By Tim Larsen, Cidermaker
Several years ago, my wife and I were spending some time in Scotland during a brief intermission between a cidermaking class in England and visiting the artisnal cideries of the west country. One sunny day on the shores of Loch Ness, we decided to explore Castle Urquhart. While we were there we made an interesting discovery. For centuries, the residents of Urquhart thought pears were poisonous unless cooked or fermented. Imagining my favorite eating pear—a bosc—I couldn't fathom why anyone would think a pear was poisonous. Sweet, plump and juicy,how could anyone hold a grudge against a pear?
Six months later I found myself precariously high on a ladder picking traditional perry pears in a local orchard. At the time I had really little to no idea what a perry pear was. Sitting fourteen feet off of the ground with one foot on a branch and another wrapped around a rickety ladder, I decided I should at least try one of these pears that I was risking my life to pick. However, the shock of intense bitterness of the pear (oddly named the "Butt pear") almost almost threw my balance off. It was so astringent that I could hardly swallow it. It quickly dawned on me why someone would consider pears poisonous if this was their experience.
Traditional cider apples and perry pears share a lot in common. When eaten fresh they are often bitter and contain a lot of flavor characteristics that few would normally associate with an apple or pear. In terms of flavor and overall character, both are far removed from their grocery store cousins.
There seems to be this quintessential apple in everyone's mind. Just take a second and imagine an apple... Perhaps you imagined something similar to the poisoned apple in Disney's Snow White. Beautiful, gleaming red skin wrapped tightly around a crisp, white, sweet flesh. However, there are literally thousands of named apple varieties and countless unnamed varieties and very few of them conform to modern idea of an apple. Most are ugly, have skins like a potato, knobby, mealy-fleshed and bitter.
To better understand apples, the England-based Long Ashton research facility began categorizing and testing known apple varieties in 1903. To bring some order in the chaos, the then director, BTP Barker decided to create four categories of apples: sweets, sharps, bittersweets and bittersharps. These classifications are now the de facto way of identifying apple varieties. Read here for more information on that research project.
The vast majority of apples found in the grocery store are considered "sweets." Honeycrisp, Gala, MacIntosh and Golden Delicious are all great examples of a sweet apple. Lacking in much acidity and containing almost no tannin, the main flavor characteristic in sweet apples comes from their high sugar content. In cidermaking, these apples are not very desirable because the sugar converts to alcohol during fermentation resulting in a bland cider. Because they are so readily available (and cheap!) they are often used in mass-produced ciders. Most often, the resulting cider is then heavily sweetened (to help it taste like commercial apple juice), and/or flavored.
Sharps are often the apples associated with cooking, though they are also occasionally good for cidermaking. Granny Smith and Bramley are two great examples of sharp apples. While still sweet, these apples will make you pucker with their intense sourness. They are rarely used on their own in cidermaking, but can be blended in to help achieve a healthy fermentation.
Bittersweets and bittersharps
Bittersweet and bittersharp apples are the preferred cidermaking apples, yet very few people have heard of these varieties. Medaille d'Or, Yarlington Mill, Bulmer's Norman and Kingston Black are great examples of these apple types. Most apples grown from seed actually fall into these two categories.
Like wine grapes, these apples have tannins and other polyphenols some of which present as bitterness, while others have an incredible range of robust flavor characteristics. Polyphenols have also been associated with many health benefits. Heard of antioxidants? Antioxidants are a subcategory of polyphenols. Try Googling "polyphenols" and keep the top search results in mind the next time you drink a bottle of Snowdrift cider!
Often considered less desirable for fresh eating, bittersweet and bittersharp apples can be quite intense right off of the tree. Like wine grapes these apple varieties need to be aged to soften the harsher tannins and let the more nuanced flavor characteristics be expressed. In the hands of a skilled cidermaker and aged to perfection, these varieties can yield a cider similar in character to a fine wine.
At Snowdrift, we grow over 40 varieties of apples across all of the classifications: sweets, sharps, bittersweets and bittersharps. We invite you out to our orchard this fall during harvest to do apple tastings fresh from the tree alongside the cider that the apples go into. Tasting Golden Delicious next to a bittersweet Dabinett is an experience that you won't forget! Harvest is a special and exciting time of year. Please come join us!
1. Simple, Delicious Red Cider Sorbet
This surprisingly simple, incredibly delicious sorbet is the perfect highlight for these hot summer days. With only two ingredients, it's a snap to make and beautifully highlights the complexity of our Red Cider, bringing out the citrus and berry notes that these red-flesh apples naturally provide.
- 1 bottle (about 3 cups) Red Cider
- 1/2 cup + 1 tbsp sugar
- Combine the sugar with 1/2 cup of the Red Cider in a saucepan and heat until all the sugar is dissolved. Set aside to cool.
- When cool, pour the sugar/cider syrup and 1 more cup of the Red Cider into an ice cream freezer and freeze as directed. After a few minutes, this will become a super-cooled syrup.
- Once the syrup in step 2 has cooled, pour the rest of the Red Cider into the mixture. Adding the cider in steps like this will cause the sorbet to set up quickly and the cider will retain a bit of its sparkle. Continue to freeze according to your ice cream maker's instructions until the sorbet has set up. This makes a soft and fluffy sorbet. If you prefer a harder set, you can chill the sorbet overnight in the freezer.
2. Peach-Basil Cider Sorbet
This perfectly summery recipe serves up the luscious flavors of fresh peaches with a delightful juxtaposition of flavors for a refreshing sorbet.
