Judging An Apple By Its Skin
You can't judge an apple by looking at the tree
You can't judge honey by looking at the bee
You can't judge a sister by looking at her brother
You can't judge a book by looking at the cover
Oh can't you see, oh, well, you misjudged me
I look like a farmer but I'm a lover
You can't judge a book by looking at the cover
Written by Willie Dixon and first released by Bo Diddley in 1962, “You Can’t Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover” isn’t the longest song title in history, but it’s got potential. It popped into my head for two reasons. First, I was cleaning out the garage today and came across my Willie Dixon 2-CD box set complete with booklet. I was glad to have an excuse to fire those up. All I needed was a CD player (and therein lay the problem). Second, I’m seeing these constant reminders of the impending arrival of GLINTCAP 2018. I’m pretty upset that I can’t attend this year.
Judging at GLINTCAP last year was an awesome experience. I made some new friends, tried some fantastic ciders and got a much better understanding of how hard it is to comprehend cider as a category. The consistent point of discussion I had with my fellow judges was what guidelines to use when judging the ciders placed before us.
The challenge is that cider style guidelines are behind the trend of experimentation within the category. This is a problem that beer has faced over the years as well. The New England IPA trend has been happening for five years. The Brewers Association just gave it it’s own official style category back in March of this year. GABF judges had to decide between 408 different American-Style India Pale Ales at last year’s competition, but only 41 entries in the Imperial Red Ale category. How many of those 408 were hazy? How many more decided to avoid the crowded American IPA category and go for an alternate category like American-Style Strong Pale Ale (182), American-Style Pale Ale (199) or even Imperial India Pale Ale (221)?
With cider that challenge is intensified. There are many more types of apples and many more additives and adjuncts that can be included in cider. Our instructions were to use the style guidelines to the best of our ability and make our decisions based on the information we had. I judged the Heritage Cider - Dry category twice (including once in the medal round) and the Specialty Cider and Perry category twice.
The Heritage Cider Dry category was a bit easier to judge for me. It’s the category I have a lot of appreciation for. These are the ciders that most easily show wine-like qualities. The Specialty Cider and Perry category is essentially the dump bucket. That’s not to say the quality of cider in this category is poor - quite the reverse; there’s some excellent experimental results in this category. However, it’s a hodgepodge of interesting flavors and aromas. To prove my point, these are the descriptors from one flight last year:
Pear cider with hops
Blend of apple juice and pear juice. Hibiscus and rose petals.
Hibiscus, rose buds, rose petals, toasted oak.
Cider blended with raspberry wine, cranberry wine and blueberry wine.
Cider with bourbon flavoring.
Granny Smith apples. Lemongrass and ginger.
Brettanomyces and Saccharomyces apple/honey fermentation. Aged on red plums with Lactobacillus and Pediococcus cultures.
Cider aged on cardamom and oak. Backsweetened with pear juice.
Infused with maple syrup. Unfiltered.
Applewine. 100% Honeycrisp.
How is anyone supposed to judge a cider made from honeycrisp apples against a cider that’s a blend of apple and pear juice with hibiscus and rose petals? Seriously. It’s not fair to the judge. It’s not fair to any of the other producers and it’s not fair to the competition because it bring subjectivity to what should be an objective challenge. Furthermore, there's no good solution to this problem because there's so many flavor avenues being explored.
But that’s only half the problem. The other half is that the style guidelines tell the judge this:
The cider character must always be present, and must fit with added ingredients.
So, exactly how does hibiscus, rose buds, rose petals and toasted oak leave cider character present? Having tasted it, I can tell you that it doesn’t. It’s delicious and really well balanced, but when you’re dealing with adjuncts that are that powerful, keeping cider character is not a likely goal. Maintaining balance is the more difficult challenge.
This is not to blame the style guidelines or the competition. There were roughly 1200 entries in last year’s GLINTCAP, so a sample of these eleven might seem to be cherry picking extreme examples. However, nearly 15% of last year’s entries (167) fell into the Specialty Cider & Perry category, making it the largest volume entry category for last year’s GLINTCAP.
GLINTCAP does offer several categories to house these potential creations already. There’s Natural (Sour) Cider, Fruit Cider, Wood-Aged Cider, Wood-Aged Specialty Cider, Hopped Cider and Spiced Cider categories already. What’s next? Herbal Cider? Floral Cider? Maybe broaden the language of the Wood-Aged ciders to include any cider with wood aging (including perry) even if there are multiple fruits or if it’s wild fermented? Maybe broaden the Sour/Natural Cider category to include any wild fermented cider or perry?
I don’t envy the challenge that judges face for any cider competition and I definitely can’t envy for the competition organizers for the challenge they have in trying to keep up with an industry that changes quickly. It’s an immense challenge. GLINTCAP, for example, has made a number of category changes over the years in an effort to maintain the integrity of their competition. I would encourage any organizer to continue their efforts to keep up with trends. Likewise, I would encourage entrants to consider the challenge the organizers and judges face and enter ciders that run closer to style guidelines. This way the judges can literally be comparing apples to apples.
Information from glintcap.org was used in creating this post.