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Perry is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented pears. Perry has been common for centuries in England, particularly in the Three Counties (Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire} and in parts of South Wales and France, especially Normandy and Anjou.
As with apples specifically grown to make cider, special pear cultivars are used: in the UK the most commonly used variety of perry pear is the Blakeney Red. They produce fruit that is not of eating quality, but that produces superior perry.
Perry pears are thought to be descended from wild hybrids, known as wildings, between the cultivated pear Pyrus communis subsp. communis, brought to northern Europe by the Romans, and the now-rare wild pear Pyrus communis subsp. pyraster. Perry pears are higher in tannin and acid than eating or cooking pears, and are generally smaller.
The majority of perry pear varieties in the UK originate from the counties of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire in the west of England. Of these, most originate in parishes around May Hill on the Gloucestershire/Herefordshire border. The standard reference work on these varieties of pear was published in 1963 by the Long Ashton Research Station; since then many varieties have become critically endangered or lost. There were over 100 varieties, known by over 200 local names, in Gloucestershire alone. Perry pears were particularly known for their picturesque names, such as the various Huffcap varieties (Hendre Huffcap, Red Huffcap, Black Huffcap, all having an elliptical shape), those named for the effects of their product (Merrylegs, Mumblehead), pears commemorating an individual (Stinking Bishop, named for the man who first grew it, or Judge Amphlett, named for Assizes court judge Richard Amphlett), or those named for the place they grew (Hartpury Green, Bosbury Scarlet, Bartestree Squash).
Perry pear trees can live to a great age, and can be fully productive for 250 years. They also grow to a considerable height and can have very large canopies; the largest recorded, a tree at Holme Lacy which still partly survives, covered three quarters of an acre and yielded a crop of 5–7 tons in 1790. Their size often led to them being planted to provide a windbreak for apple orchards.
Traditional perry making is broadly similar to traditional cider making, in that the fruit is picked, crushed, and pressed to extract the juice, which is then fermented using the wild yeasts found on the fruit's skin. The principal differences between perry and cider are that pears must be left for a critical period to mature after picking, and the pomace must be left to stand after initial crushing to lose tannins, a process analogous to wine maceration. After initial fermentation, the drink undergoes a secondary malolactic fermentation while maturing.
Perry pears often have higher levels of sugar than cider apples, including unfermentable sugars such as sorbitol, which can give the finished drink a residual sweetness. They also have a very different tannin content to cider apples, with a predominance of astringent over bitter flavours. The presence of sorbitol can give perry a mild laxative effect, seen in the names of some perry pear varieties such as the "Lightning Pear"; reputed to go straight through 'like lightning'.
The earliest known reference to fermented alcoholic drinks being made from pears is found in Pliny, but perry making seems to have become well established in what is today France following the collapse of the Roman empire; references to perry making in its later heartland of England do not appear before the Norman Conquest. In the medieval period, France retained its association with pear growing, and the majority of pears consumed in England were in fact imported from France.
By the sixteenth and seventeenth century, however, perry making had become well established in the west of England, where the climate and soil was especially suitable for pear cultivation. In the three counties of Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire in particular, as well as in Monmouthshire across the Welsh border, it was found that perry pears grew well in conditions where cider apple trees would not. Smaller amounts were also produced in other cider-producing areas such as Somerset. Perry may have grown in popularity after the English Civil War, when the large numbers of soldiers billeted in the Three Counties became acquainted with it, and reached a zenith of popularity during the eighteenth century, when intermittent conflicts with France made the importing of wine difficult. Many farms and estates had their own orchards, and many varieties of pear developed that were unique to particular parishes or villages.
The production of traditional perry began to decline during the 20th century, in part due to changing farming practices – perry pears could be difficult and labour-intensive to crop, and orchards took many years to mature. The industry was, however, to a certain degree revived by modern commercial perry making techniques, developed by Francis Showering of the firm Showerings of Shepton Mallet, Somerset, in the creation of their sparkling branded perry Babycham. Babycham, the first mass-produced branded perry, was developed by Showering from application of the Long Ashton Institute's research, and was formerly produced from authentic perry pears, though today it is produced from concentrate, the firm's pear orchards having now been dug up. Aimed at the female drinker at a time when wine was not commonly available in UK pubs, Babycham was sold in miniature Champagne-style bottles; the drink was for many years a strong seller and made a fortune for the Showering family. Another competing brand of light perry, Lambrini, is manufactured in Liverpool by Halewood International, and marketed under the slogan "Lambrini Girls Just Wanna Have Fun". It now dominates the light perry market and has a somewhat downmarket image in Britain. The Irish drinks company, Cantrell and Cochrane, Plc (C&C), more famous for its Magners and Bulmers ciders, launched a similar light perry, Ritz, in 1986.
