The Finger Lakes Cider House is usually full of customers tasting during the weekend. But on a dark Tuesday night in November, a group of local cider makers gathered there around a long table to taste a collection of ciders from West County Ciders in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. Hosted by home cider maker Peter Hoover, the tasting consisted of 15 ciders from West County, many purchased by Peter at a recent sell-off of their older vintages. The tasting was a unique opportunity to taste some older vintages and ponder how the different varieties held up over time. It was also a wonderful experience to taste so many ciders by a single producer and to notice similar taste notes throughout.
But in addition to thinking about the ciders themselves, I’ve also been thinking on how and why sensory learning happens, and how differently the sense of taste is experienced by different individuals.
There are a variety of wonderful blogs devoted to assessing the taste of ciders . These do a great service to the industry, but it has never been my intention in this blog to review ciders (see the links page for some suggestions on blogs that do this well and consistently). I’m interested, however, in the ways that a “review” of a cider is a distillation of a social experience: trying to communicate a most ephemeral personal sensation that may be widely differentiated in quality and character between individuals. We don’t all taste in the same way. How can we talk about it? It’s one reason that social tastings like these are crucial to the education of a cider maker. Discussion of taste is key. It’s not just that one’s taste experience can be influenced by suggestion, or that one can become proficient, honing the sense with practice (though this is true). More than that, other people may be more sensitive to something you are less able to experience. They may highlight tastes or smells you might disregard or pass over. Sometimes, to taste is to listen.
I’ll be the first to admit that I find tasting difficult not only to explain, but even to experience consciously. Learning to taste is a process that often seems to slip through whatever neurons fire between tongue and brain, difficult to pinpoint in the transfer, because it is less on the tongue than in the mind, and usually trapped inside another memory. It is a very delicate and fragile construction of sensory associations, one that must be rebuilt to consider each new drink, isolating the sensations, repeating them often enough to recognize distinct notes.
However, I tend think more in constellations of associations, rather than isolations of sensation. Often, a taste takes me back to moment where I experienced that sense before. Recently a friend handed me a liqueur, and I said: it tastes like the library. I can pick out the individual notes (leather, lemon, liquorice) that define that smell, but the library is a more interesting descriptor for me, personally. I think of my favourite library, the Birks Religious Studies Library at McGill University, where the bearded librarian sewed bookbindings behind his desk, everyone left their shoes at the door to preserve the delicate parquet wood floor, and the desk lamps became little islands of soft light in the early dark of Montreal winter.
Sometimes, a taste does not register for me at all. Saffron, exquisite and expensive as it is, does not induce any sensation for me. I am dependent on the descriptions of my friend to appreciate its wonders. It makes me appreciate how much I need to cultivate other people, and other experiences, to experience taste.
I’ve sat around many barns and cellars and conferences while people taste ciders and wines and beers and let taste descriptions roll of their tongues in equal measure to the beverages rolling in. The degree to which people can disagree on taste is perhaps one of the social blessings built into the enjoyment of craft beverages, for it allows people to talk longer, enjoy each other’s company more (one hopes). It generally extends the occasion of drinking by at least a factor of three and allows all kinds of other nuggets of information to emerge: such as the fact that Tremletts Bitter in America is not the same as the variety in England. Ian Merwin explained this to us as we sipped the West County Tremletts, that the resident tree at the Geneva station must have been misidentified at some early stage, the error only recognized years later by a visiting scientist from Bulmers.
Tasting is never just about tasting, really. And while a descriptive analysis of cider is always useful, especially for the gastronome, the ways in which it the experience of taste are tied to memory, physiology, sociability, and other kinds of knowledge, make it far more complex than a list of tasting notes could ever describe.
At the tasting of West County ciders, there were certainly many points of departure in describing the tastes, though almost everyone settled in some agreement on the favourite of the night: A Roxbury Russet cider with a blend of 25% Golden Russet, 25% Esopus Spitzenburg, and 50% Roxbury Russet. In addition, several people noted an overall caramel flavour that pervaded several of the ciders, with speculation that it could be either the result of pasteurization or oxidation. Though few of the sparkling ciders had maintained much fizz, there were several of the older bottles with a surprising freshness and brightness of taste.
The following is the List of Ciders we tasted, with cursory notes that reflect a mixture of my own and other people’s comments (though I didn’t record all comments). Dates and blends were not known for all ciders.
But most importantly, the company was excellent, there was much cheese, I learned quite a bit about these apples, and I listened with abandon to the tastes everyone else was experiencing.
The West County Ciders
- 2003 Baldwin: Beeswax aroma, fruity, light, fresh, in very good shape for its age
- 2008 Tremletts: Caramel, with some acid (perhaps acetic), very smooth textured. The nose was more interesting than the taste.
- 2010 Reine de Pomme: blended with Redfield and other varieties; tannin on the nose and in the texture; taste a bit flat
- Reine de Pomme 50%, Redfield 10% Roxburry Russet 10%, Calville Blanc 30%: More tannins that the first Reine de Pomme. Nice finish Carmel nose
- Heritage: Blend of Dabinett, Baldwin, Geneva Yarlington Mill; cloudy, bottle conditions, Granny smith aroma, clean, tart, champagne
- Ashmeads Kernal (pre 2010): Slight malolactic mouthfeel; bright flowery perfume, bit of brett, flavor slightly off no some
- 2010 Pippin: Pippin Varieties (?) Carmel aroma
- 2011 Bramleys Seedling: 70% Bramley, 30% Redfield; Carmel aroma, not as acidic as one would have imagined for a Bramley, soft, perhaps a malo-lactic fermentation
- 2014 Redfield: Redfield 70%, Golden Delicious 25%; A group favorite, nice a dic, cherry aroma and flavor
- Cidre Doux: Blend of Cox, Yarlington Mill, Ellis Bitter, Baldwin. Soft, not high acid, bubblegum, thin but bitter (not a group favorite)
- Belle de Bosko0p: with some Esopus Spitzenburg; Tart, green apple, slight carmel, balanced and bright
- Cidre de Garde: in a french/spanish farmhouse style: very acidic, very funky, perhaps brett
- Roxbury Russet 50%, Golden Russet 25%, Spitzenburh 25%: A group favorite, very floral nose, almost woody or oaky, very rich, round complex flavor
- Dorothy’s Rosebushes: Reine de Pomme, Ashmeads Kernal, Geneva Tremletts: Fresh clear, aroma, rich, round taste, balanced acid notes
- MacIntosh: blended with Golden Delicious: A pleasant surprise! Slightly buttery nose
– Maria Kennedy, with thanks to Peter Hoover for the invitation and some editorial additions.