Cider judging differs from cider drinking in that the judge is thinking about the full range of perceptions and how a cider fits against idealized standards, rather than just hedonistically enjoying it. That isn’t to say that cider judges don’t enjoy their work; to the contrary, most cider judges love to judge cider. However, cider judges won’t just say that they like a cider; they will be able to explain why. They will also be able to compare one cider against another, or against idealized standards and decide relative merit. This is the skill of judging, and it must be practiced as with any other skill.
Evaluation is a systematic, structured assessment of something, or a determination of merit, worth or significance against a set of standards. Good cider judges will perform an evaluation of most cider they sample, even if it isn’t for a competition. This evaluation can be performed silently and as a mental exercise, or it can be written down as notes. Regardless, this is the basic practice needed to develop the skill of assessing cider as a judge.
The structured method of evaluating cider closely follows the sequence used when filling out a scoresheet. Aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel and overall impression are considered. The evaluation process focuses on capturing accurate sensory perceptions, and then comparing them against style guidelines. If used on a more recreational level, just the sensory assessment could be performed.
This following sections discuss how to evaluate cider characteristics, how to judge cider in a competition setting, how to complete the BJCP scoresheets, how to evaluate per style, and some general tips for evaluation and how to handle issues that arise while judging.
Assessing Cider Aromatics
In the wine-tasting world, there is a big difference between aroma and bouquet. Aroma is the smell of grapes, while bouquet is the complete smell of the wine. Aroma describes the raw ingredient and bouquet describes the character added by the winemaker. Nose is used to describe the total experience (aroma and bouquet). This is a fairly subtle distinction, since in the beer tasting world aroma generally means the total smell experience. When discussing cider, we will generally use aroma in the beer sense, although when bouquet is used it specifically includes the fermentation and age-related character. Either usage is valid with cider.
Why are we discussing wine? Well, cider has more to do with wine than it does with beer, particularly in sensory assessment. Part of the bouquet of wine is due to the yeast used. Since cider is often made with wine yeast, the yeast-derived components will be similar. Wine evaluation techniques are also more well-developed and formalized than cider evaluation techniques, so we lean more heavily on the work of the American Wine Society in developing the framework for discussing cider.
You may need to swirl the glass if the cider is not carbonated to detect more subtle aromatics. Swirling allows oxygen into the cider, releasing aromatics and coating the side of the glass. Be gentle when swirling carbonated cider; the cider maker may have been depending on those bubbles for a portion of acidic balance. Swirl, then tilt the glass towards you. Inhale deep in the lower side of the glass near the surface of the cider. Use a deep inhale lasting a few seconds, which should get heavy aromatics that don’t make it far above the surface of the cider. Then consider what you’ve smelled. Keeping the mouth slightly open while inhaling and exhaling through your nose may help you discern more complexity in the cider. Swirl again, stop swirling, then tilt and smell again – this time towards the upper side of the glass (furthest from the cider). This will get lighter aromatics. Repeat again, smelling in the middle of the glass using a series of short, quick sniffs. Finally, keep the glass level and smell a few inches above the glass. Each of these sniffing techniques may give you a different impression; practice and use the ones that work best for you. You are looking to pick up as many different aromas as you can find.
Assess the Apple or Pear Character
How strong or intense is it? Is it sweet? Does it seem unfermented, ripe or overripe? Does it have a noticeable and identifiable varietal apple character, or is it reminiscent of anything? Can you give those specific aromatics a name? Are there fruit aromas other than apple, such as apricot or citrus or grape, or non-fruity aromas of floral, herbal, grassy, spicy, mushroom, olive, wet earth? Is aroma fairly constant, or do you detect different things each time you sniff? Are these aroma components prominent features or delicate undertones? Apples are to cider and pears to perry as grapes are to wine; you need to describe the character of the primary ingredient, and relate it to any expectations you may have given how the cider was described.
Assess Specialty Ingredients
Were there any special ingredients (fruit, spice, adjunct sugars, etc.) used in this cider? If so, do you detect their presence? Do they complement or clash with the base? If a special ingredient is fermentable (e.g., fruit), then the character might not have the same impression as the fresh ingredient. For example, wine does not smell like grapes, it smells like fermented grapes – don’t expect fruit in a cider to always smell like the raw fruit, the fermented character can be different. The amount of residual sugar in the cider can affect the impression of fruit, since fruity aromatics are often found with sweetness in fresh fruit. Declared special ingredients should be noticeable, but balanced and in harmony with other ingredients. If there are no declared special ingredients, or when judging C1 entries, are there any characters that are out of place, such as vanilla, molasses, or maple syrup? Be mindful that some apples will give a honey-like aroma, so a faint honey character in C1 entries should not be immediately discarded as out of style.
