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A good apple (cider)

Every year hard apple cider consultant Peter Mitchell treks from Britain to Mount Vernon teach a course in cider making to serious hobbyists and business owners. Last week 19 students from around the United States and Canada met with him at the Washington State University Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center to learn everything from the history of cider production to fruit selection and fermentation.

Examining the color of a cider

Examining the color of a cider

I skipped the orchard management and yeast handling instructions, but on the last day nosed in on the sensory evaluation training. The students met at the picturesque La Conner Flats farm to sample ciders and even share some of their own homemade efforts. Under the green and white striped awning of the patio Mitchell stood in front of a table populated with bottles – tall and short, from cider businesses just five miles away and as distant as Spain and France.

To lay a tasting groundwork, Mitchell began with two simple samples that were made from apples grown at the WSU research station. The first was cider made from galas, which he called dessert apples. The sample filled our glasses with a bright yellow. He held it up and asked the students to describe the color. “Clear,” said one lady. “Light caramel,” said another. “I would very much describe this as straw,” he said peering down into his own glass. A few wrote that in their notebooks. Then he told them to look at the liquid. Is it thick, did it shine? Yes, and a little.

“Keep it still and see what you can pick up,” he said, “Then give it a good swirl.” The swirl brought up a “hint of cantelope,” and “citrusy.” It’s not complex, he noted, it’s more winey.  “And that’s about it. Not a lot. Don’t go looking for something that isn’t there.”

He told us to take a drink, swirl it around, and chew it a little. It was predominantly sour, like a lemon. “This is a good example of what a dessert apple will bring,” he said, explaining that the flavor was fairly short and simple.

Peter Mitchell explaining cider tasting

Peter Mitchell explaining cider tasting

Then he poured the cider made from the Kingston blacks, a British cultivar prized for its bittersharp flavor and used primarily for making cider. The color was deeper and darker than the first sample. “I would say this is gold,” said Mitchell. The fragrance conjured up “honey,” “apricots,” and “apples.” He jumped at the last descriptor, saying that it was exactly right. A characteristic of the Kingston black is the smell of overripe apples right on the ground. “The French have a term for it, sous bois (under the trees),” he said. “That’s bittersweet apple.” Though people detect it, they sort of forget about it, since they take for granted that the apple is there, he said.

The flavor was sour and a little bitter, and it left a dry feeling in the mouth. It was clear that the cider apples made for a much more complex tasting experience.

Then he moved on to the samples the students had made before the class. Some had used local apples, some had tried organic sources, and one used Tree Top apple juice from the store. These brought up “grassy,” “medicinal,” and “burnt match.”

Mitchell also used the home brews to describe “mouse,” a term he uses for cider with a microbial problem that confers a smell of a gerbil cage. One had “a little bit of mouse,” while another had “a great big mouse.” Still, some of the samples he credited as tasty. Just a week earlier he had been judging professionally-made ciders in England, he said, “and some of these are better than ones that were entered into competition.”