by Sara Harvey, Food and Beverage Director
Capitol Cider was once again the host of the SIP NW Magazine, annual cider competition – and I was lucky enough to get a seat on the judge’s panel. Led by editor Erin James, the competition is a yearly round up of some of the best, the brightest, and the most interesting products in the cider world. While we won’t know who won until the release of the names in October, the details of the event are worth a mention.
More than 130 ciders were submitted to the judging panel, with categories including but not limited to, single-varietal, hopped, fruit, and experimental (a fascinating catch-all of weird, wild, and wondrous). We worked through multiple groups of blind tastings, and with a haste usually geared towards the last section of the SATs, we pushed through each and every glass and bottle presented. And then went home for a nap afterward.
Having spoken about cider pairings, been through the national Cider Certification Program, and working with cider (and pairings) on a daily basis as part of my job, I felt pretty qualified. That is until I sat down across from a very well-known local beverage expert, and realized I was next to a hugely popular beverage blogger. That put me back in my place before the first glass was dropped down in front of me. And the glasses didn’t stop coming!
We were asked to focus on a number of different aspects of the cider – appearance, aroma, flavor, bubbles, overall impression, finish, mouth feel, and more. While these methods of appraisal are not new to me, doing it without a vague idea of who or what the cider might be is uncharted territory. And it changed things.
Blind tastings are so critical to honest review, I wonder why we don’t do more of them. And this experience has really excited me about doing more of them with our staff. When the label comes off and the glasses are on the table, it’s amazing what happens. In the restaurant business we focus so much on margins, on balance of producers on a menu, and on even and consistent offerings. Removing all of those brackets opened up the possibilities.
This process was a nice re-exposure for my own palate. Tasting the ciders at cellar temperature, rather than chilled down also changed the experience for me. It is customary for us to serve draft at a specific temperature, and to chill down all the bottles that we serve. Some of the ciders tasted lost what I assume was the crispness they were geared towards ending up a little flat on the tongue and empty in the flavor box, while many more opened up in a way that red wine drinkers will recognize as a bottle being allowed to breathe.
With a few tastes I had the feeling that this was definitely something I knew, and afterwards when we judges were stuffing our slightly-buzzed faces with fermented garlic chicken wings, grain salads, and more delicious treats from the Capitol Cider kitchen, I found a consensus among my fellow cider-heads. “This was definitely the so-and-so hopped, but how disappointing when compared with the cup of that really light golden cider with the tiny bubbles!”
My personal favorite was the fruit category. I have always been a sucker for a tart red cider. These ciders are so variable with the season changes and what comes out of the orchards, a cold early summer will yield tarter fruit with higher tannins, and a hot wet American summer will leave the berries juicy and bursting with sugars. This year was not disappointing, and we experienced a wide range of fruit-forward ciders and delicate blends alike.
In the last five years, hopped ciders exploded on the scene, with the flavor balance being a great bridge between beer and cider, for those who have yet to experience a graff of course. I remember the first bottle of Anthem Hops I ever drank, (it is what I credit with turning me from a French method wino, into a PNW dedicated cider guzzling fanatic), it seems to have ended up in an interesting world. There was a lot more aromatic blends of hops, citrus-heavy hops, and sweeter ciders with fresh hops than I was prepared for. I left the category with a new appreciation of what makes a great hopped cider really great. For me, it’s a magical blend of both crisp and clean, it’s bright green and unheavy on the finish. It’s classic with a twist.
If there is anything I took away from my experience at the SIP NW cider judging, it is that while I have a good palate, and a solid understand of cider and cider production, there is a wide and wild world out there that calls, beckons, and begs for more tasting, more experimentation, more openness in me as a drinker, and in all of us. As cider expands from the niche corners of the coasts, it is morphing into a truly American beverage, again (thanks prohibition). With Pho flavored brews (far from my favorite, but that keg sold out so fast it made my head spin when it was on draft) with spicy ciders popping up across the country, and syrupy sweet dessert ciders making a mark on the North East, with French Champagne method leading it’s own charge in the movement on both coasts, with brewers and vintners going orchard to orchard, with the shift in focus in the world of food towards fermenting and organic as things that aren’t just trendy, they’re hugely impactful – this is just the beginning of the future of beverage, and cider is front and center.