Chairman's 2020 Review

Sometimes when writing these updates on competition results it can be a little challenging to find the new trends or things that made their mark. Well, there’s no problem for 2020.

The competition was due to take place in late April and by the time lockdown hit, all the cider had been sent to the warehouse by entrants but there was obviously no way for the competition to take place in its normal format.

But the organisers of the Drinks Retailing International Cider Challenge (the wonderful Sarah Burnett and team) were determined to ensure it went ahead. This desire to push on was partly due to the fact that cidermakers had already spent good money sending their products, in some cases from the other side of the world, and also because if ever there was a time that cider, and cidermakers, needed championing and celebrating, it was now.

So we found a new way. From the comfort of their own homes (as so many of us have experienced over the past six months) the 30 judges got to work, assessing well over 200 blind-bagged ciders across 10 Zoom sessions. As the chair of judges, I sat in on every session and had every single cider to hand (half a pallet), just in case my input was needed. It’s a tough job sometimes.

The result? The same level of skilful assessment, smart conversation, polite disagreement and consensus-reaching that normally takes place. OK, it’s true there wasn’t the buzz, the camaraderie or the networking that normally comes with this event, but these are exceptional times. What I can say is that the quality of the judging was more exceptional than ever, thanks to a mix of cidermakers, journalists, retailers and distributors. A big thank you to all of them for bringing their passion, attention to detail and fun to proceedings.

This is the third year I have had the privilege of chairing the judging at the ICC and across that time there have been a few notable trends. First, that the quality of the products entered seems to improve year on year. I impress upon the judges that if they think a cider really is not of a medal standard, then they should not give a medal. This year, the “no medals” were at their lowest percentage ever.

Second, the geographical spread of entries is greater than ever before. Unsurprisingly, the European heartland regions of the UK and France were most widely represented, but with entries also coming in from nations less keenly associated with cider, such as Finland, Hungary, Belgium and Switzerland.

In the broader global context, for the first time there were ciders sent in from every single continent bar Antarctica – global warming has not hit sufficiently such that apple trees can grow there, yet. Representation from Brazil, South Africa, Japan, Australia and the US ensured a full house. I can’t say enough how joyous and fascinating it is to taste ciders made in wildly different places, with different apples, cultures and consumers. In total, 17 nations were represented – the International Cider Challenge is living up to its name more so than ever.

Innovation is a word that gets bandied about frequently within cider as a tool or mechanism to create new and exciting brands and in this competition we were privy to some wonderfully innovative ciders: fermented quince, co-fermentations of apples and other fruits, deliberate utilisations of Brettanomyces yeast and the blending of apple eau-de-vie and cryo-concentrated apple juice are a few that spring to mind.

This innovation was best represented in the creation, for the first time, of a separate category for rosé ciders. The inclusion of this category came as a result of the number of ciders that identified themselves as rosé and were labelled as such. This trend has emerged from the US as a drink aimed at appealing to rosé wine drinkers – generalised as those desiring a light, floral, fruity cider, with varying degrees of sweetness. But most crucially, that the cider is pink.

This pinkness may be derived through using red-fleshed apples or through the addition of a fruit or vegetable to the fermented apple. Such ciders would not sit in the Flavoured category on account of the cidermaker’s intention to introduce a rosé “experience” rather than simply a flavour.

And as it happens, out of all of the ciders entered into the competition, the overall supreme champion was, indeed, a rosé. Jake’s Orchard Cider Rosé is a full méthode traditionelle cider made by Hush Heath Winery in Kent. The judges decided this was the best in show against some incredibly stiff competition. The combination of faultless technical cidermaking skills, wonderful complexity, delicate easy drinking and just the pure joyousness of the experience made this stand out from the crowd.

In a year of extreme challenges, I’ll raise a glass to that. Wassail!