Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Cider Review: Magner's Irish Cider PLUS the super exciting GLINTCAP results!

Finally, finally, finally, spring has arrived. I've seen the sky and the ground and they both have colors beyond white and gray! Skies can be blue! The ground can be brown (also kinda green, but mostly brown). It's time to celebrate with a different sort of cider! Today I'm reviewing Magner's Irish Cider.
This is actually fairly exciting for be because I'd rather forgotten about Magner's. Years ago, they were one of the handfull of ciders that any given bar/pub might have in bottles (almost no one had cider on tap back then) so I had Magner's fairly regularly. But as my options expanded, I didn't drink Magner's as much. Now, because the Magner's folks were kind enough to send me two bottles, I'm gong to revisit this cider and really get to know it within the current cider scene.

For a bit of background, I have to describe the front page of their website for folks who don't have the time to follow the link (For those who want to look for themselves: http://www.magners.com). The page has a black background relieved by two glowing ciders. They look unearthly, richly colored, radiant, each glass completely covered with condensation. Other than the ice, they look mouthwatering. This is paired with the phrase, "Made in the dark for a better taste". Wha? Weirdest cider tag line ever. Despite the photos, I'm not going to try my sample bottles over ice.

Here's some of what Magner's says about their own cider-making process.
We love making cider, but we reckon there’s only one way to do it properly. That’s why we’re still taking inspiration from the historic methods we used when we started making cider back in 1935. That’s part of the Magners taste.

So in this way we use 17 varieties of apples, waiting until they drop before pressing and filtering them in the traditional way.

We take time to ferment the cider and even more time to let it mature, up to 2 years in fact, tasting it along the way. Sure, there are faster ways of making cider, but then it wouldn’t be Magners. 
I also emailed back and forth with a very helpful gentleman who told me about the apples Magner's grows in their orchards for their ciders. I've wondered about this for some some the larger companies in regions that grow traditional cider varietals for a long time. Here's what Brian had to say, "A number of varieties growing in our 150 acres of orchards include Michelin, Dabinett, Yarlington Mill, Bulmer’s Norman, Tremlett’s Bitter, Breakwell Seedling, Taylor’s, Harry Master’s Jersey, Bramley’s, Grenadier, Brown Thorn, Brown Snout, Vilberies, Improved Dove, Medaille d’Or, Reine des Pommes and Ashton Bitter." Now that's a list most United States cidermakers would freak out for because those include several of the high tannin apple varieties that are nearly impossible to get here. Also, I just need to take a moment to appreciate those names like Improved Dove and Brown Thorn; they are just lovely.

Appearance: Brilliant, tea, plenty of visible bubbles

This cider shows lots of color but absolutely no haze or cloudiness. I'd describe the color as either pumpkin flesh or very black tea. This is definitely a color that implies the presence of tannins.

Aromas: tart green apples, yeast, hints of bourbon

Magner's has a medium level of aroma, neither particularly shy and subtle nor tremendously outgoing. I am glad I poured mine into a glass, because I don't think consumed straight from the bottle, I would have gotten anything from it. The most interesting note is something that reminds me of bourbon aged ciders, but since Magner's has nothing to do with bourbon, I'm guess that it is something in the aging or barreling process that I'm smelling.

Sweetness: Semi-sweet

Magner's is not nearly as sweet as most six-pack ciders. Honestly, I'm shocked. I'd forgotten, or perhaps they've changed their recipe. I expected simple and sweet, but this is both more and less than that. Less sweet and more flavor.

Flavors: Citrus, cooked apples, mild tannins

I am pleased to report that as the Magner's appearance and smell led me to expect, this cider has tannins! They isn't out of control and might not even be noticeable if you drink it from the bottle or over ice, but they are there. I can also taste little bits of citrus, definitely lemon notes. In terms of the primary impression, I get applesauce-y apples loud and clear. Whatever was reminding me of bourbon in the smell doesn't really carry over  to the taste. Mixed in, I can also detect a cola note. Interesting and more varied than I expected. There's even a little brush with bitterness, but just a hint.

I definitely like this more than most six-pack ciders, but I do wish the flavor was more intense while still not being sweet. I enjoyed one of these with a fantastic sandwich with hummus and cheddar and oven dried tomatoes, and the other I had entirely on its own. It works well either way and I'm sure would also taste scrumptious with other foods.

Also, I don't want anyone to miss out on reading about the GLINTCAP results! This was the cider and perry competition that I helped to judge this past weekend. It is one of the largest and longest running in the world, and here are the results. I judged three flights in the Commercial Division: one of the New World Modern Ciders, New World Perries, and a flight of Pommeaux. The whole experience was wonderful, and I'm happy to say I have several ciders awarded silvers in my little collection and even a gold.


