Cider sensory analysis with Peter Mitchell
Peter Mitchell is an internationally recognized authority in cider and perry, from making to tasting and judging. His company, Mitchell F&D Limited, offers consultation, training and tours — all focused on ciders and perrys.
Mitchell makes an annual trek to Washington State (all the way from the UK!) for cider consultations and training sessions. On Tuesday, with thanks to SBS Imports, I attended one of these sessions.
Three things I learned from Mitchell:
- There is no official definition of sweet, semi-sweet, semi-dry, and dry in ciderland. Mitchell said, “There is no definition of what is sweet and what is dry — and there likely will never be.” Why? Because people have different palates.
- We don’t have many spritzy hard ciders due to the “bubble tax.” Essentially, the same excise tax applied to wine applies to cider, so the more bubbles, the higher the taxes, the higher the cost to the consumer. And folks don’t want to pay premium prices for their hard apple ciders. Our Federal Tax Rate is ~$1.07 per gallon for low/still carbonation, verses a tax rate of ~$3.40 per gallon for champagne-like carbonation. That’s more than three times as much tax revenue just to get a little carbonation in my alcoholic cider that’s reminiscent of Martinelli’s Sparkling Cider. Crazy, eh?!
- Cider doesn’t hide its faults. Just because there may be an unpleasant aromatic, doesn’t mean the cider is “bad.” Any offensive aromatics typically disappear once you take a sip…or two.
Sensory analysis of cider
When you put something in your mouth, you get three basic things: flavor (taste and aroma), tactile feeling inside the mouth (mouth feel), and aftertaste. When analyzing color, aromatics, flavor and feeling, use objective terms to describe the flavor rather than subjective — “nice” and “good” don’t tell a person what to expect.
Aroma is a two-stage process: First smell it still in the glass. Think about the aroma. Next, give it a swirl and reconsider what you smell. Taste. Think about the flavors. Smell again, then taste. Bitter lingers around a bit longer than sweetness and tends to coat the mouth a bit. How does the cider feel in the mouth? Astringency makes the teeth feel cleaned, dry — the tannins make the cider astringent and bitter.
Mitchell says, “A major fault in cider is volatile acidity, which gets into cider vinegar in flavor profile.”
Now on with the cider analysis…
Red Barn Sweetie Pie, Washington
Appearance is almost clear, just a hint of yellow, like pale straw. This cider’s made with a dessert apple called Gravenstein. Small carbonation. Ring of foam around the glass. Legs or tears form in the glass, which “is partly linked to alcohol levels,” according to Mitchell. He also notes the sugar levels can do this. Sweet apple flowers, cidery with a lightly alcoholic aroma. This is 7% ABV. Put some into the mouth, and think about the taste. This cider tastes sweet and sour.
A student comments on the yeasty, cidery character of the nose. Per Mitchell, “A bready-yeasty hint indicates sulphur.” And “cidery” as a descriptor is recognized as a term. Someone in the room says, “It kind of reminds me of my mom’s apple pie.” Mitchell says that people automatically get that as red. Another student comments on “A kind of acidic note and a faint earthiness.” Mitchell calls this a little SO2 coming thru — again, that sulphur. Mitchell says, “There’s a little candy-pear estery coming thru, like a Jolly Roger.”
Out of the Orchard, United Kingdom
This cider is one of Mitchell’s and is not available for purchase in the USA. Appearance is deep-gold straw colored. Fine groups of bubbles rim the glass. Aroma is a bit more like over-ripe apples, alcohol, and a bit perfumey. It’s a bit …solvent… that’s the word I’m searching for. A bit like wet wood. A touch of caramel comes out on the swirl. This is 6.5% ABV. The taste is bittersweet apple. The finish is bitter, with a bit of toffee, and an appley lingering aftertaste.