- 4 ripe peaches, pits removed
- 6 basil leaves
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup Cornice Cider
- Combine the sugar and Cornice Cider in a saucepan and heat until all the sugar is dissolved. Set aside to cool.
- When cool, blend the sugar/cider syrup with the peaches and basil until smooth and creamy.
- Pour the mixture into an ice cream freezer and freeze according to instructions until the sorbet has set up.
3. Perry-Bitters Sorbet
The complexity of the perry and bitters makes this a great sorbet to serve as an aperitif or as a late-evening cold cocktail to serve as evening turns to dusk.
- 1 bottle single-varietal Seckel Perry
- 1/2 cup brown sugar (well packed)
- A couple dashes Angostura Bitters
- Combine the brown sugar and Seckel Perry in a saucepan and heat until all the sugar is dissolved. Set aside to cool.
- When cool, pour the sugar/perry syrup and 1 more cup of the Seckel Perry into an ice cream freezer and freeze as directed. After a few minutes, this will become a super-cooled syrup.
- Once the syrup in step 2 has cooled, pour the rest of the Seckel Perry into the mixture. Adding the perry in steps like this will cause the sorbet to set up quickly and the perry will retain a bit of its sparkle. Continue to freeze according to your ice cream maker's instructions until the sorbet has set up. This makes a soft and fluffy sorbet. If you prefer a harder set, you can chill the sorbet overnight in the freezer.
What is perry? Is it the same thing as pear cider? These questions come up quite often when I’m pouring our Seckel Perry or Perry Reserve at events and tastings. The short answer is that perry is made entirely out of pears and pear cider is not. But that’s only the beginning of what separates perry from pear cider. Let’s take a closer look…
Perry, in it’s simplest form, is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented pears. Unfortunately, this is where it stops being simple. Just like with wine grapes for wine or cider apples for cider, there are very specific varieties of pears for making perry.
Perry pears are not your standard juicy, sweet pears from the grocery store. They are harsh and bitter-tasting little buggers (think fist to the face). They are tough to grow and even harder to pick. With names like Butt, Thorn, Gin and Lightning, you can easily imagine that eating these fresh from the tree is not for the faint of heart or those with a delicate constitution.
Despite the challenges along the way, drinking the end result—a soft, delicate and delicious perry—is well worth it in my opinion. This is why we attempt two perries each year—our Seckel Perry is made from heirloom Seckel pears and our Reserve Perry is made from eight traditional perry pear varieties grown in the Wenatchee Valley.
So, what is pear cider? Pear cider is a relatively new phenomenon of apple cider sweetened with pear juice.
These beverages are usually designed to be sweet and pear-esque in their flavor profile. The cider is often made from fairly neutral commercial apple juice or leftover apples that didn’t make the cut for the grocery store. It is then flavored with pear juice to give it sweetness, body and a bit of interest. In my opinion, it has about as much to do with perry as Kool-Aid has to do with wine. But don’t let my description put you off, pear cider exists because a lot of people love it, and with good reason. It’s an easy-drinking beverage, particularly in the fall season. Just don’t take your first sip of perry expecting it to be anything like pear cider...
Why is perry more difficult to make?
…Okay, now I’m going to nerd out a bit.
In my experience, perry is much more difficult to make well than cider. The chemical and organic composition of pears is significantly different from apples. To begin with, pears tend to be much higher in citric acid than apples, which primarily contain malic acid. On its own it takes a pretty educated palate to discern between the two, however citric acid can quite easily convert to acetic acid during fermentation—which, you guessed it—is vinegar! This mistake can be a big surprise for anyone trying to make perry for the first time! Tasting a hint of vinegar in perry is common, but definitely not desirable.
The second largest challenge with perry is that it contains a fair amount of an unfermentable sugar called sorbitol. Sorbitol in perry means that there will still be a quite a bit of natural body and sweetness after a complete fermentation. This can be quite challenging as it gives too much body to the beverage, making it seem silky or even syrup-like at times. This is why some perries will be a bit more carbonated or even produced like a champagne (methode champenoise). The additional carbonation helps reduce that syrupy characteristic and really lightens the beverage overall. Fun fact: there is evidence that perry produced methode champenoise actually predates champagne!1 Our Perry Reserve is produced methode champenoise as a tribute to this historical gem.
As I mentioned earlier, perry pears are harsh and bitter when they come off of the tree. During fermentation, the tannins and harsh polyphenols (the compounds in food that give you flavor) mature and soften which can take quite a long time and requires a deft palate to know when it’s ready. However, this aging process is absolutely critical to the perry-making process. Interestingly, most perry is very mild once it’s finally released and its flavor bears little resemblance to the fresh pears that went into it.
I hope that sharing this helps to bring an appreciation of what it takes to go from harsh perry pears into the soft, delicate and delicious drink that is perry. To quote Pete Brown: “So why on earth does anyone bother with this wretched, unfriendly drink? Because good perry—if you’re lucky enough to find it—is like drinking angel’s tears.”2
P.S. If you see “pear wine” on a label, it is just a snazzier way to describe perry and might be there simply because of antiquated regulations.
Ask the Cidermaker
Do you have a question for Tim? Add it in the comments below or email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1World’s Best Cider, by Pete Brown and Bill Bradshaw, page 38.
2For more information, I suggest checking out World’s Best Cider by Pete Brown and Bill Bradshaw. This particular quote is from page 38.
- 1/4 cup cider
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 6 tbsp butter