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On matters of taste: excesses, faults and transparency

De gustibus non est disputandum. (Did I say it right, Taylor?)

My love of the Foxwhelp apple is now, it may be said, fairly heavily documented. It is, alongside Yarlington Mill, my favourite variety, and I bow to no one in my discipleship of it – not even Cath “Big Chief Foxwhelpian” Potter. I love its force of personality, I love the intensity and idiosyncrasy of its aromatics. I love that it takes oak superlatively, but is just as good on its own. I love the clarity with which it expresses itself and the swathe of red fruit and citrus that sashay across its breadth from nose to tail. I love that I can see it working in a blend, however slight its contribution may be, and I love to see it given full spotlight and voice as a single variety. I love how splendidly it develops with age and, yes, I love its jewel-bright acidity too.

There is so much to Foxwhelp that goes undiscussed; so many qualities and nuances to its character that the focus on its acidity sweeps under the organoleptic (sorry Albert) rug. However, if we were to discuss Foxwhelp and not mention the singular intensity of its acidic bite, there would without doubt be an elephant in the room. No one, however dedicated in their Foxwhelpian evangelism, could suggest that this is an apple which will be to everyone’s taste, especially if we are talking about Foxwhelp that is young and unoaked. Foxwhelp is not a demure, eager-to-please, middle-of-the-road apple. It sits at an extreme; it polarises. It is precisely that intensity of expression that excites those of us who have fallen for it; you don’t ignore Foxwhelp, and if you love this apple nothing else will quite scratch the same itch. I don’t want my Foxwhelp to be subtle and meek, but with that understanding comes acceptance that it simply won’t be to everyone’s taste.

As someone who regularly writes about cider from a drinker-facing perspective and with the aim of evaluating whether, based on my tasting, it is worth someone else spending their own money, it is incumbent on me to bear this extremity in mind. Take the 2019 Foxwhelp & Tom Putt Blend from Cwm Maddoc (not yet reviewed here, but you may consider this an official endorsement). I love that cider. It has all of Foxwhelp’s broad red fruit, clarity of aromatics and complexity of flavour. It tastes like a waterfall of rubies and pink grapefruit juice. It is, to my mind and palate, a thing of mesmerising wonder. It would also be, to several other drinkers, offputtingly sharp. If I were to omit that facet from my description, to simply describe the fruit flavours and how much I liked them, someone might stumble across my writeup, buy the cider based on a glowing review, find it entirely against their taste and possibly never try another Cwm Maddoc – possibly even another cider – ever again. (They might also dismiss me as a worthless, palate-addled hack, but that’s beside the point.)

The issue here is clearly not Foxwhelp’s acidity; it’s as pointless to rail against that as it is to grumble about the cycle of the moon; Foxwhelp is a high-acid apple. If you drink it in its youth, that is simply what you’ll get. The reason our imaginary reader and customer has had a negative experience is entirely to do with transparency and clarity. Of significant aspects of the cider’s character being omitted in description. Which brings me, with deep breath and trembling hands, to faults.

I have written about faults before, most extensively in this article from last year on acetic acid. James also weighed in on the acetic topic when he shone a spotlight on the Bramley variety, and both of us, on occasion, have reviewed ciders and perries which, to our taste, have contained elements of something we might consider to be a fault, be it acetic acid, ethyl acetate, over-oxidation, TCA, H2S or something else entirely. You can also learn about faults in cider through Gabe Cook’s Ciderology, or in Module Three of the cider-academy’s learning courses. And we’re in the process of putting together a resource to add to this website’s “Features” page which will discuss individual faults in greater detail.

What is a “fault”, first of all?

The Oxford Wine Companion, with impeccable diplomacy, states that “to winemakers, wine faults are specific departures from an acceptable norm”. Expanding this a little, we could suggest that faults in cider are instances in which a cider’s aroma or flavour has taken an unintended turn away from that of the fruit such that it now presents in a way which a significant proportion of consumers might find distasteful. Borrowing from Andrew Lea’s book, Craft Cider Making: “occasions when things do not work out as expected.”

There are various reasons for which a “fault” might occur, and various ways in which they manifest. Common problems include the accidental introduction of oxygen to cider, be it through unsecured airlocks or partially-filled containers, sulphurous aromas, the Brettanomyces yeast, mousiness and so on. The relevant point to this article is that the flavours of the resultant cider present in a way which may be considered different at minimum, divisive at best and downright unpleasant at worst.

