Editor’s Note: For convenience, we’ve created a collection of all current cider articles by this author.
By Michael Wilcox
Sweetness and Fruitiness
There is no need to spend a lot of time describing sweetness – it is simply perceived residual sugar in the cider, usually from apples or pears though other sources may play a role in C2: Specialty Cider. Remember that only white sugar is allowed in C1: Standard Cider or Perry. Noticeable character from honey or brown sugar is a fault in C1. Sorry, but you should not award an obvious Hydromel Cyser a medal in New World Cider. Fruitiness however is a bit trickier and is often confused with sweetness.
Higher residual sugar levels correspond to richer mouthfeel and fuller body. Sweet usually means more fruit character than drier cider, and often means different fruit character. A few apples tend to show their raw apple nature through even in a dry cider – expect some of this with McIntosh, and some of its large family of descendants have a “Mac note” too. It will take some practice, but you will eventually improve ability to discern fruitiness from the increased body and viscosity of higher residual sweetness.
High fruitiness tends to be suppressed by lack of sweetness. Many a meadmaker is familiar with this: You make a melomel with fruit levels even St Paul would be proud of, ferment dry, and end up dismayed at your lack of fruit character. However, sweeten the mead a bit, and suddenly your fruit is much more full and vibrant. Judges don’t have the time or ability to make adjustments at the judging table to try to improve a cider, but make/drink enough of these and do some adjustments at home and you’ll eventually be able to make recommendations on which directions a cider might go to improve its balance.
Expect fruit character but not necessarily obvious apple in New World Cider, and in Applewine. New England Cider should be somewhat fruity while retaining some more obvious apple unless extremely dry, while English style cider should really not present as “appley” at all. French style cider I commonly associate with a fall orchard with fruit on the ground – overripe. I also very often get Bittersweet Apple Character, which is hard to describe without self-referential terms – you need to drink it. With low alcohol and not particularly high acidity to protect it, expect some development of flavor, and with the commercial examples available, stability is often poor. A little of this can be welcome, while a lot can ruin the cider.
There are also fruit characters that may not present at all until the cider is nearly dry, however these are often very delicate. For example, I’ve fermented 100% Baldwin apples beautifully dry, and it had amazing fruit and rose characters that were really nothing like the tart raw apple sweetness they had on their way to crush. I probably wouldn’t enter such a cider in a competition where the ciders would be tasted side by side in a mini-BOS – the sweeter ciders tend to dominate in amount of character and in the medal lists. That’s something many cidermakers would like to see change, but we have to be willing to drink a lot of cider and improve our judging skills and appreciation for subtlety.
The range of fruit characters possible in apples and cider is astounding. I often remind judges that they should strive to taste different foods and truly know the adjectives they are using. Do you remember what a plum tastes like, or is it just one of those words you tend to use in reviewing dark Belgian beers? I often mention I’m getting a pear character from a certain cider and very often my fellow judges note it too. But if I then note a cider tastes like lychee (which I perceive quite often in cider), does your brain immediately remember what that fruit tastes like? And when you’re judging Specialty Cider, maybe you want to have some pomegranate or black currants before you try to determine if the entrant did a nice job. Getting our Cider (or Beer/Mead) Judge pin is just the beginning; the learning never stops.
Sweetness is somewhat independent of alcoholic strength, but understand that sweet without alcohol can tend to give a “raw” impression, like drinking juice. Higher alcohol ciders can support higher residual sugar levels, all other things being equal. Carbonation and acidity can help balance sweetness – low sweetness in a given style will suggest a need for somewhat lower acidity to balance. Everything in moderation tends to work best. You could argue that a high alcohol, high sweetness, high acid, and tannic cider was “balanced” but more likely it’s just a mess.
There is also some variation in sweetness depending on the ratio of the various sugars present in the cider: Fructose tastes sweeter than Sucrose, which tastes sweeter than Dextrose. This could come into play depending on the specific fruit involved or type of back-sweetening performed, and can account for many of the “well this is really more medium than semi-dry” discussions you may have heard. Finally, there are other substances present that may provide sweetness, the most notable being the sugar alcohol Sorbitol. Sorbitol is present in very small amounts in apples, and may be as high as 2% in some pears. A truly dry (0% residual sugar) perry rarely comes across as dry as a truly dry cider.