Monday, April 6, 2015

Reviewing Ciders for Winter: Tilted Shed Ciderworks' Barred Rock Barrel Aged Cider

Perhaps this season's last review of cider that I think will be specifically appropriate for winter. Wow. We've come through a good one this year, but Spring is undeniably coming. Between snow storms things are really melting, plus I've seen both snow drops and crocus. But back when I drank this cider, Barred Rock Barrel Aged Cider, I chilled it outside in the two feet of snow on the ground, and I simply needed to serve it with cider bread and veggie chili. You can even see some snow clinging to the bottle.

I chose the Barred Rock Barrel Aged Cider by Tilted Shed Ciderworks to become part of my winter cider series because of its barrel aging. I've had a few barrel aged ciders before. What they tend to have in common is a strong sense of warmth, sometimes smoke, and interesting savory notes. It is a really neat sub-category.

Here's the list


Similarly I have a previous review of a Tilted Shed Cider that appeared earlier in this series. I sampled their January Barbeque which is a smoked cider. Here's a link to that post: http://alongcameacider.blogspot.com/2015/03/reviewing-ciders-for-winter-tilted.html

And you can read more about the company at their website: http://www.tiltedshed.com

Here's the official description with loads of info from Tilted Shed Ciderworks.
9% ABV • Only 84 (750ml) & 150 (375ml) cases produced • Released November 2014
A savory sipper, Barred Rock is a blend of late-season Sonoma County heirloom and cider apple varieties slowly fermented in the New England style, then aged for over 3 months in Tennessee bourbon barrels. Heady butterscotch on the nose, plush mouthfeel, clove, amaretto, and vanilla notes, and a long, rich finish. This cider was fermented to dryness, no backsweetening, so your palate will experience all that the barrel aging has to offer, without any cloying effects.  This is dessert in a glass, but it's also delectable with apple crisp, figs, and rich cheeses. Let this warm up to 60 degrees or more, don't be afraid. The warmer, the more decadent. Serve in a white wine glass.

Appearance: Dark red gold, glittering

As recommended, I found a white wine glass for this cider and the glass really shows it off visually. Gorgeous! Just off brilliant. The bubbles travel in the tiniest lines up to the top and mostly show just at the bottom of the glass, like someone tossed a handful of gold pebbles into the glass. The color reminds me of tangerines, orange leaves in the fall, and the shiniest of new pennies.

Aromas: barrel, sweetness, minerals

The Barred Rock smells like whiskey barrels and s'mores, so a very grownup camping trip! I also the distinct sweetness of aroma that makes me think of marshmallow, syrup, and fruity depths. Separately I can smell hints of tannins which so often come across to me as dust and minerals.

Sweetness: Dry

This is hard to quantify as either sweet or dry because it has so much going on that is neither. But I'll call it dry yet extremely flavorful.

Flavors: alcohol burn, dry, extremely fine bubbles, tannins, Very little fruit.

The Barred Rock plays all over with flavors of wood and caramel and booze notes. It has a sense of whiskey barrel burn, which isn't really a plus for me but might be for some folks. I do like the dryness and texture; dry dry bubbliness is something I dig. Whoa, continuing, I can barely get over how boozy this is. I'm glad I'm drinking it with food! My pairings are cider bread and veggie chili which I would recommend with this cider. And it is definitely warming, making it a perfect way to wrap up this list of ciders for winter!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Cider Con 2015: Thursday Clicker Session, Keynote Speakers, Panels and Workshops

So much for March going out like a lamb. It's snowing again! I've become convinced that I'll be reviewing winter friendly ciders for another month. But for today, we're headed back to my coverage of Cider Con 2015!

Thursday morning, I wandered in to a huuuuuuuuge packed room where most folks had picked up what looked like a remote control on their way to round tables. These devices are clickers, and this session was designed to give us real time info from other cideries about many current issues in the field. Wow. Interesting stuff and a good way to start the day.

Here are a few of the assorted results of the clicker survey: 

Most cidermakers buy at least some of their fruit, but most buy it locally. That fact may not sound like much on first read through, but here’s why it matters. There are tons of cideries starting up. Some are brewers, winemakers, home cider makers whose primary passion is for the fermentation of  juices into cider. There are also some orchardists or inheritors of family orchards who see cider (and its massive growth in the past few years) as a way to preserve and enrich their apple growing business. What this fact says to me is that these folks don’t need to all go into business independently and either scrounge for the ability to buy enough good local fruit or to struggle with reinventing the wheel of good fermentation practice, but should probably find each other instead. But that’s just my take from sitting in that room and seeing who was there at CiderCon.

