Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Finally! My fabulous time at GLINTCAP.

Now, as spring is just barely starting to visit orchards in the Finger Lakes area, I want to take a post and share my big cider adventure of this past winter. Yes, I'm considering late March winter. 2014 knew how to keep things cold.

I got invited to volunteer at the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry (GLINTCAP) competition by Eric West. He is writing a book The New American Cider Guide (check out the blog and book project here: http://www.ciderguide.com/ ). Eric does all kinds of really good work within the cider community.

When I first started checking GLINTCAP out as a potential volunteer, I learned plenty. It is one of the major projects of the Great Lakes Cider and Perry Association (GLCPA) and one of the largest international cider-based competitions in the world. The weekend would involve an all day cider training and the chance to meet and talk with cider experiences from all over the place, including some of my long-term cider heroes. The competition is open to both professionals and home cidermakers and includes cider, perry, mead, ice ciders, and other fermented apple beverages, some defying any possible categorization. Their website has tons of useful information: http://www.greatlakescider.com

The last element that really intrigued me was that GLINTCAP is a Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) competition. The BJCP is an extensive network of certifications and competitions designed to help educate folks about beer and related beverages. This is a huge program with a lot of participation worldwide (http://www.bjcp.org/index.php) Cider guidelines exist within the BJCP, and these events are a major point of dialogue for beer folks, cider folks, and equal opportunity quaffers.

It did not take very long for me to decide that I really wanted to make this happen. Either stewarding or judging would be an invaluable experience, so I got time off from both of my jobs for a whirlwind trip to St. Johns, Michigan.

The drive was beautiful. Still winter, but beautiful.


Saturday, we all experienced the good, bad, and ugly through an unbelievably thorough Judges Training Seminar, whether newcomers to the competition or cider experts of long-standing experience. For me, this was my primary motivation to make the trip. I want to learn more about cider all of the time, so I jumped the chance to learn in detail about both common cidermaking flaws and different distinctive cider styles. Amazing!


For this event, I sat with some really fabulously interesting people, including Old Timey Dave (but we were too interesting and ended up getting shushed once, oops!). The big takeaway from this, besides all of the actual flaws and styles we worked on identifying, for me was that experienced cider palates vary just as much anyone else's. I can taste some flaws really easily (mousiness!) but others almost not at all (popcorn) and my tablemates had different strengths and blind spots in their own tasting. We also preferred different styles and characteristics. This really reminded me that when I taste, I may be able to describe and taste carefully, but I can only truly evaluate any given cider for myself. Everyone tastes things and enjoys things so differently. That's a good reminder to get regularly.

By the end of the day our palates were all blown and we were exhausted from sitting and tasting and thinking and tasting some more. It really is work.


For this event, I sat with some really fabulously interesting people, including Old Timey Dave (but we were too interesting and ended up getting shushed once, oops!). The big takeaway from this, besides all of the actual flaws and styles we worked on identifying, for me was that experienced cider palates vary just as much anyone else's. I can taste some flaws really easily (mousiness!) but others almost not at all (popcorn) and my tablemates had different strengths and blind spots in their own tasting. We also preferred different styles and characteristics. This really reminded me that when I taste, I may be able to describe and taste carefully, but I can only truly evaluate any given cider for myself. Everyone tastes things and enjoys things so differently. That's a good reminder to get regularly.

By the end of the day our palates were all blown and we were exhausted from sitting and tasting and thinking and tasting some more. It really is work.

Sunday morning came early, but I could not have been happier about my judging category and partner. I got the privilege of judging with Dick Dunn whose expertise and generosity has helped the cider community for a long time. Not only that, but we were assigned to Commercial New World Cider. Most of our ciders were petillant (meaning sparkling but not champagne level or style of sparkle) and dry. The whole process went smoothly and seriously, just as I'd hoped. Dick was as gracious a fellow judge as one could wish for. Our ciders ranged from the troubled to the positively delightful.

After that first session, we broke for a nice mild lunch. Ordinarily I do not associate mild food with such enjoyment, but we all needed to rest our palates more than stimulate them.

