Tasting Hard Cider: Method or Madness

I’m going to make a bold statement, I think most people don’t really understand how to taste food and drinks. That goes double for hard cider. Sure, you eat something and it tastes good, but when was the last time you tried a food you’ve never eaten. Would you be willing to eat duck fat gravy? What about ant eggs? When is the last time you tried a new fruit? Have you ever eaten lychee or dragonfruit? What is the food you hate the most? Why? If you are wondering, I eaten all the above and I dislike green peppers because the flavor seems to overwhelm everything else. I find raw onions often fall into the category as well. Also, our favorite breakfast place makes awesome biscuits and gravity using duck fat.

The list of food “I didn’t like” as a kid is too long to list. It’d be easier to say what I would eat. One of my running jokes with my wife goes something like this.

Broccoli Cheddar Quiche: Pairs well with Strawberry Blush Hard Cider
Broccoli Cheddar Quiche: Pairs well with Strawberry Blush Hard Cider

Sitting at the table eating a broccoli quiche.

  • ME: Broccoli is the work of the devil. I’d never eat broccoli, when I was a kid.
  • WIFE: I loved broccoli as a kid. Nobody ever made it.
  • ME: You were a weird little kid.
  • WIFE: We long ago established that I was a weird little kid.

As I look back, I wonder why there was so much stuff “I didn’t like”. We all have some food with a bad connotation, but the reality is that there were so many foods I wouldn’t try, and if I did try it, I didn’t “really” try it. My wife has always been a more adventurous eater. However, she never drank alcohol until much later in life. She doesn’t have an issue, she just never was interested. I had been making hard cider for years and she’d never tried it. I would make her sodas and non-alcoholic drinks for our parties. However, I was always disappointed that she wouldn’t even taste my cider to help me with blending to give feedback. I’d tell her she could spit it out like wine tasting to no avail. The point is that we all tend to raise barriers that prevent us from enjoying and experiencing life to its fullest, especially when it comes to food and drinks.

I’m not saying to eat thing that might make us sick or that are unsafe. I’m also not saying we should be gluttons. There is a method to eating and drinking to enjoy life and I’m not talking about gluttony. I’m talking about savoring what goes into our body just like we should savor the time we have. Madness is how most of us live our lives and it’s how most of us eat and drink. We eat and drink what is familiar. I like comfort food as much as anyone, but not everyday. There is a method to savoring life just like there is one to savoring food and drinks. To truly taste hard cider, you need to savor it. I’ve read some good books that include 7 or 9 steps to tasting wine or hard cider. For me, tasting hard cider is about 4 things: the look, the smell, the taste, and the finish.

Looking at a cider as you pour it and admiring its color and carbonation, means you are attuning your mind to tasting. You are or soon will be already forming an opinion about how that hard cider will taste. That is okay as long as you still do the next three steps. Smelling the cider will give you an even better idea of how it might taste. Tasting the cider definitely allows you to directly assess it but that’s not the end. The finish or that lingering taste and sensation you get after you swallow is the real end. Sometimes, it’s short and other times it’s long. Sometimes it’s multiple sensations like starting out bitter, moving to acidic, and ending with a drying element.

Drinking or eating without paying attention is really just madness. You aren’t savoring it, which means you’re not savoring life. Tasting hard cider together has caused my wife and I to experience so much more than we were experiencing, and we were already reasonably adventurous. But, it has grown our palate and our skills in pairing food. It has also made us better cooks and it’s definitely made me a better hard cider maker. It’s a challenge I try to convey to new hard cider makers and drinkers. I think the biggest challenge is breaking down the perception that hard cider should be sweet. I believe hard cider should be two things 1) Balanced and 2) Nuanced.

What does balanced mean? Currently, it’s believed that most of us taste four sensations: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. I’m ignoring umami or others that are being debated. For me, the classic four are the most critical to balancing hard cider. While science also tells us that taste buds are not dedicated to only specific sensations and that we don’t only experience these sensations in specific areas of the tongue, my anecdotal experience says that I tend to have better perceptions of sensations in different zones of my mouth and tongue. For example, I am usually better at perceiving bitter at the back of my tongue and throat. I perceive salty and sour more often on the sides of my tongue while I tend to perceive sweetness more at the front. This is similar to the classic tongue map that many were taught but now is considered incorrect.