Assess the Fermentation Character
Did the yeast add any interesting aromatics (fruit, spice, etc.)? Is there alcohol noted? Are there any fermentation faults? Do they blow off quickly, persist throughout the beverage, or only show up once it warms? If it is sharp and aggressive to the point where it overwhelms other components, it is a negative. A whiff of matchstick from a recently sulfited cider is extremely common occurrence in competition; give this a chance to dissipate with a few swirls before you declare it an issue. Likewise low amounts of hydrogen sulfide may quickly blow off; give it a chance to do so. Alcohol level should match the style of cider. Refer to section xx on Troubleshooting Faults for a list of common cider characteristics; many of them are detectable by aroma. Are there indications of MLF, or Brettanomyces contamination? What kind, and how strong are they? Characterize the overall fermentation character: Is it clean, fresh, dirty, yeasty, sulfury, or something else?
Aged or Fresh Cider?
Are the characters bright, or muted, blended together, indistinct? Are there signs of oxidation? Any caramelized sugars, dried fruit (not among the ingredients), or sherry characters? If so, how intense are any signs of age, and do they add complexity or detract, and do they change over time as you evaluate the cider? A fruit-forward young cider may become more complex with non-fruity aromas showing as it ages, but should remain bright. Most competition ciders are not corked, however judges will likely want to familiarize themselves with the wet dog/musty attic/moldy newspaper smell of cork taint, or TCA, which remains an occasional problem when real corks are encountered.
Acidity can often be sensed in the aroma, but tannin has no aroma (although things like oak that provide tannin may have their own aroma). Acidity that comes from fruit or yeast can often be sensed more readily in the aroma than those made by acid blend additions. Carbonation often will play up the nose since the bubbles help volatilize aromatics.
Was there any special processing (e.g., oak aging) used in this cider? If so, do you note the character? Is there a woody, toasty, caramel, vanilla, or roasted nut aroma? Some signs of age may mimic woodiness from oak.
Finally, you want to consider the overall balance, harmony and pleasantness of the cider. Do the ingredients complement each other? Are they in balance given the style and declared attributes (carbonation, sweetness, and special ingredients) of the cider? What is your overall impression of the quality of the cider? Is it well-made or does it have off odors? Is this something that you are eager to now taste? The vast majority of taste derives from aroma, and a well-made cider should get off to a good start with a clean, inviting aroma free of off characters or anything that seems artificial or chemical in nature.
Wine Aroma Wheel
The Wine Aroma Wheel is a tool commonly used in the wine judging community. While wine does not have exactly the same aromatics as cider, there is a substantial overlap. Until such time as an equivalent cider tool is developed, it is probably the most useful descriptor aid we have. As you progress from the center to the outside of the wheel, the descriptors become more specific. Use this to help you better describe your impressions. You are likely to initially pick up the characteristics closest to the center. See if you can further characterize them by moving outward on the wheel. Not all possible aromatics are listed; just those that are commonly found in wine. Do not feel constrained to use only these terms. If you note something that can be accurately described using equivalently-descriptive words, by all means go ahead. You can check out the wine wheel or the cider wheel found below.
Assessing Cider Appearance
Assessing appearance goes beyond simply naming a color, noting bubbles or lack thereof, and determining whether the cider is hazy. Cider entries are carbonated almost as often as beer, however the rest of assessment of appearance has much more in common with wine. We will use the techniques of wine judging to give us insight into cider, by assessing color (hue, saturation and purity), reflectance, clarity, legs, carbonation (mousse, cordon, size of bubbles, persistence of bubbles).
Assess the Color
To describe the color of a cider, start with the hue (also known as shade). This can range from nearly water-white all the way to dark amber, although added fruits, adjunct sugars, spices, and aging can introduce a new color spectrum. Each color descriptor can be further described within its range by using the adjectives light or pale, medium, and dark or deep. Color should be appropriate for style. Judges should be aware what colors are added by use of specialty ingredients, and of the range of color of plain apple juice. Some apples create almost water white juice while the tannins in many bittersweets will extract much more color and create a significantly darker cider. Red skins of some apples may color juice, such as when dealing with Dolgo crabapples, and still other apples have faintly to brightly red flesh. Entrants should help judges by letting them know when the apples used will give a different-than-expected color.
Once you’ve named the cider pale amber or light gold or water white with a slight green tinge or whatever hue you discern, determine the cider’s total color range. First, look straight down into the glass, then hold the glass to the light, and finally, give it a tilt, so the cider rolls toward its edges.
Looking down from the top, preferably over white paper, will give a sense of the depth, intensity, or saturation of the cider’s color, which describes the lightness or darkness of the hue. Describing the intensity of a color might give clues into how much of an ingredient was used, or be indicative of certain ingredients. Some colors are described as deep or inky, which indicates greater intensity. If the cider is dark or intense in color, tilt the glass and view the shallow edge of the liquid.
Tilting the glass so the cider thins out along the rim and looking from above helps show weight, body, and age. Deeply colored cider may show age by looking gray or watery near the edge. Cider colored by fruit or spices may also show age or oxidation through this lack of purity of color. Light colored Category C1 ciders will generally darken with age, while the more intense color seen in some fruit ciders or with ingredients like hibiscus will generally lighten with age. This is often seen in fruit cider that progresses from deep reds and purples into a tawny or brick color that shows at the rim. The color at the meniscus (rim of the cider when tilted in a glass) is indicative of concentration, maturity and richness. The more variation in color, the older the cider. An evenly colored meniscus usually indicates a younger cider.
