Saturday, 26 January 2019

Hereford - A Mini-Guide

Perry is still very much on-trend in this house. As indeed cider would be if I could just pull my finger out and get some of the Rockingham Forest 2016 vintage bottled-up. Tedious domestic circumstances have conspired against any ciderhouse work recently, so I've been relying on 'guest' ciders and perries from near and far to see me through, more of which later. But enough of this dull domesticity, I felt a mini-break in the heart of ciderland was long overdue. So where exactly is the heart of ciderland?

Well for one week only, the Nottingham Beer, Cider & Perry Festival is where it's at, everyone knows that! But despite England and Wales having a truly world-class reputation for traditional cider and perry, particularly in its current 'revived' state, it's my experience that no 'one' place truly fulfils the role as a 'centre of excellence' for actually drinking the stuff. I think I know this because I've been looking long and hard at the subject for the best part of 40 years. In that time I've come across some truly excellent pubs that specialise in cider and perry, a good few producers of the drink that welcome visitors, and a handful of museums with good local displays on the subject. But it's all rather dispersed, the majority of pubs even in the west country and three counties have either no truly crafted cider or perry on the bar, or at best a token national 'brand' that's hardly worth travelling for.

Of all the towns in England and Wales, Hereford might be regarded as something of a shoe-in for a cider and perry based mini-break. It's certainly not always been this way. I've been holidaying in Hereford for 30 years or more, and I can say with some qualification that the choice on offer has often been unbelievably poor for a city that prides itself on being at the centre of an orchard county, a county literally steeped in the traditions of cider and perry making. So have things improved in 2019? Well, yes and no...

I've found in recent years that whilst there's certainly a better choice on offer, with plenty of new and enthusiastic producers in the county, there are still precious few places you can actually drink their fine produce in. And whilst it might be argued that as far as top-quality craft cider and perry is concerned, we've never had it so good, what hasn't changed is that you really need to know where to find it, otherwise you'd really never know! Hence this little guide-ette to the best that I could find in January 2019.

Alongside the current excitement around 'craft' beer, it's largely the smaller, newer bars and micropubs that are driving interest in the very best ciders and perries. Micropub Beer In Hand has been open for a few years now, and is already something of an established fixture in the town. A highly regarded venue with a reputation built mostly around the excellent beer offering, but with a cider and perry board (above) that's without a doubt the best in town. Standout for me was the range from local perry specialist Oliver's of Ocle Pychard, of which I tried one or three over the course of the weekend, most memorable of which was the...

Oliver's At The Hop #8 (5.5%)

Hop-infused ciders were pioneered by Tom Oliver, the first example I tried being one of his hopped ciders back in 2014. I have to say I found interesting but slightly unconvincing. Five years later I was still waiting to be convinced when, like buses, two absolute stunners came along at once, and both from the originator, Tom Oliver. First-up a Cascade & Kazbech hopped Cider which was to die for. Then this Simcoe infused perry, literally the bottle that convinced me the future may well be lightly-hopped.

At The Hop #8 is a solidly medium perry, but in that nice frothy-fizzy sherbety way that’s refreshing without being cloying. There’s a fresh grassiness in the nose, a rich honey sweetness, zestiness, some grown-up mouth-puckering tannin, and here come the hops... a very subtle new-world aroma citrus hoppiness that blends beautifully with the perry rather than dominating it. Lovely!

I partnered this with Pizza and an impromptu traditional music session, because that's just the way the evening was going...

The Hereford Beer House has been open since 2015, but still seems very 'new' to me. It's a very welcome addition to the Hereford beer scene. Every town should have a craft beer specialist like this, in fact most do now, such is the appeal of aroma hops and eyeball-popping can designs! The beer house also features a very respectable cider and perry range from some of the very best Herefordshire producers. I started with a couple of excellent draught ciders from Olivers and Gregg's Pit , but settled on something from the small but comprehensive bottled range.

Ross-On-Wye Moorcroft & Bartestree Squash Perry 6.5%

Ross Cider & Perry has been my go-to producer for 20 years or more, and I highly recommend a visit to their pub and shop, the Yew Tree in Peterstow village. I first tried their Bartestree Squash Perry at an early Leicester CAMRA Beer Festival, a rare treat then, as indeed it is now. Ross produce what must be the widest range of single variety and blended ciders and perries in the world, and I'm more than happy to try any one of them whenever I get the chance. Many of their bottled ciders and perries are naturally conditioned, as this one is, and it really does make a difference. This one has a nice prickle of condition, a lingering off-dry sweetness, full-bodied, melon , a straightforward, quite robust perry.

The last time I was in Hereford was mid-Summer, and we found the Left Bank Village quite the funky enclave in an area of quite traditional boozers. Overlooking the wide expanse of the River Wye, the outdoor seating and fire pits attract a young crowd. Young by my standards of course! De Koffie Pot Café was the main attraction for me on what was a cold, wet evening. I like the place a lot, and can recommend the DKP Burger which I partnered with this bottle of organic perry.

I've been a big fan of Dunkertons ciders and perries since the late 80's when their classy corked and bottled drinks were relatively easy to find in the Delis and Wholefood shops of Leicester. In fact I used to always get a few cases in for the Leicester festival, something to take away, and if they didn't sell out, well I was happy to underwrite the stock. I still miss those early 'still' bottled ciders, but the current sparkling range is great too.

Dunkertons Organic Perry 6.9%

This bottle poured with a slight (reassuring) haziness, possibly the result of a slightly longer time in bottle as the current release of this perry is at 7.5%. It has a long, lingering medium sweetness with soft Elderflower and Melon, and some balancing acidity.

