Oh look. He’s writing about beer again.
I do not know much about beer. I decided I didn’t like it very much when drinking some sort of rubbishy lager (misc) in a Merseyside pub around 2005, wondered whether there might be something to it after all when a kind soul gave me a splash of his 3 Fonteinen on a whisky weekend in 2018, concluded there might definitely be something to it when I nicked a bit of some Imperial Stout Caroline had at Reading Beer Festival a couple of months thereafter, and have more or less coasted along through predominantly sunlit uplands of discovery ever since.
But yes, in the great scheme of things I don’t know much. I know that it is made by splooshing sundry grains about with some hot water and weeds or whatever it is that hops are and whatever else takes your fancy. I know that, much like whisky, if you ask where the grains came from people generally look a bit confused, I know that objectively speaking the best beer in the world is that Rauchbier with the quite hard-to-read yellow label and I know that if you correct someone about IPA on social media you win 50 points (with an extra 50 up for grabs depending on level of smug). Oh, and I know that everyone’s completely losing the run of themselves over Guinness right now because it looks nice in clean glasses or has a iconically bland taste or some other such similar. But I don’t really know my Pilsners from my lagers, or my geuezes from my lambics, or my cask bitters from my farm-track puddles, or, or, or… what’s another one that’ll get the comments section simmering? Oh, you get the picture.
Anyway, here in the UK there is a long and historic tradition of cider and beer finding themselves intertwined. Most of the big cideries were bought up by breweries around the 1960s; the biggest cidermaker in the world (by miles) is Heineken. Uniquely among the big European cider nations, as I have repeated about 300 times on this site now, we consume most of our cider by the pint, and generally in the same places and at roughly the same abv as beer. (A reputationally-damaging aberration, incidentally; cider naturally ferments to +/- 6-8.5%; this is not ‘strong’ any more than 13-14% wine is ‘strong’, it is normal and is why smaller glasses should be, too, but I digress.)
All of which resulted in what, in a previous florid moment I’ve described as ‘the march away from cider’s orchard and vintage-based origins’, and the predominance of a drink that can only really be mentioned in the same sentence as wine if that sentence is: ‘gosh, Strongbow isn’t very much like wine, is it?’ (I am of course not knocking Strongbow per se, as those of you who have read this will know).
Yet in recent years, this unlikely connubial association with beer has sprinkled cider with boons and blessings of which it could not possibly otherwise have dreamt. In 2013 there was absolutely no chance whatsoever that a writer versed only in cider would have had backing for the publication of a book on the scale of World’s Best Cider. (There still isn’t, on the whole). But a multi-award winning beer writer in whom publishers could place commercial trust and whose research diligence is second to none was able to kick that ever-stubborn door down and produce what is still the best and most comprehensive book about cider published to date.
If cider wasn’t linked to beer, able by association to reach out and touch drinkers of the fermented grain, it is very unlikely that a magazine like Pellicle would ever have taken an interest. Beer was the initial entry-point to cider for Helen Anne Smith, whose Burum Collective has been one of the staunchest cider bastions in the last few years. Susanna Forbes was a beer (and wine) lover before she became the godmother of rethink cider; cider (and not wine) got a chapter in Jonny Garrett’s ‘Year in Beer’. CAMRA have shifted from a position I used to think was somewhat confused to being one of the key thought-leaders in the promotion and understanding of cider, and probably its most prominent British champions. Many an excellent brewer has turned their hand to cider now, and there are a good few cidermakers who are no strangers to wort and hop. Whilst there’s plenty of room for improvement, you’ll find far more good ciders in the places that sell beer — the bottle shops and craft taprooms — than you will, in the UK at least, in the places that sell wine.
On the far side of the Atlantic it is ‘The Beer Lover’s Guide to Cider’ that is being published by Beth Demmon, where no wine lovers have stepped up to pitch an equivalent manuscript (bagsy me, if any publishers are reading, incidentally). And I think it’s fair to say that the lion’s share of the best current writers on the subject of cider earn their predominant crust on the beer-scented side of the bar — a fact underscored by the British Beer Writer’s Guild embracing cider as a category and giving cider writing a chance of recognition it would not otherwise have had. I’ve not always historically been as circumspect about the role beer has played in the story of modern British cider as perhaps I could have been — and it certainly isn’t a role you could describe as entirely for the best — but the position in which full-juice, aspirational British cider finds itself in 2023 owes miles more to championing from grain devotees than it does to lovers of the vine.