Reflectance describes the mirror-like surface of the cider, which is a positive attribute. If the cider surface is dull or has a flat appearance, it can suggest a lack of fining or filtering, or of possible spoilage. Brilliantly colored cider showing some sparkle and bright reflection is generally a good sign.
Assess the Clarity
Looking at the cider through the side of the glass held to the light shows you how clear it is. A murky cider might indicate chemical or fermentation problems or an excessively young product. However it might also just be a cider that was unfiltered and has sediment stirred up by handling before pouring. Judges should give each entry the opportunity to show their best appearance. Clarity is a matter of degree, and no cider should be significantly cloudy.
Clarity describes the ability to transmit, absorb, or reflect light. It is often a measure of a cider’s health, or of the care taken by the cidermaker. Descriptors range from brilliant (perfect crystal clarity), bright (slightly less than brilliant), clear (acceptable clarity), dull (minor clarity problem), hazy (serious clarity problem), to cloudy (unacceptable clarity). Check the cider for uniform clarity or the presence of crystals, flakes, particulates, or other “floaties” that can detract from the visual presentation. Stronger ciders can have a gem-like depth to their clarity. Higher degrees of clarity are more desirable, as is the absence of any floating particulates.
Note that chilled ciders can produce condensation on a glass and may seem like cloudiness. If the glass feels wet, wipe away any condensation before attempting to judge clarity (or other appearance attributes).
Note any appearance of legs. Assessing legs gives an indication as to the body, alcohol level and sweetness of a cider; it has nothing to do with quality. Swirl the glass gently and then let the swirled liquid glide slowly down the side of the glass. Look for rivulets or tearing that may appear; these are the legs. Ciders with legs have higher alcohol, sugar, or body. The rate that the legs glide down the glass gives further information (the slower the tearing, and fatter the legs, the higher the alcohol, sugar or body). Wine judges often call legs by the names tears (the kind from crying, not ripping) or arches.
Not all ciders are carbonated, so there might be nothing to describe. Note the height of any head that forms (quantity), how fast the bubbles form (rate), and how long the head persists (duration). Note the size of the bubbles. Did the bubbles form a mousse (head) or a cordon (bubbles around the rim)? Are there bubbles on the bottom of the glass, and do they rise? Characterize the carbonation (still, petillant, sparkling), realizing that still ciders can have a few bubbles and sparkling ciders do not have to be highly fizzy like champagne or soda.
Assessing Cider Flavor
When assessing the flavor of a cider, look for similar characteristics as in the aroma: fruit character, sweetness, alcohol, acidity, specialty ingredients, signs of age or oxidation, fermentation character, and special processes. Also look for additional flavors such as bitterness, sourness and the mouthfeel of tannin, particularly as it relates to the flavor balance. Flavor, mouthfeel and aftertaste are typically considered together in cider rather than separately, as they may in a beer evaluation.
Even though you may look for individual components and try to accurately describe them, keep in mind the overall balance. The primary concern is the balance and harmony of the cider, both the acidity-sweetness-tannin balance and the balance between the base fruit tastes and the other tastes (such as other fruit, sugar adjuncts, oak, or spices) that are present in the cider. The individual components are important, but not as much as the overall impression and how well the cider relates to the expectation established by the cider style and the declared attributes (sweetness, carbonation, special ingredients).
Flavor Assessment Techniques
Several techniques that can be used to assess flavor. All involve taking small sips; some cider is strong and some competition flights are long, so taking gulps is a quick way to shorten your effectiveness as a judge. However, taking small sips into just the front of your mouth will not involve your whole palate. Take a sip into the front of your mouth and swish the tip of your tongue through it. Take a sip and move your tongue side-to-side to swish it through your mouth. Take a sip and let it rest on the top of your tongue. Take a sip and aerate the cider by breathing over it in your mouth (it will make a slight slurping or gurgling sound). Take a sip and chew it. As most cider is of lower alcohol than wine, most judges swallow instead of spit their samples. When swallowing, pay attention to the aftertaste. After swallowing, keep your mouth closed and exhale through your nose. You may pick up additional aromatics this way. These techniques each involve different areas of your mouth and may give you additional flavor impressions. They can also be combined; use whatever works best for you to fully capture the character of the cider. As you develop your tasting skills, you may decide to use different tasting techniques to look for different flavor or mouthfeel elements.
What did the cider taste and feel like initially? In the wine world this is sometimes known as the attack. Characterize the fruit flavor. Do you get a distinct, clean apple/pear flavor or is it muddy and indistinct? Is there a varietal apple character you taste? If you’re not familiar with the type of apples used, is there at least an identifiable character even if unfamiliar to you? Does it taste like other fruits, or is it floral, and finally do you get different characters each time you sip again?
