Say it plain: A #cidertasting guide
“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — ’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” — Mark Twain
There’s much that can go wrong during cider production, and an experienced sensory analyst will immediately detect faults that express themselves in a glass of cider as oxidization, yeasty indole (which smells and tastes like excrement), excessive phenolics (which can taste like rubbery band-aids), mousiness (which tastes like you’ve licked the floor of a mouse’s cage), and other unpleasantness.
But let’s assume that all is well with your cider and you simply want to describe this lovely beverage in terms that can be shared and understood by others. What you’re looking for are common attributes.
The following descriptive cider attributes are based, in part, on guidelines shared by Peter Mitchell in his acclaimed Cider and Perry Academy, and also informed by the cider sensory analysis materials created by the Cider Institute of North America (CINA). While not comprehensive, they provide five simple steps for observing, experiencing and describing the cider in your glass.
Before you tuck into your tasting (ideally in the late morning or afternoon), be mindful to:
- Arrange the ciders to be tasted from dry to sweet — then start with the driest of the bunch and work your way down the line to the sweetest
- Control your environment for variables that could otherwise interfere with your perception: Strive for even lighting, a reasonable room temperature (68°–71°F is ideal), and a room free of odors (like cleaning agents or overactive air conditioning)
- In the 12 hours prior to the tasting try to use personal-care items (like hand soap) that are fragrance free and, in the hours prior to the tasting, avoid drinking coffee or eating highly seasoned foods
- If you can manage it, serve your cider samples in glassware (not plastic) which haven’t been washed with fragranced dish soap or bleach
Or skip all that and simply pour yourself a glass of cider. Now hold it to the light. Describe what you see:
Describe the clarity and color of the cider, and its effervescent qualities. Can you see through the cider? Does it shine? Is it luminous? Is there a haze?
Qualify the color according to its depth: Is it pale white, dark straw, light gold, deep amber?
How do the bubbles present themselves? Lively, petulant, long-lasting, short-lived? None at all? Is it still?
And the viscosity: Is it syrup-like? Does it leave tears when swirled in the glass? Or otherwise?
Describe what you see.
“The smaller the bubble in the cider the longer it lasts in suspension — and that creates a bright explosion across the tongue.” — Kevin Zielinski, Cidermaker EZ Orchards
Swirl the cider in your glass to release the aroma, inhale, and invite the scent in your glass to remind you of things you have smelled before. Begin with the broad categories below, identify which categories the cider aligns to, and use that category as a signpost to guide your memory to rich, descriptive terms that evoke your prior experience. Because the odds are good that your experience is shared by others, and these terms, more than most others, will help others understand your experience of the cider.
- Cidery (unique to cider)
- Winey (vinous, white wine-like, champagne-like)
- Estery (sweet-solvent, banana, Jolly Rancher)
- Floral (fragrant, rose-like, freesias)
- Spirituous (boozy, burning, heady)
- Piquant (sharp, stinging, tangy)
- Apples and Pears (culinary, bittersweet apple, pear)
- Tropical Fruits (pineapple, melon, guava)
- Summer Fruits (peach, plum, apricot)
- Berry fruits (strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, blackcurrant, gooseberry)
- Citrus fruits (lemon, grapefruit, orange, orange peel)
- Dry or cooked fruit (raisins, prunes, dried-figs, cooked apples, apple pie, jam)
- Fresh (herbaceous, grassy, elderflower, vegetative)
- Dried (hay, straw, dried grass, dried leaves, stalky)
- Nutty (walnuts, almonds, marzipan, hazel nuts, brazil nuts)
- Yeasty (bread dough, fresh yeast, sometimes meaty)
Spicy and woody
- Spices (cloves, allspice, nutmeg, black pepper, aniseed, cinnamon, licorice/fennel)
- Woody (resinous, oaky, fir, fresh sawdust)
- Phenolic (smoky, wood fire, tar, medicinal, barnyard, leather, tannic)
- Toffee (caramel, butterscotch, vanilla)
- Confectionery (candy, bubblegum, fruit-flavored candy)
Describe the flavor sensation that the cider activates as it crosses the tongue. The sensations are often time-based, for example: An initial sweetness followed by a salty finish…
Is it Salty? Acidic? Bitter? Sweet?
Describe how the cider “feels” in your mouth. Does it have weight? Thickness? Heaviness? Or is it light? Watery?
Is it silky? Smooth? Mouth-puckering? Furring?
Is the cider hot and fiery in the mouth? Does it warm the back of the throat?
Is it fizzy? Prickling? Dusty? Chalky?
How long does the experience of the cider remain in your mouth? Is it short or brief, fading quickly?
Or are you left, upon swallowing, with the lingering memory of the cider’s complexity? Then the finish is long.
Cidrbox.com connects people seeking orchard-driven cider with the artisans who make it. Each month we visit a single, distinctive American heritage orchard — where small producers grow, harvest, press, ferment and refine their cider — and we share their cider with our subscribers. We also sit down for a #cidertasting with the maker, which we share with you at cidersessions.com.
p.s. When we say cider, we mean hard cider: Artful fermentations of heirloom apples by master cidermakers. You must be at least 21 to drink what we deliver, and you will be asked for your ID and signature at the door.