There is an argument to be made that cider was born in Spain. The earliest written record of cider anywhere comes from a travel log penned by the Greek philosopher Strabo who passed through Spain’s north coast more than 2000 years ago, an area now known as Asturias. There he found the local celtic people, the Astures, making a drink called zythos from fermented apple juice. Their descendants are still making cider today, sidra in the local parlance, and their’s is one of the richest cider cultures in the modern world.
Situated between the Bay of Biscay to the north and the Cantabrian Moutains to the south, Asturias’s weather patterns have a lot in common with the east coast of the UK or western Washington State, so the grass-covered, rolling hills look more like Wales than they do the rest of Spain. The mix of rain and sun and mild sea air is perfect for the growing of apples, and there are at least 400 distinct Asturian varieties such as the high acid Raxao, the bitter-acid Regona, and the bitter-sweet Coloradona. Each of the 80 some cider houses, or llagares, has their own particular blend designed to produce a unique flavor, and all from the largest to the smallest use almost the same process. Ripe apples shaken from the trees are collected by hand and transported to the llagar where they are washed, roughly ground and the juice pressed and transferred to fermentation tanks. These are most often made of steel, but sometimes of the traditional chestnut wood. Cleanliness and temperature control is paramount, for no sulfites are used to kill off unwanted bacteria that could mar the flavor of the sidra and every llagar relies on just the natural yeast present on the apples and in the air. Fermentation proceeds in two stages. The first takes about 2 months and results in a very tart perfectly dry liquid. The next is slower- maybe 3 or so months – where the bacteria responsible for malolactic fermentation take over, softening the acids and creating an overall more complex beverage. The goal is not just a unique flavor, but balance – not too much of any one thing but a marvelous combination that unfolds on the palate.
Cider drinkers from other parts of the world can sometimes find the higher acids in sidra a bit of a challenge at first, though it soon becomes clear that the crisp, lively flavor is a perfect accompaniment to the typical dishes with which it is served such as chorizo, salt cod omelette, or fried chicken in garlic sauce. It is a drink that is meant to be consumed when fresh and is at its best when poured in small quantities in such a way that it becomes a little bit aerated. Traditionally this is done by holding the bottle some 4 or so feet above a wide-mouth glass allowing the liquid to hit just inside the lip and swirl as it descends to the bottom. This move takes a bit of practice, and even a professional pourer, called an escansiador, can end up with a bit of sidra on his shoes from time to time. The little bit of resulting carbonation does, however, make a distinct difference in the taste. Only an ounce or two is poured at a time and is meant to be drunk quickly before the bubbles dissipate. For those of us less skilled at the high pour there are plastic spouts that can be inserted into the bottle to accomplish much the same effect, and even mechanical devices that can be placed on tables in restaurants that don’t have their own escansiadors.
Sidra is inextricably entwined in the of life in Asturias. It is common for people to make sidra at home, and the local equivalent of the Home Depot has an area dedicated to mills and presses and chestnut-wood barrels. Furthermore 80% of the sidra produced by the llarges, all of which are family owned, is sold within Austurias, bringing the sidra consumption to about 14 gallons per capita annually. There are numerous festivals, and pouring competitions for the escansiadors, as well as an excellent museum of sidra in the town of Nava. What is most telling, though, is that every city large and small has at least one sidaria, a restaurant dedicated to the drinking of sidra. There people gather for an afternoon or evening of small plates of food and are ministered to by an escansiador who gracefully moves from table to table, watching for just the right moment to pour the diners another glass.
Sidra has become easier to find in the US as overall interest in cider has grown. One of the most widely available is from the llagar Trabanco, the largest producer of sidra in Asturias. Founded in 1925 by Emilio Trabanco it is still family owned and run and today produces some 1.5 million gallons of sidra a year, both for consumption in Asturias and for export to 14 countries around the world. A thoroughly modern company, Trabaco continues to use enormous old wooden screw presses while embracing much new technology, and all of their sidra spends at least some time in chestnut wood barrels. Each barrel matures at its own rate and produces a sidra with subtle variations, so every week or so a jury of local sidra experts meets with Samuel Trabanco, grandson of the founder, to taste each individual barrel and offer their opinons as to whether it has reached its full potential. Samuel will then blend selected barrels to obtain the company’s signature flavor for one of their eight sidras. Their Sidra Cosecha Propia, is smooth and tart, with delicate citrus notes and a bright clean finish while the Traditional has more herbal notes and a subtle astringency. Trabanco’s facility near Gijon, capital of Asturias, also has a well respected restaurant, Casa Trabanco, where visitors can order a range of Asturian specialty dishes severed accompanied by Trabanco sidra.
Whether or not you support the notion that cider making began in Asturias, the region’s warm people and rich culture beg to be visited, and cider tourism is on the rise. Two enterprising sidra enthusiasts, Begoña Medio and Eduardo Vásquez, have begun arranging annual week-long tours that coincide with the Sidra National Festival in Gijon. Go if you can. It will change the way you think about cider.