Greg Peck and Carol Miles of University of Virginia ran the session.

After the clicker session, we had two keynote speakers from large successful cider companies, Robert Vail of Angry Orchard and Martin Thatcher of Thatcher’s Cider. I didn’t know quite what to expect, because the attitude within the cider community is not always one of approval of the larger companies. But CiderCon does seem to be a place of coming together for cider as a beverage and a shared love.

Robert Vail began his presentation with a video, an affectionate cider-themed spoof of Field of Dreams; the point of the video being that “If we build it, they will come!” The video was charming and funny, and starting on that foot struck me as extremely intelligent. We had already laughed together before Vail even began speaking.

After the disarming video, Vail offered some fascinating and encouraging information. The rate of cider’s growth in America is fantastic and has been fantastic for a few years now. If we were to consider cider as a beer style (which is not how I think of cider personally, but I’m sharing what Vail presented) style, it would be second only to IPAs in the United States. That’s huge. 

This picture is a map of cider's growth as a category in different regions of the United States.

Vail also talked about the coherent brand message of cider, its heritage, authenticity, and its basis in fruit. He described getting cider’s display in off-premise accounts like grocery stores, beer stores, and wine stores to be further away from fermented malt beverages (the Mike’s Hard Lemonades etc. and those scary beer-fruit-margarita hybrids) and closer to the craft beers. He spoke of this as a way to communicate to consumers and to raise both the perception and the price point of cider. This is important because cider truly does cost more to make than all of the malt beverages and even more than many craft beers. Many folk need this because they are struggling to function as small businesses at the prices that ciders can draw in many settings.

His big takeaway message is that this growth for cider is not yet over and that both craft cider producers and larger companies need to think of the category first and their own brand second. I love that idea. I agree with it. I think that is the best way to grow cider and serve everyone in the long run. But, I do want to acknowledge that I don’t have all of my life savings staked on a cider company, so I have room to feel that way and say that some folks might not. Your mileage my vary and all of that.

Then Martin Thatcher spoke about his experiences and about Thatcher’s Cider. (For those who don't know, Martin Thatcher is the UK National Association of Cider Makers Chair as well as a fourth generation cider maker.) If you want to see the website for Thatcher's, it's here: www.thatcherscider.co.uk

He spoke about the cider market in England over time and my first real take away from that was, “The race to the bottom can really damage a brand and an industry.” He was referring to the drive to make cider cheaper as a method of competition within the cider category in previous decades. The UK cider market has seen periods of growth and decline partially due to severe fluctuation in both cider quality and the public perception of cider. 

He described branding as a window to a company’s values. This is a particularly interesting element for me as a cider reviewer. I agree completely that how a company presents itself develops a cider drinker's expectations about the beverage before we even taste it.

My favorite part of his presentation was the video of Thatcher’s Cider at Glastonbury Festival. This festival is based on music but is simply a huge cultural gathering in Glastonbury that has 94 temporary bars for the duration of the festivities. The video reminded me of summer in the UK which can be magical (yes, I am a blatant Anglophile), but it also showed me one of my favorite things: cider being integrated seamlessly into life and good times. That’s my ideal vision for cider.

Then I visited the Trade Show, which was a fascinating gathering of various vendors and service providers all related to cider production and sales. The most fascinating to me were the glass and packaging design folks, but you could find everything there. Juice sellers, tank makers, fermentation aids, and enough cider related businesses to bemuse and intrigue all comers.

The first session I attended was "The US Cider Market Historical, Current & Projected" by Jeffrey House, of Ace Cider. I learned a ton about the ups and downs of cider's recent history. I was also heartily entertained by what a developed raconteur we had in Jeffrey House. He started not only Ace Cider but the first cider bar, Ace in the Hole in California in 1999! If attendees were taking only one piece of advice from House, it would be to stay local or region and not attempt to take your brand national.

We then had a learning lunch (with great food lots of good options for both meat eaters and vegetarians) followed by the 1st Annual USACM Cider Industry Awards. These awards were given to three individuals for their long service to the cider world: Ben Watson, Alan Shapiro, and Peter Mitchell. I highly recommend looking these fellows up because I cannot do justice to either their achievements or service in the space I have here. Suffice it to say that all of these people have spent years doing important work that allows cider to be where it is today and growing into what it will be in the future.

The 2014 US Apple Crop Update & 2015 Outlook with Mark Seetin of US Apple was filled with more and more detailed information about recent and upcoming apple crop issues than I knew existed!

