Chairmans Report

James Finch, Chairman

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Twitter: ‎@TheCiderCritic


It may have been a virtual competition, but chairman of the ICC James Finch thinks that actually helped both judges and producers in a particularly innovative year

Despite hoping beyond hope that we would be in a better position this year to perhaps return to judging in person, it was not meant to be. So, armed with the learning and experience of last year’s event, 2021 saw another virtual International Cider Challenge – and what a success it was. It’s no mean feat delivering boxes of blind-bagged ciders and perries to 30 judges across the country, then hosting six virtual teams over two days, but Sarah Burnett and her crew have some serious organisational and logistics skills.

It was an honour to be asked to join the team as chairman this year, with – let’s face it – some pretty big facial hair to fill. As always, the teams of judges and captains were exceptional, which made my job a relatively easy one on the competition days. One of the great benefits of a virtual ICC is the ease and comfort with which it can all operate. Judges need not travel from across the country or worry about having to share the rest of the gold medal-winning bottle with the table. In all seriousness though, the ICC is a greener competition for it, and for one that attracts entries from all over the globe – that’s brilliant to be able to say.

As someone who spends a lot of their working life on virtual meetings and video calls, I know it’s not a substitute for face-to-face contact. However, the way the sessions were run for the Challenge, with a large group introduction and break-out rooms for the different teams, was so seamless.

As chairman it was exceptionally easy to drift between the rooms, observe and join in where needed. I’m a bit of a people-watcher anyway, so to be able to see the reactions, debates, discussions and agreements was a privilege. The feedback from the judges too reflected the ease and organisation of the event.

Judge and table captain teams comprised cidermakers, drinks writers, wholesalers, on and off trade owners and buyers, each bringing their own skills and experience. We had healthy debates, differences of opinion and unanimous agreements, the variety of all being what makes this competition so exciting.

Overall numbers of entries were down slightly, which was expected given the past 12 months and the challenges of moving products across borders that we now face. However, we still had more than 150 entries from 18 countries across four continents. This year we saw an influx of newer and smaller craft producers, which was great. The fact that this competition is accessible to all and rewards against a standard rather than a podium finish means that entries from cideries of all shapes and sizes have It was great to see those at the smaller craft end of the market dipping their toes into the flavoured category equal opportunity to achieve a medal.

The biggest categories this year were: West Country, New World and Flavoured (no surprises there), with all having substantial representation. The variety within those, especially the latter, seems to increase year on year as the consumer demand for new tastes to savour grows. It was great to see those at the smaller craft end of the market dipping their toes into the flavoured category too, which can be challenging, given the well established makers in people’s minds.

There was plenty of innovation on show again this year, with some makers creating exceptionally well-balanced drinks that were bursting with depth and flavour. There were too many to mention here, but a traditional-method silver medal winner with grape and elderflower and another made using the same method as Prosecco were two standout examples.

And what results we had. Bronzes and silvers were awarded across every category, which just shows the exceptional quality of entrants. Then with golds across the New World, Rosé, Flavoured and Low & No Alcohol categories, it was exciting to see more modern takes on this marvellous drink starting to shine through above those more well-known groups. Three golds within Rosé alone really highlighted the breadth this category is developing across the world.

The high quality of golds awarded led to strong competition for the Supreme Champion, which was awarded to… wait for it… a Rosé. For the second year in a row. Alexandra from Loxtonia in South Africa is named after Larry and Jill’s (owners) first-born daughter “whose elegant and vibrant personality is captured in each bottle”. It’s a blend of Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Pink Lady and Royal Gala (they sound familiar) made via traditional method and aged for 15 months on the lees in the bottle before being disgorged. The result is a crisp, complex and refined blush cider that rivals the best sparkling wines.

Do these all nod to the direction of travel for cider or hint at the next trend? I believe so. The past two years have seen an exponential rise in low & no alcohol across all categories as drinkers choose to reduce their abv intake. Cider is finally catching up and we saw a record number of medal-winning entries following the trend.

As I reflect on this year, I can’t help but think ahead to the next. While I know there will be a desire by many to return to the way things were, it would be foolish to lose the innovation and efficiency that these challenging times have forced. Running this competition virtually broadens its reach, expands its expertise and widens its accessibility. So I hope that we stick with this greener format and that I get an invite back to be chairman again. Hopefully see you next year…