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The Newt and Downside Special Reserve Perries

There are many reasons to be excited about The Newt, but not least amongst them is the fact that one of their cider and perry makers is Paul Ross.

Paul’s previous gig was making cider and perry under his own Downside brand. Being completely honest I had slightly mixed feelings about some of the ciders, but his perry was another question. About a year and a half ago I tasted the Special Reserve 2016 and, at the time, I thought that it was probably the best perry I’d ever tried.

So as pleased as I was that Paul was at the controls of the UK’s swankiest cidery, it was a significant pang that those wonderful Downside perries had been lost. I felt that until The Newt released a perry of its own there would always be an asterisk of spoilt malcontent at the back of my mind.

And today I am thrilled to announce that my wish has been granted. A couple of weeks ago a new perry in a flashy 750ml wine bottle appeared on The Newt’s website. I immediately bought two bottles and sent an email asking whether I could chat to Paul about it. Before the day was over Paul had got back in touch and I’d given him a ring. Our conversation is below, condensed and edited for clarity.

Malt: Can you give me a brief potted history of how you came to make cider and perry – and how you joined the team at the Newt?
Paul: Ok yeah, so I got into cider and perry about just over 10 years ago now and it’s very much been the classic way of getting into it really, so you end up with too much apples and your friend or neighbour’s got a big apple tree – lots of apples going on – and you start making cider out of them, so surplus to demands.

And then within one year I was making too much to drink and two years it’s a small business and it’s bloomed from there. But the real fascination came in when I got into perry, and that was where I got really obsessed about perry pears and I just think there’s perry pears but there’s European perry pears as well, and all the possibilities that comes with it. And there’s a really mysterious, complex puzzle and you can never quite crack it. And I haven’t cracked it – I still haven’t cracked it now. So yeah, it’s addictive, because you can’t quite get it right every time.

Malt: The Newt’s an astonishing setup – unrivalled in the UK really – how have you found the transition?
Paul: Actually amazingly smooth. It’s a big challenge because obviously much higher volume, still with the placement on quality and things like getting more into production – so, you know, running the bottling line on a much larger scale – so it’s a different kind of job in that sense as well, ‘cause I’m managing people and getting a lot of stock management and supply. But I love all that as well – I love all the other sides to the job when it gets bigger, and it’s really nice to put emphasis on quality of process, which really affects the final product so you get much more consistency across all your bottles; you can do it better. So all that kind of thing’s really nice, but it’s just a lovely place to work as well. It’s a massive challenge, but a real positive drive through all those challenges through lovely support from good people and freedom – the main thing – freedom to do lots of products that I want to do and to come up with great ideas and to put them into place – put them into practice. That was really good.

Malt: Perry’s generally seen as more Three Counties than Somerset. Can you tell me a bit about the history here?
Paul: What I know! And it’s very dribs and drabs, any documentation of it. But obviously, if you’re going back 60 years, Showerings [Ed: the company behind Babycham] was the big push for perry pears in Somerset, so Showerings planted some good orchards for perry pears. And that’s where the bulk of perry pears that still exist are now. And there’s not a lot of them so most of those got knocked down or taken out. But yeah, because Showerings needed fruit closer to their factory in Shepton Mallet, rather than getting it from the three counties they planted stocks around Somerset as well.

So that’s the only real significant history. But there are little trees here, little pockets … I’ve gone to some peoples’ farms and they’ve got like one perry pear tree that someone enthusiastic once planted there two hundred years ago, but there’s no culture of perrymaking in Somerset at all, going back a long way. So yeah I think the enthusiastic people who were keen on perry planted trees here and there, just a couple of nice little ones to pick from.

The stuff I pick from mainly now are Showerings plantings from about 60 years ago. And most of the ones I bother with at the moment are from the Royal Bath and West showground – they’ve got a nice little collection there. And I’ve got some trees that I’ve planted for myself as well in my garden. I’ve got 25 nice trees. And they are a real world collection, I’ve got some nice German varieties, some Austrian varieties and I’ve got some nice French varieties as well. And English ones as well so it’s kind of like split between the four – 25% of each. And some of those varieties have got absolutely … I mean some of the German and French varieties have got much higher acid, so it’s easy to build this kind of high-acid, full-bodied perry, which I think is what it needs to balance – it’s something I’m very keen on.

Malt: Before we get into chatting about The Newt’s, I have to mention Downside, because those perries made such a huge impression on myself and others. Was it a wrench to let that go at all?
Paul: I thought it would be. When I was applying for this job I was figuring out whether it was for me and I was keen to kind of keep with that – with the Downside – I didn’t want to lose all that. But the products we can make and the creative freedom that I’m given to do so is so big that it’s just completely replaced it, you know? I’m able to make better products more like I want to make – I’m not limited by the limitations I had before in terms of technology and just being able to spend enough time on the products, which before was always just a minimum, to try and get them done. And now it’s a full-time job that I get paid a salary for I can dictate, I can put a lot of time in in the cellar – more time in the cellar than selling, things like that, which is always a big advantage. So yeah it was a bit of a risk to start with but once I’d been here for one or two months I forgot all about it. Because I can still make good stuff here. It’s the same deal.

