I don’t know how much point there truly is to this review, and perhaps, by the end, you will agree. It is of a perry that I never expected to drink, that I gave up looking for after a couple of half-hearted internet searches a couple of years ago and that I don’t imagine you can buy anywhere unless you visit the source (the location of which I can’t tell you, because I don’t know). All in all, as a consumer’s guide goes, the merits of this piece are questionable. But I’ve a reason — a few reasons — for sharing it, if you’ll humour me.
When I first got heavily into perry, really only a few years ago, I would, as you do, ask people their opinions on favourite bottlings. On the makers they rated highest. Many of the names will come as no surprise; Tom Oliver, of course, Ross on Wye, Gregg’s Pit, Bartestree, Butford Organics, Hecks, Cwm Maddoc.
But there was one name cited from time to time whose wares proved completely elusive when I dug around google in search of them. A maker invariably namechecked by some of the older, longer-standing producers as someone whose perries were pretty close to the ne plus ultra. Kevin Minchew.
Eventually I gave up the search. As I later discovered, by the time Pete Brown was describing him as ‘one of the two best makers in the world’ in World’s Best Cider, Kevin had already downed tools from a commercial point of view for some years. Very occasionally I would see, hear, or be on the receiving end of ‘you don’t know man, you weren’t there’-type comments about his perry and there would be a twinge of regret. A feeling at having, in some small way, missed an unknown boat.
And then the moment would pass, and I would remember how broad and rich the world of modern perry is, and how many people there now are doing interesting things in an at least pseudo-prominent way, and I would forget all about it.
Until a couple of weeks ago I received a voicemail message from Gabe Cook. He had noted the Perry Month content and he had a bottle of a 2001 champagne method perry from Kevin Minchew — one he had previously written about on Pellicle, as it happened — and would I be interested in it?
Obviously the answer was ‘yes please, very much so’, but it left me with the conundrum of how to write about something which is effectively unobtanium in a way that might be interesting and useful. And the more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that a potential fulcrum might be Gabe himself.
Gabe, for those of you who may not have met him, is a genuinely fascinating person. Someone who has held down most roles within the cider industry — and indeed invented at least one. He’s worked for and with the very biggest cideries in the world, as well as for tiny farm-gate operations. Most intriguingly, he is a forward-looking driving force behind the modern rethink movement, but one whose own passion was born in the quieter, more tucked-away years before the internet and, especially, the so-called ‘Magner’s Effect’ of 2006, pushed cider into a greater limelight.
Gabe has written and spoken at length about his closeness to perry in general, and this perry in particular, and so I couldn’t think of a better way to bridge the gap between the making of this perry in 2001 and my drinking of it in 2022 than to pick his brains on the last 20 years of perry, and his relationship with it throughout. He kindly agreed to an interview — his second in these pages — and our conversation is recorded below.
CR: Tell me about your relationship with perry generally?
Gabe: My relationship with perry! Well, I count myself as one of the very fortunate people to have been born and brought up in an area and a village that is really quite closely synonymous with perry’s story and in the heartland of the perry area — the village of Dymock. Which has a perry pear named after it, the Dymock Red, so that’s not a bad start I suppose! Being about 4 miles probably as the crow flies from May Hill it really is in that epicentre. So when I was starting my journey and understanding and falling in love with cider it was always ‘cider and perry’. Because remarkably, in and around Dymock, the majority of the old orchards are actually pear trees rather than apple trees. And so over the course of the last 15-16 years that I’ve been making cider and perry (only a very small amount at home for fun) it’s normally been perry rather than cider just because that’s the fruit that I’ve had available to me in and around the village of Dymock.
So it’s had an equal footing I suppose in terms of my story and my interest around these fermented beverages. Obviously they’re completely different things and on any average occasion if I’m drinking cider or perry it’s probably going to be a cider; that’s not to say I prefer it, they’re just different drinks, they lend themselves to different occasions and moods and things like that. But beyond the liquid itself, it’s the story of perry or the stories that sit behind it —the orchards, the varieties, the people, the pickers, the myths and the mysticism. It’s just something that I find fascinating and fun, even more accentuated by the fact that it is a drink made specifically in the very small place that I am from, rather than the broader western parts of the UK that tannic cider would be able to lay claim to. Combined with the fact that it’s a rare drink, it just gives me extra desire to champion it.
