Many of you have probably been to, or are at least familiar with, Franklin County CiderDays, a multi-day cider event for makers, growers, and consumers alike, held in beautiful Western Massachusetts right at the peak of fall in New England. Just before the holidays, I was presented with the amazing opportunity of judging my very first cider competition, the CiderDays Amateur Cider Competition.
This annual competition is the largest non-commercial cider only competition in North America and was held in Deerfield, Massachusetts on December 7th. This year was the 8th year for this amateur competition. Where CiderDays, and other popular cider competitions, may invite amateurs to participate, at large they are primarily commercial. CiderDays has been bringing people of the cider industry, both experienced and first-time cider makers, together for 25 years. The Amateur Competition, however, was created to allow amateur cider makers to get feedback using a standard set of guidelines, the Beer Judge Certification Program Cider Style Guidelines. The competition receives entries from across the country, as well as Canada, and this year was presented with just over a hundred entries over 11 different categories. Entrants may send in one or more cider and must specify which category they are entering under, as well as their intended carbonation and sweetness levels. They also have the option to list which apple varieties or other special ingredients were used. From there, a panel of judges ranging from apprentice to BJCP judges, to cider and wine professionals split into groups by category, taste through a selection of ciders, and judge them based on the style guidelines of their designated sub-category.
The competition began with a calibration round, to ensure that all of the judges were scoring fairly within an acceptable range. Once that was complete, we were broken into our groups and began tasting. For the first portion, I was in a group of four, consisting of Paul Correnty, Peter Mitchell of Headwater Cider, and Philippe Rigollaud, responsible for judging ciders from C1A: New World Cider. We would each taste a cider, fill out our score sheets, and then discuss our opinions to be sure, again, that we were all within an acceptable range of one another and were all sticking to the scoring guidelines. Once we tasted through and scored roughly 15 or so ciders, it was time for lunch. We had a delicious spread consisting of homemade goods such as butternut squash soup, fresh salad with cider vinaigrette (how appropriate), roast chicken, and quinoa salad.
After lunch, it was time for phase two. This time, I was a part of another group of four; myself and three different people from the first round. Here, we judged ciders from C2A: New England Cider. Following the same process as before, we would each taste a cider, write our comments and scores, and then discuss. After each group judged each of their categories, there was a mini Best of Show for each sub-category. For this, the top-scoring ciders from the sub-category would go through a second phase of judging to determine the mini Best of Shows. I was able to judge a mini Best of Show for one category to determine the cider that made it to the final round: Best of Show. Once each mini Best of Show was selected, a panel convened to narrow down the top ciders, and the ultimate winner, of the competition. Each year at CiderDays, the previous year’s winner is announced and commended for their achievement.
This takes place approximately 11 months after the competition’s occurrence but is still a highlight of CiderDays. Over the past 8 years of the amateur competition, three entrants have gone on to open their own commercial cideries. The first of these cider makers was Tyler Graham, who founded King’s Highway Fine Cider in Brooklyn, NY. The second was Daniel Haykin of Colorado, who opened Haykin Family Cider. Finally, just this year, William Grote of Boston, started New Salem Cider. All in all, it was an interesting process, is that all of the entries were amateur-level, so you wanted to be generous and understanding, but also provide constructive feedback when necessary. Additionally, it was nice as simple and straight forward as going to your favorite taproom or cracking open a can or bottle with friends and simply saying “too sweet for me” or “I’m not a huge fan of the funky wild fermentation,” but rather you have to judge based on the agreed-upon descriptors for the categories and sub-categories.
I would like to extend a huge thank you to Mark Gryska for organizing this competition and for finding me at a local cider sampling event and inviting me to participate as an apprentice judge. Also, thank you to the wonderful people I met at the event, you have proved to me once again that this is an amazingly friendly, supportive, and fun industry to be a part of and I am so appreciative of all that I learned over the course of the day. I now can’t wait to be involved in more cider judging events in the future! To view this year’s results, click here.