In England, we're often guilty of paying scant attention to the things we do best—on a culinary level, at least. Sure, we're lucky enough to have one of the best international food scenes in the world, but can you get a decent pint of perry in your average London pub? Can you, balls!
Hold on, though: What is this elixir? Well, if proper cider represents rough-hewn rural English boozing—a punishing thirst-quencher unchanged for centuries—then perry is its cousin. A bawdyhouse wench of a cousin.
Made from impossibly bitter specialist perry pears (and nothing else) the drink has long been held in cult esteem among dedicated hardcore drinkers for its complex flavours, scarcity, and—above all—the alchemist's skill that goes into getting it right.
But while the best perry is a heady, near narcotic delight—dry, elegant, evocative of the crisp autumn afternoons, and strong enough to make your legs feel like so many quivering "jazz hands"—a bad perry can be, well … it can be very bad indeed.
An incorrectly made perry can be uniquely rancid—a churning, mildly poisonous-tasting brew that can cause staggering, near-biblical hangovers.
"Oh, certainly, a bad perry can be pretty grim," laughs Kevin Minchew, owner of Minchew's Cyder and Perry and one of—many would say the—best perry makers in the country.
"If somebody has a bad experience with it, they often never touch it again. But that said, I think we've all had those experiences—be it whiskey or tequila or whatever —where you end up saying, 'I'll never touch that bloody stuff again,'" Minchew says with a smile. "But time goes by, you get over it, and you're back into it. The thing is, perry—good or bad—can pass through you quite rapidly, and that can put people off. Personally, I see it as part and parcel of the initiation rights. It's down to the sorbitol."
Sorbitol, a naturally occurring sugar alcohol that can cause flatulence and diarrhea, is present in relatively high levels in perry; and if the pears are not left to macerate (stand exposed to the air) for long enough, the attendant levels can be too high. And let's be clear about this: an incorrectly made perry can be uniquely rancid—a churning, mildly poisonous-tasting brew that can cause staggering, near-biblical hangovers. I remember waking up after drinking some bad perry feeling like my intestines were slowly being twirled on a metal spoon by a salivating demon in golfing slacks. It was, without question, the most horrific hangover of my life.
Find the good stuff, however, and you'll enjoy a drink with some serious history. Production of the best perry has always happened in and around the so-called "three counties": Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, and Herefordshire. "It's just one of the things we do round here—always have done!" Minchew explained. "I'm from a small holding and we've got the pear trees. Round here it is cider and perry-making every autumn; it's a vitally important part of our culture. Particularly the perry, in this area."
Often served at the local cider houses—little more than rudimentary sheds attached to a farm serving no beer, only locally produced cider and perry—Minchew remembered his first experience drinking perry straight from the barrel: "When I was growing up, we'd always have a barrel of cider or perry on the go in the barn for the family and any visitors that wanted it. There was cider made by some local families though … and that stuff would get you hammered: two pints and you were completely bloody wankered. But the perry was traditionally saved for special occasions. It was revered, seen as something special."
Although it boasts an idiosyncratic heritage, perry has not exactly enjoyed the most fashionable public image. While the real thing remained the preserve of aficionados—and remains incredibly difficult to find outside of the three counties—the mass-produced stuff is another matter. High camp, sickly, and gassy, brands such as Babycham and Lambrini have long been bywords in England for 70s alcoholic kitsch—taste oblivion.
Babycham, much beloved of drunken suburban office workers, was marketed after World War II as a "Champagne perry." Lambrini, even sweeter, had a cult following among first-year university students.
However, the success of these mass-produced products did not do real perry much good. "In the old days, the natives would be prepared to drink anything, so long as it hadn't turned into formaldehyde," Minchew laughs. "If the perry or cider had a sharp, rough edge, it wasn't a problem. But then you had the advent of white cider and commercially available perries, and they were quite sweet, so the profile of the traditional domestic perry no longer fitted the expectations of the wider consumer. But perry can actually be a good way into the world of cider; it's naturally much sweeter than cider. Historically, men would drink cider and women perry. If you think about Babycham, that was specifically designed and evolved for the female market—but the connotations with those products didn't necessarily help us."
People outside of the cider and perry world have no concept of the effort put into making the stuff.
Indeed, the word "perry"was seen as such a problem that commercial cider makers such as Brothers and Koppaberg have recently attempted a rebrand by marketing "pear cider." It's a contentious term, however—one that the likes of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) do not recognise, insisting that cider is made from apples and perry from pears. Still, artisan producers such as Minchew are keen to stress that the real issue is one of quality and tradition rather than semantics.
And while the mass-produced stuff still tastes like something from the gaudy 70s dinner party of your darkest nightmares—car keys in the fruit bowel, no doubt—the real thing represents a true labour of love.
"The fact is, a lot of the commercial producers who are calling their product 'pear cider' are not using local pear juice at all; they're using concentrates and juice that comes from the global market. The origin of that juice could be Italian or it could be South African or whatever. It's a totally different animal," says Minchew. "I pick fruit in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire and ensure that everything is scrupulously clean; I don't put in any damaged fruit; nothing rotten or overripe. I'm literally checking every single piece of fruit. It's an incredibly laborious process."
Minchew concludes: "People outside of the cider and perry world have no concept of the effort put into making the stuff. We do things slowly. This isn't about money; it's about carrying on the tradition. We have to."