And to be fair it really was when making a perry that the lightbulb moment of my real passion for the drink came about. Because my mum grew up on a small farm on the edge of Dymock and like so many farms there was a lot of orcharding on there, the majority of the fruit going to Weston’s in Much Marcle which is just next door. There was an old cider mill on the farm as well where the fruit would have been pressed and cider and perry made. And there was, 16 years ago, and it is still left, an old perry pear tree. And it’s a Thorn tree. And as it happens it’s a whopping, whopping great Thorn tree. It’s got to be 200, maybe even 250 years old — it is huge for a Thorn tree, which doesn’t grow as big as some of the other pear trees. And I was working for Mike Johnson at the Ross on Wye Cider & Perry Company, just starting that harvest apprenticeship, and he said ‘well go to Dymock, go and pick those pears and make a perry’. So that’s what I did. It would have been about this time of year, so there would have still been a little bit of sun, little bit of warmth, but with that chill in the air of the change of the seasons. It’s quite an emotive time, and just picking these pears off the ground I just had a bit of a moment of connectivity to family and forbears and place and heritage and creativity and custom and just went ‘wow, this is cool.’ And as it happens the resultant drink, if I don’t mind saying so myself, was really, really good. In fact it is, by far, to my palate and memory, the best drink I’ve ever made! Which, of course, was my very first. Thorn in all of its majesty; electric, grapefruit, zingy, minerally, intense, fruity, off-dry. I amazed myself that I could make something that not only did I enjoy the taste of so much but where I loved every part of its story and creation and process. So yeah, perry means a lot to me for lots of different reasons.
CR: Without wanting to just reprise your Pellicle article too much, this perry specifically — and the maker behind it as well — what do they mean to you?
Gabe: So the chap’s name is Kevin Minchew, which isn’t a name that so many people who’ve become interested in cider and perry over the course of the last 10 years might have heard of. Certainly if you’ve got involved in sort of the last five or six years, in the wonderful resurgence and renaissance of people coming in and breathing life into our industry, you’ve probably not heard of Kevin. Because his greatest significance and heyday was the 1990s really — the late ‘80s and into the 1990s. He was part of a cohort of producers in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire who were really upholding the traditions and customs and reviving it on a slightly bigger scale and making the public more aware of these drinks and orchards and varieties through making great products and participating in events and activities.
So he was alongside Jean Nowell, co-founder of the Big Apple, in terms of raising the bar and raising awareness of the heritage. He was one of the original members of the Three Counties Cider and Perry Association. And he won a bit of everything. The article will tell you the dates but in a handful of years he won a handful of stuff at the Big Apple, Royal Bath & West Show, CAMRA National Champion — he won everything. Because his ciders and his perries were just exceptional. But unlike other people who grew out of that 1990s era; Ross Cider, Tom Oliver, Newton Court a little bit latterly, Kevin never grew in volume. He only ever made less than 7000 litres; it was always — not a hobby, I think that does it a slight disservice — he calls it his ‘cultural responsibility’ to uphold the heritage of these orchards and these drinks by picking the fruit, giving viability to those orchards and making this drink. And that’s great fun and you get to make a lovely drop at the same time. So it was always a thing on the side — he’s always had a day job. And his nature and his character was always a little bit more rustic and rural and less ‘professional’ in the sense of having it as a business enterprise — none of those things held any great interest for him.
I met him properly for the first time in the Autumn of 2008. I had just started working at Weston’s, I was two years into cider as a job and real passion. And I’d heard about him and tried his ciders, so I paid a visit to where he was making the cider back then, which was at his mum’s place just outside Tewkesbury, Ashton Cross. And it was a really rustic house with these little sheds and barns where he was making this cider — very dark and a little bit dingy! And he was lovely, and very accommodating with his time and cider. And we had a taste through the barrels and all the bits and bobs, and then, upon leaving, he said ‘here you go, try this, here’s a bottle for you’. And he presented a punted bottle with gold foil on it and he said ‘that is a traditional method perry — it’s Moorcroft, Stinking Bishop, see what you think of this.’ And we were in 2008 and he described it then as being from 2001 harvest fruit. He sent it off to Three Choirs Vineyard to be put into bottle for secondary fermentation in 2002; by the time that secondary fermentation had finished the alcohol was at 10.2%, so it was obviously quite heavy to start with just off the primary fermentation, and he had had some disgorged in 2008. So it had had six years sur lie, which I’d never had a perry like that before — or since, I don’t think.