I really couldn't find anywhere else to drink good locally made pure-juice cider and perry in Hereford, which is still something of a surprise to me given the reputation the county has for this, our most traditional of drinks. If you're still hungry for more, as I was, and want to take home some of the best that Herefordshire (and the three counties) has to offer, I'd highly recommend a visit to the cidery jewel in Hereford's crown, the Museum of Cider (below), which I'll be coming back to with some pretty pictures in a forthcoming post.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Perry, And All That Jazz Pt.1 - Once Upon A Tree

I've been mulling-over a post about Perry for quite a while now. I've got an awful lot of the stuff in the ciderhouse at the moment, proper vintage perry made from top-quality Worcestershire grown perry pears. Perry that's turned out as good as anything I've made before, and we've been drinking quite a lot of it recently as well as cooking with it and giving a fair bit away. Which probably explains why it's been on my mind...

Green Horse Perry Pear
Perry at its very best is a drink that needs all the promotion it can get. It's a rare old drink that despite the continuing efforts of some world-class producers, and a handful of switched-on pundits and drinks journos, has singularly failed to ignite interest in the way that 'craft' beer and cider has in recent years. Of course there are compelling reasons why Perry may never achieve the profile that enthusiasts such as myself think it deserves. Perry pears are simply not grown on a commercial scale these days. For the most part it's a small-scale 'artisan' passion, a tradition kept alive by the smaller commercial cider and perry makers and teeny-tiny enthusiasts like myself. Most of the fruit used by these small-scale producers comes from very old trees, often solitary behemoths dotted around the old farms of the Three Counties area. Difficult to harvest, and some of these trees are literally hundreds of years old and hence approaching the twilight of their productive lives. Some new planting of Perry Pear trees is going on, but if Perry as a traditional high-quality drink is to survive, maybe even thrive in the future, a lot more needs to be done, and that means creating a demand for the drink that makes it a commercial proposition for growers and producers.

A bottle of vintage perry, yesterday.
So I was looking for maybe half a dozen good quality perries to eulogise about from the comfort of my own home. No dodgy commercial stuff, no Pear Cider, and for my taste, nothing too sweet. Perry has something of a reputation for sweetness. A reputation that can make it a difficult sell for some. Maybe it's memories of Babycham! More likely it's that too many producers 'do' have a tendency to over-sweeten their perries (and their ciders!), and 'far' too many festivals and pubs routinely shy away from the drier styles that do exist. Having said that, it's a fact that some perries do finish fermenting with a degree of sweetness. That's because many pears have quite high levels of non-fermentable Sorbitol in their makeup. My own perry has a touch more natural sweetness than I'd like if I'm absolutely honest, but it's certainly not 'sweet'.

So, I just wanted some good perries to help demonstrate the variety and quality that's on offer. To show what most people are undoubtedly missing. Well that proved to be much easier said than done!

When you make your own, and therefore have hundreds of litres to hand at the turn of a tap, you forget just how difficult it is to get hold of proper pure-juice Perry outside of the Three Counties area. In fact for some people I'd imagine it's not so much a difficult task as an impossible one. If you fall into this category, the answer is of course the 21st century miracle of online sales, of which there are several offering a good range of perries. I resorted to the tried-and-tested method of 'going-west' in search of the best that the Three Counties can offer, and tapping friends and colleagues up for a few freebies of course...

Once Upon A Tree - Medium Dry Herefordshire Perry (5%)
So where exactly 'is' the centre of the cider and perry making tradition? A question that's vexed me for several hours now, and one guaranteed to rouse fierce debate amongst those who care about these things. Which is of course why I ask...

Putley and the Marcle Ridge area of Herefordshire could certainly lay claim to the title (if there were one), located as it is within a dense forest of old and new orchard plantings centred on the regional giant, Westons of Much Marcle. Home to the annual Big Apple cider and perry trials jamboree, which is a gathering place for some of the finest producers in the business, a significant handful of which harvest and squeeze their fruit locally.

Simon Day of Once Upon A Tree is one such local producer. A winemaker by trade, he's been building an enviable reputation for his fine ciders and perries since establishing the company in 2008. I got in early, supplying his draught Tumpy Ground cider to the Raunds Beer Festival back in 2011. Once Upon A Tree ciders and perries are some of the more easily found in the Three Counties area, their bottles a relatively common sight in delis and farm shops which is where I got mine from. In Warwick!

This perry is a bit of a sparkler, pouring (from a great height) clear and significantly less sparkling, which is how I like it. It carries the Protected Geographical Indication label for Herefordshire Perry, ensuring the fruit was sourced entirely from the aforementioned county, and much else of a reassuring quality mark besides. Quite what will become of this PGI when we've dumped ourselves out of the EU is anyones guess, but given the absurd and frustrating regulations around cider in this country (practically anything goes so long as it's had an apple dipped in it at some point!), any promises of a UK replacement should probably be regarded with deep suspicion...

The perry is a rich, sweetish, medium-dry sipper, as befits a drink made from a high percentage of freshly pressed juice. I get ginger beer and barley sugar, Melon and citrus, and a slightly vinegary tinge that mellows to tongue-tingly sherbet. I've paired this zesty sparkling perry with the cool West Coast Jazz classic, Jazz Erotica by Richie Kamuca and friends (Jazz Track JT1024)*

More perries coming when I've drunk 'em…

*Music pairing for guidance only. Other styles and genres are available.