Cider Tasting and Judging

The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) officially launched their much awaited cider judge program early this year after years of testing and tweaking. In case you’re not familiar with the BJCP, it’s a program based out of the US that certifies beer, mead and cider judges. The cider judge program is endorsed by the United States Association of Cider Makers (USACM). At the time of publishing, there are only 23 BJCP cider judges, out of which only two are Canadian.

Ciders are fermented from apples and perries are fermented from pears. More similar to wine and mead, cider is all about balance. How well do the elements of sweetness, acidity, tannin, alcohol work together? Similar to wine where a grape flavour is not necessarily the prominent flavour, ciders and perries do not necessarily need to have overtly fruity aromas or/ and flavours.

BJCP cider scoresheet with common cider off flavour descriptors on the left.

I took the cider tasting exam in Baltimore, MD in 2016 at HomebrewCon (I actually did all three tasting exams then, when all the tastings exams each had their own time slot. Now they usually run them all at the same time at HomebrewCon.), and it was my weakest tasting exam score at 76. I didn’t have much experience tasting a lot of ciders or talking about the flavour, but had quite a fair bit of beer judging experience at that point of time, which definitely help me get a fairly decent score for my cider exam.

Victor North, newly minted BJCP cider judge and Niagara College’s Brewmaster Support Liaison, agrees. “The good news for beer judges is that being familiar with beer judging will serve you very well! Still, the scoresheets are different, the evaluation is different, and the notion of balance in the beverage is more like that of mead or wine than that of beer. But the methodology is familiarly “BJCP” and the tasting skills you have developed for beer are fundamentally the same for any beverage. It is more like learning a second language than learning to speak, read, & write for the first time.”

Prepping for the cider tasting exam took North a bit of time. “I started with the guidelines, of course, and then read all the supplementary information from the BJCP. (http://dev.bjcp.org/exam-certification/cider-judge-program/cider-exam/) which was great to have! From there, I bought various ciders, practiced completing scoresheets, and held mock exams. I think it is very helpful to have a friend purchase and pour ciders for you blind, if possible, in a practice exam. It’s even better if you can get friends to sit the practice exam with you! Then you can compare notes, seeing if your perceptions were similar, what aspects of your scoresheets might be improved, and discuss how your collective feedback could be enhanced, when the exam is over.”

Off flavours have always been challenge for me to pick up and articulate, especially when I was studying for the beer tasting exam, so I wanted to try and pinpoint a few more distinctive cider off flavours. Diacetyl is a note that is often present in cider, and generally not perceived as an off flavour like in beer, as long as it is not overpowering.

Tetrahydropyridine (THP) is another one which overlaps in ciders and can be found in sours and kettle sours, and it’s described to be mousy, like a dirty mouse cage. This was a fairly new cider off flavour to me, as it comes across not quite unpleasant—it’s more like a grainy, Cheerios on the nose, and a flat, sour, grainy, hay flavour.

For North, it’s malolactic fermentation (MLF). “The biggest shift in potential off-flavour perception for me in cider was MLF, which can produce a funkiness that is so similar, but also distinct, from Brett funks. To me, it is way less barnyard and has more of smokey-sulphuric character.”

For those who are thinking about taking the leap and getting cider judge certified, North says to go for it. “As mentioned before, cider is different from beer, mead, or grape wine, but they are all similar in some respects, and there is much each discipline can learn from each other! This is one of the things I love about my work at Niagara College. We’re lucky to have wine, cider and mead makers on campus, alongside beer brewers and distillers! Not to mention all the culinary students and professors. I think that after you have spent a long time considering beer, you can learn more by actually shifting your focus away sometimes. AQ bit like how travel can sometimes help you understand your home country better. Taking a step into something unknown inevitably invites comparing and contrasting with the known, as well as putting what is already understood into a broader context. I have enjoyed studying mead and cider for their own right, but I am truly a beer person first and foremost, and I think studying mead and cider have helped me to better understand beer! So even if you are fully committed to beer, I believe that there is good reason to study and sit the BJCP cider exam.”

Kathy Yan Li is a director of the Canadian Homebrewers Association, and lives in Shilo, MB with her husband and dog Barkley. She is always looking for Canadian homebrewing and brewing content, so feel free to get in touch with her with ideas and suggestions.

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