For either a large or small group, you'll need to make similar advance preparations. Make a label for each apple variety; one way is to fold over index cards to stand up like place cards.
Provide a four by six index card for each guest to use as a scorecard. The scorecard should have three columns: SCORE, VARIETY NAME, and COMMENTS. You may fill in all the variety names or let guests write in the variety names as they taste.
Several hours before the guests arrive, remove the apples from the refrigerator to allow them to reach room temperature. Polish the apples and arrange them with their labels in the order of tasting. Give the apples a final shine with a soft cloth at the last moment. Encourage guests to admire or even photograph the unusual fruit display before the tasting begins.
SIT-DOWN PARTY FORMAT FOR SIX
Plan to sample around twelve varieties at a session. That's a big enough selection to generate excitement without overwhelming your senses. If you received an APPLESOURCE Sampler box, each guest will consume one-sixth of twelve different apples, the equivalent of two whole apples apiece. When served with natural cheddar cheese, French bread - preferably homemade - and butter, the apple tasting is a complete menu, not a dessert or first course. These flavors complement the apples and refresh the palate between samples. Walnut halves may also be offered.
Set the table with a dinner plate, a sharp fruit knife or paring knife, a pencil, and a scorecard for each guest. Set out several wooden bowls for collecting the cores and peelings. Cutting boards of cheese, baskets of bread, and butter complete the setting. Provide a small cutting board for the host. We recommend serving water to drink, since alcohol dulls the ability to appreciate the different nuances of aroma and flavor.
After the guests are seated, take the first apple and divide it in six slices, one for each guest. Leave the slices intact with core and peel and pass them on a plate. Announce the name of the apple and perhaps read the descriptive paragraph from the APPLESOURCE grid sheet. Each guest can remove the core section from his slice. Most varieties should be peeled thinly if at all since much of the aroma is often concentrated near the peel. Allow plenty of time for guests to record their scores and comments on their scorecards. Keep the pace slow and casual allowing time for conversation and evaluation. Repeat the sampling and rating process for each variety.
LARGE GROUP FORMAT
An apple tasting bash for a large group of apple enthusiasts can dramatically showcase apple diversity. Plan to offer two to three dozen varieties. You'll need only one and one-half to two apples total per person because each guest will naturally cut a much smaller slice from each apple when faced with such an array.
Arrange all the apples and labels on tasting tables, leaving plenty of space between varieties. Set small baskets of French bread as palate refreshers at each tasting "station". It's also nice to provide butter, cheddar cheese, and water. Place an empty container on each table to collect cores.
Equip each guest with a pencil, scorecard, and knife. Unless you happen to have plenty of paring knives, you might suggest on the invitation that guests bring their own paring knives or pocketknives. For this tasting format, tasters will circulate around the tables cutting a small slice from each apple, then pausing to taste it and record their scores and comments. Allow enough space between tables and varieties for easy flow of people. Guests may start tasting anywhere and may want to come back and resample some varieties.
After all the varieties have been tasted, ask each individual "to which three varieties did you give the highest scores?" You'll probably encounter ties and need to accept four (or more) votes from some tasters. The group scorekeeper just keeps a complete list of the varieties and makes a tic-mark for each vote. Don't worry about the raw scores or rank. At informal tastings, there is no need for rigid rules. Any apple that gets lots of top scores deserves respect and attention.
Unless you are planning which varieties to plant in a commercial orchard, the most important result is what you personally liked best. By learning your personal taste preference, you'll increase your enjoyment of apples. The group results just go to show how much tastes vary. Robert Stebbins recently noted that the preference scores for some apple varieties will show a bimodal pattern - i.e. Cox's Orange Pippin will get lots of top scores AND lots of bottom scores. "One man's meat is another's man's poison."
You may want to file away your scorecard and the group results for future reference. Your results will be influenced by how long the apples have been in storage, maturity at harvest, and vagaries of the particular growing season. By repeating taste tests in different years and seasons, you'll increase your knowledge of apples and of your own preferences.
You can help your fellow apple lovers learn more about variety preferences by mailing us a postcard with your results. Give the date of the tasting, number of judges and number of votes for each apple.
At APPLESOURCE, we are often asked, "What's the best eating apple?" As your apple tasting party will reveal, there is no one answer to that question. The intensity of the flavor, the balance of sugars and acids, the feel and texture of the skin and flesh . . . all these factors weigh in the decision for each individual. The winner is usually unpredictable and always interesting.
Don't take the judging aspect of your apple tasting party too seriously. The goal is not Ultimate Truth. Rather, it is the experience of new flavors and a keener awareness of familiar ones. Above all, have fun!