Malt: Did you have a good degree of autonomy in coming up with your creations at The Newt?
Paul: Well me and Greg together sit down. So we were the cider team to start with and we were making decisions on what to make – what products to make – yeah. So it’s 50% autonomy if that makes sense!

Malt: Let’s talk about this perry. Firstly, can you tell me about the varieties you’ve used and the orchards they’ve come from?
Paul: So we’ve got Winnals Longdon, Thorn, and those have come from my own orchard and the Royal Bath and West. And they make up quite a large proportion of the mix. And then we’ve got Champagne Bratbirne, which is from the Swabian Alps – I tried Jörg’s [Ed: Jörg Geiger, who we met in this article] perries maybe 8- years ago and I made a decision to plant some Champagne Bratbirne based on some of those traditional method perries. Because it’s just such a good, balanced pear; it’s got the good acid, it’s got great body, it’s got it all, so I thought yeah, that’s a real mainstay. And then we’ve got the Plant de Blanc which is the main perry variety in the Domfront region of France – so that’s just a real winner, it grows well, it works really well in the blend, it brings so much to the party.

So all four of those varieties are my favourite perry varieties and they’re all consistently good perry pears to grow, but also consistently good in the blend and as standalone perries themselves. So I wanted to focus on those, and that’s where I’m focusing in my own orchard. Well I’ve got a couple of other varieties – I’ve got a couple of weird Austrian and German varieties in my orchard that are great as well, but they probably only went in one or two per cent of the mix because there’s less pears on them, so they weren’t really worth mentioning. And then in that mix as well from Bath and West there’s some Gin and some Brandy and some Moorcroft and things like that, but really those four are what are giving the flavour to the drink, I think.

Malt: You’ve named 3 of my favourites in there – Thorn particularly is one of my favourite English varieties …
Paul: Yeah, consistently good. But Winnal’s is great as well. Winnal’s is a strong pear in the later season – it’s got more body and depth to it so I think the two work really well. So what we’ve done for that – obviously you’ve got early season and late season pears in there – all I’m doing with the pears, every single time I harvest pears, it’s all about that absolute small window; getting them at the exact right time. So I’m sweeping the orchard maybe 20 times over the season and just taking maybe 20 kilos each time, something like that, and pressing them and they all go in the same tank and it just tops the tank up so what you’re getting is picking the pears at the right time and storing them for the right length of time exactly. And then the tank does the work – you just keep adding them to the tank. Rather than trying to make a perry out of all early-season or all late-season or something like that. So Thorn’s really early, Winnal’s is late October. So a big range, and you can’t keep them long enough to blend them together in the press, so it’s blending in tank and yeah it works really well.

Malt: What vintage is it, and what was that vintage like compared to others you’ve worked with?
Paul: It’s 2019. It was pretty good actually; I wouldn’t say it was the best ever in terms of … I find it hard with the perry to gauge what is good and bad! You know, you’re picking the pears, you’re looking for aroma, you’re looking for acidity, sugar levels and flavour, but sometimes those things are hidden in the fruit a little bit, so you don’t really know how good it’s gone. You think “oh, that was good” and then another year you might think “that was kind of average” and then you get the best perry ever out of it, so it’s very kind of cryptic! But I think it was, yeah, I mean the proof’s in the pudding – it’s more of a subtle year; all the flavours in there are more subtle and restrained but they are a little bit more elegant, do you know what I mean? So something was hidden in there that kind of came out. Nothing’s too in-your-face, nothing’s too strong. It’s quite nice, I like that – it’s growing on me more and more. I think I prefer it to previous years – probably all my previous years really.

Malt: Talk me through the actual making of this perry.
Paul: So like I say all pears picked at peak of ripeness based on my judgement. I think for perry, for me, that’s a big part of the process is when you pick the pears and how you store them. And that’s like 50% of the whole thing. That’s going to make the biggest impact on the drink, more than all the other stuff really. So that’s something I put quite a lot of focus on. So they’re all picked at just the right ripeness that I just dictated, then they were pressed in small batches, macerated for 24 hours – between 12 and 24 hours before pressing – pressed on a belt press that we’ve got here – then they were all brought into the same stainless steel tank; a 1400 litre tank, and then we just topped that up as the season progressed – we kept adding the juice to it.