What’s more, in the last few years there has been, after a softly-softly fashion, a shift in the way certain beers and brewers discuss their ingredients and the agricultural origins behind the drink. I speak, of course, as a distant and under-versed observer, but I seem to see far more discussion of hop agriculture; not simply varieties, but seasonality, growth habits, harvesting and so on than I once did, evinced particularly by a marked increase in chatter around ‘green hop’ beer. Even more excitingly (to me, at least, as a primary ingredients bore who wangs on about barley and sugar cane terroir for a living) I’ve seen brewers and beer writers talking about how and where their grains themselves grow; discussions of barley varieties rather than merely malting methods. It may not be what the average drinker’s that bothered about when they’re getting their round in, but if I had read the first few paragraphs of Lily Waite’s beautiful piece on Beak Brewery seven or eight years ago, I’d personally have gone down the beer rabbit hole a lot sooner than I did.
Ultimately, whilst every drinks category has its own wonderful set of flavours and characters and stories and subsections, the elements which bind all of them together are fundamental and, to my mind, no less compelling than the idiosyncrasies which distinguish each one. Be their base ingredient a fruit, as in wine, cider, perry or brandy; a grass, as in whisky, beer or rum; or something else entirely, all are ultimately agricultural produce. All achieve their alcoholic state through the interactions of yeast upon a fermentable sugar source and all taste objectively better when served in a stein. (For traditional method drinks the stein should be fluted).
Perhaps it’s because my outside-of-work focus is on cider, where so many of the drinkers and makers are also dedicated wine or beer lovers, but I have yet to meet a truly great maker, or a truly informed commentator, who doesn’t cast an eye over at least one other category. Little Pomona couldn’t exist as it does without the influence of wine, and nor for that matter could either of the distilleries from whom I receive my daily bread. Tom Oliver’s collaborations with brewers are well-documented on this site, and by extension Mills Brewing is all the better for the existence of cider and perry. When I recently visited and wrote up the work of Barney Wilczak at Capreolus, there wasn’t so much as a half-neuron of my brain that even considered Eau de Vie as a peculiar fit for a cider and perry blog. It felt appropriate. It felt natural. The richest of all drinks pickings are found in the intersections where two or more overlap.
So my ears always prick up the livelier at the sound of a drink that has looked over its own fence, and that’s what we have before us today.
I was recently lucky enough to get a message from my friend and occasional contributor to this site, Helen Anne Smith. When they aren’t busy with their inspirational work at Burum Collective, or Bar Managing at Bacareto or wearing another of their milliner’s embarrassment of hats, they do ‘content, sales and general direction’ (and all sorts else besides) for Wilderness, a brewery and orchard in mid-Wales specialising in ‘farmhouse style beers, aged and soured in oak’.
James Godman (the founder and head brewer at Wilderness) had recently collaborated with Dolphin Brewery on a ‘perry pear saison’, Helen told me, and would I like to try it ahead of launch?
The answer, of course, was a very fast ‘yes please and thank you’. Whilst perry and beer seem like possibly the oddest of bedfellows, we encountered some brilliant such hybrids last year in our discussion and tasting with Kertelreiter’s Barry Masterson and Mills Brewing’s Jonny Mills. That conversation revealed that with great care and careful selection of one’s grains, malts, hops and yeasts, some truly beautiful drinks emerged with more than enough character to even stand up to oak ageing or smoke. What’s more, the drinks were characterised by a beguiling additional roundness and softness compared to un-perried beer, and a crispness and lightly bittering bite that differed markedly from the experience of an ordinary perry, even a distinctly tannic one.
Plainly these drinks occupy a special and intriguing spot on the spectrum of fermentation, so I was keen to learn a little more about the thoughts, practices and ingredients that had gone into this one. I reached out to James to see if he could reveal more, and I’m very grateful that he took the time to answer my brief questions below.
CR: How did the idea come about – and why perry pears?