At this point it is important to acknowledge that everyone’s palate is different, that everyone detects faults to different degrees (a lucky 40% of tasters are impervious to mouse, for instance) and that different drinkers will have different opinions on what constitutes a “fault”. You can’t dictate individual preferences or apply your own standards to another person’s palate. As suggested above, and in several of my articles on Cider Review, I find acetic acid to be not to my taste at any more than the lightest trace level. It is simply one of those things that, once I notice it, I struggle to look past. But that’s just my own position and there are certainly plenty of drinkers to whom even significant quantities of volatile acidity in their cider are not only acceptable, but are perfectly desirable. It might also be argued, given that cider, left unchecked in the presence of air, will swiftly develop acetic properties, that these aspects are inherent and natural to cider. Since cider has existed for over two thousand years and bottles with corks have been around in serious quantity for less than a quarter of that time, you could even point out that the majority of cider historically consumed has likely been at least partially acetic. And of course acetic acid has long been a much-commented upon presence in Basque and Asturian ciders. So all told, my individual, subjective proclivities don’t really amount to a hill of beans.

What isn’t subjective however is that these faults do introduce significant new organoleptic sniffy-tasty elements to the drink, and I don’t think it’s subjective to suggest that they will inevitably divide the crowd. Which brings me back to our intensely-acidic Foxwhelp, and the primary issue with both faults and excesses – indeed the primary challenge for cider full stop: transparency.

I recently saw a piece of beer education material talking about acetic acid as a fault and describing the flavour it presented as “vinegar/cider”. The latter suggestion doesn’t stand up to a tasting of at least two thirds of the bottlings produced in the UK today; show me, please, the acetic elements in the likes of Raison d’Être or The Newt’s 2019 Rosé? But it demonstrated that there is enough acetic cider “in the wild” that a less-versed consumer has reached the conclusion that something they are listing as a fault is something inherent to all ciders. Perhaps, to them, this doesn’t matter. Indeed perhaps they like acetic cider, and perhaps this listing will encourage fans of Duchesse de Bourgogne to explore what cider has to offer. But to my mind it is problematic, because this unchecked suggestion is not only a potential deterrent to new drinkers, but is emblematic of general under-discussion of acetic acid and other faults being presented in commercially available bottles and bag-in-boxes.

For argument’s sake, let’s imagine that fifty per cent of drinkers are perfectly happy with acetic flavours, and fifty per cent are less keen. (I use acetic for this example but feel free to substitute it for anything else, though certain faults (eg mouse) I would argue are more of a ‘straight red’ and shouldn’t be sold.) Imagine, then, that two drinkers, both unfamiliar with cider, buy the same pint or bottle. Their information, perhaps, is that it is made by xyz producer in xyz county in xyz traditional, time-honoured way. All fine. Undisclosed on the label, or by the landlord, is that alongside its flavours of fruit it presents this sour, volatile tang which you might also find in a bottle of Flemish Red. As a result, our two drinkers taste this cider, one of them enjoying the experience, the other possibly unable to finish the glass, and both, perhaps, go away assuming that this is, more or less, what cider tastes like. How much hurry do we think drinker number two will be in to try cider – even a different cider – again? Whereas, had the drinkers been forewarned, either by the label or the person serving, that this particular cider contained an acetic flavour, but that the flavour was particular to this cider – perhaps even deliberately introduced – the second drinker could have avoided a negative experience, found something more to their personal taste, and continued a delicious voyage of discovery from there.

I have perhaps strained credulity with that paragraph’s imaginings. The point at which the average landlord is even aware of cider faults remains some time in the future, and expecting labels to mention “acetic” is probably optimism gone mad. So where does responsibility for this transparency lie?

Well, first of all, with makers. Drinkers need a clear idea of what ciders will taste like. Assuming released ciders are all found to be enjoyable by the people who have made them, it’s important that we’re told exactly how they present so that we can gauge whether they sit underneath our own individual umbrellas of preference. The way has been shown – look at Volatil from Pomologik, which presented its character in its very name, and which maker Johan openly described as having acetic aspects. Look at the information provided with Tom Oliver’s Out of the Barrel Room series, which actively stated that the ciders and perries within it: “reveal some of the supposed shortcomings of wood influence, the odd appearance of volatile acidity, yeast character and oxidation”. Look at Ascension’s Oxidised Russet, which Matt made as an open and deliberate attempt to harness the nutty character brought on by oxygen exposure and marry it to that of the Egremont Russet. Look at the Hogan’s One Juice, deliberately innoculated with Brettanomyces yeast. All of these ciders wore their potentially divisive characters on their sleeve. Indeed most embraced them as a central aspect of the cider’s identity. No one could possibly complain that they drank them without full disclosure of what their flavours might be. If you saw those aspects as faults, so be it – you didn’t have to spend your money on them.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, responsibility lies with retailers. Ultimately most of us buy our ciders from shops and websites, and the people who manage them are therefore the most important gatekeepers when it comes to the quality of cider presented to the public and the transparency with which that cider’s flavours are submitted to the undecided consumer. Most retailers, quite rightly, have an “if I wouldn’t drink this I won’t sell it” policy, but again it’s crucial that any products with potentially divisive elements are described as fully as possible, and that there be immediate refund policies should customers find themselves with a cider that has mouse, acetic, ethyl acetate or any other aspect they find unpleasant. More than anyone else, retailers have the power to get cider’s best angels into hands and glasses – just look at wine shops, in which faulty bottles are near-enough non-existent, and which generally will refund without question any bottles found to have something like TCA (also known as “corked”). Since many newer cider retailers are beer or wine shops first and foremost, it’s also important that staff are educated on faults in cider, and that quality control take place wherever possible, even (perhaps particularly) when the ciders have come from more prominent and well-thought-of producers. Retailers are the grand facilitators of the modern cider scene, with more power to exert influence and offer independent transparency than anyone else. It’s so important that this exciting potential be realised.

