Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Day in the Life of a Cider Judge

Instead of a review this week, I wanted to share an insider’s look at the process of cider judging. I get a lot of questions about it, so I thought it might be fun to share. A ton of work goes into a cider competition from a lot of different sources, and I’m not sure all of that is obvious when a cider buyer sees ribbons or medals on a cidery wall or sees an award mentioned in a cider’s description. Hopefully, I can shed just a bit of light on what the whole process looks like, at least from the point of view of a cider judge.

I’ve enjoyed judging at quite a few different competitions. Here are a few of my favorites.

Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition (GLINTCAP): https://glintcap.org/

Good Food Awards: https://goodfoodfdn.org/awards/categories/cider/

Great American International Cider Competition: https://cider.raiseaglassfoundation.com/

Pennsylvania Farm Show: https://www.farmshow.pa.gov/pafarmshow/participate-virtually/virtual-exhibits/farm-to-table/Pages/PA-Cider-Guild.aspx

To start, we have to talk about who brings together cider competitions come in the first place. These organizers are usually the folks who invite judges like me. I want to give a shout out to hard-working folks who coordinate it all (I see you, Eric and Vikki). This requires a level of skill that I can barely imagine. We’re talking about everything from wooing cider makers to participate, coordinating a venue, volunteers, judges, and making sure that all of the physical details are read to go when things finally get started. They have to think at the same time about substantial hotel contracts and making sure we have mechanical pencils. 

Once organizers have herded all the cats necessary to make a cider competition, the day-off heroes are the volunteers! These are the folks that take the plans for the competition and turn them into reality. They pour ciders in flights with the right order and labelling and deliver them while they are still cold and bubbly. They wash dishes. So. Many. Dishes. They carry boxes and find cell phone chargers and make sure there are enough score sheets. Competitions would grind to a screeching halt without them, and most of these folks sign up to put in an 8-10 hour day for the camaraderie and free cider. 

I feel like by this point in the entry, I’ve made it sound like a lot of work has been taken to spoil us cider judges. There’s definitely some truth to that, so I never want to take for granted all of the work that happens before I show up. But here’s the part I can describe with more detail: judging.

Each competition is different, but we are asked to taste groups of ciders blind and rate them according to a set of criteria. It’s nothing like social drinking and not even very similar to how I get tasting notes for the blog. Blind in this case means we only see them after they’ve  been  poured into glasses. We do not know who made the cider and do not have access to any promotional material about it. The only info is what the producer submitted along with the cider when entering it into the competition. 

Usually this means waking up our palates and judging cider starting around 8:30 in the morning. A grouping of between 5 and fourteen ciders will be lined up for each judge. Sometimes a cider is only judged by one person, but more often it will be judged by a group of 2-3 people. The order of the flight is usually determined by factors that affect intensity, so that we’ll be able to taste all of our ciders with maximum accuracy. We’ll start with ciders that are dryer and not overly tannic but by the end of a day, we’ll be judging ciders with fruit additions, hops, spices or barrel aging. 

The process of tasting for a cider competition itself is completely different from any serious tasting. We look at the cider carefully, smell it deeply, taste it (even chew it, according to some) and then spit. Yes, every time. It’s far from elegant, but it's the only way to survive and  give your clear-headed best to the job of tasting the ciders carefully. We have water and crackers to reset our taste buds, but all of our focus must remain on the cider. 

Perhaps the most valuable and challenging part is turning what we experience with our senses into a series of scores. We search out fermentation flaws or characteristics that do not fit the cider styles and dock points. Every judge is different in terms of what their body can detect. I’m spectacularly not sensitive to diacetyl acid for example, so I’m always grateful to judge with someone who tastes it more clearly. On the other hand, I can sense mouse very clearly. More pleasantly, we also reward all the things we notice and like about a cider, everything from a particularly vibrant and enticing set of aromas to the perfect ebullient fizz of a sparkling cider.  

Here are a few examples of score sheets.

BJCP Score Sheet: chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://legacy.bjcp.org/docs/SCP_CiderScoreSheet.pdf

It gets exhausting both physically and mentally. Luckily, there are a few breaks in the day for socializing and meals. The day is often 5-7  flights with a morning break and a lunch, sometimes an afternoon break if the day is going to run long.  When we aren’t judging, we can relax for just a short time and catch up with our cider friends. I’m so grateful to be able to say that I’ve made some amazing friends judging cider. These wonderful folks don’t just talk amongst ourselves about cider, but over the years we’ve shared the personal stuff and really gotten to know each other. Unsurprisingly, lots of us are totally nerdy about things other than cider, so it’s fun to trade book, food, and travel recommendations with these crowds. And we all hope that the meals are filling but not too powerfully flavored. Coming back into an afternoon of judging with wafts of marinara or chimichurri aromas following us around is not ideal.

Gotta judge more cider after the breaks. Though each competition is different, I wanted to talk about categories, feedback, and building consensus. These are some of the core elements of judging outside of the sensory and scoring elements. Categories give us a standard of expectation for a cider. They vary, but examples include modern cider, fruit cider or heritage perry. These give us a sense of the profile of what materials and processes a cider maker is using and what we should expect from the cider. After all, a traditional English cider should have more tannins and bittersweet character than a modern cider. 

We incorporate these categories when we give feedback on the score sheets. In an ideal world the numbers only tell part of the story, but we add meaningful context with our words. Cider makers receive their score sheets, so our comments reach them directly: sometimes with our names and email addresses included! This is one of the most important things about judging. We aren’t trying to make anyone feel too bad (or too good) about their cider. We are attempting to judge the cider and communicate clearly and fairly about what we perceive. I love what Rex Halfpenny has said many times, “Don’t be nice but don’t be mean.” 

Beyond our individual thoughts, we also work hard to build consensus at the table about each cider. That’s not always easy, because everyone has their own palate and experience. We try as much as possible to leave our personal preferences outside of the judging space, but that can be difficult. Though I do not enjoy cherries, and therefore do not like cherry ciders, I’ve awarded gold medals to truly outstanding fruit ciders with cherries.  

Thanks for the picture, Michelle!

We try to keep in mind that our goal is to be useful and helpful to cider makers. What cider companies get out of their participation in competition varies, but always includes promotion, awards, and feedback. I’m happiest when a competition can create additional selling opportunities for cideries. That’s part of the PA Farm Show structure; participating ciders get the opportunity to sell at a giant agricultural fair that has tens of thousands of visitors. I love that! 

Each competition is different. They have their own flavor, educational opportunities, or tie-ins with outside cider events. Not much can compete with GLINTCAP in terms of having built a wonderful structure of education and public-facing cider events. Before judging begins there, there are days of orchard and cidery tours and extensive mandatory training. I also love the personal touches though, at the Great American International Cider Competition, the volunteers have created an indoor “campground” in the conference center with camp chairs, s’mores, a cell-phone charging station, all surrounding a sweet faux camp-fire. And when we do the Best-in-show round at the PA Farm Show competition, we have to have our special theme music (borrowed from a classic game show). I love what folks have done over the years to make things special for everyone involved. 

I hope this is a helpful window into the world of cider judging and cider competitions. These are big projects that represent a monumental number of volunteer hours from dozens and dozens of skilled people. Hopefully our work can elevate and promote cider!

Cider Judges for Great American International Cider Competition 2023