Two major cider and perry competitions took place over the weekend, the Big Apple Cider and Perry Trials and the CAMRA National Cider and Perry Championships. Both competitions are unusual in that many of the judges may have no prior judging experience: the entrants themselves form the judging panels at the the Big Apple trials, while ardent cider and perry enthusiasts form the judging panels at the CAMRA championships. I believe there’s an important lesson that North Americans can learn from these competitions, regardless of how the judges are chosen…keep reading to the end for my opinion.
The Big Apple Trials
The Big Apple Association is a non-profit organization that promotes interest in English apples and cider, celebrating all aspects of apples and orchards in the Marcle Ridges parishes of Herefordshire. They organize two major festivals: the Blossomtime festival typically held the first weekend in May and the Harvestime festival typically held the second weekend in October. The Harvestime festival appears to be the larger of the two, and the event schedule reminds me very much of the happenings at Franklin County CiderDays.
Herefordshire is a traditionally agrarian county and is often associated with its neighbors Gloucestershire and Worcestershire as the Three Counties. The Three Counties Cider and Perry Association and the Three Counties Perry Presidium work to promote the region’s products, and most of the world’s premier perrymakers call the Three Counties home: Dunkertons, Gregg’s Pit, Gwatkin, Lyne Down, McCrindle’s, Minchew, Orchard’s, Oliver’s, Once Upon A Tree, and Ross-on-Wye are just a few. Each county has PGI protected status under EU law for its cider and perry, and a product that is in compliance with the regulations can call itself Gloucestershire Perry or Herefordshire Cider and display the PGI logo on its label.
This year’s Cider and Perry Trials took place in Putley Village Hall as part of the Blossomtime festival. There were nearly 200 entries across nine different categories. Perhaps someone with inside knowledge can correct me, but I believe that each individual judge casts a vote of approval for the top three products in his or her category and then awards a star to the best product. The winners in each category are determined by totaling the number of votes and the number of stars for each product, with the number of stars serving as a tiebreaker if necessary. Winners of multiple awards this year include John Bramley, Nook’s Yard, Barbourne, Ralph’s, James Field, and Barnes and Adams. See the link at the top of the paragraph for the full results.
This year’s CAMRA National Cider and Perry Championships were held as part of the Reading Beer and Cider Festival, a four-day tasting festival which has perhaps the largest collection of ciders and perries to be found anywhere.
The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was highly influential in the 1970s and 1980s in preserving the unique British tradition of serving cask ale at cellar temperatures without additional gas pressure to dispense it. A kegged beer has finished its fermentation at the brewery and can be consumed immediately, while a cask ale continues to ferment after leaving the brewery and must be cared for by a well-trained cellar staff at the pub. Traditional cask ale is a beautiful thing and CAMRA deserves any accolades thrown its way for keeping “real ale” alive.
However, there is no such thing as a “real cider” despite what CAMRA would have you believe. All of the sugars in cider (and most of the sugars in perry) are fermentable, so the yeast will continue fermenting the cider to complete dryness rather than dying out with a good amount of residual sugars left (as in beer). Adding priming sugar to a cask ale results in natural carbonation, whereas adding priming sugar to a cask cider will likely result in an explosion!
So CAMRA made some rather arbitrary choices to define what real cider and real perry should be and then created a list of major offenders. Many of these producers are industrial in scale and their products are of no interest to those with sophisticated tastes, but most craft producers still find the definitions unhelpful and unnecessarily restrictive and few consumers pay CAMRA any mind when it comes to this.
CAMRA did publish an informative book on cider in 2009, but has not updated its Good Cider Guide directory since 2005; for comparison, CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide is published annually to much fanfare. And CAMRA has decided to support a minimum unit pricing plan on alcohol despite the fact that it will harm farmgate sales of cider. (Learn more about this issue from the Save Our Scrumpy campaign, particularly this moving video from legendary Somerset cidermakers Julian Temperley, Frank Naish, and Roger Wilkins.)
Getting back to this year’s competition, though…all six medalists are highly respected and it appears that quality ciders and perries wound up at the top of the heap:
Reading isn’t exactly the epicenter of English cider, but it’s nice to see that, year after year, CAMRA does a commendable job of rewarding the best cider and perry producers in the UK. (Nick from The Cider Blog tweeted his real-time tasting notes from Friday if you’d like to see what he drank!)
I find it interesting that there is no distinction made in English competitions between a “West Country” style product (made mostly with traditional cider apples and perry pears) and an “Eastern Counties” style product (made mostly with dessert and culinary fruit). Any distinction made is based on the residual sugar in the final product: dry ciders are judged against other dry ciders, sweet perries against other sweet perries, and so on.
The only major North American cider and perry judging, the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition, sorts the entries by style rather than by residual sugar. This strikes me as unusual because traditional cider apples and perry pears are in short supply in the US and Canada. I’m sure this choice is a result of the emphasis on style that is valued in the world of craft beer; the style guidelines for cider and perry are in fact published by the Beer Judge Certification Program.
My sense is that many well-crafted ciders in the US straddle the line between “common” and “English”. These dry, tannic ciders may not fare well as a “common” because they’re competing against sweeter, less astringent ciders. They may not fare well as an “English”, either, because they’re competing against ciders that use traditional cider apples such as Kingston Black or Yarlington Mill and ciders that may have been partially or completely fermented with wild yeasts. Few perries exist in the US, yet there is a distinction in the guidelines between “common” and “traditional” perry as well.
Perhaps it’s time for North Americans to judge cider and perry based on residual sugar rather than on a stylistic framework inherited from the world of beer?