Finally, communicators and educated consumers. If we are discussing a cider, particularly in a public forum, which we recognise to contain either excesses or faults, it is so, so, so important that those aspects be recognised. If we love that cider, great. We should champion it all we can for everything that we love about it. But it is critical to recognise that we are but one palate, and that what we find mesmerising and compelling about a cider might be the very thing that puts another drinker off. If we are at the stage of privileged education in our own cider journeys, it is essential that we make the path for other drinkers as smooth as is possible. From time to time I see ciders which I know to be faulty described with euphemistic adjectives like “bold” or “funky”. This helps no one, and has the effect of appearing like something is going deliberately unadmitted. If that cider is then purchased and not enjoyed, the producer will not see another sale, the customer might be turned off either that producer specifically or cider in general, and important lessons may not be learned on both sides. This is not a call for public pillorying – if a cider is completely undrinkable the best course is to have a quiet word with whoever sold it to you. But if you do describe a cider in public then describe it fully, without caveat or euphemism. Explain what it tastes like and why. Give the consumer the best possible chance to find the cider that suits their palate. Always remember that your words might influence the spending of someone else’s money.

We are always, rightly, quick to call for transparency from “big cider”. We want to know whether they are using concentrate, diluting, chaptalizing, sweetening. We want to know what is in their cider so that we, the consumers, are in possession of all the facts and can assess what the likely character and quality will be. Whether, in short, we should spend our hard-earned cash on it. The same, in my opinion, must apply to extremities of flavour and to faults. No one has a problem with commenting that a Foxwhelp sits on the sharpest end of acidity, or that a Tremlett’s Bitter is, in youth, extremely tannic. When a cider has been in an Islay cask we say that it is smoky without feeling embarrassed and when a cider is dry or sweet we say as much, so that consumers can gauge expectations, preferences and, most importantly, purchasing decisions accordingly. Ciders with characteristics that some consider to be faults are far less common than they were even a few years ago, but they exist, they are put on public sale, and if we are going to discuss them – however they present and whoever they are made by – we must be open about the flavours they express. What works for you may not for someone else, and vice versa, but without clarity we are useful to no one. It isn’t about “good” and “bad” or “right” and “wrong” – it is about full disclosure. It is about empowering the new cider drinker to learn and discover for themselves that which is subjective, whilst in possession of those facts which are not.

After all, as the Oxford Companion points out, faults “vary, of course, according to the taste of the consumer”. If we’re going to say that there’s a cider that’s right for everyone, don’t we want to make sure people find the one right for them?

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In addition to Cider Review I co-edit Graftwood Magazine and contribute to other drinks sites and magazines including Full Juice, Distilled and Burum Collective. I share my home with several hundred bottles, one geophysicist and a small fluffy whirlwind called Nutmeg. CiderReviewAdam on Twitter and Instagram.

8 Comments

  1. Another great feature piece Adam!

    I think that the individual perception of faults is a really fascinating topic and parallels can certainly be drawn to beer as well as wine. Kettle soured beers can be polarising with the style being ‘undrinkable’ to some. Equally the nuance of Flemish Reds and similar styles of beer can be just as divisive. It’s not uncommon for a brewer of this style to describe the beer as having balsamic like characters without referring to it as acetic or vinegar like. I love these styles and they are a large part of why I started to explore cider.

    Coming to cider from beer rather than wine I do find ‘volatile acidity’ slightly euphemistic.

    Oxidation is another fault that varies wildly in how it’s received and used. One the one hand it’s unwanted resulting in a stale, cardboardy product but on the other is essential to the success of sherry and some aged beers – especially barley wines.

    Do you think faults in cider are closer to those of wine or beer or unique to itself?