What is the level of sweetness? Common descriptors include: bone dry, dry, off-dry, slightly sweet, moderately sweet, moderately-high sweet, sweet (or high sweetness), very sweet, dessert sweet, or cloyingly sweet. Do not confuse sweetness with fruitiness – this may take practice as your brain is used to sweet associations with most of the fruits involved in cider and perry.
Is the cider simple, perhaps displaying only a single apple character? Is it complex, changing over time and seeming to dance in the mouth? Or is somewhere in between? A judge’s ability to appreciate or even detect complexity will grow with practice. It is perfectly natural for new judges to gravitate towards “big” flavors and ciders with abundance of a singular character, but do not confuse this with complexity. A comparison is often made to viewing a great painting, where you see more every time you look at it. Finally, complexity is a desirable characteristic but not an excuse to allow flaws.
Next look for the structural elements of acidity and tannin, which balance the fruit flavor and sweetness. Acidity is the tingle, tartness, zing or liveliness in a cider. It can be described as flat or flabby (not enough acid), pleasant (balanced), tart (acidity is forward) or sour/acidic (high acidity). Low acidity is soft, plump, smooth, while high acidity, is crisp, tangy, tingly, and mouthwatering. The level of acidity usually isn’t described in absolute terms, but rather in the balance when compared to sweetness. Tannin can be described in low to high terms, and as bitter or astringent. The overall balance of acidity and tannin to sweetness and fruit character should be noted. Was the apple/pear lively and bright on the palate or did it not have the acidity necessary to bring it out?
Alcohol flavors and bitterness can be described next. Alcohol does have a taste but it is usually sensed as a warming (good) or burning (bad) mouthfeel, if noted at all. Higher alcohol levels can introduce bitterness. High bitterness is not very common in cider, although there are ingredients that might introduce some including bittersweet and bittersharp apples. Bitterness does not approach the average hoppy beer like IPA. Alcohol and bitterness can affect the overall balance, and should be noted if detected. As with strong beer and wines, the best ciders often have a “sneaky” quality to them where the alcohol is often felt more than it is tasted.
Are there any specialty characters? The special ingredients and processes can add another whole realm of flavors: fruit, spice, malt, oak, etc. Some apples will give a honey character, others herbal notes or minerality. However, if there are special ingredients declared, those should be noticeable and generally identifiable but well balanced and harmonious with the other ingredients (relative to the style and intent of the cider). Try to generally describe the character and strength of each flavor component you detect. See if you can give it a name (e.g. cinnamon) or at least a general description (e.g., spicy), and an intensity (light, moderate, strong). The more descriptive you can be, the more information you are passing along.
Assess Fermentation and Age Characters
Normally, yeast-derived flavors are mentioned along with discussions of fruit, spice or alcohol. However, if there are fermentation flaws, those should be noted. See the list of characteristics in Troubleshooting Common Faults for more information – most of the faults can be tasted. If no fermentation issues are noted, identify the cider as having a clean fermentation.
Age may show up as a lessening or dulling of fruit character, a muddled, indistinct impression, or from added flavors. Caramelized sugar characters similar to those from some adjuncts are possible, as are “cooked” flavors, wood character, or dried fruit or sherry characters.
Describe the Middle, Finish, and Aftertaste
The aftertaste of the cider is the flavor impression you get once you have swallowed the cider. You can describe the length (short, medium, long, memorable) of the aftertaste, which is the duration it takes for the flavors to dissipate. Does the taste go sour or disappear after you swallow? Perhaps it just trails off and it tastes like you just sipped a glass of water? Or, maybe the finish was smooth with long-lasting flavor and aromatics. A lengthy finish is a desirable character. Is there any indication of alcohol in the throat or stomach? What kinds of flavors are you getting in the aftertaste? Are they different from flavors noted when tasting the cider? Are they pleasant and balanced? Is there anything off?
While considering the initial flavor and the aftertaste/finish, don’t neglect the middle. Beyond the initial taste, but before the swallow and (hopefully) lengthy finish. Is this middle thin or dense, dominated by ripe flavors, astringency, bitterness, sharp acidity, or round sweetness? Without a proper middle, a cider can seem hollow or shallow.
The overall balance of the cider should be described. Balance is relative to the specific style of cider and its attributes (sweetness, strength, carbonation, special ingredients). Balance does not mean that flavors are in equal proportions or intensities – a sweet cider will definitely have more sweetness than a dry cider, yet both can be balanced. A sweet cider requires sufficient acidity and/or tannin and sometimes alcohol, or it will seem flabby. Balance describes how well the individual components complement each other in the intended style of the cider maker.
When discussing balance, identify if any components are too strong or weak. Does any individual component overshadow the cider, even when taking style into account? Is there any component that is lacking (e.g., not enough alcohol for sweetness in a New England Cider)? Are the special ingredients identifiable yet not overly dominant? The best ciders are not one-dimensional; they have interest and character. They do not all have to be complex; dry, delicate, restrained ciders can be wonderful. Do not attempt to equate a dry New World Cider to a sweet Ice Cider in complexity and character; judging them each on balance relative to their intended style is the best way to level the playing field.
