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, by the way, is a mild laxative. Don’t worry though, a glass of perry seems to have way less “effect” than a cup of coffee. Never guess again why the English gave their pear varieties names like Butt and Lightning! 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.
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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.