As judges we should not be antagonistic with the entrant on the appropriateness of their entered sweetness level. Yes, sometimes it is obvious that the “semi-dry” they entered as has more than 25 gravity points of residual sugar. But we need to recognize our own limits. “This is entered as semi-dry but seems to have 5-6 points of residual sugar, not 2-3.” – would be more than a little silly. Note that while it may be tempting as a new Cider Judge to focus on the low-hanging fruit, appropriate sweetness level is at most a line or two in your review. Judge the entry in front of you, and do so fully, rather than focus on one aspect. Don’t look for reasons to not fully evaluate an entry.
Judges, your palate needs a break when significantly changing sweetness levels, especially when sweetness of your next sample is lower than the previous. Take a few minutes if necessary, have a cracker, drink some water. Reset. You want to give the entry the best review possible, not be blinded by what you just had. Flights should usually start with dry and move up the scale to sweet, with a couple caveats – the majority of current entrants seem to view and enter their cider as a little drier than they truly are, and, Perry can be fairly delicate and I prefer it nearer the beginning of the flight even if not dry.
If you’re a Beer Judge this one may take some getting used to: In judging beer astringency is usually a fault and is unwelcome in most styles. There are no grain husks, no too-hot-sparge, no roasted malts, and (usually) no hops. In cider tannin is an important part of the balance and is largely caused by phenolic substances called procyanidins present in all apples and pears. Other sources of tannin include oak aging, other tannic fruits, or use of spices. The mere presence of tannin in a cider is never itself a flaw – it is about the level/intensity and how it comes across on your palate.
The several procyanidins in apples can be broken down into two general types – larger chain astringent tannins, and shorter tannin molecules that are bitter. Over time tannins tend to polymerize, bitterness smoothing into astringency, thus a cider that is a little too bitter may improve with age. Generally higher alcohol beverages can support more tannin as long as the acidity is not also high, at which point the beverage becomes harsh and hard to drink. Tannins are generally antioxidants, helping preserve the beverage. They can also change the color of a cider, but I think that is beyond the scope of most judges’ interest. Tannins have no aroma, but can reduce aroma by binding with esters and alcohol or add new aromas from the tannin source (oak, other fruits, spices).
Those of you familiar with red wine are very familiar with this. There is a drying sensation in the palate – sometimes called “puckering” but not to be confused with the somewhat similar “puckeringly sour” acidic character. I’ve often heard people describe running their tongue over the roof of their mouth while drinking tannic wine and say “you’re feeling the tannins.” Technically that’s not the tannin – You are feeling the roof of the mouth without the lubrication of saliva once proteins in the saliva have bound with said tannins. But as judges the point is there is a drying sensation in tannic beverages. Astringency increases body by literally giving more tactile sensation, and can lengthen the finish of the cider by lasting into the swallow and aftertaste. At varying amounts astringency can be refreshing or harsh, rounding out sweetness or seeming like a mouthful of wood shavings. Apple and pear tannins feel a little bit different to me than that from oaked cider (plus, they don’t have the characteristic aroma and flavor oak provides) but depending on their level and other attributes of the cider the two can easily be confused. Just as in Beer or Mead, spices used can also add astringency – as a judge you should try to learn which spices cause this when used normally or in excess. If astringency is to be expected, do not grade an entry poorly if the beverage remains in balance.
Expect some astringency in your French and English style ciders. (Here may be a good spot to remind judges that “French” and “English” refer to the names of our styles, not where the cider was made or apples grown.) I find soft and astringent more of a French profile, while bitterness seems more English style to me, but some literature and opinions seems to contradict this. That’s OK – these aren’t narrowly defined styles, but fit on a wide continuum of characters. There is some overlap between the two styles. Note these ciders often have MLF, which we’ll talk about in a later article. That spicy/smoky character is often very strange to first time drinkers, especially in an English cider. Astringency, bitterness, no overt apple flavor, and phenolics – you can see how different this is than the “Apple Alco-pop” most had as their first introduction to cider.
Obviously of great familiarity to Beer Judges, this can range from very low in most styles, to a moderate part of the balance in some English cider. Bitterness is a basic flavor, a balance to sweetness, and can a big part of being thirst quenching. Higher alcohol will emphasize bitterness, as will lack of sweetness, higher acidity, colder serving temperature, or higher carbonation. Barely perceivable bitterness isn’t a major flaw, but in our BJCP styles should not be a major component of balance in the manner of some hop-forward beers.
