by Carrie Uffindell | Photo © Grace Larson
It’s important to understand the difference between perry and pear cider. Perry, or poire in French, is a fermented, alcoholic beverage made with 100 percent pears. (Some will argue, though, that perry can still contain up to 25 percent apples.) Pear cider, however, is typically apple cider with pear juice or flavoring added in after the fermentation process, giving the cider a pear flavor and aroma.
The history of perry making can be traced back centuries in Europe and is particularly strong in the traditional cider-making regions of England, Wales and France. Traditional perries are made from varietals called Perry pears, one of the modern European pear’s wild ancestors.
Specially cultivated for their acidity and tannins, Perry pears are different in both looks and flavor from heirloom and dessert pears. The raw fruit, usually smaller and uglier than its brethren, “usually tastes so acidic and tannic it’s like eating Velcro,” says Tim Larsen, co-owner and perry/cidermaker for Snowdrift Cider, East Wenatchee, Washington.
A traditional-style perry is fermented slowly over months or years and “should taste more like a good champagne—dry, medium body, strong mouth-feel, tannins, lots of fruit aromas on the nose, ranging from strawberry to grapefruit with pear in the background,” says Marcus Robert, the perry/cidermaker for Tieton Cider Works, Yakima, Washington. Examples of excellent Northwest-made, traditional-style perries include Dragon’s Head Cider “Perry,” EZ Orchard “Poire,” Snowdrift Cider Company “Perry” and Tieton Cider Works “Estate Sparkling Perry.”
Modern perries, by contrast, usually have a shorter fermentation period and are typically made from a blend of dessert and/or heirloom pears, though they may contain some Perry pears to help balance the acidity and tannins. While D’Anjou, Bosc and Asian varietals don’t offer the same complexity or depth as Perry pears, they still make bright, flavorful perries. Bull Run Cider “Laughing Water Perry,” Nashi Orchard “Chojuro Asian Pear Perry” and Portland Cider Company “Pearfect Perry” are top-notch modern-style perries made in the Northwest.
Perry is also more challenging to make than cider, beer and wine. “The chemistry in pear juice is different than apple juice,” says Galen Williams, co-owner, perry and cider maker at Bull Run Cider. Pears have a slightly different chemical make-up than apples, generally higher in sugar and citric acid. Perries are so delicate that perrymakers have little to no room for error in the fermentation process.
Pears are trickier to collect and store than apples since different varietals need to be harvested at different times. “Perry pears are really finicky with their ripening process,” says Jim Gerlach, owner and perrymaker at Nashi Orchards, Vashon, Washington. “They can be rock hard one day and mush the next. A lot of older heirloom fruit need to take a month or more to sit after they’re picked ripe from the tree, it gives them more complex flavors and aromas.”
Pears trees are also tough customers. They’re more vulnerable than apples to pests and diseases as well as fussier about soil and climate. Pear trees can take anywhere from six to thirty years to grow and bear fruit, depending on the varietal. Perry pear trees prefer to stand alone while dessert or heirloom pears can be planted in rows. Why, then, do perrymakers go through all this trouble?
“It’s that first sip of the finished product,” says Larsen. “When you do make that great batch, it’s so worth it.”