So it was fermented in steel for … we picked the first pears mid-September and the last were late October. So mid-September and we basically bottled it start of February, so it’s four or five months in steel. It’s fermented with a wine yeast, pretty cold, probably spent all of its life less than 10 degrees C. Matured on the lees, it’s got zero sugar, just the unfermentable sweetness that comes from the drink. So kept on the lees nice and dry for a while; for most of that as well. And that’s pretty much the whole story really – just filtered off the gross lees and bottled in the latest bottle.

Malt: How does it compare to the Special Reserves you made under the Downside label?
Paul: The 2017 was really punchy; had a lot more tannin and a lot more acid and a lot more kind of fruit flavour coming through. This one’s a lot more subtle whereas that was a lot more full and obvious – that’s the best way to describe it. 2016 was more musky, had more ripe fruit and the ‘16 probably had some more subtleties in it. I can’t remember now because I haven’t got any left, so I haven’t drunk any of it for quite a while! But yeah, ’16 the fruit was a lot more ripe, a lot more bletted, so it had more kind of musky spiciness to it. 2017 was all like really fresh fruit – the fresher the pear is, if it’s just come off the tree, then it’s got loads of acid, loads of tannin, so that really came through in the drink – it’s got lots of citrus flavours coming through. But this one the fruit was pretty fresh but the delicacy of how it’s been made and how it’s put together is just really soft, so it’s kind of the best of both, I think.

Malt: Those rows and rows of stainless steel, small batch tanks are so impressive … but will you be doing any barrel ageing going forward?
Paul: Yeah! Yeah we’re going to do it. So watch this space. And basically what it is is we’re going to get – we’ve got our large oak tanks, so they’re really great, but it’s a large tank so you have to do a large volume of cider and keep it there for a long time. But we’re going to get some little barriques too – like 50 gallon barriques – probably new ones and do some smaller-batch stuff. And that’s going to be all about our cider club, so if you’re part of the cider club you’re going to get that cider. It won’t be for general release, because it’s too low a volume to sell.

Malt: Will this be the first of several perries in the Newt’s long-term lineup, or will this one be a sort of annual special reserve?
Paul: I think we’re going to do an annual blended perry. I’m very keen on blended perries, that’s what I’m all about really. I think you can really blend pears well and they really compliment each other. So really it’s going to be as many pears as I grow at home and then supplemented by the Bath and West ones. So as my orchard gets older and older it’ll get more and more towards just my pears. But at the minute it’s about 50:50. We’ve done alright last year. But yeah, it’s always going to be a blend, and if we’re lucky this year we might get two tanks, I don’t know! But it’ll all be the same product.

Malt: Can you give any glimpses of what else is being worked on at the Newt currently … cider or perry-wise?
Paul: Well we’ve got a beautiful traditional method cider that’s going to be coming out next year. I can’t give you any more details than that, but it’s absolutely fantastic, incredible. And that’s been aged in tank for like 20 months and then it’s going to be in bottle another year, so it’s laying down now. It’s amazing – it’s something else altogether – I’ve never tasted traditional method cider like it. I can’t really say anything more really!

All I can say about the product range is we’ll change ever so slightly – not very much – but the cider club we’re going to be doing some really interesting stuff and lots of varieties. That’s where we’re going to have a lot of different single varieties and things on the smaller scale. So the main product range is going to stay similar, but we’ll be doing a lot … because we’ve got 70 varieties in our orchards, en masse, so we’re going to pick a lot of single varieties and put them out as well.

Huge thanks to Paul and The Newt for talking me through the perries. But in his own words, “the proof’s in the pudding,” so let’s have a taste. I’ve lined up two of his old Downsides – the 2016 and 2017 Special Reserves – against this new 2019 creation from The Newt. All are presented in 750ml bottles, with the Downsides under cork and The Newt under screwcap. The Downsides cost £6.96 each from Middle Farm in Sussex, and I suspect they may have a few bottles left if you’re able to visit. (I may regret telling you that.) The Newt is a bit of a step up price wise, at £12.95 a bottle from their website, though that doesn’t feel unreasonable for a small-batch, full-juice perry assuming the quality stacks up. Let’s see if it does.

The Newt Fine Perry – review

Colour: Young Chablis.

On the nose: Very delicate, initially; very green pear-forward. There’s a little geranium, maybe a touch of elderflower and a little light gooseberry. But it’s mainly about that fresh, young pear fruit. There’s the lightest flutter of the fermentation still on it; a light yeastiness, which I suspect is just a matter of this perry’s significant youth. Otherwise very clean, as is the hallmark of all The Newt drinks to date.

In the mouth: Flavours intensify here. Lovely zesty acidity; nothing excessive, just adding that bit of zing. Still all about the pear fruit, both fresh and poached, but an additional citrusiness has crept in. Lime starburst. A little lemon. There’s a lick of stony minerality just scoring through the juicy tones. A touch of almond and a younger note of pear drop. Practically dry by perry standards, despite the juiciness. Very refined, light, elegant. One for fans of Gavi, I reckon. Tasted bling I might have guessed this was a really good Austrian Mostbirne.