Flavor vs Aroma
Keep the aroma in mind when evaluating the final taste of the cider. Do the flavors you get match what you expected given the aroma? Do the flavors mirror the aromatics? For example, if you smelled blackberries, did you taste them as well? Are there any additional flavors? If so, what are they? Is the cider balanced between the base and the specialty ingredients? Are the tastes present in the proper proportion given the style and declared attributes? These questions often will give you the best idea of the overall impression of the cider.
Cider Flavor Wheel
Flavor wheels have been developed for both juice and cider. There is some overlap between the two but the juice one lists some characteristics that could be impacted by grinding or fermentation and the cider one which lists some of the results of fermentation. As with the aroma wheel these should be used to develop your lexicon. These wheels are limited to major flavors and are intended to be a starting point. Ciders are not limited to the flavors listed within the wheels.
Assessing Cider Mouthfeel
Though Mouthfeel is scored in the Flavor section on the BJCP Cider scoresheet, the tactile sensations, textures, and the feelings associated with drinking are important enough to describe separately here. All non-flavor sensations in the mouth when tasting are part of mouthfeel. The sparkle of carbonation, the warmth of alcohol, the sharpness of acidity, and the roughness of tannin are all mouthfeel characteristics. The body of the liquid provides weight on your tongue, and may coat your mouth. Tingling, numbing, drying, cooling, warming and coating are all mouthfeel sensations. Cider can be described in textures such as smooth, soft, velvety, rough, hard, or harsh. Since the tannin level of cider is important to the overall balance, it is not as easy to separate flavor from mouthfeel as it is in beer. Flavor, mouthfeel, and aftertaste are best judged together.
The most straightforward components of mouthfeel in cider are the same ones used in beer judging: body, carbonation and alcohol warmth.
Body is a measure of the relative viscosity of cider (weight of the cider on your tongue), and can range from light/thin to medium to heavy/full. These are the normal ranges for body, but a cider could have lighter or heavier body as a fault. A very light body is described as watery, while a very full body is viscous, thick or syrupy. As a very general analogy, light body is like skim milk, medium body is like whole milk, and very full body is like cream. The perception of body is influenced by alcohol and sweetness levels; stronger and sweeter ciders will seem to have a fuller body.
Carbonation describes the level of dissolved carbon dioxide in solution, and ranges from still (lightly carbonated) to petillant (moderately carbonated) to sparkling (highly carbonated). Still does not imply totally flat, a light level of carbonation is acceptable. Sparkling has a fairly wide range as well, with spumante being used for the highest level of carbonation. High levels of carbonation could also be described as effervescent, while fizzy and gassy are typically negative terms implying too much carbonation.
The alcohol in a cider can be unnoticeable, or provide a pleasantly warming sensation to a hot burn. A smooth warming quality is a positive character in a stronger cider such as Applewine or New England Cider. Hot, solventy, burning sensations are always a negative. Stronger cider should have noticeable alcohol, but the alcohol should be well-blended and balanced with other flavors. Higher alcohol generally is perceived as having increased body, more warmth, and perhaps a bit more bitterness.
Other Structural Elements in Mouthfeel
The acidity in a cider might be noted, particularly if it becomes sharp, puckering or tingly. A well-balanced acidity is more commonly noted in the flavor section. High levels of acidity might affect mouthfeel in a generally negative way.
Tannins in cider definitely affect mouthfeel. Astringency, dryness and puckering are common characteristics, particularly when tannins are over-used; note any of them. A pleasant balance might not be noted in mouthfeel, but excessive tannins should always be mentioned. Oaking the cider can introduce tannins in addition to flavor elements.
When describing mouthfeel, try to separate the flavor components from the mouthfeel components. The astringent, mouth-puckering qualities are what should be described in the mouthfeel section. The range of terms used to describe astringency includes: not astringent, smooth, soft, velvety, slightly rough, moderately astringent, rough, harsh, very rough, coarse, tannic, and highly astringent. Astringency tends to moderate over time as the cider ages, and the more bitter tannins may soften towards astringency with time.
Note that taste perceptions can be influenced by mouthfeel textures. Alcohol enhances the perception of sweetness, reinforces acidity, can mask odors, and may cause a burning sensation. Astringency may have a rough, gritty character and can mask bitterness and reduce the perception of sweetness. Bitterness is often confused with astringency (bitterness is a taste, astringency is a mouthfeel). Does it seem thin, dusty, light, lush, full-bodied, angular, rich, or concentrated? Experiencing a high quality cider will involve enjoying the texture of the cider on the palate; if it is missing this attribute the judge should tell the entrant which aspects they feel could be improved.
