Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Are you following the guidelines?

What has really thrilled me over the passed couple years is the opportunity to judge cider in a competition setting. I get to judge along side some real industry heavy weights, and find I am always learning something new. I have already been to two awards this year, and will be judging up at the Sydney Beer and Cider Show in September. Judging cider is not an easy task when completely new to the concept. You're looking for subtle differences in a cider which is part of a huge class that sometimes almost look identical to each other. It's easy to just try and compare cider to wine. But with cider, you're analysing malic acid, not tartaric and playing with sometimes ghastly amounts of sugar, be it real or fake. It's closely analysing textures, acidity, balance, carbonation, fruit intensity and most importantly style. I am a qualified Winemaker and have had sensory classes rammed down my throat at University. Without sounding too bigheaded, I am indeed trained in sensory evaluation, fault detections etc. This is perhaps why my reviews go so 'in-depth' by the fact I am picking up such tiny subtleties in a cider, which most punters would oversee or not care about. I have really honed in my skill on judging cider and am confident in my ability. So why am I saying this? There is a point I assure you. Let me explain:

As a producer, I believe you have every right to get your cider judged along side industry peers. It's great for the industry, and keeps the competitive juices flowing. It can give you a clear indication of where you are at in terms of style and quality, and can be a bit of fun when you win a medal. It can also help you with feedback to maybe tweak or sharpen up that next batch you're about to begin. What gets scrupulously worked on in the background to these shows is the determination of clear, set boundaries and rules which outline a class. What is a class? For example:

Class 1: Contemporary Dry
Class 2: Contemporary Medium
Class 3: Contemporary Sweet
Class 4: Traditional Dry
Class 5: Traditional Medium
Class 6: Traditional Sweet     

Within these classes, a sugar reading (gravity or residual sugar) is one of the determining factors to which category the cider goes into. This is the case for both apple and pear/perry cider. Pretty clear and concise if you think about it. Here's an example for cider used in shows across Australia:

Gravity

Dry: SG up to 1005
Medium: SG between 1005 and 1012
Sweet: SG 1012 and above


Residual Sugar - g/L

Dry: less than 9 g/L
Medium: 9 g/L - 40g/L
Sweet: Above 40 g/L

So these parameters/methods do change between shows, but very minutely. It is up to the discretion of the producer to enter into the right class when there is a obvious overlap or closeness in sugar parameters for that show. One could argue there needs to be Australian standardised sugar levels and units to determine classes in shows. Yes perhaps, but there really is not a huge difference.

Along with sugar level, Australian cider also currently has two distinct and recognised styles which also determines class:

Contemporary and Traditional. Here are the guidelines taken from the Melbourne Fine Food Awards (composed by Max Allen).

Contemporary Cider or Perry: made in a style that is in line with the broad contemporary Australian market; more likely to be lighter, cleaner and crisper to taste, with primary fruit flavours; more likely to be made from dessert apple or pear varieties, but can be made from bittersweet/traditional varieties; can be either sparkling or still. 

Traditional Cider or Perry: made in a style that is more in line with the cider and perry traditions of Europe; likely to be fuller, more chewy or tannic to taste, with secondary fruit flavours and ferment/maturation-derived characters (e.g. obvious influence of oak and/or oxidative handling); more likely to be made from bittersweet/traditional apple or pear varieties, but can also be made from dessert varieties; can be either sparkling or still

Bottle-fermented Cider or Perry: made in a style that is likely to show bottle-fermentation or bottle-condition derived characters such as yeastiness and persistent carbonation from methode champenoise production or natural residual sugar and soft, moderate carbonation from keeving.

Again, pretty clear and concise and bang on the money. It's fairly obvious where a producers cider would sit in terms of style. So what's my point? My point is the amount of ciders entered into wrong classes through means of being overly sweet in a dry class, or contemporary in a traditional class for example, is worrying. I am worried there are producers who don't know their product well enough. Could it be cider being entered in on behalf of a marketing sector -  enter large corporate ciders here.....? Having a contemporary cider which is back sweetened with Chinese concentrate entered into a traditional class, shows a complete lack of maturity and understanding of cider. It's these clueless producers who are in it for the $$$$, not the so called passion. If you can't read a set of thorough guidelines, printed in black and white and devised by industry professionals, then don't enter. Plain and simple. A cider made with desserts can be both contemporary and traditional, yes. But it's your methods of production which ultimately determine style. Same goes with cider apples. You can have both contemporary and traditional. Just because your cider is jam packed full of cider apples, doesn't instantly make it traditional in an Australian sense. Also, do some producers seriously think a highly processed, conc sweetened and filtered dessert cider is traditional? ummmm........  

We are lucky that a large per cent do get it right. Thank you to all those wonderful and coherent producers! But there's always some complete anomalies/aberrations which make you think where they drunk when they entered? Tasting sweet ciders in a dry class just mystifies me - it's like entering a moscato into a dry Riesling class in wine judging. The dry and sweet classes are the biggest culprits, with almost laughable outliers in some cases. We do judge them accordingly, but do they deserve a second chance? The contemporary medium apple cider class is by far the most populated class in every show. It usually accounts for over 60 per cent of the judging, and seems to be the most competitive and fairly accurate class. Perry is a different kettle of fish. I do hold some leniency with perry/pear cider due to the unfermentable sorbitol. This can show differences in perceived sweetness against analytical sweetness, potentially causing confusion. But it always helps to get a second opinion.    

I know as a judge, show organisers are doing everything they can to make these shows worthy, meaningful and creditable. Guidelines are tight, and are in black and white. But it's up to the rogue producers to get their heads around what they are actually entering, and enter correctly. As mentioned above, it's not too hard to follow the rules. If that means testing your ciders sugar at a lab before entering or getting advice on your style, then I recommend you do. If you're ever in doubt, contact the show organisers and they can point you in the right direction. I thank each and every producer for entering into shows and for giving it a go - don't get me wrong! Without you, these shows wouldn't exist. I want these competitions to have credit and be worth something to a producer. Let's all get on the same page and do what's right. But from a judges point of view, I want to see these silly mistakes abolished and taken seriously.   

Cheers!          

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