Ooh, what a lovely pear-based drink!

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With summer approaching, perry is the ideal drink to refresh the thirsty customers. Ben McFarland reports.Far be it for me to get all jingoistic and...

With summer approaching, perry is the ideal drink to refresh the thirsty customers. Ben McFarland reports.

Far be it for me to get all jingoistic and start waving my Union flag to the tune of God Save the Queen but with St.George's Day just around the corner it seemed a good excuse to return to my native Anglo-Saxon roots and embrace the wonderful world that is perry.

Yes, perry is on the up. Well, to be honest it had nowhere else to go. Since its heyday back in the, er, 11th century when it was a regular fixture on the banquet tables of kings and queens, perry has adopted a, shall we say, rather subdued role and is rarely asked for outside its heartland of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire.

Back in the days when we were all plough-pulling, welly-wearing farmers, these counties were divided up into many small holdings that simply weren't big enough to accommodate the various types of apple trees needed to make cider.

However, a single, and extremely tall, pear tree can produce enough pears to produce perry and was therefore ideally suited to the agricultural set-up.

However, following the collapse of the ancient feudal system, the virtues of the pear tree are less apparent. In fact, it's the logistical problems surrounding the aforementioned perry tree that have hindered any attempt to expand the traditional perry category.

In addition to "get off moi laaaand" there is a famous rural saying: "He who plants perry pears truly planteth for his heirs," which when translated from ye olde language means that it takes an age for pear trees to actually produce any pears - I blame all those pesky partridges myself.

As well as lasting for more than 100 years, pear trees can grow up to 13 metres which consequently makes them extremely susceptible to high winds - this year's crop of perry pears from the perry-making areas of France were recently devastated by storms. Their enormous height also means you have to wait for the pears to fall.

Perry pears themselves cannot be eaten, unless of course you have a particular penchant for acidic sickly tasting fruit.

There are hundreds of pear varieties, the majority of which have weird and wonderful names including Stinking Bishop, Merrylegs, Painted Lady, Devildrink and last as well as longest A Drop of That Which Hangs Over the Wall.

Perry producers are hugely dependent on good weather and consequently the variety of vintage and quality of perry fluctuates enormously from year to year. Perry pears need sunshine and warmth - two commodities in extremely short supply in England - and the tendency of pear trees to fructify in the winter months doesn't help either.

The inclination of some perry makers to use dessert pears, leading to a thin, tasteless perry, has done nothing to raise the esteem in which perry is held while the variation means that traditional perry makers cannot produce the drink in huge quantities.

Ivor Dunkerton of the Herefordshire-based cider and perry maker Dunkertons, a perry maker which does not cut corners, cited this as the reason why perries haven't enjoyed the success of their apple-based counterpart, cider.

He said: "Unlike the mass-produced sparkling perries, we're an organic set-up and produce very little - only about 2,000 gallons although that always has no problem in getting drunk!"

The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) has been championing the virtues of perry for some time now and traditional perries have become a permanent fixture on the bars at the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) as well as its regional beer festivals.

However, aside from Camra's continued campaigning, the beleaguered perry category doesn't have the same brand support enjoyed by cider.

Dave Matthews, who wrote Camra's Good Cider Guide - which included a chapter on perries believes that despite its low profile and limited production, there is a definite market for perry in the future

He said: "If people want to drink their roots then they could drink traditional craft perry. Perry is to cider what red wine is to white wine - it's a wonderfully refreshing drink that can be drunk as an alternative to wine during the summer months."

The demand for all things pear-shaped might well increase if Matthew Clark succeeds in its bid to relaunch Babycham - the world's most famous sparkling perry.

The history of the brand stretches back to the 1950s when it spearheaded the success of the Showering dynasty - a major player in the cider-making and wine industry of yesteryear.

The Babycham name originates from the time when, in its formative years, it swept the board at all the three counties' agricultural shows. Bottled in baby bottles, the champion perry became known as the "baby champ" which was then transformed by the broad West Country accent into Babycham.

After its launch in 1953, Babycham became the first alcoholic drink, and the second-ever brand, to be advertised on commercial television - a move that heralded the arrival of the famous Babycham deer and set in motion a snowballing consumer demand that peaked in 1957 when Babycham volumes reached just over two million nine-litre cases.

However, it is the era of the 1970s and 1980s that have become synonymous with Babycham and it is this association that is driving the brand's comeback. Several stylish London clubs are listing Babycham to fuel the current "retro revival" of all things kitsch and trendy from the '70s and '80s. Matthew Clark has also sponsored a number of book launches as well as London Fashion Week and is currently planning to link up with a fashion range to develop a range of Babycham clothes.

Any mention of the Babycham revival to the traditionalists in Gloucestershire, Herefordshire or Worcestershire would more than likely be met with a reaction of indifference.

According to Mr Matthews, Babycham perry and traditional perry do not share anything more than nominal characteristics.

"People don't really regard Babycham as a proper perry - it's seen as an industrially produced, fashionable pear-flavoured drink.

"It's not really marketed as a true perry but at least it keeps the category in the public eye."

Babycham is not the only brand that doesn't shout about its perry credentials.

Intercontinental Brands recently got its wrists slapped by fizzy wine supremos Lambrini for allegedly trying to pass off its Lambrella Perry brand as a sparkling wine.

In addition to Babycham, Matthew Clark produces two other perries, Country Manor and Pink Lady.

For many years Country Manor was heavily supported by high-profile advertising and is now marketed as a "quintessentially English" perry with a relatively low alcohol content.

It's available in three styles - medium dry, medium sweet, and sparkling - and sells more than nine million 75cl bottles a year.

According to Simon Russell, communication manager at Matthew Clark, its stablemate Pink Lady is extremely popular among Afro-Caribbean women and half of all Pink Lady produced is exported - mostly to African destinations, except of course, the Congo where, as we all know, everyone drinks Um Bongo.

Regardless of Babycham's future fortunes, it's safe to say that the perry category is destined to be nothing more than a peripheral concern for licensees.

However, with forecasters predicting one of the hottest summers for some time and with a number of cider brands enjoying growth, now is as good a time as any to stick some perries behind your bar.

Related topics: Cider

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