Sensitivity Zones: Areas of the tongue that are often more sensitive.
Sensitivity Zones: Areas of the tongue that are often more sensitive.

Most hard ciders are not going to naturally be salty. That doesn’t mean you might not perceive salty but my guess is it might actually be a sour note and if you notice where in your mouth you perceive it, it could help you identify it. Next is to label it and share it. If you don’t think and say, I taste salt. You will be more likely to forget. If you don’t have someone with whom you can share that experience, you are less likely to learn. They may say, I taste sour and maybe not just sour, but the sour of yogurt, smoke, or old sweat. Now, you not only have potentially changed your perception of what you originally thought was salty to something much more specific and labled. At a minimum, you have something to debate and explore as you seek to identity and categorize that flavor.

Understanding what you are tasting will make you more aware and better able to judge whether you truly like or dislike something. It will also help you understand why you might like or dislike something. When you find hard ciders that balance these core sensations, you will find great tasting hard ciders. If you are making hard cider from store juice in the US, it will be made predominately from dessert apples, which are low on tannins and phenolic elements. They usually have decent sugar but this disappears when you ferment it. Hard cider is not naturally sweet. If you want apple and sweet, drink juice. Just like you wouldn’t expect wine to taste like concord grape jelly, you shouldn’t expect hard cider to taste like fresh pressed apple juice.

Hard cider that has a lot of acid, needs something to balance it. That can be sweet but it can also be salty or bitter. Salty is not normal, though I could conceive of someone developing a hard cider recipe with salt that tastes good. Normally, acidic hard cider is balanced with bitter and sweet. Balancing with sweet is most people’s first plan because they also want that apple juice taste. I challenge you to think of balancing it with bitter or the perception of sweet. Heavy toasted oak can add both bitter and sweet. Juices like cranberry, blueberry, elderberry, and pomegranate can add balancing bitters after they are fermented. It’s doesn’t take a lot to provide balance. This isn’t a mathematic formula where you divide the acidic by the residual sugar and multiply it by the phenolic compounds.

I’ve tasted hard ciders with 23 grams of sugar per 12 ounce bottle that tasted semi-sweet at most. However, that is a lot of sugar and not something I really want to drink regularly regardless of how I perceive it. Understanding what you taste and then thinking about how to create some balance is the most critical skill you can develop as a craft hard cider maker. It’s the foundation of making good and great hard ciders. It’s also not easy and like all things, requires practice to train your palate.

The other element of great hard cider is nuance. If your hard cider base is not balanced, it makes nuances hard to perceive. Nuances can come in the form of aroma like esters and phenols as well as taste. They make a hard cider complex and interesting when you drink it. Think of spaghetti. You can top it with a million different sauces and those sauces might be how you judge the pasta, but if the spaghetti is mushy or too hard, it doesn’t matter how fabulous the sauce is. At best, you will have an okay spaghetti. You need a solid base, and then you want to use that base to highlight the nuances of the sauce. You want a balanced hard cider base for the same reason. Sometimes, the nuance is the apples used and sometimes it is the adjuncts. That balanced base is critical for a good hard cider, but adding some nuances and flavors is what makes it a great hard cider.

Most everyone uses a store bought juice, adds some yeast, and makes there first hard cider. It will be okay but it will most likely be one or two dimensional. Hopefully, it’s good enough to make you want to keep making more. It’s understanding why it tastes like it does and seeking ways to balance it and by bringing more nuances into play that will move you from making good hard cider to great hard cider. Apples, yeast, adjuncts, and process all can impact the balance and nuance of a hard cider.

I hope I’ve inspired you to seek balance and nuance in your hard cider and to challenge you to expand your palate and understanding of what you eat and drink. That understanding will make you a better hard cider maker and will bring more joy to your life. Ultimately, there is a method to tasting hard cider so don’t live in a world of madness.

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