Wine Mouthfeel Wheel
An example of a mouthfeel wheel for describing white wine was found online, but it is not widely used. However, the basic idea is sound and can be applied to cider. This is less of a guideline than merely an example of how mouthfeel descriptors can be organized. Use it when developing your own lexicon and when learning the various mouthfeel elements in cider.
Basic Mechanics of Cider Judging
Cider judging is slightly different from cider evaluation in that it is a structured evaluation of cider in the context of a competition. The basics of evaluation are still present, but the perceptions are recorded in a structured manner on a scoresheet along with feedback to the cider maker. Numerical scores are assigned, as are relative rankings that determine awards. Entrants pay for this feedback and scoring, so it is your duty to give the judging your best effort.
As a cider judge, you have been called upon to give your impression and objective critical opinion of the ciders in the flight placed before you. Just how is this accomplished? If you have judged beer in the past, you already have most of the basic skills and knowledge necessary to judge cider because the procedures to judge beer and cider have much in common. However, cider judging does have its own idiosyncrasies and deserves its own discussion.
Getting Ready for the Flight
Before the ciders are brought to the judging table, look over the information provided by the competition organizer. This should include a set of style guidelines explaining the standards against which the ciders are to be judged. Make yourself familiar with the specific styles in your flight, and discuss the characteristics you will be looking for with the other judges at the table.
There should also be a list of the ciders to be judged in your flight, along with the specific modifiers (variety of apple/pear/other fruit/spices/adjuncts, sweetness and carbonation level) for each cider. Go over this list and decide on the order in which you would like to judge the ciders. In general, start with ciders that are drier and proceed to those that are sweeter. A secondary sorting concern would be alcohol level – start with lower and proceed to higher alcohol levels. The head judge must also pay attention to specialty ingredients. Think about the overall palate impact of all the ingredients in the cider (including fruits, spices and other ingredients), and judge them in increasing order of intensity. This helps preserve your palate so it won’t get overwhelmed by strong tastes early in the flight, and so that you will be able to fairly judge each cider. High levels of oak can wreck the palate, as can cinnamon, ginger, spirits, or hot peppers. Ice cider must be near the end of the flight, and in a mini-BOS setting, judges should familiarize themselves with drier beverages before taking even a sip of an Ice Cider. Finally, Perry tends to be quite delicate, and often is better served near the beginning of a flight even if slightly sweeter than the following beverage.
Discuss the judging order with your steward, as well as the serving temperature. Depending on how the ciders have been stored, you may wish to pull some or all of the ciders so they can warm up. Ask if any of the ciders have corked bottles; if so, make sure a corkscrew is available. A serving temperature near 50F (10C) is appropriate for most ciders, and some dry tannic ciders may be best enjoyed a bit warmer.
Finally, take note of the number of ciders to be judged in the flight. If there are a large number, remember to take smaller sips so you can avoid becoming intoxicated. Pace yourself and remember to drink water between ciders to clear your palate and to stay hydrated. If you start feeling the effects of the alcohol, slow down and have some bread and water. Take a break and stretch your legs if necessary.
Judging a Single Entry
Most judges develop a personal method for judging cider through experience. Here we outline a general process that is known to work and that may be used as the basis of your personal judging regimen. The process is somewhat independent of the scoresheet used, since that aspect of judging concerns capturing your perceptions, opinions and judgments rather than conceptualizing them. This process ensures that you will give a complete evaluation to each cider you judge.
- Fill in the scoresheet header, including information about the cider and yourself. Use pre-printed labels if provided, or your personal judging labels if you brought them.
- If possible, do a bottle inspection before serving each cider, looking for fill level, bacterial rings (a rarity in cider), and sediment level. Green or clear bottles are fine, as skunkiness shouldn’t be a problem in ciders (unless it is a hopped cider). Don’t prejudge the cider; simply note the information in case you need it to help diagnose a problem.
- Open the cider and pour one to three ounces. Decant slowly off any sediment that may be present. Note that sediment in cider may not be tightly packed, so be careful in agitating the bottle. Pour all glasses before righting the bottle; tilting the bottle back and forth will certainly rouse sediment if present.
- After pouring a sample, quickly inhale the aromas. Use long, deep sniffs or short, shallow sniffs – whatever works best for you, as long as you are consistent for all ciders judged.
- Write down your initial impression of the aroma and bouquet. Comment on the fruit character, the fermentation character, the presence of other ingredients, and the overall balance, harmony and pleasantness of the cider. Use the methods described in Assessing Cider Aromatics. Try to be specific when describing your perceptions, and be sure to quantify them (i.e., how strong are they?). Talk about the relative balance of the perceptions. Comment on any expected perceptions for the style that are present or absent. Use descriptive language rather than personally subjective terms (e.g., “strong, fresh, citrus-like aroma” rather than “good aroma”).
- Move on to Appearance. Comment on the cider’s color – try to name it specifically: water-white, pale straw, deep golden, medium amber, etc., and relate it to the style expectations. Note the clarity: cloudy, turbid, clear, brilliant, opaque. Again, what does the style require? Finally, note any carbonation. A still cider with slight carbonation should not merit a big deduction, but in general the carbonation level should match what was declared by the cider maker. Be sure to make notes of everything you detect about the appearance.
