Taste is the most important quality of a cider.
If we want to compare and discuss ciders it is important to make a thorough tasting assessment. We will start by briefly considering what senses we use when tasting cider and then look at how to go about doing a tasting of several ciders.
The senses we use when tasting cider
The details are complex, but the bottom line is that for our overall assessment of taste of cider, our brain uses information about what the cider looks like, what it smells like and finally what it tastes and feels like in the mouth.
The scientific term for a systematic tasting with attention to all the differing senses is “Organoleptic Analysis” – a complex sounding term but it just means being fair to each drink tasted and paying attention to all the different senses.
The principles of tasting cider are exactly the same as those for tasting wine so anyone who has been on a wine tasting experience can apply their knowledge to tasting cider. Of course, some of the underlying flavours are different, but there are many similarities.
Equipment for tasting cider
Tasting glasses need to be clear so the cider can be seen, and have a shape that will help us to detect the smell. The very best glass to use is a traditional tulip-shaped wine tasting glass. This has a capacity of just over 200ml but is designed to hold just 50ml for tasting so that there is a large space above the liquid to allow the aroma to collect. Water is needed to rinse out the mouth and the tasting glass between tasting each cider. A bowl, bucket or large jug is needed to tip out any remaining sample from your glass between tastings. A sheet of paper and pen are useful so you can jot down your thoughts about each cider.
The ideal temperature for the cider to be tasted is the temperature you like to drink it at. If it is too cool, we cannot properly appreciate the complexity of flavours. At Vale Cider we recommend about 10 Celsius (50 F) as a good compromise between it being warm enough to allow the flavours to be appreciated, whilst cool enough to feel pleasingly refreshing.
It is much more interesting to taste cider with other people. It is more enjoyable and being able to discuss thoughts and ways of describing the cider is very helpful.
It is important that you have not eaten or drunk anything that is strongly flavoured – including coffee or tea – immediately before doing a tasting and have not recently brushed your teeth or similar. All these leave a taste in the mouth which we interfere with your ability to properly taste the ciders.
Amount of cider to taste and order of tasting
Because intoxication affects our abilities to make it is important to drink only small amounts (sips rather than gulps) of each cider as they are tasted. Of course, it is fun to keep the unused cider from each bottle until the end of the tastings so that some more of your favourites can be enjoyed at your leisure.
It is best to taste ciders in order from driest to sweetest. The reason is that moving from sweet to dry can over-emphasize the dryness and lead to a false view.
It is best to taste each cider “blind” as far as possible to avoid your judgment being biased by knowing which it is and making you think you know what you should say.
Look at the cider in the glass and hold it up to the light and try to look through it. The key issues to look for are the colour and the clarity. Generally, a darker yellow/ brown colour indicates more tannins in the cider and this is typical of a traditional craft cider. (However, many commercial ciders have colouring agents added to make them look darker). Are there bubbles or not?
Swirl the cider around in the glass to help release the aroma (trying to avoid spilling it over the table) and then hold it close to your nose and sniff several times to gather as much of an idea of aroma (smell) as you can. Try to think of words that can describe what you smell. Do you find it pleasing or not?
Taste and mouth-feel
The final step is to drink some cider. It needs to be sufficient to get the flavours but not an unnecessarily large gulp. The idea is to keep it in the mouth for a few seconds before swallowing to try to get as much information as you can from your mouth – about how it feels and tastes. Again try to think of words that can describe what you feel and taste as well as deciding it you like it or not.
The “Big Three” flavours in cider are sweetness, acidity and bitterness/astringency. The taste sensations of sweetness and acidity are appreciated rapidly and our immediate perception of the balance between the sweetness and acidity is very important in influencing our overall judgment about the taste of a cider. Bitterness/astringency is appreciated more slowly – as are other complex flavours – and these are important for influencing our judgment about the more long-lasting aftertaste.
Choosing Cider for Tasting
If you want to have an interesting time tasting ciders it is worth trying out differing levels of sweetness, sparkling and still ciders, craft (traditional) and commercial. This will provide a spectrum of different flavours, styles and qualities.
There are no rights or wrongs
Everyone is different so it is not surprising that we vary in exactly what tastes we find appealing. If you are buying cider for yourself, the only thing that matters is what you like. Of course, if you are buying cider as a gift it is important to know – or have a good idea – what the person likes who will receive the gift. If you are buying cider for a party, it is important to have an idea of what cider will appeal to the majority of those coming to the party or event.
Spring Cider Tasting and Testing at the Vale Cider Mill
Each Spring at around the time that blossom is developing on the trees in our orchards, we prepare our new season’s ciders for bottling and draught sales. We need to decide how to combine the different batches of “base ciders” that we have fermented and matured from our apple harvest the previous autumn. Each batch was made from different apple varieties so there are different flavours as well as alcohol levels. We taste each batch and also do some basic scientific tests that help us know about the levels of sweetness, acidity and alcohol. Below is a short time lapse video of part of a tasting and testing.
There is a lot of rubbish talked about tasting and it is important not think it is a hard science – there is a great deal of individual variation in the way people judge ciders and judgments can vary depending upon all sorts of factors. However, if you are trying to find a cider that you like, it is a good way of helping you make the judgments, it encourages you to try new ciders and if you do it with friends it is great fun!