Tom Oliver on Beer Sessions Radio — Part 2

In Part 2 of the Tom Oliver episode of Beer Sessions Radio, topics of discussion include Oliver’s extensive product lineup, the so-called Magners Effect, New England style ciders, wild yeast and Brettanomyces, perry pears, and much more. If you haven’t read Part 1, do that now! Follow the link for a transcript of Part 3.


CARBONE: Hey, welcome back to Beer Sessions Radio on the Heritage Radio Network. I’m Jimmy Carbone with a special guest, Tom Oliver, the finest cidermaker and perrymaker in England. And a whole bunch of people from Shelton Brothers, Ale Street News, and Mens Health. Awesome, awesome, awesome! Joel Shelton, tell us about—you just popped another cider from Tom Oliver in England—what is it?

SHELTON: Let me read the label there, Jimmy. Oliver’s Herefordshire Cider Medium, it’s a very basic name, Tom. Tom, we talked earlier today with you about your preference in cider. You said you wanted bone dry, still. This is medium, this is going to be a little to the right of your preference?

OLIVER: Yep, but I hope while you were drinking it, this is a cider that’s conditioned in the bottle. So the sparkle is derived from the fermentation finishing in the bottle. It’s got a lovely apple sweetness to it, which is the unfermented apple sugars, but there’s some nice acidity to balance it. And then you’ve got those beautiful tannins which give you a little bit of roughness on the tongue at the end, give you some real depth to the drink and some length to it. This is really quite sweet. But because of the tannins and the acidity, I think it holds together really well as a drink. And it’s not too offputting.

CARBONE: Tom, this brings up a good point. The number of styles that you make: you’re making ciders and perries, dry cider, medium cider. Tell us your philosophy behind that.

OLIVER: Alright. Well it’s a disaster area in terms of sensibilities, because what we try and do at home, if you walk into our cider house, I hope to have at least a dozen—if not 16—different bottled ciders. I’ll find a cider for you whether you drink cider or not. And that’s the idea. So we range from dry to sweet, from still to sparkling, and everything in between. And then that’s just the bottled products. We have draft products, so we’ll have dry, medium, and sweet ciders. We’ll have single-variety ciders, so those are ciders made from individual apples, apples like the Yarlington Mill. Which is not a classic single-variety apple, but it makes a beautiful, warm, gentle, apple-y cider. And then we have perries, and we haven’t even started on the perries: single-variety perries, blended perries. So I hope that when anyone comes to our cider house—and do feel free if you’re ever in Ocle Pychard in Herefordshire—please come and visit us, and you can try 20 different ciders and perries.

SHELTON: Tom, if someone doesn’t like any of them, do you force them to like one when they visit you?

OLIVER: I try never to resort to violence, but I try to do a bit of a pleading thing. And if that doesn’t work, I just say “Have some cheese.”

FORDER: I would mention the fact that young generations [are] really getting into ciders, I can verify that. Both my daughters—one who’s not quite drinking age yet, but the other is—they really do like cider a lot.

OLIVER: I trust that you’re bringing them up very properly then, Tony. Because exposure to cider is a great thing. And I think the whole thing that’s happened in the UK, it’s known as the Magners Effect. Cider was introduced, and it was made to become a trendy drink that young people really enjoyed. You would pass bars in London at 6:30 in the evening when everyone tips out of the office, young people would be out drinking cider. That was unheard of 10 or 15 years ago. So cider has seen somewhat of a revolution there, and I see it going through a similar growing process with different things urging it forward over here as well.

CARBONE: One thing, I actually have a funny anecdote. Cider has come a long way. Back in the ’90s there was this English show, Absolutely Fabulous. Does anyone know that show, Ab Fab? OK, so there was one episode where the two older ladies, they were the wild partying chicks from the ’70s. And then their children were mild and meek. And they would go out, after their study session, they would share a can of cider. They made fun of it, because it wasn’t considered drinking. In the back of a lot our minds, cider wasn’t considered “a drink.” But only now with artisanal producers do we consider it—is that funny? It was funny on the show! Let’s pull up that clip, come on, Absolutely Fabulous!