For the second session, I got paired with a professional cider maker to judge a non-commercial division. We had tons of fun because we got the "others"; those ciders that do not fit into traditional categories like fruit wines, oak aged, English, French, or New World style. And we did get a few crazily creative ones. I believe one of them reminded me of what a moon-shining grandpa would drink secreted in his aftershave bottle. A little weird.

Sadly, I did not get to stay long enough to enjoy our celebratory dinner and devouring of all of the cider remainders. That would have been amazing, but my long drive pulled me away far too soon.

All in all, it was an amazing weekend. I own thanks to many people for making it the event possible and for making it such fun! Thanks very much to Mike Beck, Rex Halfpenny, Eric West, Dick Dunn, David White, and Charles McGonegal. I'm sure I owe thanks to plenty more folks too.



For those interesting in the results of all of our tasting and judging:

http://www.greatlakescider.com/glintresults2014.html
http://www.greatlakescider.com/glintanalysis2014.pdf

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Cider Review: Nine Pin Cider Works' Nine Pin Signature Blend

Nine Pin Cider Works has a neat-sounding slogan, "Be Revolutionary. Consider the apple." I'm not 100% sure that they connect those two bold phrases in the rest of their promotional copy, but they still have some punch. Tonight, I'm trying the Signature Blend and introducing the Nine Pin Cider Works brand a bit. 


Their look is fantastic. I love the shapes and fonts and colors on the label. The bold green and generous use of brass foil is just fresh and lovely. I'm somewhat less convinced by their somewhat scattered brand identity that references Rip Van Winkle, The Revolutionary War, local appeal, and ninepin bowling. I don't think they need the complex narrative, but that's just me.

This is the most direct part of what the website says about the company in general. I'm skipping the Rip Van Winkle story bit:
Like any revolution, Nine Pin Cider was many years in the making. In 1997, Alejandro’s father is hired to paint a 32 foot rose on the brick wall side of 925 Broadway. He raises his family on a small Hudson Valley farm, encouraging a love of nature, adventure and fresh food. In 2010, Alejandro wanders into a store and is asked to sample a local hard cider. He quickly develops a passion for the drink and became an apprentice. By 2013, Alejandro has perfected his own cider blend, winning a gold medal at the Great Lakes International Cider & Perry Competition.
A gold from GLINTCAP is nothing to sneeze at. So let's find out a bit more about the Signature Blend. The apples are all locally sourced from Samascot Orchards. That's a cool bit of provenance. Nine Pin describes this cider, "It [is] an off dry sparkling cider with a crisp, bold, and refreshing taste." That doesn't tell me much. 6.7% ABV which is pretty typical for a commercially available craft cider. 

The best way for me to investigate more at this point will be to simply drink and report.


Appearance: palest celadon green gold, brilliant, active visible bubbles

Nine Pin's Signature blend looks quite pale and brilliant in the glass. It has a subtle but lovely shade that blends green and gold. Very fine bubbles play up to the surface of the liquid. I can see them  immediately after the cider is poured, and they continue for some time.

Aromas: vinous, overripe apple, lots of fruit

I enjoy the Signature Blend's slightly sweet vinous aroma. It contains overripe apples, blackberries, pears, dried apricots, just tons of fruit. At the end I get the barest hint of minerals. It smells like it could be a bit sweeter than the off dry that the company describes it with. Now to taste...

Sweetness: Semi-sweet

This cider is semi-sweet. I'm guessing Nine Pin Cider wants to differentiate its first offering from most industrial ciders with that label. This is a fine idea because this cider does not taste like the increasing range of offerings in grocery store six packs that are sweet and lacking in character. Nine Pin's Signature Blend has plenty of fruit and freshness in its semi-sweetness.

Flavors and drinking experience: tart, easy drinking, fine bubbles

I really enjoy the Signature Blend's fine champagne style bubbles. The cider has lots of fun crisp tartness, like green apples. The mouthfeel is thick but not quite syrupy. It drinks easy with flavors of white chocolate,  and fruit. I taste medium high levels of acidity and no tannins to speak of. Overall, the cider is pleasant and fun.