James: Andy and I met when he was first setting up Dolphin Brewery, and I loved his beers – he creates a really great balance of sourness and fruit character – so we really wanted to collaborate with him.
We wanted to make something a little experimental, and with fruit as an inspiration. At Wilderness we try to use local fruit where we can, and if possible fruit we’ve grown ourselves (we have a small orchard on the Wales/England border with Hedgerow fruit, Cider Apple and Perry Pear trees). It was August last year, and we had an smallish crop of Perry pears available, so we thought it might be fun to use those as a starting point.
At Wilderness we’re generally known for farmhouse style beers, usually fermented with traditional Belgian Saison yeasts, or wild yeast cultures and aged in oak. But for this beer, we wanted to try and capture some of the freshness of the pear (barrel aged beers sometimes lose a little freshness) so thought we would ferment in steel, and bottle immediately.
We’d made some really successful batches of Perry in the past from our orchard (on a casual/non commercial scale), using solely the wild yeast on the Perry skins, so we thought this would be an interesting source for a wild culture for fermenting the beer.
We don’t actually know the variety of Perry pears that we have but they’re probably more on the Bittersharp end of the spectrum. Photo attached!
CR: Can you talk me through the making of it in as much detail as possible?
James: The beer is based on a simple grist of Wheat and Pilsner Barley malt, Saaz hops plus a few whole lemons in the boil – fairly pale and light (with the idea of creating a subtle background platform to showcase some pear and yeast flavour). The wort was cooled and transferred to a steel fermenter, fermented with traditional Saison yeast and inoculated with a wild culture using hand crushed Perry pears (juice added to beer, skins and pulp suspended in the beer using a muslin bag), plus a little cultured Lactobacillus to ensure a hint of sourness.
To add a little more fresh pear flavour, we added approx 50 litres of fresh pear juice (from a Herefordshire orchard, almost equidistant between Dolphin and Wilderness) towards the end of fermentation. The sugars from this fermented right out, leaving us with a dry and tart beer but with a subtle background pear note, and some wild fermented cider-like character too.
We bottled it in September 2022, with some champagne yeast for secondary fermentation in bottle. At this point, we decided that it tasted really interesting, but often these beers benefit from a warm maturation to knit together flavour wise, so it has been conditioning in bottle for 6 months until we were happy to release (in May 2023).
I think it’s retained the fresh aspect, with a fairly strong wild-fermented character and a little subtle pear aroma and flavour, all in all, we’re really pleased with how it turned out. Helen’s quote: “Head over Heels is 1000 phenomenal”. I (James) think the wild fermented Perry character is really strong despite the relatively small amount of Pears used (in terms of sugar contribution). It’s definitely got some of the wild yeast character and a little sourness up front, a phenolic character reminiscent of German wheat beers and then a pear note on the finish.
CR: How important do you think it is for makers and drinkers to investigate and be inspired by other drinks besides their primary interest?
James: For makers, I think it’s really important. You can learn so much about what combinations of flavours work from other drinks and foods. We love making classic beer styles for the same reason, hundreds of years of history tells us that these are flavour combinations that human beings find pleasing! We borrow heavily from the language of wine and cider when we are talking about our beers, people are quite comfortable describing the texture of wines as well as flavour, whereas beers are sometimes reduced to not much more than ‘fruity’ or ‘malty’.
We draw a lot of flavour parallels between mixed fermentation beers, wild fermented cider and natural wines, and we find drinkers of these styles are a bit more fluid at moving between drinks than people who prefer more straight-forward examples. And going forward we would really like to introduce our beers as part of this sort of intersectional line up, where you might find a shelf with beer on one end, cider on the other and our beers (and wild fermented ciders) sort of intermingled somewhere in the middle.
Huge thanks to James again for such detailed answers. Some extremely interesting points in there, many of which correspond to Barry and Jonny’s approach to their own — the theme of a lighter malt, continental hops and the importance of texture all standing out.
One intriguing detail (to my mind, anyway) is the deliberate introduction of a lactobacillus culture. For those whose biochemistry is more or less on par with mine (ditched anything with an even slightly scientific whiff as soon as GCSEs were in the rearview – have regretted not paying more attention throughout my entire career) lactobacillus is a family of bacteria strains involved (amongst other things) in malolactic fermentation. This happens regularly in red (and some white) wines and several ciders and it can offer a distinctive creamy flavour and texture, since it involves the conversion of sharp green malic acid (think zesty apples) to lactic acid (think milk).