Bitterness also often results from oxidation, or small fruit seeds – Ever worked with strawberries? Old stale spices seem bitter to me. It may take practice to determine where a character is coming from, but remember that you are judging the overall balance and enjoyment. You don’t need to know why a given cider is bitter, just whether the level is appropriate and whether it would be improved with lesser or greater amounts of bitterness. Many a competition entrant has also gotten feedback from me along the lines of “overall it presents like a powdered wine tannin was used, recently and in excess: harsh and bitter” – note I don’t *know* that they used such a product, and don’t assume so in my feedback with things like “use less powdered tannin or use liquid for late adjustments, or give it time to blend”. I simply tell them 1) My palate has an issue with the cider and 2) Here is what it reminds me of. See the difference? – The latter is what I might tell someone if they handed me a cider and TOLD me what they did.
This would seem fairly basic but I often find myself reminding judges that cider is not beer. A dry cider has no residual sugar to hide alcohol. Very, very few beers would be this dry. Think of a dry white wine – alcohol is a big part of the balance. Few apples have the ability to create >10% ABV without help (as wine grapes do), but if high sugar apples were used and the cider is dry, you should expect to taste some alcohol. Get used to this, and you’ll learn the difference between good alcohol and paint thinner. Be honest, and practice: Is it really “hot” or does it just warm the throat and stomach a little bit? We evaluate alcoholic beverages; I’d like to see judges a little more open to discernible levels of alcohol in cider and mead. Note with the low ABV of the style and tendency towards moderate or higher residual sweetness I’ve never really gotten alcohol in a French Cider, but I’m open to being able to discern a little bit. Drier beverages will show more alcohol than a sweet beverage of the same ABV. Expect some alcohol in your Applewine, and more often than not you’ll detect it in New England Cider and Ice Cider.
At the same time it’s not completely different than beer. The alcohol content of cider tends to start around the range of session beers and go up to the range of imperial beers – Few are as high alcohol as the average (grape) wine. The higher or fusel alcohols are as unwelcome here as they are in beer.
The interplay of Alcohol and Sweetness is a bit tricky as noted earlier. Sometimes it can emphasize sweetness – you can experience this by adding a tiny amount of grain alcohol to a sample of medium cider and tasting the two side by side. Greater alcohol in this case seems to taste sweeter. Other times alcohol can seem to cut through sugar, especially when a beverage is very sweet. So just remember that alcohol is a tool in your kit when discussing how a cidermaker can improve balance. Mead Judges are very likely familiar with sugar and acidity piled high in an attempt at balance that instead ends up “Sweet-Tart.” Tannins and/or Alcohol are likely what were needed in such a case.
Body refers to the viscosity of cider perceived as a sensation of weight or thickness on the tongue; it is a mouthfeel texture, not a flavor. The descriptors used for normal ranges of body include light, medium, and full, but can go outside those descriptors for defective ciders. Thin and watery are terms that describe very light-bodied ciders. Cloying, viscous, heavy, thick are terms that describe very full-bodied ciders.
Different apple and pear varieties do provide different bodies to cider. There is generally a direct correlation to sugar content and perception of fullness of body, but there is significant variation in body even among fruit with similar sugar content. Managing fermentation for final gravity can thus control the final body. Back-sweetening cider can increase body. Using more juice (fermented or not), honey, molasses, brown sugar, and some fruits generally increases body. Higher alcohol content and tannin levels increase body by offering greater tactile sensation, often lasting into the finish and forming a significant component of the lingering impression of the cider after the swallow.
Carbonation refers to the amount of dissolved carbon dioxide in solution. It is an aspect of mouthfeel, although higher carbonation adds carbonic acid to cider. Carbonic acid is a very weak acid, but does increase perceived acidity and reduce pH. Carbonation also can cut through high sweetness levels that would otherwise be cloying, increase perceived bitterness or astringency, and accentuate refreshment and drinkability in otherwise flabby beverages.
High amounts of carbonation can greatly amplify attributes in a cider, particularly the aroma profile. What may normally be perceived as subtle may be perceived as volatile when amplified by high carbonation, and compared with still cider, aroma as a whole can be expected to be higher in carbonated cider. Depending on the style, lower amounts of carbonation could deliver a perception of a one dimensional cider where all the elements are there but key attributes fail to stand out.
Together with the acidity I talked about last time, these make up the major components of the balance of a cider, and will be a big part of your review of a cider entry. Next time we’ll talk about MLF and then some flaws you may encounter judging cider. These articles are starting to sound like Cider Exam Study Guide chapters, aren’t they…! Confused, outraged, or eternally grateful with what I’ve written? Fellow judges may contact me.