But what’s more remarkable is we’re talking 2008, and cider or perry in a large punted bottle like that was a rarity. There were some in a bigger bottle with an apple juice twist cap, maybe a crown cap, but I’m struggling to think. There were hardly any with cork and wire; maybe Butford Organics were making one, but certainly not in the traditional method. And Kevin said ‘I charge £10 for that’. And he said it with pride and satisfaction and with no shred of doubt that that was exactly what it was worth because of the time and the effort and the cost and the awesomeness of the liquid. And I was like ‘bloody hell Kev, £10 for a bottle of perry, that’s going to be tricky, isn’t it?’ But he used to sell bits and bobs — I think he made quite a lot of this.
So he then sort of disappears off the radar a bit, and I move to work for Heineken, then go to New Zealand and come back and hadn’t really spoken to him for a few years. And I thought I’d look him up and see what he’s up to, and he’s just pottering on and doing something. And then it got to lockdown and I just felt an urge to reach out to some of these key pioneering people. There was such an amazing thing going on with people discovering cider and perry, possibly as a result of lockdown, and going on a bit of a journey, and rightly some of the fantastic cidermakers being celebrated. And I thought ‘well there’s one key person who hasn’t had their story told’. Which was what prompted me to write that article. So I went to visit him and he gave me another bottle of this perry. 2001 — except it had been disgorged in 2020.
So it’s had a considerable length of time sur lie. As it stands we’re talking a 21 year old perry. It’s definitely showing its age, for better or for worse, but to an extent that’s secondary to the fact that this liquid still exists and is this signifier, for perry, of how things have changed. Gosh, you know, £10 for a traditional method cider or perry today would be a bit of a steal. So it’s just a bit of a wonderful story.
CR: Tell me about the cider and perry scene back in the mid-noughties, pre-Magners Effect, and at the time this perry was being made?
Gabe: That’s a good question. So those were my early days — my forays into discovering it. There wasn’t a great deal about. I was at university in Leeds and my brother was in York, and there was the Beer, Wine & Cheese Shop in York which my brother and I went to. And in there there was a bottle of Dunkerton’s, bottle of Butford Organics, there was Sheppy’s Goldfinch, possibly an Oliver’s, possibly a Burrow Hill. And we bought them and thought ‘these taste amazing’. So that summer we went to visit some of the Herefordshire cidermakers — Ross Cider, Oliver’s Butford Organics. And just thought ‘wow, these taste so intense and everything about the varieties, the culture, the orchards is just sensational’. But getting hold of them, tasting them, buying these products wasn’t particularly easy — you had to go and visit the maker.
At the Three Counties Show they’d sort of come together and then you’d get some from a little further afield; the likes of Severn Cider would come along. There were quite a few of them about, but all kind of small scale. The Ross Cider Festival, as it happens, was probably, as it is today, a really important event, because of the fact that Mike, rather wonderfully, decided ‘let’s get lots of other cider and perry makers here, and not just our own’ despite the fact that they could easily host the festival just with the multitude of ciders and perries that they’ve got.
That was the first time of trying a whole range of things, and I think the first time I tasted a perry that I was totally blown away by — from a chap called Rob Uren, who is an orchardist and orchard manager who makes a bit under his Malvern Magic brand. He did a single variety New Meadow, and it tasted like strawberries and cream, and it was just amazing. So it was cool and it was fun, and between university and when I finished university I was living in Dymock, so I was fortunate to have the Herefordshire and Gloucestershire makers on my doorstep and could go to visit and to taste. But it was all very much in a traditional vein at that point, and what’s been so interesting over this time is that it’s changed such that even if the liquid’s being made in the same way as that time, the approach or the feeling or the language around them is a combination of the tradition and the heritage but also the contemporary wonderfulness of it as well. So it’s been an interesting transition.