Downside Special Reserve Perry 2017 – review

Colour: Rich gold.

On the nose: Deeper, richer, more decadent. A little honey. Lemon balm – even lemon marmalade. Sherbet dip. There’s an alluring herbaceusness too; dried oregano and particularly rosemary. Blackcurrant, both fruit and leaf. Wet pebbles. A touch of rose water. It’s tremendously aromatic actually, and those aromas are wonderfully crisp and clean-lined.

In the mouth: That herby savouriness persists – a lovely foil to the deeper tones of preserved lemon and blackcurrant cordial. Racy, beautifully integrated acidity and a wrap of tannin – this is the most grippy of the three, actually – combine with a smoky, gunflint minerality and a big, all-but-dry body for a huge, complete and gorgeous experience, pulsing with structure and life.

Downside Special Reserve 2016 – review

Colour: Similar to 2017. Maybe half a tone lighter.

On the nose: There’s a little more freshness here, and none of that herbaceousness. A peapod and tomato stem streak of green amidst the pronounced, ripe citrus. That intense stony minerality – petrichor, really – persists among fresh peaches, vanilla and yuzu. A good helping of rosewater Turkish delight. There’s even a seam of dried spice. It’s astonishingly complex and layered and harmonious and fresh.

In the mouth: The love-child of a developed Aussie Semillon-Sauvignon and a florist’s. With a spice rack thrown in. That brilliant citrusy fruit – ripe lemons and lime peel and more exotic yuzu – with tropical tones of passion fruit and pineapple alongside significant florals. Rosewater Turkish delight again and even parma violets (sweets which I hate, but flavours which work wonderfully here.) All scored through by fresh, green acidity and flinty minerality. Mouthfilling body, plush tannins, all but dry. By perry standards – by any standards – this is, to my mind, masterpiece territory.

Conclusions

Let’s talk about the Newt first. It’s lovely. I am more than happy to have parted with £13 for it, and very pleased that I bought another bottle at the same time. I may well go back for more. It retains The Newt’s track record for faultless cleanliness and is a fresh, bright, delicious expression of full juice pears fermented as far as they’ll go. If I have one complaint it’s that it’s entirely about those delicate high tones, but added complexity may well come with age.

Those Downsides though are on another level; in another league. They make a very good perry look almost ordinary by comparison to their sheer richness, complexity, completeness and life. Within both of them are flavours that you cannot find in any other perry I have experienced, and both are testament to the brilliance that can be achieved by fermenting perry pears to their maximum dryness and then giving them time to develop. I was so worried, tasting them after a year away, that I had misremembered their quality or bathed it in an incongruous rose tint, but they remain as exceptional as I had believed.

The 2016 remains my slight favourite; perhaps my perry ne plus ultra. Throughout the tasting I kept changing my notes, adding subtracting, tweaking, and that is because this is as complex and shifting as perry gets, whilst anchored by that wonderful core of fresh citrus, more tropical fruits and florals. But if your preference is the 2017 I will entirely understand. Its tannin and acid structure, alongside that deep lemon and smoky herb bouquet, is a wonderful, wonderful thing.

£6.96 is an outrageous – a ludicrous – price for drinks of this quality. I am recently engaged, and if there were sufficient bottles of either the 2016 or the 2017 left in the world I would serve them at my wedding without hesitation. (The geophysicist, incidentally, asked me whether that was a possibility once she’d tasted them and was very disappointed to discover that it wasn’t.) Both recall in whispers some of my favourite white wines, whilst remaining entirely unique and entirely, unmistakably, perry. I am genuinely worried that one of our handsome-and-wise readers, a certain Sussex-based whisky fan, lately converted to cider and perry, will now nip to Middle Farm and buy everything they have left. (Please leave me some).

I wrote a couple of months ago that those of us who are fascinated by the flavours of fermented and distilled drinks will occasionally come across something which moves us; tugs a little at our soul; leaves us with as many questions as it does answers. Like the 2017 Art of Darknesses from Little Pomona, these Downsides have done just that for me. And as delicious as the 2019 is, it remains my hope beyond hope that The Newt’s perries will ultimately match the quality and richer, more complex style of Paul’s original work. I will enjoy following their progress in this regard immensely.

Thanks to Paul for taking the time to talk to me in such depth.

CategoriesCider
Adam Wells
Adam Wells

In addition to my weekly-ish articles on Malt I write about whisky for Distilled and cider for Graftwood and Full Juice Magazines. Somewhere amidst all that I've also done the WSET Diploma in Wine and Spirits. I share my home with several hundred bottles and one geophysicist. For miscellaneous drinks banality, find me on twitter at Twitter.com/DrinkScribbler

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