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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Cider Tasting Terms & Style Guidelines

I'm not drinking. I'm doing research. For science!An important practice to get into for any homebrewer is developing the palate. Knowing how to analyze what you’re tasting helps you evaluate your end result, track down the source of mistakes (including happy ones), figure out what it is you’re shooting for, and understand what variables in your process or ingredients produce what results. In short, it’s an essential skill for better brewing. Fortunately, the hard work behind a well-developed palate involves drinking; lots and lots of tasting of many different examples. Now that’s hard work I can get behind! But what, exactly, should I be looking for in this diligent research effort? I’ve pulled together several resources to help me learn how to analyze the taste of cider.


Some Basic Terminology



Also referred to as residual sugar or RS
  • Dry: < 0.9% RS
  • Medium: 0.9% – 4% RS, also called off-dry or semi-sweet
  • Sweet: > 4% RS



The acidity of a cider is the mouth-watering sourness. The right hit of acidity can give a cider a refreshing quality without being a face-scruncher. A vinegary acidity, however, is a flaw according to American competition standards.


Tannins are the mouth-drying quality that affect bitterness and astringency. Tannin is a tactile sensation rather than a taste. It’s also a natural preservative that allows for improvement with age. Cider can vary widely in tannins.


Clarity has to do with the cider’s opacity. A cider’s clarity can vary from good to brilliant. A bit of a haze is fine, while particles would be a flaw by American competition standards.


  • Still: little to none
  • Petillant: moderate
  • Sparkling: high



Much like it sounds, the mouthfeel is the impression in the mouth and is related to attributes like the cider’s body, weight and texture. Easy references might be the light-bodied feel of skim-milk or the full-bodied feel of heavy cream. Generally ciders have a mouthfeel similar to white wine.

Tasting Technique

A tasting checklist from Beer for Dummiesworks equally well for cider:
  1. Smell: Check aroma and bouquet
  2. Look: Check appearance
  3. Taste: Check flavor
  4. Touch: Check body and mouthfeel
  5. Reflect: Check final judgment
I love the phrasing of this list because the sensory words make it easy to remember. Additionally it reminds that tasting is more like experiencing; it engages nearly all the senses (I suppose you could try listening to your cider too, but I’m pretty sure you’ll only end up with a damp ear and some funny looks).


Cider Flavor Wheel

Using information from the flavor descriptors on the Wittenham Hill Cider Pages, I made myself a cider flavor wheel such as you might see for wine or beer. Flavor wheels are a handy visual index to help evaluate the qualities of a beverage by going from a general characteristic and narrowing down to the specific.

My Cider Flavor Wheel
View the printable PDF of my Cider Flavor Wheel.

The descriptors include some that sound downright awful! I’m guessing the list includes potential cider flaws which should make it very helpful in evaluating my own cider. I don’t expect to find a “shrimp-like” flavor in a commercial cider, but it may come up in my own endeavors (though let’s hope not!).

There are also descriptors that I have no taste reference for such as “autolysed”. While I remember the word from biology classes, it’s possible flavor eludes me. Though I’m not sure what some of these terms are supposed to taste like, the flavor wheel should serve as a good starting point in helping me learn to identify the flavor characteristics of cider.


