Organics, possibly no Perry Month. So it feels very appropriate that Martin answered our call for perrymakers to get in touch for a chat, and I’m very pleased to be able to share his insights below.
CR: Introduce yourself and your company.
Martin: Janet and I moved to Butford Farm in Herefordshire from Leeds in 1999 with the aim of being self-sufficient on an organic smallholding. The reality of this was somewhat more demanding than we had anticipated and as Herefordshire took its hold over us we concentrated on developing a cider and perry operation.
CR: How did you come to start making perry?
Martin: I probably only had a hazy notion of what perry was some 20 years ago but quickly became aware of how important it was to Herefordshire in the past. As most of the old perry pear orchards had been lost we decided to do our bit to resurrect them and to explore perry as a drink.
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).
Martin: Butford Farm is some 5 miles south east of Leominster in north Herefordshire. We have not been able to find out much of its history but it seems it was a typical Herefordshire Farm concentrating on cider and perry. There is an old stone cider mill in good condition and one old perry pear tree. The land is well placed sloping gently from east to west, reasonable hedgerows and fertile soil – typical orchard terrain.
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.
Martin: We have planted 2 perry pear orchards with about 270 trees spread over 15 varieties. We generally selected those with good perry pedigrees – the main ones are Blakeney Red, Hendre Huffcap, Moorcroft, Thorn and Yellow Huffcap. They are mostly on Pyro Dwarf rootstock – so we wouldn’t have to wait too long for a harvest – but have about 35 on pyro communis as a homage to Herefordshire’s history and to provide longevity to the orchard – climate change permitting. We have only recently been able to explore the individual characteristics of our varieties – see below – and so are still on a learning curve. However there is no doubt that Hendre Huffcap and Thorn stand out especially the former. Both have an excellent combination of sweetness, acidity and tannin. We have some five Coppy trees but as yet have not had sufficient fruit for a single variety.
CR: And about the sort of perry you make? Your methods of making it as well as the styles you make.
Martin: We concentrate on naturally sparkling perry – méthode ancestrale or more colloquially pét nat – in full weight champagne bottles. We only rely on wild yeast and do not sulphite. Celebration perries which are mostly single varieties but we also produce a blend under the name Aurora. We also make a blended draught.
CR: What are the challenges you find in working with perry? Making, growing and selling?
Martin: The main challenge we have had to deal with is a pest called pear midge which has seriously reduced our harvest and for which there is no organic treatment. During its reign our annual production was limited but it disappeared some 2 years ago due, we think, to a late frost interrupting their life cycle. As regards making, perry can be unpredictable in a way that cider isn’t – it is a complex fruit. This means that strict attention to fruit quality and equipment hygiene is required. Pleasingly our perry sells very well. In general the quality is good which we would put down to the varieties we grow and the wild yeasts here which seem to be beneficial.
CR: What is it that inspires you about perry? What do you love about it, both as a maker and a drinker?
Martin: The transformation of an almost inedible fruit into a very high quality complex drink never ceases to amaze me. If the early autumn turns wet the perry pears are often covered in mud after collection but still ferment to produce a sparkling celebratory drink often used at weddings.
CR: And what is your greatest frustration around perry?
Martin: Corners cannot be cut when making perry. All stages of the production need careful attention. Problems are difficult to rectify. We appreciate the modest use of sulphite may be beneficial but that does not fit in with our production philosophy.
CR: Your perfect perry and food pairing – and/or the time you most like to drink perry?
Martin: We generally drink sparkling perry moderately chilled as a stand alone without a food accompaniment on a warm summer’s late afternoon or early evening. However gently flavoured canapés do not go amiss.
CR: What would you most want to tell a new drinker about perry to convince them to try it?
Martin: Perry is Britain’s great undiscovered drink which can rival the best white wines and champagne. It’s heyday was some 4/500 years ago and it is now only preserved by dedicated producers who maintain the orchards which produce the fruit and are prepared to spend the time in transforming the pears into perry. A reflection of its quality is that is used as an alternative to champagne for celebratory toasts and is included in wine lists of some top restaurants.
CR: And, finally, what is your all-time favourite of your own perries … and your all-time favourite from another producer?
Martin: Us – Méthode Ancestrale Hendre Huffcap 2020. Other – Greggs Pit Thorn.