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Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Why We Judge

There may be some very small economic impact yet associated with national and international beer judging contests.  When a brewery like Old Town Brewing picks up the gold in fresh hop beers, I don't doubt it boosts visits to the pub a bit.  But really, the benefits of a GABF or World Beer Cup have more in common with the Clios than Academy awards.  At this point, they are industry awards, observed and appreciated far more within the group than celebrated among the general public.

And why would they matter?  You know exactly how good you think Firestone Walker's Union Jack IPA is, and knowing that it is a perennial award-winner does not affect your opinion or preference relative to RPM or Arrogant Bastard or Total Domination.  You are well-versed in things beery and hoppy, and you make your choice based on personal tastes and a fairly deep well of knowledge.  Even casual beer fans know enough to recognize that personal preferences and awards are at the very best only loosely correlated.

But it wasn't always so.  Twenty years ago and more, Americans didn't know what beer was supposed to taste like.  They knew light lagers, but that familiarity gave them no clues about witbiers and bitters.  Competitions were a guidepost for drinkers.  Professionals who understood what the styles were supposed to taste like identified the winners from among the pack--a valuable service for consumers.  Judging is done blindly, so the only consideration is the beverage itself.  This strips away the advantages big companies with fat advertising hold in the marketplace and helps elevate quality and authenticity above marketing--a critical element in a developing art.

This was illustrated most profoundly in the famous "judgment of Paris," in 1976 when American winemaking took a quantum leap:
"Organized by wine merchant Steven Spurrier, an Englishman who was then only 34 and running a wine school in Paris, ...the idea was to assemble some of France's greatest experts at Paris' Intercontinental Hotel one afternoon and do a blind tasting of French and California red and white wines.  No one, least of all Spurrier, whose business depended on the goodwill of the French wine industry, expected the California wines to win. "I thought I had it rigged for the French wines to win," admits Spurrier."

[American wines took three of the four top spots in the white wine tasting, including the top spot.]  "Then came the crucial tasting of the reds, which in wine circles are far more important and prestigious than whites. This time, four Grand Cru Bordeaux squared off against six California Cabernets. Desperately hoping the French would win this round, Spurrier admits he informed the judges that a California white had won the first tasting, rather than wait until the end to announce the results as he should have. The alarmed judges did everything they could to segment what they thought were the California reds and make sure they didn't win.  Even so, a 1973 Cabernet from California's Stag's Leap Wine Cellars took the top spot." 
The result was a complete reconsideration of California wines--a process that made it easier for Oregon, Washington, and other American wines to shoulder their way into people's consciousness of "good wine."  The days of jug wine dominance was soon to end.

We're in a similar moment with a third fermented beverage--cider.  The market is and has been dominated by large producers who make the equivalent of jug wine.  It's sweet, fizzy, and largely tastes like liquid Jolly Rancher.  In the past year, as I have been talking to people about cider, I've found an almost uniform lack of knowledge--but growing interest.  It's like 1975 in the wine world, 1985 in the beer world.  People have a sense good cider exists, they just don't know how to recognize it.

Ten days ago, Nat West hosted the second Portland International Cider Cup, and invited me (possibly unwisely) to judge.  I was on the panel that judged dry English and barrel-aged ciders.  The Cider Cup may not be the judgment of Paris, but it certainly has a place in helping customers sort out which ciders are good.  It also helps them understand that, as in beer and wine, ciders come in different categories.  The winners are here, and you'll probably see some names you haven't heard of, and some you didn't expect to see winning awards.  (I was gobsmacked to learn that Rogue's Pink Gin Cider was the one we selected in the barrel-aging category--breweries don't often make great ciders.  This one was really nice, though, and is a great introductory cider.)  A cidery I'd never heard of, the Rogue Valley's Apple Bandit, took best in show.

Cider is emerging as the latest craft beverage.  For the next decade, judging competitions are going to help Americans understand it.


  1. Really? I expect my next decade of drinking good ciders is how I will come to understand it. Best advice I've ever received about drinks came in around 1985 when I asked a wine expert what book I should buy to improve my knowledge. He told me I would be much better off buying bottles of the best wine I could afford on a regular basis.

  2. But that's just the point--how did you know what the best wines were? I agree that developing a palate is critical to appreciation, but I'm talking to people who stand in front of a selection of 30 ciders and have no idea which are supposed to be good.

  3. But I don't need all the data as a consumer on day one. It's not developing a palate, it's learning what one likes oneself. I can't think of a single beer I have become attached to by awards or rating as my preferences are a bit sweeter and a lot less C hoppy than most. I think most are happier making their own way.

  4. That is definitely not my experience. I'd guess that 90% of the Americans I've spoken to in the past year have either had no ciders, or not since the 1990s, when they tried one and abandon domed the enterprise. For a good many of them, the barrier is that they don't know anything about it. Cider is different than beer that way. (And I think you may mistake your own experience as typical.)

  5. But maybe 90% of Americans don't care because they have other things to do. My experience certainly isn't typical because so few have the degree of interest, home repair and rock climbing filling their idle hours.

  6. Jeff, I agree, but I also see Alan's point. There's nothing like experience to master a subject. When I got into the wine business after college, I knew nothing about it (it was only supposed to be a summer job), but I learned a ton by drinking and reading. I don't think either one alone gets you there.

    As for cider, I think you're right. I know virtually nothing about it either, but after tasting some, and more importantly, reading about some, I know what styles I tend to like. As a result, I can find things in that wall of 30 ciders that I want to try and I've got some theoretical framework to help me evaluate them to decide what I like. Ultimately tasting is the most important thing, but without some critical knowledge, it's hard to learn what makes one cider better than others in the eyes of people who really know it.

    I was also at the judging, and was the only noob at a table of five where the other four where all experts (either cider makers or in the cider trade). It was eye opening. I'm a master BJCP judge and was in the wine industry for 8 years. I know how to taste critically, but what I found was that without the more technical background of these other people, that only got me so far. I can pick out flavors and describe them, but that doesn't mean I know what "good" or "great" cider should be like. I learned a ton by evaluating ciders with people who have more cider experience than I did. They were able to help me take my own observations and place them in a more critical framework.

    While I don't advocate buying and drinking only what "experts" think is good, I do think there's value in tasting what's considered to be top of its class. Sure, drink what you like, but understand how it fits into the bigger picture.

  7. Bill, I had a similar experience when I came to cider. I figured--I know beer extremely well and wine fairly well (for a layman), so how hard can one more fermented beverage be? Turns out: pretty hard.

    It also turns out that, outside of Oregon, you should not tell cider makers that you're a beer guy. I figured my experience writing about beer would give me a bridge to cider makers, but they mostly considered it a big black mark. I later understood why; trying to shoehorn cider into one's understanding of beer will give you a gross misunderstanding of cider. I learned to tell them that I was just writing a cider book. (In Oregon, beer is so ubiquitous and the market so dependent on beer drinkers that cider makers are quite beer-guy friendly.)

  8. Speaking of cider, who do you think will be the first to make something like Old Rosie and bung it into a firkin? I have a soft spot on my stillage for proper scrumpy.

  9. I bet you could get several cideries to do it. Abram at Cider Riot springs to mind immediately.