Style Guidelines

A brief overview of some cider styles I gathered from the Beer Judge Certification Program website.
Style Apples Flavor Appearance Mouthfeel Overall ABV
Common Cider common,
apple or wine-like,
medium – high acidity
clear – brilliant,
pale - medium gold
medium body,
some tannin
variable 5 – 8%
English Cider Kingston Black,
Stoke Red,
Yarlington Mill,
various Jerseys,
may have “smoky (bacon)” character or “farmyard nose” slightly cloudy – brilliant,
medium – deep gold
full body,
moderate – high tannin,
still – moderate carbonation
dry, full bodied, austere 6 – 9%
French Cider Nehou,
Muscadet de Dieppe,
Reine des Pommes,
fruity, rich clear – brilliant,
medium – deep gold
medium to full body,
moderate tannin,
moderate – champagne-like carbonation
medium – sweet, full bodied, rich 3 – 6%
New England Cider Northern Spy,
Roxbury Russet,
Golden Russet
robust apple, strong alcohol,
sugar adjuncts
clear – brilliant,
pale – medium yellow
substantial body,
moderate tannin
substantial body and character 7 – 13%
Fruit Cider any,
+ other fruit
cider character evident with fruit clear – brilliant,
fruit appropriate color
substantial body,
tannin dependent on fruit
dry wine-like, fruit compliments apple 5 – 9%
Applewine any,
+ added sugar
similar to common,
very dry – slightly medium
clear – brilliant,
pale – medium gold
light body,
still – champagne-like carbonation
dry white wine-like, balanced, low astringency & bitterness 9 – 12%
ABV = alcohol by volume

Armed with resources such as these, I feel ready to take on the onerous task of flavor research. /wink

the Cider Geek

 Got some cider tasting experience to share? Please do!

To see where I got my cider tasting intel, chew over my sources.

If you’re interested in checking out an extensive collection of cider reviews to get inspired by, head on over to the cider monger.


  1. I recently got turned on to an incredibly handy resource, Cider Tasting 101 by Tilted Shed Ciderworks, thanks to UnitedStatesofCider's twitter feed. I may need to revise my cider flavor wheel with some of this info at some point!

  2. Another useful resource would be Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher. While the book obviously isn't about cider, it could help you on your way to identifying and appreciating various taste and aroma characteristics if you're interested in beer as well as cider!

    1. Tasting beer was an incredible resource for me as well

  3. Great post. I really love that you share a cider specific flavor wheel. I started loving those as a barista (years ago) and now I refer to a few cider ones every time I sit down to write a review. Cheers!

  4. Sweet. Do they have those cider journals like they do for beer & wine? I've noticed that they never completely break down the flavor descriptors in those books.

    Yeah... Shrimp-like flavor. Hahaha. I like shrimp but somehow when anything but shrimp is described as shrimp-like, it sounds disgusting. I'm thinking long and hard about how to describe the flavor of shrimp and what's pleasant to me about it but I'm coming up dry adjective-wise. It's just... you know... shrimp-like.

    Also, I'm pretty sure the autolysis flavor that you're talking about is commonly known as "yeast bite" in beers. This is from memory so it bares individual research: When the yeast isn't well suspended and it settles, it will start to consume itself instead of the sugars (the reason for leaving that settled crap behind). I'm pretty sure lysosomes are those cells that contain enzymes to break things down so that's a common root. All that said, I don't think I've ever tasted yeast bite that I can directly recall. Best of luck.

  5. @Eric That looks like a great book, thanks! There's definitely a lot of cross-over between cider, beer and wine too. I think it can useful to get insight into the attributes themselves that way. For example, I was just reading about the acidity of wine being a factor in it's pairing with cheese, something I might think about when trying to pair cider!

    @Meredith Thanks! Food service has a way of bringing out the foodie in you, doesn't it? I love visual references like flavor wheels, I'm such a visual learner.

    @Anonymous I haven't come across a cider tasting journal, but maybe my search-fu is weak. I'd love to find one!

    I'm with you on the shrimp, lol! Shrimp taste great, but in anything else the flavor does not sound appealing.

    Thanks for the insight on autolysis, that's just what I needed! I was vaguely remembering something about cells eating themselves for energy but that was evoking more...digestive flavors, blech! But, put it together with "yeast bite" and, that, I can imagine.

  6. Good info. This needs to go viral. LOL. However I would like to add the sour vinegary flaw is an expected quality in Spanish ciders.

    1. Thanks, Patrick!

      And thanks for the info on Spanish ciders; food and drink can have such interesting geographical differences! I think I got that tidbit about vinegar flavor being a flaw from BJCP. I'll double check my sources and edit to reflect that its by American competition standards if that's where I got it from.

      And now I'm wondering where to get my hands on a Spanish cider in my neck of the woods... ;)