CARTER: I’d be interested, Tom, when you taste around—when you’re here tasting different ciders—do you feel like there are a lot of bad ciders that are creating a bad impression for the overall category?

OLIVER: I just think that ciders are made for a purpose. What I might deem as a cider that’s not appropriate for me, it’s probably because it’s been designed for an 18-year-old lady who’s going to drink it in a hot nightclub at a very chilled temperature. And it’s going to be just what she wants to drink. But it certainly won’t be what I want to drink.

CARBONE: Well, what are some of those brands? Because I don’t want to drink that stuff!

OLIVER: Over here you’ve got…

CARBONE: Joel, you tell us. What is it, Magners? What are these?

SHELTON: Well, I was just going to say that you can go there if you want to meet 18-year-old ladies, but that’s a different story.

CARTER: I’d say I’ve certainly had some ciders that made me think more along the lines of Zima or something like that.

SHELTON: Whatever happened to Zima by the way? It’s a shame!

CARBONE: Enough, cut cut cut cut! Back to serious…sorry I brought up the Magners!

FORDER: There is an area where they’re adding all kinds of different fruit flavors into commercial ciders, which is like the flavored malt beverage…

CARBONE: So how do we know? One thing that I like about the new hard cider scene is that it’s a specialty product. I can get it at Good Beer Seal bars like Jimmy’s No. 43 and specialty stores. But if I walk into the typical—wherever you get your drinks—I wouldn’t get a cider, because I don’t want to just get an apple alcohol product.

OLIVER: I think this is where cider is really up for grabs. And I certainly think Greg Hall has come in with an angle on this. His early ciders are only available on draft, and that in itself gives you an idea where he’s targeting, where he sees the opportunities. Because you do…I want to be able to walk into a pub anywhere in the world and get a good cider on draft. And it’s not possible at the moment. And it’s not possible in England all the time, don’t think that it’s some sort of mecca of good cider. The hardest place to find good draft cider is in my home county. It’s an extraordinary thing, but we struggle. You’re more likely to find good draft cider in London.

CARBONE: It always has an identity crisis, where there’s really good ciders like yours and Farnum Hill that we love. And them I’m getting pitched all the time…it’s a cider, but they’ve added honey or maple syrup. So it’s more of a beverage, you know?

OLIVER: This is a tradition that started when cider first arrived in America. The Mayflower and Boston from there, there’s a tradition as I understand of using raisins and honey in ciders. And this is not just for meads, but for ciders as well. It just makes cider, you’re almost taking it back to its roots here. So I’m not sure it’s a bad thing or a good thing, it’s just another way of selling cider.

CARBONE: Well, the [cider] we had is the terrific Gold Rush that Tom made with Greg Hall. And we just had the Herefordshire Medium. Are there any more ciders or perries here tonight for us to talk about?

ROLYA: No, we don’t have any more ciders or perries. But we’ve got plenty of beer.

CARBONE: So let’s pop some beer! So let’s go on to perry since we’re popping beer.

ROLYA: One thing I did want to mention about all of Tom’s ciders—and this is what we really enjoy about them—is that they’re all naturally fermented. He uses the wild yeasts that are there on the skins and in the air to ferment the ciders. Which really creates just a really nice character to them.

OLIVER: Yeah. I think wild yeasts are so interesting. And I admire every beer person that dabbles in the wild yeast world.

FORDER: Is there a taste of Brettanomyces in here?

OLIVER: Definitely. But you can get—in ciders you can get what appears to be a Brett influence and it’s not actually coming from the Brett. But yeah, there are some flavor aspects that definitely hinge on Brettanomyces.

SHELTON: The acidity of the apples remind you of the Brett sometimes, right?

CARBONE: I think you guys hang out too much! Let’s flip this! Now we’re talking about perry. Because we’ve got cider down, everyone kind of knows cider. But perry, that’s pear cider. How is that tradition different, and the process and all that.

