Fruit & Vegetable Magazine

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Judging ciders is “not always apples to apples”

February 14, 2024  By Alex Barnard

Evan Elford examines one of the cider competition entries. Photos by Fruit & Vegetable.

Apple cider is serious business for those who love it. The annual Ontario Sweet Apple Cider Competition, held on Jan. 31, is a time to honour the hard work put into a cider – and to taste-test to find the best of the best.

The 2024 competition was hosted at the Simcoe Research Station in Simcoe, Ont., by Erika DeBrouwer, OMAFRA tree fruit specialist, Kristy Grigg-McGuffin, OMAFRA apple IPM specialist, and Kelle Neufeld, marketing co-ordinator with the Ontario Apple Growers.

Most of the judges returned from last year, with a couple veterans having several years under their belts. They know their apples, with the six judges covering growers, industry, research and extension:

  • Mandy Beneff, University of Guelph pomology specialist;
  • Amanda Dooney, co-owner and manager of Suncrest Orchards;
  • Evan Elford, OMAFRA new crop development specialist;
  • Lisa Herrewynen, general manager of the Norfolk Fruit Growers’ Association;
  • Rachael LeBlanc, research scientist with Vineland Research and Innovation Centre; and
  • Josh Mosiondz, OMAFRA minor use co-ordinator.

Lisa Herrewynen is deep in contemplation of a cider’s aroma.

Five ciders were entered this year – down from the eight entries of last year, which was the first year the competition returned post-COVID, as well as the first year the judging was held a few weeks prior to the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention (OFVC).

What do judges look for in a cider? As Beneff noted after the initial judging round, comparing the different ciders is “not always apples to apples.” There can be a great deal of variation amongst the sweet ciders, even when the basic components are the same. Judges are given several criteria for scoring each cider, but personal preference can play a role. A couple of the judges consciously took their preferences out of the scoring when a cider better fit the criteria but wasn’t their personal favourite.

After all, determining the ideal sugar/acid balance depends on whether you prefer a sweeter or tarter cider – to an extent. The judges all go through a brief education session on what to “look for” to establish a common ground from which to judge. Colour also plays a large role when choosing between the ciders, though not prohibitively – flavour and sweet/acid balance are more important in the scoring than visual impression.

Elford mentioned that, after his first year of judging in 2023, he wanted to better describe a cider’s qualities and nuances. So, he took it upon himself to improve his vocabulary, and in doing so found he could taste and smell different elements during this year’s competition.

The competition was tight, with the top three scoring within five points of each other after the first round. Want to know whose cider reigns supreme? The results will be announced at cider session at OFVC on Feb. 21.

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