John Hoyos led a panel called "The Honeymoon: Distribution Bliss" but it was more about distribution in general. People were riveted and had more questions than we had time to ask or hear answered. This was definitely one of the most educational sessions of the conference and one with the most motivated listeners.

Then I went to Jeff Cioletti's "From Press to Press, Getting Media Coverage for your Cider Brand" which was very practical nuts and bolts advice about how cider makers can relate to writers and media folks in ways that sidestep common difficulties that make brands less likely to receive media coverage. Attending as a cider writer, I found many commonalities between my experiences and those of both panelists, but I get the distinct feeling that this content was news to most attendees. So very useful.

But the last part of my day was probably my favorite, for silly reasons. I'd been really sad to miss out on the "Cheese and Cider Pairing Method" workshop with Jordan Edwards, but when I showed up to the same room just after to learn about Cider Styles from Eric West there were leftovers of all of the ciders and all of the cheeses! While we were waiting to get started, my whole table of folks did a quick and dirty recap of the previous panel and were thus freshly snacked and ready for West's presentation.

West did a fantastic job introducing to folks (some for the first time) the idea of cider styles and the concept that ciders can best be understood within the context of specific styles. This is something I believe in firmly. He also introduced the 2014 guidelines that the cider category has within the wider world of the BJCP. All really important stuff, presented interestingly.

Last but far from least was a session on cider mixology. As this is another topic dear to my heart, I had to be here. We talked about replacing white wine or champagne in traditional mixes with cider, we also discussed replacing seltzer with super dry super sparkling cider (watch out, this method makes powerful drinks). And we tried a few cider mixes including this beautiful old punch recipe, updated.

It was a glorious, nearly overwhelming day, so I went back to my hosts' adorable apartment and hung out in my pajamas. There were cider happenings all over the city that I missed, but ciderCON wore me out!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Reviewing Ciders for Winter: Sheppy's Vintage Reserve Oak Matured Somerset Cider

Winter is barely beginning to release its salty, icy, blustery hold on upstate NY, but I think we can slip at least one more winter cider in the series before spring takes hold.

This is my first review of any Sheppy's Cider. Like many of my import finds, I got it at The Cellar D'Or. Like always, I checked out the Sheppy's website to learn a bit more about the company and their approach to cider. What I found is absolutely charming, from the encouragement for visitors to walk their orchards to their organized orchard information to the newly redone tea rooms. I can barely emphasize enough just how approachable and lovely I find Sheppy's presentation of their brand. (Again, I'm an admitted Anglophile, so your mileage may vary.) Here's the link if you want to check it out for yourself: http://www.sheppyscider.com

This is what Sheppy's says about themselves:
Farming 370 acres at Three Bridges Farm since 1917, three generations of the Sheppy family have weathered the ups and downs of farming and cidermaking by embracing change and opportunity.

Craftsmen cidermakers for over 200 years.

Quality is central to all our ciders, which are produced from local and home-grown apples here at Three Bridges Farm. Modern technology has been used to assist the completely traditional production of fine English cider, but never to compromise the quality which is associated with the name Sheppy’s Cider.
The cider of theirs that looked the most winter friendly on the shelves was their Vintage Reserve Oak Matured Somerset Cider. I know I like oaked ciders and that sometimes the effect is a warm one, so I tasted it recently in hopes it would fit into this winter series.

Here's how they introduce this one.
A fine full-flavoured sparking vintage cider in a medium taste, created from the best varieties of cider apples of a single harvest here at Three Bridges Farm.  Always matured in oak.  Winner of many prestigious prizes including overall winner of the Quality Drink Awards competition,  2010.


Recently placed in the top 50 of the Great Taste Awards for 2014, out of over 10,000 products and winner of the cider category of the Quality Drink Awards!

Alcohol 7.4% by volume.

Appearance: Brilliant, pumpkin colored, few visible bubbles

The color certainly strikes me as warm, specifically the orange of a harvest moon or a ripe pumpkin. I see no haze and very few bubbles. The ones that do appear clustered glittering at the bottom of the glass.

Aromas: leather, overripe apples, oak

The Oak Matured Cider smells like leather with a hint of overripe apples and softness. My hunch that this will be a very winter friendly cider seems correct so far. It also smells salty, oaky and woody but not vinous at all, like seasoned dry firewood. The smell promises many good things.

Sweetness: Semi-dry

Sheppy's is entirely on target to call this a semi-dry cider. The sweetness doesn't hit right off because the opening is more a first note of bitter orange.