However one way in which perry pears differ from apples is that they also contain citric acid, which will be metabolised by lactobacillus into our old and often-feared ‘friend’ in these pages, acetic acid.
Clearly then, incorporating this is a technique requiring the greatest of care and fermentation skill, and from another source I might have concerns, but having tasted and judged with them many times before, Helen’s seal of approval is historically good enough for me. So really this is just a small bonus aside.
Before I crack on with my tasting notes, I should mention that in addition to Head Over Heels (the perry saison) Wilderness kindly sent me a bottle of ‘I’ve Been Away For a While’, a Sans-Perry Saison aged in Bordeaux barrels. Helen also sent me a few of Wilderness’ cans a few months ago, which I’ve been guiltily glancing at ever since, wondering when a good angle would appear for me to write them up.
So today, in an inversion of the norm, you get a cider writer offering their thoughts on beer. Since, besides the Head Over Heels, all fall into the ‘beer only’ category, albeit a rather specialised end of it, you should take the notes below less with the usual ‘pinch of salt’ than with the most Higgs-Boson-sized speck of a speck of a speck, and I’ve written them a little differently to my usual format accordingly. They are simply the observations of a taster reasonably versed in cider, perry, wine and spirits and with the most vaguely-passable working knowledge of beer. And with that cowardly bushel of caveat, on with my spicy-hot reckonings.
Wilderness x Dolphin Head Over Heels – review
(Saison with pear)
How I served: From the fridge
Appearance: Hazy pale gold, with the usual beer ‘froth’ cut somewhat by the perry component such that bubbles are bigger and head seems less glass-clingy. (These all are very technical terms).
On the nose: Love that. It’s like the meeting place of hop oil, lemon sherbet and green wine gum. Clean, vibrant, citrusy, high-toned, with some herbal, almost tonic-esque touches. Fresh cut grass and fresh cut pear. A magnificent early teaser that summer might be on its way.
In the mouth: Love that too. Crisp, clean, clear, bright. As with previous perry-beer hybrids I’ve tried the pear component adds roundness and mouthfeel, cut through beautifully here by clean acidity and lightly bittering hops. Pine needles, lemons, herbs, with a light graininess to the finish. Lovely mousse too. This deserves a day as sunny as you can possibly wait for.
In a nutshell: A bright and beautiful marriage of pear and beer. The beer component takes the lead hand flavour-wise, for me, but the pear constantly makes its presence known, particularly texturally. Buy this for sure, and drink young and fresh.
Alright, the scary part now — for me and you. On to the beers that have never so much as glanced up a pear tree. (Which, to be fair to them, if you know your Chaucer, is an often-dangerous thing to do anyway*.)
Wilderness I’ve Been Away For A While – notes
(Bordeaux barrel saison)
Appearance: Gold. Extra frothy.
Tasting: Bordeaux barrels! Champagne yeasts! What a time to be alive! Ok, no proper notes here because I’m miles out of my area, but whilst there are some shades of the last one, compared to the Head Over Heels there’s a little more richness and weight here. A gameyness somehow atop the yellow citrus and hops. More heft; more ‘I am Beer. I am Barrel Aged Beer’. Some kind of savoury, hard-to-place condiment. Not quite soy, but certainly with that sort of darkness. A lustrous weight and texture in the mouth that tempers acidity and bitterness whilst not masking brightness. I plainly am not the person to write this tasting note but this, to me, is the refreshing and zesty end of saisons.
Wilderness The House I Grew Up In – notes
(Bone dry saison with sherry flor, aged in sherry and whisky casks)
Appearance: New copper pennies. Not that frothy.