CR: You’ve just done a perry tasting with Tom Oliver in London — which highlights this wider movement you’ve just talked about. Tell me about how that was and how people received it?
Gabe: It was great fun. Anything with Mr Oliver is never a dull occasion! That’s the first pure perry tasting that I’ve ever participated in; I always incorporate a perry into anything I do from a tasting point of view, but what fun to have something that is just highlighting this pear drink. We had a great turnout; it’s not a huge space in the London Cider House but we had people sat on the floor and hanging out the back and it was great. There were some familiar faces in there who knew a bit about the drink but we had some people who had never come across perry before. They had come because they were interested in drinks in general and just talks and activities and tasting sessions, and they had seen a poster for the event and decided to pop along. And they were utterly blown away by it. They had no conception as to what this drink was or how it might taste and it was wonderful. And what a great opportunity for them to have —well, me jabbering on — but to have one of the world’s most highly skilled and celebrated producers there just having a natter, and to have a bit of a chinwag with him.
That’s what I love so much about our industry; the community and the accessibility to the world’s best producers. You don’t get that with wine or with beer or with spirits; you can’t just pop along to something and have a chinwag and a natter and just sit there for hours on end, but you can with our drink. Which is just wonderful. So it was a really cool event and I sincerely hope that there’s more of them to come.
CR: Perry and cider, as you said earlier, are very different drinks with very different profiles. But there are almost no UK producers who only make perry, and they’re almost always bracketed together. So do you think that’s a good thing, or would there potentially be benefits to perry being seen more individually, rather than just as the ‘and perry’ bolted on to cider?
Gabe: [Laughs] That’s a very good question. I think, in the same way that cider — and let’s use that to cover cider and perry — the way that cider still needs a bit of help and support from other drinks to be a bit more broadly understood and noticed and appreciated by the trade and the consumers, by having a big brotherly arm around the shoulder from beer, with the Guild of Beer Writers let’s say, or something like that where cider needs a bit of a leg-up, perry definitely needs a bit of a leg-up from cider. Because there aren’t so many of the old trees, because it is a more challenging drink to make, because there are preconceptions about what perry is amongst an older generation — Babycham — or the younger generation — Lambrini or pear cider of any nature — or ‘what is perry, I don’t know what that is’, there are so many challenges that face perry that it just needs that opportunity to be understood. And the access point for that is normally cider, because as you said, the people who are making the perry are cidermakers.
So it doesn’t bother me so much that it is mostly the addendum ‘and perry’. Maybe as things go forward the ‘and perry’ will reduce — or maybe it’ll be ‘and cider’! I quite enjoy that the Welsh Perry and Cider Society put the pear before the apple, because such is the significance of perry to their heritage and culture. For me the most important thing is that perry is talked about. Exactly the how and the where doesn’t bother me too much just now. Because the danger is that we don’t talk about it, it isn’t known, the value and appreciation of the pears and the orchards disappears, as orchards disappear that cultural heritage of the drink as we know it and that we love is at risk. There’s a threat to it. Yes there are some bush orchards of pear trees that are going into the ground — not too much — there are people doing som small-scale new plantings of orchards, but the vast majority of the big old trees aren’t going to be around forever. So anything that can be done to highlight the drink has to be a positive move for me.
CR: Absolutely. So linked to that: hopes for perry for the future? What you’d like to see.
Gabe: I think that such a significant part of perry’s story are the trees themselves. Because the trees are very very different from apple trees in terms of their shape and their structure but also in terms of their age and antiquity. You get an apple tree north of 100 years old, that is impressive; that is an old tree. These pear trees? One, two, certainly we know at least three hundred years old, on the avenue at Hellens; the original trees planted in 1710 to celebrate the coronation of Queen Anne. There are still a handful of some of those original trees there 312 years later. At Much Marcle there’s a pear tree that James Marsden from Gregg’s Pit reckons is pushing 400 years because of its size and its scale.
These trees have great significance; I’d like to see pear trees afforded a bit more protection in the form of ease of access to tree protection orders and things like that. Which generally, I don’t think, are afforded to fruiting trees, because they’re generally considered to be short-lived. Well 312 years isn’t that short in my opinion. So the trees should be a significant focus.
