As Gabe Cook’s Modern British Cider suggests, there aren’t many producers in the UK who take the ‘& Perry’ suffix of their company name as seriously as Ross on Wye do.
Another producer in need of scant introduction from me, and another without whom our Perry Month spotlight series would have felt incomplete.
It’s no secret that I’m an enormous fan of Ross on Wye and their creations, and Albert has become a close friend and consistent source of shared knowledge who was therefore one of the first producers I emailed when I had the idea for this series. But not least among his qualities is his unflinching candour, and I was very grateful that he used his spotlight below to shine a light on something that is a serious and increasing threat to the very existence of British perry.
The floor’s his…
CR: Introduce yourself and your company.
Albert: I’m Albert Johnson, part of the team at Ross-on-Wye Cider & Perry Company in Herefordshire. We have been growing apples and pears since the day the family moved to the farm in 1930. Today much of our perry is made from pears grown on trees that my father, Mike, planted around thirty to forty years ago. However, as I will discuss later, fireblight is rapidly destroying these trees, and we are trying to work out the best long term solution. I also need to give credit to John Edwards who is as important to the perrymaking as Dad or I and has worked with us for two decades.
CR: How did you come to start making perry?
Albert: Perry has always been involved in the production cycle here. In fact, when we moved to the farm, the oldest tree on the land was an enormous Holmer perry pear which we estimate was planted around 1825. With much sadness, this tree came down over Christmas 2020, although it had not produced enough for a single variety for nearly a decade. With much happiness, I can report that thanks to the generosity of former Mayor of Hereford Paul Stevens, we have planted two new Holmer perry pears last winter. I can only hope that they will live as long.
CR: Tell us about where you are. Its connection to perry and pear trees. The landscape and culture.
Albert: We can see May Hill from the farm, which of course as the old legend goes, is crucial for making good perry. Much of the heritage of perrymaking in Britain is centered in these four counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire, although they were of course small farms all across the South-West that grew their own pears too. I can’t say for certain why perry is so important in this region than beyond, but my instinct would be that because perry is harder to produce and the trees longer to mature, the ‘spread’ of perry from the epicentre of May Hill and outwards would be dramatically slower as a culture than that of cider.
It is certainly always humbling to work with fruit that was first discovered only a few miles from our farm several hundred years ago, and to think that all across those years there were orchardists, perrymakers, and just normal people participating in the maintance of the tree and the joy of drinking the perry. We are joining that lineage; and to me the most important and the most distressing thing is ensuring that it can continue. The potential scale of damage that fireblight could cause truly worries me.
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.
Albert: This is a very difficult question. I will list the pros and cons of a few different pears.
Thorn: an early season variety of excellent fruit character. It makes a delicious perry. The difficult part is that the fruit goes over quite quickly; and it also does not seem very productive on our farm. Fortunately we are able to source some Thorn pears from a local farmer who has a wonderful orchard.
Flakey Bark: the most singular pear. Only 6 mature trees (though now being propagated again), one of my most precious varieties. The character of the tannins in this perry is delightful, but often it is best to keep this perry for several years before release. If I had a whole orchard of Flakey Bark, I wouldn’t complain, although again they have fairly poor keeping quality (but better than Thorn or Yellow Huffcap).
Gin: I used to be able to say that this was the greatest pear of all. Best name, best growing habit, best keeping quality, best flavour, best everything. But unfortunately it is also the best at something else: catching fireblight. At the beginning of 2020 we had 10 Gin pear trees. By the end of 2023 we will have none. (So if you have a bottle in the fridge, savour it! Drink it now and toast to the glories of climate change.)
Yellow Huffcap: a sensational pear that produces a large tree and crops very well. Unfortunately this pear aggressively ripens and often rots whilst still attached to the tree, often more than forty foot in the air, meaning there isn’t a lot you can do about it. Must be picked the day it falls which is almost impossible in a busy season. If you get it right though, then it produces a perry of impressive complexity and depth. However I personally don’t adore the flavour because as you know, I describe it as “twisting.” I am definitely in the minority though as it makes a great perry.
Butt: My new top candidate for best variety. In many ways it is similar to Gin; growing, ripening window, keeping quality, productive, the name is good (but also bad), and it appears – touch wood – to be less eager to catch Fireblight than Gin. I like this pear because I am always confident it will produce a clean perry of good character, as it has plenty of tannin.
Red Pear (or Aylton Red, although James Marsden once assured me they were different varieties.) This is another great pear, and special for being a Herefordshire variety. Reliably cropping in a biennial habit, the tree has a very good growing habit (tall and straight) which makes it have great potential in different orchard layouts. The flavour is very good and best described as simply: classic Herefordshire perry. It is emblematic of what good perry should taste like (if done well).
CR: And about the sort of perry you make? Your methods of making it as well as the styles you make.
Albert: We make almost all of our perry the same way we make almost all of our cider: simply collect the fruit from the floor when it is ripe, wash it, sort it, mill and press it, and let it ferment with the native/wild yeasts present in the cidery with a small addition of so2 as a precaution, all the way to dry with racking at appropriate times. In recent years I have begun to think more about capturing some of the perry ‘pét nat’ style if they are tasting good when young, but our default method is to let the perry complete fermentation and mature for at least six months before I contemplate bottling or packaging it.
CR: What are the challenges you find in working with perry? Making, growing and selling?
Albert: Perry is a complex drink. It is hard to grow pears, it is hard to make perry. The word that is consistently used by all members of our team is unpredictable. Some things can go wrong that you simply cannot prepare for.
Perry sold well until the introduction of ‘fruit cider’ around 2013-2014. Almost overnight sales dried up and perry went from being 25% of our production to a low of 6%. However with the dramatic changes to the cider market in the last five years, perry sales are on the up, and now we cannot produce enough to satisfy demand. It is really exciting and prompts one to consider investing in pear trees (almost certainly a terrible, if noble, idea).
