A shiny penny to the first person to provide me with a satisfactory definition of “funk”.
Funk – I’m talking smells, not sounds, to be clear, though it raises interesting questions about the possibility of visible and tactile funk – is the great ineffable. Strong aromas that can’t be neatly corralled with known descriptors of fruits, spices, grains, woods and so on are jammed into the catch-all category of funk.
And you can’t move for it. Funky Jamaican rum, funky French cheese, funky sherry casks, funky Ledaig, funky Ben Nevis. Funky west country cider. All with their own inimitable, roughly-parametered species of funk.
Funk, so far as drinks are concerned, sits on a rung of the ladder to which the intrepid grog-swallower is supposed to aspire. The most obsessive disciples – perhaps custodians – of which are a nauseatingly patronising bunch, espousing fondness for funk as proof of discerning and hard-core palate. The funkiest this, the stinkiest that, the dirtiest the other – don’t worry, you’ll come round to it. And then, it is implied, you will never go back, such is the lodestar brilliance of these weird, outlying, polarising and challenging drinks to those who have attained funk tolerance.
I’m afraid I’m not convinced; not entirely. Funk, it seems to me, is so often euphemistic for flawed or just plain dodgy. Intensity of flavour is not, as Mark has noted, the same as complexity; you don’t get bonus points for being niche. There is a reason that drinks don’t tend to be marketed or sold to newcomers – or, indeed, any comers – on the strength of their “funk”. Whilst certain Jamaican distilleries and international cheesemakers seem determined to push the boundaries of just how concentratedly funky a product can be made, this is no different to an Islay distillery attempting to zonk its peat ppm up to the max, or to a chef seeing how brutally high up the Scoville scale they can send their dish. At its extreme it turns food and drink into peacocking and point-scoring rather than pleasure and conviviality. How much funk can you take? Are you even a real drinks fan if your tastes aren’t as off-the-wall as mine?
I am particularly leery when I see “funk” listed too prominently as a descriptor for west country or three counties ciders or perries, because the euphemism tends so often to be covering for a fault. Eggy H2S and acetic vinegar? Oh, that’s funk, that is. Microbial spoilage, excess oxygenation? No mate, that’s a proper cidery cider.
I don’t think so. I have tasted more single variety ciders and perries than the average punter; there are very few which offer, in and of themselves, aromas which one might describe as “funky”. Brown Snout would be one. Flakey Bark, perhaps, another. But they’re exceptions to the rule. One only has to taste through a lineup of Cwm Maddocs to see how clean and clear and pure and defined and beautifully, ripely fruited the cider apples and perry pears of the west can be, even when wild-fermented to dryness. Funkiness is not inherent; it is more often than not accidental; likely the result of a lower base of technical knowledge within cider than among its grapey and grainy contemporaries.
Look, this isn’t to say that “funk” is blanket bad. Of course it isn’t. Its net is cast over much that adds lustre and wonder to cider and perry; time, oak, wild yeast. My suggestion is simply that we should strive for greater precision of language; to explain and investigate why something is “funky” and what the nature of the “funk” is. And that “funkiness” should be in addition to – rather than instead of – ripe, expressive flavours driven by and deriving from the fruit itself. Funk should not be seen as a necessity, nor as a required and defining character of proper cider and perry. There is no PGI prescribing a level of funk required for qualification as “real”. And that which derives its “funkiness” from fault should be understood and scrutinised rather than shrugged off with lexical smoke and mirrors.
Talking of varietal purity, definition of fruit and technical knowledge, I should introduce todays perry pair. Both have come from Germany’s Jörg Geiger, whose traditional (champagne) method perries were recommended to me by Tom Oliver as the best in their class that he’d ever tasted. Some accolade. Jörg makes his ciders and perries (and brandies) using ancient varieties from old trees in his local Swabian orchards, directly working with the farmers to preserve the orchards from being grubbed up for higher-yielding, lower flavour modern crops.
Unfortunately, as is so often the case with international cider and perry, Jörg’s products aren’t available in England. But a stroke of luck arrived in the shape of a friend being in Germany with his in-laws, and kindly consenting to mule a case back for me. After a few weeks of quarantine on his return he dropped them off at casa geophysicist, where these two were promptly stashed in the fridge.
Both are single varietal and made using the traditional method of secondary fermentation in bottle before disgorging. The first, Karcherbirne is described as “a random seedling from the area around Gaildorf” and is bottled with 24g/l residual sugar, whilst the second, Prevorster Bratbirne is a late-harvest variety with a naturally high sugar content (although the residual sugar in the finished bottling is undisclosed on the product page.) They cost €14.50 and €15 respectively, so sit on the pricier end of the perry spectrum, although circa £13 seems more than reasonable given method and rarity if the quality stacks up. Let’s find out if it does.
Manufaktur Jörg Geiger Karcherbirne – review
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: That’s very fine stuff. Poised, clean, defined, seriously elegant. Fruit forward – not much lees influence – and stylistically somewhere between the plumper honeys, honeysuckle and clementines of a Blakeney Red and the more lime-scented citrus of a Plant de Blanc. Riper and more tropical as it warms – a little pineapple and mango juice. Just a trace of almond.
In the mouth: Superb freshness and fullness of fruit meet probably the finest, creamiest mousse I’ve encountered on a perry. It’s a touch off-dry but fuller-bodied and less sweet than most poiré from Domfront. Big pear fruit, lime, tangerine and pineapple juice. Runny honey on light toast. It’s mouthfilling, intense, rounded and crystal clear in its expression of fruit, if not quite in the upper stratospheres of complexity. Utterly gorgeous though – more or less tannin-free and with the lightest breath of acidity adding balance and structure to the fizz.
Manufaktur Jörg Geiger Prevorster Bratbirne – review
Colour: Pale straw.
On the nose: Again just so refined, but a bit more complex than the Karcherbirne, I’d say – there’s a bit more green fruit and lemon, a little quince jelly and certainly more influence from the secondary fermentation; touches of sourdough and brioche. More focussed and less plump-fruited, perhaps. Pristine and just so elegant.
In the mouth: Drier and leaner than the Karcherbirne – just a touch off-dry. There’s a mild flutter of tannin, but really not very much of it at all. Flavours are racy, poised and electric, with more than a suggestion, at times, of something like a young Rheingau Riesling. Lemon and lime fruit pastilles, green pear, quince and toast. A little toasted hazelnut towards the end, though – perhaps more than the nose suggested – this is another very fruit-led traditional method perry. I wonder how much time it had on its lees? Minerality is hard-lined and flinty and, as with the Karcherbirne, the mousse is as fine and creamy and sumptuous as I’ve found in a perry from anywhere. It’s a work of art to be honest.
Just exceptional. In terms of flavours I’d say these sit somewhere in between Normandy and Herefordshire – if the Karcherbirne was a hybrid of Plant de Blanc and Blakeney Red then the Prevorster Bratbirne has more than a suggestion of Yellow Huffcap to it … but of course that’s partially my own projection.
Both are faultless in their expression of fruit, clean-lined, thrilling and indulgently moussed. Not one atom of any iteration of funkiness. There is so much technical skill on show here; so much for other perry makers to aspire to. If I have one criticism – and it’s an observation, an aside really, rather than a criticism – it’s that both feel as though they’re at the start of their development. Mainly about the primary fruit and the technical craft rather than showing off any additional complexities of lees and time. But that’s as much my fault for the time of drinking as it is anything else.
On this basis, I cannot wait to try my next Jörg Geiger. If you happen to be in Germany or have an opportunity to try any of Jörg’s creations elsewhere, for goodness’ sake don’t pass it up.