But, you know, perry isn’t going to be a big drink; it never became the big drink that cider is, for several different reasons, so my aim isn’t going to be that loads and loads more perry is made, because I don’t think that it can, easily. I suppose more people doing what you are, really highlighting the idiosyncrasy and uniqueness and telling a bit more of perry’s story beyond just the liquid — why it invokes something a little bit different and a little bit special that we can champion as one of our great British drinks.
CR: And last question: this Minchew aside — favourite perries? Or if ‘favourite’ is harsh, then some that have recently really impressed you?
Gabe: Ooh. Always a tricky one. Well obviously there was the infamous incident of the sausage-flavoured perry, which was one of my own, which actually doesn’t make it into the top! The thing with perry is it’s such a swine to make that when one is produced that’s exceptional it’s always cause for celebration.
Over the course of the years James Marsden at Gregg’s Pit has made many fine libations and he, like myself, has a particular interest in Thorn. He calls it his breakfast perry and it is that life, that zestiness, that electricity that I personally really enjoy from perries. So I don’t know which would be my favourite, he did many that were exceptional — maybe a 2015 or ’16, something like that, was particularly good.
Mr Oliver of course; anybody who has the words ‘and Perry’ in their business title is to be celebrated. In 2018 or 2019 he won the Best Perry category at the Hereford Cider Museum, the Big Apple and GLINTCAP in the USA with three different perries no less, so that takes some skill. But one of them, I think the Keeved #3, was the lesson in balance between sweetness, acidity and structure. It was just sublime. There was quite a degree of sweetness in there and I have quite a dry palate, but it was just a marvel. An absolute marvel.
Ross Cider & Perry, of course, to be celebrated for having the greatest range of perries ever in the history of perry production, in their wonderful, bonkers way. They made a single variety Holmer a few years ago that was big and beastly and intense, but there’s so many that one could pick from. Flakey Bark, if you enjoy the story of the small numbers of trees; they always do Gin so well, they make some fantastic libations. Cwm Maddoc, I know a particular favourite of yours, do pretty awesome things too.
And the majority of producers are within the Three Counties and over the border into Monmouthshire, but I’d love to give a big shoutout to Hecks, who planted some perry pear trees around the turn of the millennium which in the last few years have been fruiting pretty well. And they produced, and continue to produce, a single variety Oldfield that I will happily say is one of the best perries I have ever tasted. I think it was a 2019 vintage that they released in 2020 and it was just sublime. And they’re continuing to do that as a single variety, or potentially blending it with something else this last vintage; a truly, truly exceptional drink. So it’s nice to be able to give a bit of a championing and celebration to a producer outside Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire.
Huge thanks to Gabe for taking the time to speak to us. On which note we ought to taste the perry that prompted the chat. As Gabe noted in our conversation it was originally priced at £10 a bottle, but mentioning that seems somewhat redundant when I have absolutely no idea how you could get your hands on one in 2022, short of tracking down Kevin himself. It hasn’t even been on the shelves of Middle Farm, for so many years the Aladdin’s Cave for old, unicorn ciders (I know, because I looked for it every time I visited). Sarah Dunn, on twitter, suggested that Minchew’s generally could be found at Postlip Beer Festival, but I’m not sure that applies to this perry specifically.
One of the most consumer-unfriendly reviews you’re ever likely to read, in short, but something I have always wanted to try, and arguably important as perhaps the last remaining bottled link to a different age of perry. Or so I shall persuade myself. So, with apologies for ending Perry Month on such a self-indulgent note, here goes.
Minchew Malvern Hills Merret Method Perry 2001 – review
How I served: Mid-chilled
Appearance: Amber-gold, persistent mousse.
On the nose: Unique. Not a word you’re meant to use, but this is so, so far removed from any other perry nose I’m aware of that only ‘unique’ will do. Along with ‘remarkable’, ‘mesmerising’, ‘complex’, ‘rich’ and ‘beautiful’. ‘Is this like a spiced keeve?’ asked Caroline, on first sniff, not knowing its identity, and I see where she’s coming from. Deep spiced fruit; peaches, dried apricot, even blood orange over buttered brioche and croissant. Makes me think of childhood Christingle candles; the oranges, spices, sultana and even a little of the waxiness. Almost incense. Sweeter tones of honey and marmalade. Opulent in the headiness of its perfume.