- Now smell the cider again and take a slow sip. Form an initial impression from the first taste, and allow it to linger a few seconds before swallowing. Note the finish (as you swallow) and aftertaste (a few seconds later). Consider the factors described in Assessing Cider Flavor. As with aroma, try to be specific about describing what you are tasting and identifying the relative strength. Where in your mouth are you tasting it? How does it feel on your tongue? How did the flavors and aromas evolve? Were they layered, or was everything jumbled at once? Talk about the manner in which the flavors were delivered to your palate – were they smooth, thick, soft, creamy, angular, harsh, or even painful? Note the presence or absence of any required style characteristics. Describe any faults present including their level or intensity.
- In noting apple or pear characters, recall that cider does not have to be “appley” thus judges should not penalize a cider for a lack of a fresh apple or juice character. After evaluating apple or pear, evaluate specialty character. Do you note specialty characters in flavor or aroma, and do they match your expectation and for those listed on the Flight Summary sheet? Are there any present that are not listed? Could these be explained by age, unusual apple varietal, MLF, or yeast selection?
- Be sure to note the balance from start to finish and into aftertaste. Sweetness, acidity and tannin vary by the type of cider. Sweeter ciders will need a greater amount of acid to balance them than drier ciders. Traditional ciders will have tannin as apple naturally possesses it. Remember that this is not beer and the mere presence of tannins is not itself a flaw in cider. If tannin is too low the juice may have had a high percentage of dessert apples or apple juice concentrate may have been used. Grapes, berries and stone fruits usually contain quite a bit of tannin from their skins. Oaking can boost the tannins. Same theme goes for acidic fruits. Importantly, there should be crispness to the finish of every cider no matter the sweetness to keep it from being flabby.
- Assess the mouthfeel of the cider. Consider the factors described in Assessing Cider Mouthfeel. Be complete and describe body, carbonation, alcohol, astringency and other sensations. Note whether the attribute is appropriate for the style.
- Although the entrant must specify the carbonation level and sweetness, judges often place too much emphasis on these indicators during evaluation and scoring. It would serve a judge well to be aware that a person’s perceptions of sweetness and carbonation levels are extremely subjective. Give the entrant the benefit of the doubt and take everything with a grain of salt. Consider removing 3 points if an attribute is multiple levels off (e.g., sweet but entered as semi-dry, sparkling but entered as still). If an attribute is only one level off, (e.g., sweet but entered as semi, petillant but entered as still) removing a single point would be more appropriate. Do not remove points if you are not sure an attribute is off from the entered level.
- In the Overall Impression section, give your general impression of the cider. Give objective comments on how the cider fits the intended styles. Are there aspects of the style missing? If seemingly out of style, is there another style where it would fit better? Remember the guidelines are intended to be inclusive and don’t represent a narrow version of what is allowable in cider. A harmonious cider has all its flavor integrated seamlessly. Everything can be present in the right proportion, but still have some aspects stick out, seem angular or edgy, lacking finesse. This often happens in very young cider; these aspects will often blend together with age. Likewise overwhelming something with a lot of ingredients is as likely to cause the drinker fatigue as to be called complex.
- Do you WANT to drink it? Do you keep coming back to it, or do you tire of it? A judge will not grow fatigued with a great cider.
- If flaws are noted, point to possible causes without making assumptions. If you noted balance issues, be specific in which aspects you feel should be higher or lower. Relate everything to style, not personal preference. For fermentation, handling or other non-style issues, remember which are more important. Very slight acetic character is usually a flaw outside of perry and mousiness is never appropriate. Meanwhile slight hydrogen sulfide or matchstick aromas can detract slightly without representing a major flaw.
- Make sure to cleanse your palate between entries with water, bland bread or a cracker. Do your preliminary judging and scoring in silence so that you do not influence the other judges. The entrant will benefit more from several independent judgings than from several version of the same outspoken judge’s opinions. Regardless of how you assign scores, put the most emphasis on giving complete and thorough written comments, because they will matter more to most cider makers than the overall score.
There are several important points to keep in mind throughout the judging process. First off, avoid negative comments. Emphasize the cider’s positive attributes, even if it is awful. Diplomacy is a valuable skill as a cider judge. Also, try not to be too specific, since you do not know how the cider was made.
Avoid bias where possible, but acknowledge it and remember to focus on style. Many people prefer sweet ciders to dry, carbonated to still, and strong to low alcohol. You must understand your own preference in order to keep it from biasing your judgment. Do not let your cider liking / wanting to influence your cider judging.
Make sure any checkboxes describing the cider are appropriately checked, whether it involves identifying off-flavors, or simply describing your view of the stylistic, technical and intangible merits of the cider.
Note that an experienced cider judge should be able to completely perform a written evaluation in about ten minutes. The scoresheet should be completely filled in, legible, and added correctly. The assigned score should agree with the comments, and should make sense when compared against the Scoring Guide.
