At the briefing yesterday directly before the judging began in the Dan Berger International Cider Competition, a judge asked the following question: “How do you determine if a cider is a gold, silver or bronze cider.”
A person is seated and in front of you are 8 glasses filled with cider that all appear similar. This person is asked to taste them all and choose one to serve to a group of six people, about whom all you know is they all enjoy and appreciate cider.
How do you choose?
This is a question of aesthetics. A question of beauty. A question of sensory perception. A question of judgment. It’s the question for which all judges at any cider competition must have a ready and confident reply in order to provide reliable and defensible judgments.
Isn’t it enough to determine a cider is delicious; that you prefer the taste of one cider to another? Absolutely. This is all any cider drinker ought to do. But what of those charged with reviewing, professionally evaluating and judging this drink? For them it must be a matter beyond determining deliciousness
The conundrum for the professional judge of cider is perfectly summed up in Maynard Amerine and Edward Rossler’s treatise on the evaluation of wine. In the first sentence of the first chapter of “Wines: Their Sensory Evaluation” Amerine and Rossler write, “Quality in wines is much easier to recognize than define.” This truth applies equally to cider evaluation.
The key for the professional judge of cider is to recognize those various elements of cider that contribute to its quality, establish an aesthetic philosophy and hierarchy concerning quality cider and then steadfastly and consistently work to identify the relative value of those elements in any given cider. The real key here, of course, is the question of the aesthetic philosophy and cider. What makes for a quality cider? What qualifies as beautiful in the realm of cider?
There are two answers to this question: The personal response and the traditional or generally accepted response, the latter being a result of the collective judgment and experience of current day cider drinkers who have built their conclusions upon the judgment and experience of those who have come before them. The traditional response, then, is a moving target, but a very slowly moving target. The personal response to the question “what is quality in cider” however may mimic the traditional answer, but this can never be assumed.
My own personal answer to this question is generally “traditionalist”. For me, quality cider possesses a harmony of acid, tannin, alcohol, sugar (and effervescence if sparkling). Its aromas and flavors are layered and more complex. The impression of its structure, aromas and flavors linger longer sip after sip. And, perhaps most important, a quality cider will emphasize in its structure, aroma and flavors the fruit from which it was made. Quality cider must, first and foremost, indicate the apple is at its core.
But this raises the question, why do I value a cider with harmony, layers of flavors and apple characteristics more than a cider that is dominated by astringent tannins and noticeably high alcohol aromas and flavors? Pleasure and deliciousness is in fact determined by the idiosyncrasies of an individual palate.
A person can be told which type of cider to prefer, but only in the most weak-willed will this make any ultimate difference in which cider they profess to prefer. This fact, however, does not prevent us from speculating on how much the declarations of ciderphiles determine what types of ciders tend to produced today, which type tend to be valued and which type tend to sell. It is entirely possible that the modern general consensus of what makes for quality cider is an imposition on the cider world by know-it-alls. However, I don’t think this is the case.
There are many different types and styles of ciders produced and sold today, but the vast majority of those purchased and consumed are dominated by high amounts of sugar, either natural or added. It seems highly doubtful that the large number of people drinking this overly sweet style of cider have been duped or coaxed into it against their better, more personal judgment.
What then to make of the fact that the professional judge and experienced evaluators of cider tend to dismiss this overly sweet style of cider as simplistic, unbalanced and generally not beautiful; not an example of quality cider?
“Our enjoyment of wine is thus essentially a learned response and is a complex mixture of intellectual and sensory pleasure. In addition, it has overtones of sensual pleasure and is obviously related to social customers. Our appreciation of wine is to a major extent subject to sensory skills and aesthetic principles that depend on our experience. Individual preferences are, of course, important; to the individual they are all important. All we can do is postulate that they have some rational basis and hope that some general aesthetic principes may eventually emerge for each individuals.”
Two of the greatest theorists of sensory evaluation of the twentieth century have in essence told us that any worthwhile assessment of quality depends simply on experience, recognizing what we like, and understanding in a rational way why we like it.
Amerine and Rossler are telling us that the majority of cider drinkers who consumer overly sweet and simple cider to the more complex and harmonized cider preferred by myself and most professionals have little experience with cider and have not thought rationally about what they are drinking.
I believe they are right about this, yet I’m not willing to fault the sweet drinkers for this. I am merely uninterested in their more simplistic and unexamined preferences.
Returning then to our judge who is looking to choose the best of 8 ciders for the table of six cider lovers, our first hope for this judge is that they have experience in tasting cider. We hope that experience has exposed them to the way in which different elements of cider impact the others. We hope they are qualified to appreciate more than sugar or more than the impact of high alcohol or more than a simplistic, one note drink.
We hope that they recognize and have thought about the lasting and consistent attraction of the ideas and experience of harmony, balance, complexity and nuance. If they have considered these things and if they have trained themselves to recognize how they exhibit themselves in a cider, we can have confidence that they will choose a cider most likely to appeal to people who, if not similar in experience to them, are at least similarly inclined to appreciate beauty and deliciousness before simplicity in cider.
This is the role of the cider judge.