In the mouth: Beautiful. Stunning. As complex, in my experience, as perry gets, and as deep and intense too. The fruit, all ripe peaches, nectarines, apricots verging into mangoes, and deep, dried citrus peel retains an astonishing freshness and vibrancy despite the age, and dominance despite the years on lees. But there is honey here too, orange marmalade, and more of that sweet baking spice. Tarte aux poire straight from some Parisian oven (just been in Paris – forgive the fancifulness). Incredibly juicy – the ripeness and roundness and tiny touch of sweetness floating over seamless, creamy mousse. Belies its years yet shows such beautiful development. So shifting and complex; I get the sense I could write a different, but no less wordy, tasting note with every fresh glass.
In a (fairly large) nutshell: I have followed the path of my career and hobby directly because of the existence of drinks like this. Belies its age completely; still bursting with life and vibrancy and intensity of character. I’ve never had a perry like it. I’m not sure I’ve liked a perry better either.
That this is the only perry I have ever tried which has made me question whether Downside Special Reserve 2016 is still my all-time favourite is all that needs to be said on the matter of this truly remarkable bottling. A privilege to taste; a hero I am profoundly grateful to have met. My deepest thanks to Gabe, and to Mr Minchew.
It occurs to me, writing that last paragraph, that the two British perries which have made the most immediately significant impression on me were both bottled before the dawn of #rethinkcider and the modern era of perry appreciation. Sadly, in fact, both by enterprises which no longer ply a public trade (although Downside’s Paul Ross continues to work at the Newt). Perhaps it is simply that these creations, by their nature, have had the years of maturation so irregularly afforded to perry, and have thus been enabled to blossom to their fullest potential. But I think imagining that to be the sole factor behind their brilliance would be a disservice to the people who made them.
Cider Review in general and Perry Month in particular are products of the surge of interest which began circa 2018 and was accelerated by the increased online conversation and product availability instigated by lockdown in 2020. When Kevin made this perry I was in the first few months of secondary school, rapidly re-evaluating my thoughts on the wisdom of single sex education. My tangible links to cider’s past are virtually nil; like this website and the modern movement itself I am a new kid on the block. Occasionally I am reminded of this by someone in the comments section or on twitter in a way that rather niggles me and in those instances I try to remind myself that the modern age of cider is, after all, probably the most exciting in this country for at least a hundred years, and conceivably longer, when across-the-board liquid quality is brought into consideration. It is an era I am excited to be a part of, even in the tiny, inherently parasitic role of amateur digital minute-taker.
But it is important, occasionally, to remind ourselves that this era did not spring, fully-formed, out of nothing, but was born through the work, skill, imagination and endeavour of past generations of makers. People who believed in perry when there was no obvious reason to; no widespread online celebration, no assiduous record-keeping, no broad, shared knowledge, no admiring cheers except from a small, select group of in-the-know devotees.
Modern British Perry, like its malic counterpart, stands on the shoulders of giants, and occasionally the shadows of those giants still tower alongside — if not over — the makers we so rightly celebrate today. This Minchew Moorcroft may be a rare relic; a 21-year-old anomalous point, but had it been made in 2018, 2019, 2020, I dare say its quality would still match or surpass the best of anything on modern shelves. It deserves its place on historic record as a marker of perry’s potential quality, and for that reason, besides any other consideration, I’m glad to have written about it here. It is precisely to celebrate drinks like this that Perry Month, and this website, exist in the first place.
The story of perry is ancient and meandering and international and haunting and often sad and occasionally triumphant and it belongs to none of us and to anyone who has ever made or drunk it. From Mostviertel to Domfront, from Pliny to the Finger Lakes and from trees planted in 1710 to the same trees harvested today it has whispered to us down millennia and across the world. Kevin Minchew’s perry is a link in that historic chain, and a reminder of just how ridiculously good this most unlikely of liquids has been, can be, and will be — I hope — forever; this miracle glass of truculent fruit; this once and future drink.