Finally, the most important thing is that a good cider evaluation should provide a thorough sensory evaluation. Make sure the entrant understands what attributes the cider has (or doesn’t have) that justify the score. Opinions are best kept to yourself, but if you can offer any constructive advice, it is worthwhile to do so. Just keep in mind that you don’t know what the cider maker did, so you are at best making educated guesses when you offer advice.
Preparing Scoresheets at Competitions
While the prior section is adequate to describe how to judge cider by yourself, competitions aren’t run like that. You will always be assigned to a judging team, and you will have to interact with other judges. The manner in which you assign a score and then work with your team will in large part determine your success. While you will not judge ciders as a team on the exam, your scoring will be assessed against the proctor panel of high-ranking judges. Your scores will also be compared against other examinees. If you haven’t had the opportunity to judge with other BJCP judges and develop a sense of scoring calibration, the following discussion will be of value to you.
The Standard BJCP Scoresheet
Although evaluating cider is an inherently subjective task, preparing high-quality scoresheets is not. This section is not about how to gain better perception skills, how to describe what has been perceived, or how to provide feedback to the cidermaker. Rather, this discussion is focused on how to score a cider, and how to calibrate scoring with other judges, and how to reach a consensus during judging. These skills often distinguish an effective cider judge from simply being a knowledgeable taster. A good judge should be able to tactfully apply judging techniques in practical situations to produce accurate and helpful scoresheets.
There are generally three approaches to scoring ciders. The first technique assumes that a cider starts with a perfect score of 50. Points are then deducted for style and technical issues to get to the target score. The second method starts by assigning the cider zero points, and then adds points for each positive characteristic to reach the target score. The third approach starts in the middle, and then adjusts upward or downward based on comparison to an average cider.
A problem with the first two approaches is that there is no defined specific point allocation for each potential characteristic, whether present or not or in the correct percentage. There is some general guidance but it is not at a granular enough level to be applicable. For example, under Flavor there are 14 points allocated to “balance of acidity, sweetness, alcohol strength, body, carbonation and other ingredients as appropriate” – OK, how do you assign points for that?
Judges who successfully use one of these two methods generally create an allocation points for each of the cues (as is done well in the Appearance section, where color, clarity, and carbonation are each allocated two points). The judges then add or deduct points based on how well each cue is represented in the cider. This approach requires significant judgment and experience to do properly, but is often the most analytical solution.
The Aroma section is worth 10 points but only has two cues: expression of apple/pear, and expression of other ingredients. What about traditional ciders? There are no “other ingredients” – does that mean that you can only give a traditional cider five out of ten points? Of course not. Judges think about what components belong in a perfect example of the given cider (e.g., apple varietal character, esters, fermentation character, alcohol, sweetness, complexity, etc.) and assign points accordingly.
For each defined characteristic, the judge would assess how well it meets the style guidelines or whether it contains faults. A full score is given to a component that is properly represented, while a low score is given to a characteristic where there is a problem. The component scores are summed to get the overall section score.
The third approach starts at a neutral point of scoring in each section, especially Aroma, Flavor and Overall Impression sections, and then adds or subtracts points depending on whether the characteristic is better or worse than an “average” example of the cider. For example, if the aroma of a specific cider in a stated style has stylistic or technical faults, then subtract from the mid-point of six. If there are positive qualities to the aroma that exemplify the style, then add points until you approach the ideal score of 10.
This approach works well for the Flavor section as well. A cider that has neither faults nor particularly good qualities could earn the mid-point score of 12. As the flavor more exemplifies the qualities of the style, award points to approach the ideal score of 24. If technical or stylistic faults are present that detract from the flavor expectations, then subtract points from the mid-point score of 12.
For the Overall Impression section, the same approach is also successful but can be modified by considering how the cider ranks in one’s experience and desire to drink more of the cider. A cider that is nearly perfect and commercial quality would receive a score closer to the ideal 10, while a cider that is just undrinkable might receive a score closer to the bottom of the scale. In the middle is the cider that isn’t particularly good, but not terrible either.
The choice of approach often depends on the personality and experience of the individual judge. Very experienced judges can often quickly assign a “top-down” or holistic score based on overall characteristics. Very analytical judges (of any experience level) will often the “bottoms-up” method of assigning and totaling individual component points. Each can be effectively used in practical situations, provided the final assigned score accurately represents the quality and style conformance of the cider.
Regardless of scoring method used, there is a need to perform an overall scoring sanity check after the initial score has been determined. Experience will enable a judge to quickly assess an appropriate score for a cider within the first few sniffs and sips. Until that skill is learned, the Scoring Guide printed on the scoresheet provides a reference for the score range of ciders of varying quality. After adding up the total score from the individual sections, check this against the Scoring Guide listed on the judging form. If there’s a discrepancy, review and revise the scores or the descriptions so that the score and the description in the Scoring Guide are aligned.