Flavors and drinking experience: rich mouthfeel, tannins, phenolic, drinkable

This Somerset Cider is not syrupy, not sour, but rather rich in mouthfeel. Definitely a winter friendly cider because of how it manages to be thick and creamy but not cloying. I get a continuation of the leather aromas in the flavors, like a Doc Marten boot soaked in apples. It tastes gentle but with astringency, rather than too much bitterness.  It has the rare clean phenolic; just a little bit of barny Englishness, but it's very tasteful, with no geranium or olive brine notes.  Highly drinkable.  complex, refreshing in small and large drinks. I remain struck by the cider's beautiful long velvety finish.  this is a cider to covet year round, but especially in the winter. 

The seasonality is something I get not only from the tannins but also the relatively gentle carbonation.  Somehow it is warm and crisp at the same time. I had this cider on its own, and it didn't need any accompanying food, but it would taste wonderful I'm sure with a jacketed potato with beans and cheese or other hearty warming foods. Hopefully we won't need to many more winter ciders, but try this one for sure!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

CiderCon 2015: USACM Business Meeting, Cider Salon, FDA Cider Labeling and Welcome Reception

Back to my (relatively idiosyncratic) coverage of CiderCON 2015! Today is a very wet coldish St. Patrick's Day, so I am ready to pretend I'm back in company of cider makers and cider lovers. Sláinte mhaith!

The second day of CiderCon began with the Official USACM meeting. My notes come from what stood out to me personally and are far from exhaustive. Apologies for places in which my information is either partial or flawed. As soon as the official minutes/agenda are published online, I'll link to them from here

Just as a bit of background, this is how the USACM describes itself online.
The USACM is an organization of cider and perry producers in the United States. It gathers and shares information about cider production, cider regulations, and cider apple growing, to help members improve their operations, raise awareness, and advance cider in the market. 

The TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) Representative described an ongoing review of the TTB labeling and advertising regulations that is underway. It has the goal of modernizing and reorganizing labelling regulations. They are hoping to issue a document of planned changes to this effect in 2015. The second step will be for the industry to respond to these proposed changes. We are encouraged to read and interact with the document and come to the TTB with our ideas or concerns.

The TTB representative's final point was to encourage attendees to come and speak with any one of the seven representatives the TTB sent to CiderCon. 

Most interesting to me is that TTB.gov has a new cider FAQ.


(After spending some time with this document it has given me new appreciation for what every commercial cidermaker, winemaker, and perrymaker has survived in order to offer their product. I raise my glass to them.)

The USACM wants to develop a marketing committee but only if that is what the membership wants and it will be very membership driven in terms of goals and activities. Some possible goals include developing statistics on cider in this country and industry.

As part of the Finance Report, I learned that one of USACM's next goals is to have paid staff to deal with the money. Right now two people Sue and Ellen handle lots of USACM administration and James Cohen serves as the conference organizer. In other news, a new website is coming that will hop
efully be clear and easy to update.

The Legislative Committee gave us their update on the CIDER act (h.r. 600) which is a big big reason that the USACM is important for all US cidermakers. This has to do with how cider is defined, regulated, and taxed. If you like other fruit juices blended in with your cider, if you like higher ABVs than 7%, or if you like intense sparkle to your cider, you like the CIDER act. There are a few dozen other reasons to love it, but I just wanted to describe the tastiest ones first.

Read more about it here: http://www.ciderassociation.org/page-1842966

Then cidery owners spent some time electing new folks to board of USACM. Now the current line up is: Mike Beck, Scott Donovan, James Kohn, Bruce Nissen, Dan Rowell, Robert Vail, Dan Wilson, Eleanor Leger, Justin Kissinger, Trevor Baker and David Cordtz. Hear hear!

Next year's cider con is in Portland, Oregon. All of the west-coast lovers cheered at this.

Cider Con 2015 will including the USACM giving its first set of cider awards. This was a surprise to many in the room.

Allusions were made to cider research grants. Dan, Greg and James met to discuss small grants and Ian Merwin formerly of Cornell University and now of Black Diamond Farms/cider is involved. People interested in orcharding, cider apples, and researching any of these or related topics should watch the USACM page for more information on cider research grants or contact those folks.

Then I took a break for a great veggie omelet and home fries during the "Cidermakers seeking Distributors/Wholesalers Networking Lunch." But if anyone who attended that would like to comment about their experiences, I'm all ears and I'm sure I'm not the only one.

One highlight of Wednesday was the cider share. Dozens and dozens of cidermakers from all over the place presented their bottles of cider. It felt like every table in the ballroom was filled and in some cases being shared by up to three different cideries. Folks circulated slowly, sipping here and discussing there. No one could try all of the ciders in that room because not only were more cideries represented than I’ve perhaps ever seen in one place, most companies brought between two and five different ciders (and fair number of perries made an appearance as well).