Other students comment about “spent grass, slightly dry and grassy notes” and the earthy aromatics when sitting still. Woody. Mitchell says of the aroma, “The French call this ‘swoo-vah’ — it’s the aroma you get when walking in the apple orchard at fall when there are over-ripe apples lending toward rot.” Mitchell adds, “Brett is a big swear word,” in reference to winemakers. “Brett is also called cidery, can create farm/barn notes and aromas like Band-Aid.” These types of Phenolics can work well in ciders. He continues, “Some citrusy orange-peel notes as well, a little bit of toffee and caramel, plus cidery notes. The sweet comes in first, then sour. The sweet passes quickly though, so you might need to look for it. Bitterness comes in late, but tends to linger a bit.”
This cider has a tannic astringency and is a little buttery on the mouth, giving it a slightly slick feel. Mitchell describes this as “chewiness.”
Both Sweetie Pie and Out of the Orchard could be described as “bright,” according to Mitchell.
According to Mitchell, in wine, normally tannins don’t pair well with hot and spicy foods, but he says this tannic cider pairs great with a good curry. (And I notice Mitchell gives a quick lick of his chops. With this Pavlovian response, a tannic cider with a good curry must really be the bomb!)
Snowdrift Dry Cider, Washington
Color is a dull gold. Lightly harsh aromatics, like a hint of paint thinner — though I don’t mean this in a bad way — perhaps, “phenolic” would be the nicer term. Apples with a bit of butterscotch. It’s reminiscent of dried apples. Sour, bitter, and sweet. This 8.8% ABV cider is an artisan product; turn over each bottle and you will see the cider maker’s bottling date, hand written.
Mitchell and the students comment on: Oxidized apples. “Spiritous” in aromatics. The slight gray around the edge of the glass indicates oxidation. (I will have to remember this!) The flavors and aromatics of sherry, raisins, and preserved and dry fruits also indicate oxidation. And papery, cardboard notes indicate oxidation as well. When commenting on the oxidized notes, Mitchell says, “It’s lost a lot of fresh fruit — that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an unpleasant drink.” Students comment, “Estery. Caramel, toffee. Floral, winey.” And Mitchell responds, “The wine you’re picking up here is more like red wine. Winey is a term reserved for white wine character.” Mitchell says, “This could take more sweetness as a product” in reference to the aromatics indicating a sweeter note will be present on the palate. He continues, “What I tend to find with a lot of artisanal products is that they tend to be quite dry.”
Hardcore Apple Cider, Massachusetts
This is a commercially produced cider by the Boston Beer Company. Aroma is a hint of animal feed grain, with a bit of apple. Taste is short, sweet candied apple. Light bodied.
Mitchell says of the aroma, there is a “burnt rubber, vegetative, sulphury note. This could be a result of faster fermentation, not getting the nutrient balance.” He suspects the main ingredient is apple concentrate, or at least some of it is concentrate. “It’s designed as a commercial drink, to do what it is to do: Be a session drink.”
Tieton Apricot Cider, Washington
Color is pale straw, with a tinge of orange. Big fresh apricot aroma. Flavor is bright and fruity apricot and fresh apple, with toffee notes. It’s bubbly, with a soft, creamy mouthfeel.
This is a new product from Tieton Cider Works. Mitchell asks, “Would anyone want this sweeter?” Negative responses throughout the room. “It works really well [as-is].”
Crispin Browns Lane, United Kingdom for export to USA
Bright straw gold. Cidery. Caramel. Bittersweet. Bubbly, clean. Short. Sessionable.
Mitchell has been looking forward to trying Browns Lane. As it is made specifically for export to the USA, it isn’t available in the UK. He explains that Frosty Jack’s is the primary cider produced by the company that produces Browns Lane for Crispin, and that they’re known for producing lower-quality ciders in the UK. Of Browns Lane he says, it’s “…made from bittersweet apples and does a pretty good job of it. Completely inoffensive. A well-made, pretty well balanced cider.”
Alpenfire Spark, Washington
Alpenfire is the only certified organic cidery in Washington State. This cider has a cloudy, straw color. Aroma is grassy, with aldehydes (paint-like smell). Flavor is earthy, apples, sweet and tart, with some fusels.
