There are some who will argue this is the wrong question merely because it requires judgment and judgment is nothing more than personal preference. If they like it, if it pleases them, it is great.
Ignore these people, at least where cider and questions of aesthetics are concerned.
While you are ignoring this perspective, instead consider the idea of balance and harmony. But before you do that, consider the apple.
The first job of any cider, before it is judged good or great, is to reflect the essence of the apple. If you taste an apple cider and you perceive no trace of apple, even in its unripe form, you can be sure you’ve witnessed some sort of crime. Somehow, the cider’s maker has stolen the essence of the apple and replaced it with something else, making the juice in the glass a mere carrier for something other. This cider can never be great apple cider. It can only be cider.
What is particularly special about the apple, like the grape, is that it possesses the parts and elements most necessary to produce a pleasing, and sometimes great, form of alcohol—proof that the gods do love us. The apple delivers relatively abundant sugar. It possesses acidity to a degree capable of minimizing and cloaking the cloying nature of sugar and often overpowering flavor (yes, too much flavor untamed by fine acidity is baroque). Finally, the apple produces tannin, that compound in apples, grapes and other fruits that is perceived as structure, or as a grater on the tongue when in abundance.
All varieties of apples are laden with sugar, acid and tannin in one degree or another and these varying levels of sugar, acid and tannin themselves vary based on the ripeness of the fruit. What must be noted here is that the sugar found in apples is critical not because it will allow a cider to have a sweet profile, but because one must have sugar to produce alcohol. Without alcohol you have no cider. It is critical to appreciate to that the alcohol in a cider also adds to the profile of the drink. A slight tinge of “hotness” from 7% alcohol cider is nice. It helps build the cider’s profile and structure. And it warms us. And it’s true that truly great cider need not have any sugar in it. Some of the greatest ciders in the world are virtually 100% dry.
A great cider is beautiful because its various elements possess harmony and balance. This is true of architecture, of music, of ballet, to name just three of the arts that are judged based on their harmony and balance. In architecture, our eye recognizes harmony of parts and elements and provokes a feeling of genuine contentedness. This harmony is achieved through spacial balance. The same can be said of music. While some forms of abstract music provoke us to listen and smile or to be jolted, they don’t provide us with a contented feeling. They are not great. Merely interesting.
Great cider is great not because it soothes our craving for sweetness. Great cider is great because it provokes a feeling of awe and content derived from a balance of its critical parts and fits them together in a harmonious form. Great cider is great because in delivering harmony and balance it is beautiful.
Cider that trades on great dollops of sugar should bore you. Cider that is titanically tannic will eventually repel you. Cider that tinges the tongue with great amounts of lemony acid will force you away to some other liquid that puts out the fire. Cider that burns the tongue with copious amounts of alcohol will leave you forgetting about the cider altogether. And of course cider that showcases no apple character at all will leave you asking, “what’s the point”?
We are living through the first great cider renaissance in the history of America. Today there are more varieties and brands of cider being produced and accessible than ever before. This explosion of craft cider provides us with the opportunity to contemplate the way in which contentedness and pleasure is almost always derivative of balance and harmony.