The risk with investing in pear trees is Fireblight.
Fireblight is a bacterial disease which chiefly affects pome fruits but also is carried by hawthorn, which is a very common hedge bush. According to the RHS, the bacterium was ‘accidentally introduced’ into the UK from North America in 1957. Although there was an outbreak serious enough in the 1980s for government pamphlets advising farmers how to react, largely it has not been a significant factor in commercial orcharding since it arrived here. However the situation has dramatically changed in the last three years.
Fireblight overwinter in the bark and then in the spring, in warm and wet weather, the bacteria oozes out and spreads through the tree, primarily by dripping into blossom or new leaf buds. It is spread further by bees or by the rain. In the last three years our springs have been dramatically warmer earlier (since pear blossom is earlier than apple blossom) and 2020 and 2021 in particular were also very damp. These were ideal conditions for the bacteria to spread.
The challenge for us has been that at first we did not react quickly enough, and now the situation is very bad as a consequence. In the summer of 2020 I began to see the damage that the fireblight was doing, but it is a hard thing to do to cut down a tree that you planted nearly forty years ago. We did cut down two trees that first year, and reduce one back to it’s graft mark to let it regrow, but I also tried to prune out the fireblight in some of the Gin Pear trees branch by branch. This is an almost impossible task for two reasons: firstly, the trees are huge, over fifty foot tall, more than fifteen foot wide, and to even spot all the fireblight let alone reach it is nearly impossible. Secondly, by the time you see the full impact of the bacteria, the summer temperatures are reaching or going past 30 degrees, which makes the work both exhausting and also makes it unsafe to have a fire – it is crucial to destroy the pruned out wood as soon as possible.
There are no chemical sprays in the UK that will fight a fireblight infection. The only action you have is pruning or tree destruction.
So after that first year, our failure to totally remove any infected trees meant that in 2021 the bacteria spread further. Cue more action to achieve a similar affect. Then in 2022 we had a dryer spring, so I was hopeful we may have seen the infection slow down, but it hasn’t (or at least, not significantly enough to be noticable).
Our intention is to mark all the trees where the infection is visible and remove them this winter. It may be enough, it may not. There is genuinely a chance that by the end of this decade, all the trees that my father and grandfather planted together, will be gone, despite our best efforts to the contrary.
The saddest part is we know we aren’t alone in watching fireblight wreak havoc. Climate change is destroying ecosystems the world over; why would pears get to be any different? The only long term solution is to try to identify correctly which old varieties have the best inherent resistance to fireblight (since some varieties do perform better or worse than others) and propagate new seedlings from them.
For our part, the weakest varieties appear to be: Green Horse, Gin, Moorcroft, Oldfield, Blakeney Red, Turner’s Barn, Boy Pear, Bartestree Squash.
The most resistant varieties – touch wood – appear to be Yellow Huffcap, Hendre Huffcap, Aylton Red.
There are also known varieties from the US such as ‘Old Home’ – the US is light years ahead of our understanding of fireblight because they have had pear growers in the climates where fireblight spreads already for some time. Last November I had the privilege of meeting Sarah from Hemly Cider in California who told me she employs three people year round who’s primary job is to cut out blight.
This is just a short introduction to the whole topic of fireblight. What I intend to do is raise the price of all our perry from 1st January 2023 to create a fund where £1 per litre from all perry we sell will be used directly to fund new perry pear plantings both on our farm and eventually in the local area too.
CR: What is it that inspires you about perry? What do you love about it, both as a maker and a drinker?
Albert: The greatest thing about perry is that link to the past that each glass produces.
CR: And what is your greatest frustration around perry?
Albert: Fireblight – but after that, sorbitol, speaking as a drinker!
Actually, often the hardest part is that the identification of so many trees has been lost to time. I just collected some Moorcroft from a nearby farm on Tuesday; brought them back to press them and realised that they look dissimilar to our own Moorcroft. Who has the correct variety?
At least in that scenario the landowner had an idea of what they thought they were growing; last year we bought 500kg of perry pears and narrowed it down to three ‘likely’ candidates for what the variety they could be, but it is impossible to say for sure. As a company who love to talk about varieties and pass that information on to the drinker, this is always a frustration.
CR: Your perfect perry and food pairing – and/or the time you most like to drink perry?
Albert: My favourite perry pairing is Butt Blend perry with Stroopwafel. If you’re too good for Stroopwafels (you’re kidding yourself if you think so), then put the Thorn with some Ragstone (or Dorstone) goats cheese.
CR: What would you most want to tell a new drinker about perry to convince them to try it?
Albert: Try it now, because it might not be around forever. Most of will have heard of Scudamore’s Crab, the famous Herefordshire Redstreak, which was lost to time (although some nurseries will now sell you a variety ‘called’ Herefordshire Redstreak). Will the perry drinkers of 2050 be able to taste a Gin Pear perry?
CR: And, finally, what is your all-time favourite of your own perries … and your all-time favourite from another producer?
Albert: This is almost impossible to really choose, but probably a toss up between the Flakey Bark 2017 Batch Two, and the very first Butt Blend Perry we released. Everything we decide to release in a 750ml bottle has the chance of claiming my favourite though. When I first moved back home to work full time in 2017, my favourite was a Green Horse single variety (at the time we thought it was called Brinsop) from 2013 – it was just incredible. The current Green Horse bottle is the next time our two trees produced enough for an SV bottling and it took six years!
My favourite from someone else has to be one of Tom Oliver’s keeved perries (I know, it’s sweet!) – but I’ve never drunk one of those and not thought ‘this is a superb drink’.
Cheers to Perry. Fuck fireblight.