Somehow I missed jotting down classroom discussion about this cider…and only have Mitchell’s confirmation on “aldehydes” on the nose. Perhaps the cider was kicking in?!
This bottle-conditioned, French-style cider is available in Oregon. It smells like olives…and tastes a bit like olives too, at first sip. So weird. As I drink, the flavor becomes more appley, with notes of tropical fruit. This is interesting. 6% ABV, with soft bubbles.
In reference to the olive-resemblance, Mitchell says, “Because it’s nutrient-deficient, you’re getting a lot of aldehydes in here — also floral, perfume. This is characteristic of this fermentation method.” He adds, “French ciders are designed to be drank extremely young.”
Pale yellow in color with a hint of grey around the edges. Sweet, honeysuckle-strawberry aroma, with hint of apple. There’s also a berry-like flavor. It’s light on the palate, balanced, and lightly sweet.”
Of this cider’s aroma, Mitchell says, “strawberries… strawberry jam actually, like cooked strawberries.” He also comments, “There is some oxidation on this cider.” This cider was provided by Sharon from Tieton Cider Works; she had it shipped to a friend in Oregon as the cidery doesn’t ship to Washington State.
Aspall Dry Draft Cider, United Kingdom
Lots of sulphur on the nose. There is a bit of a greenish hue to the straw color. Cidery, with notes of mustard.
Mitchell gives us the history of this cider: “This cider is from Suffolk, England. Most apples grown in that part of England are dessert apples, grown for eating. The family used to live in Jersey, but when they fled there due to religious persecution, they brought along their cider apple trees. They now use a combination of dessert and cider apples in most their ciders.” Regarding the sulphur character, he comments that “due to popularity of ciders, that sometimes cider fermentation is pushed resulting in this sulphury character on the nose.” A student comments that the cider is a bit “mustardy” on the flavor. (Yes, I get that too!)
Tieton Blend Dry Cider, Washington
An earthy, spent-grassy manure, rind-like, herbaceous aroma. I’ve had this cider before and don’t recall the aromatics being this distinct. Taste is dry, apply and balanced.
Not much commentary on this cider, other than chatter about the “grapefruit rind” and “herbal” aromatics, as everyone seemed eager to proceed to the Basque cider.
Isastegi Sagardo Naturala, Spain
This is a still cider with a flavor reminiscent of cider vinegar. These Basque ciders are meant to pairs with food — especially really fatty food — and are a bit tough to drink as session ciders. We’ve had this cider in store before and it’s a really tough sell, taking quite a while to sell through a case of 12 bottles.
Isastegi is “…immediately recognizable as a farm cider and as a Spanish cider. As we say in the business, this is quite high on the volatiles,” says Mitchell. “It has been in oak barrels. It had a lot of air exposure during fermentation. What you pick up in the nose is acetic acetate.” He continues, “In Spain you never drink to the bottom of the glass, you simply throw the remaining onto the floor.” Sharon says, “Yes, and your ankles get so sticky!”
Samuel Smith Organic Cider, United Kingdom
The aroma is of butterscotch and buttered popcorn. Flavor is buttered popcorn and apples. There’s lacing on the side of the glass and on top of the cider, which wasn’t seen in the others.
Of this cider, Mitchell says: “This is always oxidized. It’s a sign of being made by brewers — there’s a beer-like character about it. The other unfortunate thing…is that they commonly suffer from ‘mousiness’, which is caused by lactic acid bacteria. You drink it, swallow it, and wait. In less extreme conditions, it’s like buttered popcorn. In extreme conditions, it’s like licking the bottom of a gerbil cage.” Mitchell gives a tip on how to get the true nature of a cider: “Dissolve a couple of tablespoons of baking soda into water, rinse your mouth with it, then drink the cider.”
Mitchell closes the sensory review with this thought: “Commercial ciders are generally well done, sessionable. Artisanal are more expressive, have more character.”