I attempted to moderate my tasting because these rapid-fire tastings never give me enough information (or a clean-enough palate) to create a full review. But I did get to speak with a number of really interesting people while making note of the particular ciders I wanted to taste again and review. Many folks were really generous in not only giving me information but also either giving me ciders to fly home or offering me packages of cider in the near future. So, in other words, it was heaven. Cider flowing. Great conversation. And promises of more cider to enjoy quietly and thoughtfully in the future. 

And those cider packages have started to arrive! I cannot wait to really review and enjoy ciders from: Seattle Cider Company, Rev. Nat's Hard Cider, Cider Riot, and others. I'm still looking forward to a few more arrivals, including one made of Wickson Crab Apples. *hint hint*

There was an FDA session. A generalized Powerpoint presention was given by Lynn Szybist about labeling. Because it was so broad and general the bulk of the session came from questions asked by many cidermakers. There are some vast arenas of confusion when it comes to what is allowed and what is required by either the FDA or the TTB. I’ll simply say that people communicated their frustration through asking detailed and specific questions. Unfortunately, answers were few and vague. I’ll leave it at that.

Our day officially ended with a welcome reception. By which point, I felt almost more ready to be welcomed to dreamland than to be given more delicious cider and food. But, CiderCon is not for the faint of heart or stomach (or liver). It was a very educational and enjoyable day, and we were only getting started.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Reviewing Ciders for Winter: Tilted Shed's January Barbeque Smoked Cider

For some folks in the United States, we're getting the first hint of a thaw we've had in more than two months. It is easy to forget that we're even still having winter because we can see the sun and because it appears that underneath the piles and piles of dirty white snow, we have real dirt and grass. But not everyone is thawing out. Plus we do still have...um...piles and piles of dirty white snow everywhere. So, the ciders for winter series continues.

This review is my first review of anything by Tilted Shed Ciderworks. I thought it might be best to see how they introduce themselves on their website.
Tilted Shed Ciderworks is a small, Sonoma County-based cidery founded in 2011 by the husband-wife team of Scott Heath and Ellen Cavalli. Famous for its wines, Sonoma County also has a rich apple heritage, and our mission is to elevate the apple to greatness through cider. Our heirloom apples are locally grown in old, organic, dry-farmed orchards. At our Sebastopol farm, we grow dozens of rare, traditional tannic cider apple varieties, which, like winegrapes, provide the structure and depth that common table fruit cannot. For us, apples hold secrets. They persevere through drought and pestilence, and every year they show us new ways to experience them. We are on a quest to explore their mysteries by making beautiful, nuanced ciders that reflect our principles, place, and point of view.
All of that sounds tremendously committed to cider specific apple varieties and a style of cider making that I really like. It doesn't sound typical for California apple growing, but we'll see what the cider says about their apples. I encourage you to visit their lovely website and learn more here: http://www.tiltedshed.com And if you (like me) are curious about their apple selections and how they source antique, heirloom, and cider apples in Sonoma County, you can find some further information on this page http://www.tiltedshed.com/our-apples.html.

Here's a more succinct statement about their house style: "At Tilted Shed, we make mostly dry, tannic, nuanced, lean ciders that defy most Americans' expectations. We love Old World-style ciders made from traditional cider apples, and our style reflects their rich heritage but with a decidedly Californian edge." I wonder what that distinctly CA influence means?

The specific cider I chose for this winter series is Tilted Shed's January Barbeque Smoked Cider.

This is how Tilted Shed describes it and how they recommend serving it.
We first sampled this cider on an unseasonably warm winter day while grilling. This is one of our experiments gone awesome. We smoked a few apples from our farm over oak, pear, and apple wood, then fermented and aged them with a base blend of fresh-pressed Sonoma County–grown traditional cider and heirloom apples. This is a dry, astringent, slightly austere cider, with a mellow smoky finish. Imagine drinking a brut champagne near a bonfire. Pour into a flute, tulip, or pilsner glass to experience its aromatics. Pair with aged cheeses, grilled meats, and seafood. Nice apertif!

Appearance: Hazy, bubbly, banana pudding

I love how a hazy cider gives me a whole different set of associations for color. This cider is decidedly hazy and somehow that means that its golden yellow looks glowy rather than shining. It really does remind me of banana pudding in color (not just because I always start wanting banana pudding at the first hint of spring). As the photo shows, we get plenty of bubbles all along the glass.