I'd happily recommend this cider both to long time cider fans and new drinkers of cider. It would make a perfect picnic or brunch cider. Drink with quiche and croissants and plenty of lively conversation!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Uncle John's Cider: American 150

 
At GLINTCAP, I got to meet Mike Beck who graciously helps put the event together and hosts so many cider folks. He does so much for the cider community all over the United States. He's also the man behind Uncle John's Cider. Part of his graciousness extended to sending me home with a whole lotta samples! So, I'm thrilled to be reviewing quite a few Uncle John's Ciders over the next few months. This is the best way to really get to know a cider company in my opinion. Try the whole line up but interspersed with other brands.

Uncle John's Cider Mill is a huge destination in Michigan apple country. It is farm, a cider mill, a restaurant, a winery, a distillery, and more. The company has many faces, but the one most relevant to us is Uncle John's Fruit House Winery from St. Johns, Michigan. This is the right part of the website to visit to find out more about the ciders: http://www.fruithousewinery.com.

Read about the new distribution deal that will be bringing Uncle John's cider to a lot more locations right here: http://beerpulse.com/2014/03/uncle-johns-cider-signs-distribution-deal-with-louis-glunz-in-chicago-2714/ Five of the ciders will become available in the Chicago area before too long, but sadly tonight's cider is not a part of that list. Tonight I'm trying the American 150.



Here's the official description right off of the bottle:
Now that you have come to love our initial line of ciders, it is time to introduce this line of specialty ciders -- made from fruit that is unique in nature, and is not always available publicly. American 150 is a blend of 6 classic American Heirloom varieties that have been a part of apple growing in America for at least 150 years. The apples used in this cider include: Baldwin, Grimes Golden Northern Spy, Winesap, Winter Banana and Rhode Island Greening. Fermented in stainless steel and oak barrels American 150 is an extra dry cider
I love this description because it names the apples used in this particular cider. Several of these are particular favorites of mine, most notably Rhode Island Greening and Northern Spy. The latter lends excellent aromas in spades and the former just tastes like golden summer goodness. One last fact: the ABV of this cider is 6.5%. Nothing too extreme in either direction.



Appearance: hazy, quickly disappearing foam, creamy golden color

This cider has sediment in the bottle, so it must be stored upright. Even so, it doesn't pour brilliant, which in my mind is just fine. I have no particular preference between brilliant, hazy, and cloudy. In color, this one looks like a creamy gold to me. A touch of lacy foam appears as the cider is poured but it quickly vanishes.

Aromas: ripe apples, hints of spice, citrus, stone

This makes my mouth water.  Something about this smell hints at lively acidity and a hint of sweetness, but I'm not putting my finger on exactly what says that to me.

Sweetness: Semi-dry

The sweetness is not the most notable factor about this cider. On the other hand, it is not extra dry to my palate though it is labelled that way on the bottle. I imagine for many new cider drinkers or those who prefer a sweeter cider, this might seem quite dry. For me, I notice a fair amount of fruit character and acidity but along with a little bit of sweet. Just a little though.

Flavors and drinking experience: Some petillance, plenty of acidity, medium tannins.

I really enjoyed this cider tremendously. The level of carbonation is just perfect for enjoying with a meal; it isn't distracting, but it also doesn't let the cider slip by so fast that you accidentally finish a bottle without realizing it. Quite an important balance to strike. I enjoyed the acidity which is sometimes a stumbling block for me. Lots of serious cider drinkers like more acidity than I do, but this showed verve and brightness without getting too aggressive. Medim levels of tannins and sweetness. This is very much an heirloom cider with lots of the Northern Spy and Rhode Island Greening characteristics that I relish.

I enjoyed my cider with too many pieces of veggie pizza, and I have no regrets whatsoever. The American 150 is a well balanced cider with plenty of flavor and character. I'd pair it with heartier foods, especially anything with a creamy or cheesy element. The acidity can really shine in that kind of pairing. As for activities, just eat, drink, and be merry.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Cider Review: Sonoma Cider The Anvil (Bourbon)

 Though I'm still bursting with excitement over GLINTCAP, I need a bit more time to collect my thoughts and photos. Nonetheless, I've been tasting a ton of ciders lately and didn't want to neglect my review writing just because my cider adventures have been so varied as of late.

