The Olivers finally stopped cultivating hops two years ago. Tom looks wistful. “Cider and perry were my hobby; hops were the family business. It seemed such a waste of all those years to turn our backs on the hops but we simply had no choice.”
Thankfully, the farm still has its livestock. The herds, which were established by Tom’s great-grandparents, came under threat during the foot and mouth crisis of 2002 when the disease spread to within a few miles of the Oliver’s farm. They were spared culling because they had always maintained closed herds. Small, closed herds such as the Oliver’s, where all the stock is home-reared, are still generally the norm around these parts and this is why foot and mouth spread less quickly here than in other parts of the country.
“The Foot and Mouth crisis was dreadful, but in a way it vindicated the traditional approach to farming which we have always followed,” explains Tom. “And while it was very sad to let the hops go, it gave me time to concentrate on the cider and perry.
“The driving force behind starting the business was an awareness that there is not very much good perry being made,” he tells us. “There were a few like-minded people around and there suddenly seemed to be a resurgence of interest in cider- and perry-making. Hindlip College in Worcester ran some courses which were really useful for teaching various technical aspects, and I joined the Three Counties’ Cider & Perry Association, a hotbed of passionate people who get together to exchange ideas and expertise. There are 68 members and they range from orchardmen who work for Bulmer’s to people who make a couple of demi-johns a year. 75% of our members are just doing it for fun.
“It’s difficult to make a top-quality drink and I’m learning all the time. You can’t make a decent perry from any old pear; you have to know what you’re looking for in a fruit and then you have to know what to do with it.”
There haven’t been any perry pears on the Oliver farm for 100 years or so. Tom recently planted more than 200 trees but they won’t be cropping for at least 10 years, so in the meantime his pears come from elsewhere in the vicinity.
There are 120-odd varieties of perry pears, 40 of which Tom considers worth using. He picks his pears in around 30 different sites, most of which were once large pear orchards but now have only a few trees remaining. “The trees need to be looked after; if they are neglected they tend to die off.”
He takes us to see his favourite tree, one of a handful that straggle along the edge of an apple orchard a few miles from Bromyard.
He lovingly points out the perry trees. They are certainly very beautiful, taller and altogether more majestic than their lowlier cousins, the apples. A Yellow Huffcap has started to drop its fruit and Tom hands me a pear to sample. It has a dry, citric taste and feels furry on the tongue. This is due to its high tannin content and is an indication that it will make a good perry. Tom squeezes the fruit in his hand, a look of pure joy on his face as the juice trickles through his fingers; he carries on squeezing as if it was a sponge and the juice continues to run until he is left with a small ball of fibrous pulp. Tom will be harvesting this fruit in the following few days.
A little way down the hill we are introduced to his most adored tree, a Coppy, which towers 50 feet or more above us. It has dense, weeping foliage and branches laden with fruit that will ripen in the next 2 or 3 weeks. Tom knows it will be a crop worth waiting for, and it will have been a long wait, for this tree bears fruit only once every three years. “The pears from this tree yield far less juice than most other pears, but what a juice it is,” he grins. “It’s thick and viscous, more like an oil really, and has the most fabulous floral nose”.
This tree is particularly special because, as far as Tom knows, it is the only one of its variety in existence. “These trees have been here for about 150 years and would have been part of a much larger orchard. The apple trees over there are much more recent, they’ve probably only been here for 50 years or so. I’m very pleased that my perry making means that these trees will now be preserved. Whoever planted them knew what he was doing and obviously knew how to make good perry. The surrounding trees all crop well and make a perfectly decent drink, but this tree is outstanding. I’ll only get one barrel from it, and I’ll be keeping it all for myself and my gang of helpers.”
Perry pears are picked from the ground as soon as they fall from the tree, from September to November depending on the variety. This is the busiest time of year for all farmers, so Tom calls on a loyal team of local friends and supporters to help him pick at weekends. Picking and sorting is a time-consuming process; whereas apples are sorted by putting them in water – good apples float while the rotten ones sink – most pears tend to sink so are washed and sorted by hand. The fruit is then ready to be milled. The juice from the first pressing is stored while the milled pulp is macerated and exposed to the air for 24 hours in holding vessels. This allows for oxidization, which lets tannin levels drop, before the pulp is scooped by hand into hairs – flat parcels wrapped in a kind of sacking that would traditionally have been made of horsehair. Nine hairs are layered between wooden slats to make a ‘cheese’. The pulp from one and an half hundredweight of fruit – about 150kg – is put into each cheese, the total yield from the fruit being anything from 50-100 litres of juice.
We arrive just in time to see the first cheese of the day go into the press.
Tom is there to oversee his trainee perry makers – his brother Matt, and John, the only remaining employee on the farm. “The cheese has to be right,” he explains. “If it’s not level, or the hairs are badly made, the fruit will splay out and the cheese will collapse. The boys took their time, but they’ve done a good job.” Tom is happy. “Nothing is a rush on this farm,” mutters Matt, with a twinkle in his eye.
When the cheese is pressed the air is filled with a heady scent of pear juice as it gushes from the hairs. We all look on with a slight sense of wonder. Matt and John then dismantle the cheese – they unwrap the hairs and the pressed pulp, which resemble doormats, are put aside to feed the Oliver’s fortunate cattle.
From the holding tank the juice is pumped into fermenting barrels kept in a neighbouring barn. “We use wild yeasts – they can be unpredictable but they really add something special. A large part of the skill is observing and guiding the fermentation process to get the best results possible. Some of the sugars in some of the pears don’t ferment and this gives a background sweetness even to a very dry perry.”
Fermentation can take anything from 8 to 14 weeks or more. The perry is then matured in oak barrels for up to a year. “The perry has contact with air through the wood and this slight oxidation does wonderful things to the drink. Some of these barrels are 30 years old and have already been used for storing wine, whisky, sherry or rum,” Tom tells us. “Perry used to be the end of the line and the barrels were hard to get rid of, but now they’re snapped up to be made into flower containers or water features for garden centres. We are very grateful to Charlie Dimmock and all those gardening programs.”
Tom currently has his bottling done on contract, but is planning to install a bottling plant in one of the old hop sheds. This year he bottled 5000 litres of perry and 2000 of cider but next year he intends to expand production to 40,000 litres.
Tom currently produces 6 different perries, all of which delight in names such as ‘Thunderbuck Ram’ and ‘Rabbit Foot & Toby Time’ – titles of songs by Mott The Hoople (“they were from Hereford; I like to keep things local,” he says), and they each have different characteristics. Some are good with fish, some with meat and some are just for quaffing. He also makes 5 ciders, each with their own personalities.
I came away with a box of samples and now share his passion. I had always considered perry as being on a par with the roughest of farmhouse scrumpy, bought in illicit flagons on country walks and enjoyed more for its cheapness and alcoholic content than for its taste. How wrong I was. Proper perry is a hidden secret; it is a drink of great character and complexity and deserves to be rediscovered by us all.
Kate Hawkings is a cook and freelance journalist