Long before the advent of Champagne, people in England were drinking perry, a similarly luxurious drink with fine bubbles, produced from varieties of inedible pears. At one time there were over a hundred indigenous varieties of perry pear trees in England, mostly in the Three Counties area of Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, and the evidence shows that perry making was established by the 1500s in this area.
The drink remained a favourite with the English for hundreds of years, but it began to fall out of favour in the 20th century, with orchards increasingly neglected, until in the 1960s, a Somerset brewer created the drink Babycham. This wasn’t perry, in fact, it was a mass produced sparkling drink made from Somerset dessert pears, but it reminded producers of the potential of the old perry tradition .
In the decades since, proper perry has been making a return. In 1996, perry production was protected in Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, and Worcestershire, through European Union Protected Geographical Indication status and it has now become a fashionable champagne alternative for hot summer days and warm evening. This has also been good news for the rural areas involved in perry making, as traditional perry pear varieties have thrived, many of them with unusual names such as, Merrylegs, Late Treacle, Mumblehead, Lumberskull, Huffcap, Longford, and Stinking Bishop.
The perry making process itself is complicated, largely down to the difficulties of working with the perry pear. This is a small, hard and sour fruit that offers a fleeting window of ripeness, while its juice spoils easily. You may also have to wait up to 20 years after planting a perry tree before you are able to enjoy any harvest. And yet, in the hands of a master perry marker, these pears can produce a drink that is golden and refreshing, with a complexity and flavour to match the best champagne.
But those looking for the genuine perry experience, should be wary of many of the commercial pear ciders sold in supermarkets. In most cases, these are simply apple ciders mixed with pear juice or pear flavourites. True perry is made only from fermented perry pear juice, and while the complexities of its production mean it is unlikely to attract the attention of mass-market operators, there are fortunately a number of perry artisans keeping this English tradition alive.
Oliver’s – Bottle Conditions Medium
Tom Oliver is renowned as one of the best cider and perry producers in England, and his ability to produce gold from the perry pear is remarkable. Oliver’s bottle conditioned medium is an unfiltered, unpasteurised, unpreserved perry, that has preserved a host of intriguing flavours ranging from the merest hint of elderflower to the taste of tropical fruits.
Oliver’s – Fine Perry Keeved
Another classic Oliver’s perry, this showcases the process known as keeving. This is a technique used also in cider production, in which fermentation is halted before all the sugars in the fruit have been converted to alcohol. The result is a juice that still has some of its natural sweetness, and this is a perfect example of the craft; a golden coloured drink that provides an instant orchard experience.
Hogan’s – Vintage Perry
Allen Hogan’s traditional approach to perry, which he learned from a neighbour in Warwickshire, at a time when he was making cider, has earned him widespread praise. Based at the top of the Malvern Hills, Hogan’s draws fruit from the pear-growing counties of Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, and the result is a delicate, well-rounded and complex, perry that has just the merest hint of farmhouse cheese, lemon sherbet and parma violets.
Napton Cidery – Medium Sweet Perry
Produced by a small-scale, family-run cidery, this is a single tree perry that has been slowly fermented with wild yeasts before being aged in oak. It’s a still, rather than sparkling perry, so it feels heavier on the tongue, and offers a full-on blast of perry fruitiness.
Dunkertons – Organic Perry
Julian Dunkerton’s perry operation was founded in Herefordshire by his parents in the 1980s and nowadays the Dunkertons organic perry orchard features over a dozen varieties of perry pear. This organic perry has plenty of fizz, along with a lovely floral aroma and a touch of sweetness, though it feels extremely fresh. Among the pears used to make this perry is a variety known as Merrylegs; an appropriate name for such a delicious golden treat.
Gwatkin – Farmhouse Perry
The perry-makers at Gwatkin are known for their ability to extract the maximum in flavour from the perry pear. They offer a wide variety of perries ranging from single variety sparkling specials to full flavoured blends, and the Farmhouse Perry is undoubtedly one of their best. It’s produced from a mixture of old fashioned perry pear varieties that create a drink with plenty of sweet fruit on the palate, balanced with a fresh, sharp, acidic bite.
Bushel and Peck – Perry
Bushel and Peck is a small-scale producer based in Gloucestershire, which sources only locally obtained pears, for a distinctive product. Their perry is a lovely mixture of smooth fruit and precisely crafter acidic edge. The relative rarity of the fruits used to make this perry ensure that this drink is always in demand, so it is definitely one to pick up if you get the chance.