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    • Hi Andrew, thanks so much for reading and for all these thoughts.
      Interesting question re what they’re closest to? I guess being a fruit-based product many of the faults have more obvious parallels in wine. That said, things like diacetyl, oxidation, VA all have total cross-category crossover. There are obviously differences in the precise way they present; I think that VA is slightly more damaging in cider than in wine just from the lower abv – there doesn’t, to my taste, seem to be the equivalency with eg Sauternes or aged Rioja/Barbaresco.
      There definitely has to be an awareness of and sensitivity to other peoples’ preferences – something I admittedly haven’t always been thorough in showing in the past and am trying to improve my practice on. Equally, the more clarity we can give in the way we discuss things like cider/wine/beer, the easier it is for new drinkers to navigate the category and discover their own personal preferences.
      Best wishes and thanks again
      Adam W.

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  2. Great article.
    I’m actually one of those drinkers who doesn’t mind a certain level of ‘volatile acidity’ (acetic acid!) in cider. I even reviewed Duchess de Bourgogne to draw attention to the acceptable face of acetic acid and why I felt it to be acceptable (many cider makers are basically maturing their ciders in ‘foudres’ so why can’t it be acceptable part of their ‘style’?). The Ty Bryn ciders I reviewed recently – and loved – are a classic example of this.
    The flip side to being open about acetic acid in cider is that so many cider makers will immediately throw their arms up in horror and declare it to be an unacceptable fault. And that’s not necessarily the case.
    One has to remember that cider makers, irrespective of their talents, are also individuals who bring their own set of subjective preferences to the table.
    It’s also true that acetic acid can ruin a cider, along with the other faults you outline, but not always.
    Letting the consumer know what to expect, and why, when they drink a cider (or anything else for that matter) is fundamentally important, as expectation is such a large part of enjoyment.
    This isn’t an apology for cider faults, just an appreciation of your exploration of the grey area that less between faults and personal preferences.
    And it’s a worthy discussion.
    Sorry. Long comment!
    C

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Chris

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to post such a thoughtful response.

      Yes – I always find it very interesting the different faults that makers are either totally repelled by or feel are acceptable. And there’s also an interesting article to be written sometime about how particular ‘faults’ become almost ingrained in or synonymous with particular cultures and regions, erroneously or otherwise – brett and Normandy, for instance, or acetic and Basque. (Also worth noting that the best makers in both regions are now working to reduce the levels of those characteristics.)

      Something I’ve always enjoyed about your reviews is the time you take to explain your preferences and where each creation fits within them. I think you’re a really great model for explaining to customers what a cider tastes like and why it tastes like that, and being entirely forward in conveying that the reviews are just opinion. I’ve loved making my way through your videos in the last year, and I think they’ve done so much to push forward the discussion of things like this.

      Best wishes and thanks again

      Adam W.

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  3. Yann GILLES says

    I love your article Adam ! That is a so important subject !
    As an oenologist trained in Burgundy, “faults” in high quality wines are well defined because the standard has been laid for a long time and most of french wines are made with AOP label. In 1998, I started my activity as a cidermaking consultant and I worked for 40 cideries mainly in Normandy during more than 10 years.
    Initially I applied a large part of those standards also for cider, and continued when i started working as director of the french R&D center for cider sector.
    But, gradually my point of view has changed.
    According to some research, whether or not you like a food is mainly conditioned by our personal experience. It is possible for example to gradually like a food that you do not like, by associating it with a moment of conviviality with friends for example, even at the beginning without tasting it. There would be no absolute fault.
    The first slap I took was in Basque country where acetic acid is a component of cider’s quality.
    The natural wine movement in France is also shaking up preconceived ideas.
    Today I take a much more step back on the defects, I try as consultant to advise the cideries towards the ciders they want to offer. We gain in diversity. We can also promote more natural expressions of fruits and terroirs by reducing inputs or stabilization technologies.
    I only do not accept when defects come from a “letting it go”. Not intervening is different from doing nothing.
    I love trying to understand how the different cider’s sensory characterics appear and “play” with them , but i have to be humble and say that i often consider myself more as a cider”follower” than a cider”maker”…..
    Cheers !
    Yann

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Yann
      Thank you for reading, and thank you especially for providing all these insights.
      It’s such a difficult subject, isn’t it? On the one hand you don’t want to be too dogmatic, you want to acknowledge that your palate isn’t someone else’s palate … on the other hand there has to be acknowledgement that some of these flavours – brett, acetic – come from particular things that have affected the drink, that the flavour is markedly different as a result and that the consumer may not be expecting it and might possibly be put off by it. It’s a very difficult balance.
      It’s certainly not my place to judge either way, being only a blogger and therefore opinionista, but certainly as a customer it’s important to me to have the clearest possible chance of knowing roughly what a drink will be like so that I can determine whether or not I should spend my money on it. Transparency, regarding major flavours and aspects of the drink, is (I think) what matters most.
      I really must pick your brains one of these days for an article here.
      In the meantime, best wishes and thanks again.
      Adam W.

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