'They say cider hits you in four places,' says Jean Nowell. 'Perry gets you in at least eight'

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Jean Nowell, 65, describes herself as "the founder and only member of the English Ladies Perry Making Association." Though she reckons there are about 40 small farm-based perry producers in the country (most of them, like her, in the border counties of Hereford and Worcester and Gloucestershire) she claims to be the sole female maker of the pear-based drink.

Perry is the fermented juice of the fruit of the perry pear, a giant of a tree that can reach 70ft and has a productive life of more than 300 years. Most grow in the gently rolling countryside of the three counties, where it is said they were planted in the wetter, flatter areas where apples would not grow.

Mrs Nowell, a former art teacher, has a theory that it's the yeast in the air around the Herefordshire village of Much Marcle that makes it such a great centre of farmhouse cider and perry making. "When my late husband and I came here 11 years ago, it was some 20 years since the old stone cider house had been used, but I'm sure the essential yeasts were still alive and around," she says.

Compared to cider, perry has a tiny market. However, the cider and perry branch of Camra, the Campaign for Real Ale, is keen to promote what it sees as a craft brewing tradition that is in danger of being swamped by the highly promoted fizzy, filtered designer perries, usually made from imported concentrates.

Concerned for the future of perry, Camra instituted an annual award for the best perry in 1989, and Mrs Nowell has been the winner five times since then.

"Perry is a much more subtle drink than cider - in many ways more akin to a wine," she says. "They say cider hits you in four places but perry in at least eight - in the throat as well as the mouth. You have to swallow perry to get the full effect, you can't just roll it round the mouth as you can many wines. Lots of people don't like it but once you begin to experiment with the juices of some of the traditional English varieties such as Malvern Hills, Oldfield and Green Horse you realise that, like wine, perry is complex, varied and delicate. Some of the single variety perries can be exquisite."

Perry is more difficult to make than cider. "Pear juice is not so keen to ferment as that of apples: it takes longer to clear and is more difficult to blend," says Mrs Nowell.

Then why make perry? After all, Mrs Nowell's cider also sells well - there is a large notice on the door of her farmhouse perched on the side of a hill saying "sold out".

"Being the only woman making perry is doing something a little unusual," she says. "Cider is made all over the place now, but we perry makers are much harder to find."

Although last year's vintage is sold out, the months leading up to Christmas are the busiest. Jean Nowell works under cover of a large ditch barn at the rear of her 17th-century farmhouse, an ancient tractor providing the power for her 1904 scratter mill (it is like a large mincer) that she and her husband discovered in a derelict outbuilding.

There are also two large hand presses and some 40 large fermenting vessels, all with names borrowed from her sons, daughters-in-law, grandchildren, old friends, and pets past and present. "My brother occasionally comes up from Plymouth to lend a hand and I sometimes get a bit of help lifting the bags of apples and pears when they arrive on trailers or in the boots of cars, but mainly I work alone," Mrs Nowell says. "I reckon I can mill a ton of fruit in a day if I put my mind to it".

Little of Mrs Nowell's perry and cider travels very far. "I produce the maximum total 1,500 gallons a year that is permitted before excise duty is imposed - it is a drop in the ocean beside my big neighbours down the road, Westons, who produce 12,000 gallons of perry."

Most of her production is sold at the door to people that manage to find her. It is well worth doing so, as she will not sell unless the customer has a tasting first. "This is only sensible really, as they might not like it," she says. If they do, she will blend the perry to taste.

However there is no perry (or cider) now at Lyne Down Farm until next spring. Brewing finishes just before Christmas and then Mrs Nowell will spend part of the winter racking and blending (and also enjoying the odd drop) before taking a rest.

Meanwhile she is optimistic about the future of perry. "Although very few perry pears have been planted in recent years, and the only large producers of the real product are Westons, there are more perry pear trees about than people think. Over the last 10 years I have seen more small- scale producers like me start up. Yet obtaining perry from small producers makers like me will always be difficult, partly because only a few of us are licensed to sell it. But all good things are worth searching for."

Lyne Down Perry and Cider, Lyne Down Farm, Much Marcle, Ledbury, Herefordshire HR8 2NT .

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