Last month we headed to the world’s biggest hard cider competition — the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition — to judge cider. I know, I know, Tara and I are beer sommeliers — so WTF are we doing scoring ciders, right? That’s what we thought. But, it turns out there are lots of similarities. And we were warmly welcomed by our fellow judges — including Farnum Hill cidermaker Steve Woods, Ontario’s own Jenifer Dean, cidermaker and GM at County Cider, and talented
“Grand Master” ranked wine and beer judges.

Before the intensive two-days of judging began, we kicked things off with a five-hour sensory training session on Friday night. We knew we were among kin when everyone collectively gasped with delight when the trainers passed around samples of pure off-flavour spikes so we could all sniff them.  (Woo hoo! Par-tay!) We learned a lot from the teachers (Charles McGonangal, Gary Audey) and we put together these hot tips to share.

Taste as you do for wine: Swirl, Sniff, Sip and Chew

Sorry, chew? Chewing was new for me. But it’s easy and helpful. Basically you make a chewing motion, swishing the cider around to pull oxygen into the mouth and open up its flavours. Or you can also open your mouth slightly and suck air through.

  1. Look: Is it clear, is it cloudy (unfiltered). What colour is it? What about the bubbles? When it comes to cider we talk about three things — still (no bubbles), petulant (at least a few bubbles rising up the glass), or sparkling.
  1. Aroma: Just like beer, you want to get your nose into the glass, sniff around and see what you can pick out. Think about intensity, complexity, expression (is it unique?) and cleanliness. Ciders range widely in aromas depending on the style you can have big stone fruit notes, tropical fruit, botanicals, spice, white wine, toasted nuts or caramel, hop aromatics, or barnyard funk.PRO TIP: Whereas beer judges perceive a butterscotch or buttery flavour to be an off-flavour in most beer styles, at non-distracting levels it’s a desired note  in cider).
  1. Flavour: McGonagal encouraged us to think of flavour as “aromas experienced in the mouth” as our nose and tastebuds are so closely connected. Here you’re looking for a balance between sweetness, sourness and bitterness.
  1. Mouthfeel: This the “texture experience” of the cider in your mouth, including body and astringency. And as beer experts, but a wine novices, we found this the toughest to get my palate around. It helps to think of the “body” like milk — Is it skim (light), 2% (medium) or homogenized (full)? And astringency, almost always resulting from tannins, is the “friction” of the liquid in your mouth, McGonagal described this feeling as “fabrics,” like velvety, silky, or papery.
  1. Balance: No matter what the style, a great cider is all about achieving balance between opposing flavours with no one taste or aroma clobbering all the others.

How do you evaluate cider? Please share your tips and experiences below.