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.