OLIVER: You’ve got to understand, with perry—and we’re talking about perry made from perry pears—this is a particularly unique type of fruit. It’s an inedible pear, as a whole. They grow on great big old trees that are massive. These trees are 100, 150, 200 years old. They stand out in the countryside. When they blossom, which is about now it should be in the UK if the weather was half decent, these great big trees covered in this white blossom, they look absolutely fantastic. But there’s very few of them. So true perry made from perry pears is a very scarce drink. Therefore, in order to make commercial use of the popularity of cider, “pear cider” has been invented. And “pear cider” is a drink made from whatever people put in it. But I can suggest that there’s a little bit of cider in there, there’s a little bit of imported pear juice, and there’s a little bit of this and that and the other. But once again, perry—truly a traditional product from a very small area of Herefordshire, Worcestershire, and Gloucestershire—it’s a fantastic drink and a worthy addition.

CARBONE: So typically, tell us…you start by growing trees, this is agriculture. You’re growing apple trees, and you’re growing pear trees. What’s the minimum age for each tree before you can make a quality product?

OLIVER: You can get all different sorts of trees with different rootstocks that give you maturity at different ages. But the traditional trees on tall stems—standard trees—for apples it’s 10 years, for pears it’s 30 years before you get a commercial return. This is a lifetime’s investment in land and in trees and in looking after them. The newer varieties growing on smaller rootstocks and bush things, you can get yields after 1, 2, or 3 years. So commercially there’s some great things going on in breeding technology to get these smaller trees fruiting more quickly. But I will say the best ciders I make come from trees that are 70 or 80 years old or more. And that’s because they’re nitrogen-deprived, the fruit is. They are beyond doing anything other than just let them grow. You may get sheep or cattle grazing underneath them, but these nitrogen-starved trees give you the best fruit for working with.

CARBONE: So how does that relate to—I know with wine, they have old vine wines, is that the same kind of thing?

OLIVER: It would, but we don’t extol the virtues of old apple trees. But I really think, it’s yet another possibility. Maybe I should say…I was reviewing some of the ciders and perries I made a few weeks ago, and what became clear to me is I need to really remember that the old trees produce the best fruit for making the sort of ciders and perries I make. I can’t get away from that, it’s a fact.

FORDER: Do you do any distillation?

OLIVER: I don’t. I wish I did. But I think I’ve left it too late in my life to start distilling. To get a cider brandy, it needs to be at least three years. So that’s like a five year period from now. And if I wanted a good 20 year old, that would put me at…

FORDER: Don’t give it away!


CARBONE: BR, what was your question?

ROLYA: I was going to say, Tom, you grow some of your own perry pears?


ROLYA: But then Lauren’s told me great stories of you just driving about, sometimes collecting pears from other sources?

OLIVER: I love finding perry pear trees, and I love finding reasons to go on to people’s land and scrump perry [pears] and cider apples. I did discover a variety called Coppy about 10 years ago. This was a variety that had been lost and was an endangered variety, nobody knew where there was a tree with this variety on it. And I just happened to find this one tree in an old orchard. So we saved one variety, and a number of people have found other old varieties. So we’ve now got a situation where we have 120 peary pear varieties preserved in at least four different locations in the UK, which is fantastic. In terms of agriculture, in terms of biodiversity, and in terms of just preserving the history of something—it’s ongoing and it’s exciting.

CARBONE: That’s amazing. For me, too, I love all the new really great hard ciders. But the really good old-school perries, like your perry is amazing. And I’ve had Christian Drouin from Normandy, and his perry really stands out as well.

OLIVER: There’s some fantastic poirés from Normandy. I think if you give it…it’s the rarest of raw materials, then in order to make the most of it, we should make the best perry from them.

CARBONE: Excellent. Hey, let’s stop on that note, because that was the best thing I’ve heard all night. I’m looking forward to drinking perries and ciders tonight with Tom Oliver—one of our favorite cidermakers in the world—at Jimmy’s No. 43 tonight. Alright, we’ll take a short break. We’ll be back in a few minutes on Beer Sessions Radio.