Tasting: Sherry flor! Whisky casks! I’m being given points of entry all over the shop here. What a horizon-broadening set so far. Ok, this smells ace. Like toffee and toasted hazelnuts and generously-buttered popcorn. Flutter of sultana from the sherry casks, and dare I say a touch of vanilla from the whisky casks? I dare. Nice maltiness underneath all that as well. Thoroughly enjoying this nose. Follows through on the palate; cask-aged, malty, buttery toffee popcorn with that touch of bitterness on the finish which The True Beer Writer would say ‘compels another sip’. And The True Beer Writer would be right, too. Nice and dry and full-bodied and comforting whilst still bright and structured. I really like this beer.
Wilderness Saison – notes
Appearance: Frothy pale gold. (I’ve said ‘frothy’ a bunch of times now. I don’t know if I’m supposed to. ‘Foamy?’ No, that’s no better. ‘It wears the white beer hat’).
Tasting: Maybe I’m being influenced by the can art, but this seems fruitier than the last few somehow. Even the one partially made from fruit. Very ripe lemons. Peachy (insofar as beer can be peachy). More hop influence than the previous couple as well, to my palate at least. High-toned, clean-lined aromatics. Simpler than earlier samples but a fresh and inviting nose. Zingy, zesty, hoppy, citrusy, resiny, bright and bittering delivery. Don’t have the vocabulary or breadth of experience to make intricate comparisons, but it’s an engaging, refreshing, peppy thirst-quencher, this.
Wilderness Bitter – notes
(Ordinary Bitter – this is the can’s words, not mine. I’m not qualified to comment on ordinariness)
Appearance: Deep, clear amber. Froth-lite.
Tasting: An admission straight away: bitter is in the category of beer that I find slightly imposing and challenging in a full pint glass. (Or even a half pint before any of you start — very much Smee to the pint glass’s Hook). Yet tasting this in the wine glass I use for reviews this is an utter delight. (Just goes to show what a superior vessel the latter is). Roasted, toasted grains, dark chocolate, chopped toasted macadamias, hob nobs and autumn leaves. The toasty, savoury, malty tones intertwangle with hops that are certainly on the far end of my no-doubt-puny bitterness tolerance, but what a complex, flavourful drink this is. Love the maltiness, but it feels very faithful and sympathetic to the base grain, in a toasty, nutty sort of way.
Whilst we’re on the subject of beer, let’s start with the big one: the pint glass is plainly exposed here as rubbish nonsense lacking either the courage and conviction of a stein or the elegance and aromatic enablement of a sippy-stemmy wine glass-type job. To the recycling bin with those miserable 568ml hinterland vessels, and forwards together to a better world**.
Now we’ve got that out of the way and juiced up the twitter responses once more, what an absolutely refreshing and mind-broadening set of tastings this flight offered. Granted, my experience is limited, but every one seemed to offer something original and different; I can’t think of many obvious direct counterpoints to any of them that I’ve come across.
Perry and beer continue to be surprisingly good friends; I’d be interested to see if a future iteration could somehow push the perry flavour such that it took more of the tiller hand, and I’d suggest that Thorn or possibly Butt might be prime candidates for experimenting with this. But this edition of Head Over Heels nonetheless offers a beautifully managed intertwining of its two constituent parts, and packs enough pear flavour and especially texture to satisfy any perry lover. I’ll be looking up at least a couple more bottles, and so should you.
Whilst I’m not in a position to comment on the technical merit of the others, I’d similarly take another of each of them any day, and I’d want a good few of The House I Grew Up In, which was one of the most memorable and delicious beers I’ve had in a long time.
Breweries like Wilderness, run by people who are interested in flavour, in where it comes from, and in crossing the boundaries between ingredients, make my world an infinitely richer and tastier place. There wasn’t one drink in this lineup that didn’t at least reach out and touch another drinks category, and they were all the more compelling for that. Here’s to beer and perry and wine and cider. Long may they peer across at each others’ homework.
Thanks to Helen and James for providing samples, information and imagery. And thanks to our beer-loving readers for being such good sports.
*Look up ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ for an explanation of this intensely oblique reference. Or possibly don’t, as from memory it is a deeply grim read. Thanks, Year 12 English Lit.
**This is a joke. We love pint glasses. The ones with the little thumb bit particularly. Please don’t hurt us.
Wow – thanks so much Adam. We’re so glad you enjoyed the beer! And thanks so much for the suggestions – we all enjoyed using the pears so much that we’re definitely going to keep exploring this flavour combination