Aromas: smoky, fresh apples, cherry pits

Even at the recommended temperature there isn't a lot of aroma going on. I can smell a few notes; the strongest of which is a bit smoky. It also smells a bit appley with an echo of fruity wet cherry pits. My husband and co-taster thinks that it smells vinous. tastes stronger on the first sip and gets calmer.

Sweetness/Dryness: Dry

There's so much going on with this cider, that I had a much harder time than usual deciding on its level of relative sweetness and dryness. I think it is a dry cider but if you wanted to argue with me and call it an off-dry, I'd understand where you were coming from. It hits dry at first and has relatively dry finish, but the midpalate is fruity and not quite as dry.  This cider is obviously complex and that's a good thing in my book.

Flavors and drinking experience: multiple stages of flavor, savory, meaty

The January Barbeque tastes much stronger than it smells. Let me amend that. It tastes stronger on the first sip and then gets calmer. It tastes both meaty and fruity, like bacon jam. Mind you, that' largely theoretical having had faux bacon jam and never actual bacon jam. It also tastes chocolatey. Almost a like the flavor on really good BBQ chips. I get hints of salt that are really pleasant. It tastes warm and not just because I'm serving it warmer than I do most ciders

The experience happens in stages. At first, the cider offers up a quick bitter shock and then replaces it with fruity smokey spicey cake. Overall it is a fascinating blend of savory and dessert like. The experience is perfect for winter because it is both warming and particularly interesting. It sets up the expectation that it will be rather challenging and bitter, but it's actually very forgiving. My one caveat is that smaller sips are better; this isn't really a gulping cider. I recommend enjoying it with homemade baked macaroni and cheese and a really crisp romaine salad. As far as activities that pair well, drink this cider while watching a movie filmed somewhere beautiful and far away.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

CiderCon 2015: Sensory Analysis Training by Charles McGonegal and Gary Awdey

CiderCon 2015 was a huge and wonderful experience. Rather than attempting to give an overview, I'm going to present my experience chronologically through my impressions of various sessions. That way, I can present the information and the experience fully without trying to condense everthing into a post or two. But, since I am posting about how I interpreted the conference and material, this posts will be absolutely as subjective and opinionated as my cider reviews, but this time you'll get the presenters' wonderful interesting information primarily, but seasoned with commentary by yours truly.

February 3rd (Day 1) Sensory Analysis Training
 It would be easy to think that tasting cider is all fun and games. I can assure you that it is not. Some cider experiences are more like taking a chance with Bernie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans from the Harry Potter universe than like sitting down at your favorite taproom.

This presentation is one that I did in a very similar format for GLINTCAP last year, but it is also one that everyone can always stand to review. How it works is this; Charles McGonegal and Gary Awdey start with one base cider and add minute amounts of various substances to subtly (or not so subtly) alter the cider’s taste, mouthfeel, or aroma in ways that highlight different cider styles and commonly occurring cider flaws. They've put tons and tons of work into this presentation and it shows.

The first time I worked my way through this presentation, Gary donated a generous amount of one of his semi-dry ciders (I think). This time we started with this year’s Appeltreow Barnswallow a draft style New World Style Cider (to use the lingo of GLINTCAP, Charles, and Gary). It has a mild 5.5% ABV and comes from a blend of dessert fruit. To me, it smells sweet and the flavors give me impressions of briskness, freshness, and semi-sweetness. The apples involved include Cortland, Ida Red, and Red Delicious.
Our speakers opened with a discussion of the actual limits of taste, the old chesnut that we can only taste approximately six flavors with our tongues. They spoke of using both aroma and mouthfeel (often described as texture) to express more fully the complete experience of drinking a cider.

Caveat: I’m not going to post an equal verbose blow-by-blow of each sample, but I will highlight a few that were particularly enlightening to me because I encounter them in my cider experiences regularly, or because they stood out for some other quality. Like being horrible.

Part 1. Texture and Mouthfeel

Sample 1 was tremendously useful. The mysterious addition made the cider smell sharper and increased the stone and mineral elements of the aroma. For me particularly, it had that slightly bleachy note that I taste in ciders quite regularly. Not a good thing. The mouthfeel seemed thin to me. The addition, as it turns out, was malic acid. Malic acid cuts viscosity, so it makes sense to think of the mouthfeel as thinner. Now, I will associate that bleach note with malic acid and know to pay more attention to texture when it comes up.

Sample 2 didn’t strike me particularly. It tasted pricklier and had carbonic acid.

Sample 3 smells more dessert-like and richer. Folks around the room noticed that it offered a mild warmth, longer finish, as well as richness and astringence. This was a simple addition of one more percentage of ABV from an unflavored alcohol source. Notable to me because ciders vary so much in ABV, and I want to think intelligently about how alcohol level and drinking experience interact.