So tonight I'm reviewing my first Sonoma Cider out of Healdsburg, California. This is the only cider company I've ever seen with a nod from Forbes Magazine as a particularly promising start up company. Here's the link: http://www.forbes.com/pictures/emjl45himd/sonoma-cider/. Sonoma's homepage and their whole graphic presence is very bold and clear. It is a clean look with a lot of appeal. You can find out a lot more information on the brand and its founders on the website: http://sonomacider.com. I'm also definitely noticing the amount of emphasis I see that these guys are putting on the organic certification of the cider. That is a pretty unusual claim, I can imagine why they are proud of it.

On a recent visit to Kentucky, I scoured several bottle shops in Lousville to check out their cider selections. It has become almost a tradition by this point. This is also why when I saw a new cider brand, Sonoma I had to try their bourbon offering first. When in Kentucky, I simply must honor my home state's patron beverage in some small way. So bourbon cider it will be.

In this highly unusual promotional description, Sonoma Cider owns up to using flavor instead of other more traditional methods give their organic apple cider an aura of bourbon. See for yourself exactly how they spin it.
David and Robert both love bourbon. We mean love bourbon. Maybe that’s why they didn’t beat around the bush here. Sure, you can age subtly in bourbon barrels. And subtlety is sometimes enough. But, with the Anvil, the real spark ignited when we tossed nuance aside and added a healthy measure of our proprietary barrel-proof bourbon flavor. Suddenly, something intense, alive and memorable happened. To our palates, it offers a clean, lively, aromatic presence with a layered smoky finish. It’s truly integrated and rounded, yet vitally distinct. Enjoy.
I actually really appreciate the honesty, but I'm still not sure that I'm on board for this particular method of producing cider. I'll see how it tastes though and let that be my guide.


Appearance: caramel, brilliant, no bubbles

Sonoma's Anvil Cider has a deep dark color, unlike most ciders. It really looks the color of caramel candy or butterscotch. I see no visible bubbles of note either rising through the cider or clinging to the rim of the glass. The clarity is absolutely brilliant; I can read text through it easily though it is an unusually intense color for a cider.

Aromas: ripe ripe apples,

This cider smells so luscious. I really enjoy how much I can smell apples distinctly. Secondarily, The Anvil smells like stones and caramel. I can also just barely find notes that remind me of  freshly cut lumber and underripe blueberries. Really neat smells.

Sweetness: Semi-sweet

This definitely qualifies as semi-sweet. I can taste a few different sweet elements within The Anvil but they are never overwhelming. I think the level of sweetness actually puts this in a more moderate spot than many many ciders which can either veer very sweet or bone dry. Not a bad position at all.

Flavors and drinking experience: faceted, some facets good others weird

Wow! This is totally distinct and oddly faceted. I experience three distinct phases of taste each time I take a drink of this cider. My first impression is immediately of fruit and carbonation. This is the most typical of cider. The second taste is a bit weirder; I can taste more bourbon, smoke and candy. This is where the "bourbon flavor" comes through. Then after the big show, I can taste a slow finish of limestone. The tastes never truly meld; it is always a parade of three impressions. Overall the Anvil is not overly bourbony. I sincerely enjoy the beautiful long finish of minerality. Sadly, the weird second phase actually reminds me of Grape Nerds.

Okay, the jury is still out on an openly flavored cider. It did certainly exceed my expectations. There are some ciders that use or invoke bourbons much too strongly, and this is not one of them. On the other hand, I do enjoy a more holistic experience rather than three distinct tastes that never come together. I really wasn't into the mid-palate of that experience either. Interesing. I can certainly say that this cider is interesting.

Make up your own mind. But I'd suggest making it up by trying it rather than just guessing. That's the lesson I learned from this cider.