It should have been easy. Our home turf is the Northeast, it was fall and consequently apple harvest season, we’re champions of local farms: let’s do an apple cider tasting! A few weeks ago, we procured a selection of ciders from local orchards and weighed in. Now, all of us have participated in one or another of wine, cheese, chocolate or coffee samplings and we came armed with enthusiastic tastebuds and copious adjectives, but the exercise proved to be more daunting than we had anticipated.
The Apple Cider Challenge
For starters, we quickly determined that because many apple ciders are similar, we needed a benchmark, a neutral entry against which others could be measured by comparison: sweeter than, tarter than, lighter or heavier body than. Having failed to do so, we remedied that situation by revisiting candidates numerous times. Fortunately fresh apple cider is delicious (we all agreed on that) and no one complained!
Quantifying (on a 1 to 5 scale) the subjective is also a tricky proposition: one person’s 5 is another’s 4 so we relied on comments to help bring the numbers into focus and equalize individual idiosyncrasies.
Eighteen tasters reviewed ten samples from nine orchards in six categories including aroma, body, sweetness, tartness, depth of apple flavor and the all-important overall assessment. Among our samples were a variety of pasteurized, unpasteurized and UV-treated ciders as well as some with and without the preservative potassium sorbate.
In order to kill harmful bacteria, most New York State apple cider is either treated with ultraviolet light or pasteurized. Pasteurization involves bringing the temperature of the cider up to 160° F for a few seconds. Exposing cider to UV light has the same effect without the need to heat up the product. In theory, pasteurization should not affect its flavor and our tests against UV ciders and an unpasteurized, non-UV treated cider confirmed that. By the same token, the presence or absence of potassium sorbate (used to prevent yeast colonies from reproducing) did not influence taste.
We identified four categories: obvious winners, a group that placed in the middle of the pack, an also-ran and an outlier.
New York's Best Ciders
According to our rankings, the best in show went to:
- Wilklow Orchards (“sweet,” “delish”)
- Migliorelli Farm (“well balanced,” “excellent”) and
- Red Jacket Orchards (“fruity,” “full-bodied”).
Ciders in the middle group each had their own character but averaged about the same in terms of overall evaluation. These included:
- Williams Fruit Farm (one taster pronounced it “pineapple-y”)
- Race Farm (unpasteurized, not UV treated, no preservatives)
- Samascott Orchards (a lot of variation on this one ranging from “sweet” to “meh”; some tasters identified unusual flavors like “caramel notes” and “smoky”)
- Phillips Farms (“refreshing”) and
- Treelicious Orchards (one person said “most apple-like”)
Our panel of tasters universally disliked Crow Hill (pressed at the orchard of W.H. Walker & Son) submitting observations of “muddy” and “dirty.” Well, somebody has to come in last.
The outlier was Red Jacket Orchards Fuji, pressed only from Fuji apples. Comments revealed that testers didn’t quite know what to make of it – it was obviously very different from the rest, but neither a standout nor a complete loser, and it ran with the middle group of contenders. This one garnered a lot of specific descriptions, including “pear flavor,” “like sweetened applesauce,” “lemony,” “citrusy” and “tastes like popsicles.”
It’s worth noting here that although clear apple juice and unfiltered apple cider are both healthful beverages, some studies have shown antioxidant benefits of cider ranging from 1.5 to 10 times as effective as clear juice.
The Economic Case for Cider
Obviously, we didn’t delve into the world of hard cider at our tasting, but it is experiencing a meteoric rise. Organizations like Glynwood and its Apple Project are taking the lead in the stewardship of apple orchards in the Hudson Valley by stimulating public awareness and interest in hard cider, fostering the diversification of apple varieties and supporting farmers. But for all apple varieties, cider production can be a boon for small orchards struggling to stay in business since value-added products tend to have a higher profit margin, and it brings another product to their bottom line in addition to selling whole fruit.
DIY Cider Ranking
And yes, kids, you can try this at home! Invite your friends for an apple cider tasting of your own. Get a few varieties from local orchards, obscure the labels (see photo), provide pencil and paper, and rate your ciders from best to, well, least best. (They’re all pretty good when you’re not subjecting them to close scrutiny.) You’ll probably have some left over, and it will most likely be the less favored of the lot. No problem. Make hot mulled apple cider, the perennial favorite for warming up chilly evenings.
Recipe: Hot Mulled Cider
Preparing it couldn’t be easier: in a saucepan, combine apple cider along with a few cinnamon sticks, a couple of allspice berries and whole cloves, and for a change of pace, a few crushed cardamom pods. Some folks like to toss a little orange peel (avoid the white pith) or even sliced oranges into the brew.
Bring to a simmer. Inhale deeply. Now close your eyes and picture your favorite Currier and Ives print.