Sample 4 tasted great to me at first. It was the kind of sweetness that can be incredibly pleasing in cider. It tasted like warm ripe apples. But after two sips, it didn’t taste very different. My expectations adapted quickly. This addition turns out to be not very appley at all, but rather .75% sucrose from beet sugar. As McGonegal says, there are two easy ways to increase thickness or richness of mouthfeel, adding either alcohol or sugar, and now we’ve tasted both.

Sample 5 struck me as funny, because I remember tasting it at the GLINTCAP presentation and at this one, but it tasted very different. Perhaps this is a difference in how the additive played against the two different base ciders. Or perhaps my tastes were picking things up differently. At GLINTCAP, I loved it. I remember it was my favorite additive of the entire presentation. The increased bitterness was just bliss to me. This time it also tasted more sour as well as more bitter and the flavors didn’t meld right to me. The additive was 10 ml of quinine; its goal to add bitterness without adding astringence.

Sample 6: super bitter and mega astringence. The aroma appears reduced but the finish is stretched. It hits the tongue in a velvety way and somehow made many folks notice the sides of their tongues. The speakers developed a way to add apple-based polyphenols through apple vitamins. This is a way folks sometimes fake tannins, but the speakers had only harsh words for this phenomenon.

Part 2 Aromas

Sample 7 normal levels of Ethyl Acetate. It smelled like an unsubtle blast of fresh fresh fresh apples and a greenness that is hard to fully explain. This is a normal in some quantities but can become a real problem it too present.

Sample 8 tasted strongly and harshly of sour strawberry juiciness. It reminded me of acetone better known in my world as fingernail polish remover. This is a higher concentration of the same Ethyl Acetate as in sample 7 with the emphasis that many qualities can be acceptable or even positive at low levels but become problematic and unpleasant at higher levels.

Sample 9 reminded me of those super natural hippie marshmallows from fancy stores. Many other folks mentioned tasting banana. The additive was Acetaldehyde which can serve as a sign of cider sickness.

Sample 10 Yeasty, cheesy, butterscotch, milky, Caramel. Diacetyl. Either I've gotten more sensitive to buttery popcorn flaw over this past year, or the sample is different. Beer folks tend to be more sensitive to this flaw and reject it harshly, whereas in cider in small amounts it is considered neutral. Only in higher levels is it unambiguously a flaw.

Sample 11 Baby powder, fruit, blankness, sweet sweet weirdness. Fusel Esters. Rose banana geranium, yeast derived flavors.Some folks like it, others (like me) do not.

Sample 12 Super meaty, bacon, smoky, beef jerky, 3 phenolics. Different groups of phenolics smell like different things including mothballs, smoky ham, and horseblanket or barn. In many english ciders this is a feature of maturation. This is very difficult to control but a dangerous one because some variants are quite tasty and desirable but others are simply foul. Chlorogenic and lacto bacillus but again not easy to control.

Sample 13 Diaper, rotten pear. sweet wood, tastes super acidic. Somehow both greenly under-ripe and tropical. This is "red and green apple flavor" from commercial fruit oils. "natural" flavors are anything but savory, natural, or appealing when we research them.

Sample 14 (added by each taster with a tiny straw) Tannin tea astringent oak. flavor overlay. This is oak and apple brandy. Very pleasant.

No sample 15. Ha! We escaped this time. This slot is usually reserved for mouse flaw.  This one is legendarily weird because of how differently people taste it and because of how it really can appear and disappear. Perceiving this flaw is dependent on the Ph in one's mouth; it has no aroma. There is one thing that consistently works to make the flaw apparent to more people: swirling baking soda water in the mouth makes it more commonly perceivable. I am fairly sensitive to it, and I hate it. It really does bring up musty mousecage, dirty straw, wet fur, or even like weird musty bad flour.

Sample 16 sweet, extra astringent, kind of bleachy again, burnt matches, 80/ppm added 50 more sulfites. This is a really common one even in decent commercial ciders.

Sample 17 Forgive my french, but this one struck most everyone as cat piss. Sulfides: diethyl di sulfide. no H2S. Low nitrogen. It could also be described as burnt rubber, rotten onion, So unbelievably gross. Don't try this one at home, kids.

Very interesting, but a nearly overwhelming experience, even the second time around. I highly recommend taking this if you ever get the chance; it works wonders for a bit of calibration and ways to articulate what you're experiencing in aroma, mouthfeel, or flavor. Thanks again to Charles and Gary for this extremely valuable service to the cider community.