Like commercial pale lager and commercial cider, commercial perry is highly standardised, and today often contains large quantities of cereal adjuncts such as corn syrup or invert sugar. It is also generally of lower strength, and sweeter, than traditional perry, and is artificially carbonated to give a sparkling finish. However, unlike traditional perry it is a consistent product: the nature of perry pears means that it is very difficult to produce traditional perry in commercial quantities. Traditional perry was overwhelmingly a drink made on farms for home consumption, or to sell in small quantities either at the farm gate or to local inns.
Both English perry making, and the orchards that supplied it, suffered a catastrophic decline in the second half of the 20th century as a result of changing tastes and agricultural practices (in South Gloucestershire alone, an estimated 90% of orchards were lost in the last 75 years). Many pear orchards were also lost to Fire blight in the 1970s and 1980s. As well as the clearing of orchards, the decline of day labouring on farms meant that the manpower to harvest perry pears – as well as its traditional consumers – disappeared. It also lost popularity due to makers turning to dessert or general purpose pears in its manufacture rather than perry pears, resulting in a thin and tasteless product. In the UK prior to 2007, the small amounts of traditional perry still produced were mainly consumed by people living in farming communities.
However, perry (under the name "pear cider", below) has in very recent times exploded in popularity, with around 2.5 million British consumers purchasing it in one year. In addition, various organisations have been actively seeking out old perry pear trees and orchards and rediscovering lost varieties, many of which now exist only as single trees on isolated farms; for example, the Welsh Cider Society recently rediscovered the old Monmouthshire varieties "Burgundy" and the "Potato Pear" as well as a number of further types unrecorded up to that point.
One may also find perry distilled, in a similar style to applejack.
Pear "cider" has in recent years been used as an alternative name to perry. According to the BBC, the term was first used when Brothers was sold at Glastonbury Festival in 1995: nobody understood what perry was and were told that it was "like cider, but made from pears".
The use of the term "pear cider", instead of perry, has given a new commercial lease of life to a drink that was practically extinct; in two years sales of the drink increased from £3.4 million to £46 million. The brewers Brothers, Gaymers and Bulmers/Magners now all have their own brands of pear cider, and Tesco is also increasing the number of pear ciders that it sells. The brewers see the term "pear cider" as being more understandable to the younger 18–34 demographic, and as differentiating their products from previous brands associated with the word perry, such as Babycham and Lambrini which are either associated with the female market or have fallen out of fashion.
CAMRA defines perry and pear cider as quite different drinks, stating that "pear cider" as made by the large industrial cidermakers is merely a pear-flavoured drink, or more specifically a cider-style drink flavoured with pear concentrate, whereas "perry" should be made by traditional methods from perry pears only. (It should be noted that Brothers, Bulmers and other pear ciders are made from pear concentrate, often imported.) Others, including the National Association of Cider Makers, on the other hand, insist that the terms perry and pear cider are interchangeable. Its own rules specify that perry or pear cider may contain no more than 25% apple juice.
The beverage is also becoming increasingly popular in Australia. Small local manufacturers are beginning to appear such as Gypsy Cider, brewed by 2 Brothers Brewery in Melbourne, Henry's of Harcourt (VIC) and LOBO Cider in the Adelaide Hills as well as Paracombe Premium Perry also in the Adelaide Hills. Few traditional European Perry pears are available, it is believed that Moorcroft, Gin, Green Horse & Yellow Huffcap varieties are in Australia. Eating pears are generally used with differing results in Australia. Australian Food Standards permit up to 25% of apple juice in Perry or Pear cider. The importation of pear ciders from abroad include brands such as Weston's, St Helier, Magners, Rekorderlig and Kopparberg now available. The only true Perry imported comes from Weston's where it also has the European Union Geographical indication protection. Weston's also import an Organic Pear Cider into Australia.
With hard ciders (some marketed as "apple ales") only recently entering the American alcoholic beverage market, the production of perry is limited to only a few cideries such as Tieton Cider Works in Washington and Rydal Mount Farms in New Jersey. Most of the Perries or ciders available for sale in the United States are imported from England.
New Zealand is seeing a surge in the popularity of Pear Cider with Old Mout Cidery, Macs and Monteiths Brewery each producing a pear cider.