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Hunting Spanish Cider
THE SIDRAS OF ASTURIAS AND THE BASQUE COUNTRY
October 4, 2007
One can see, in most good American beer stores, a small range of French cidres and English ciders. What one does not see is any bottle of Spanish sidras. You may say that the stuff is rather obscure at the moment. When I was visiting El Museo de la Sidra in Nava, a small village with 9 cider houses (sidrerias) in the northern Spanish province of Asturias, I saw a board from 1994 displaying the cider output of the main producing countries. In millions of liters, the UK easily came first with 550, while France and Germany were fighting for the second place with respective production of 110 and 100 and Spain was offering a solid 40 millions of liters yearly.
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Like in most of the globe’s cider producing regions, legislative and traditional factors mean that for every known producer in some kind of written or web-based repertory, you will have a handful of others who do it in their garage or backyard and may easily sell a few to their neighbours or families to round out their revenues at the end of the month. Nevertheless, my researches on the web have quickly rewarded me with a list of well above a hundred different Spanish producers, an astronomical amount when most Ratebeerians could not name you one and when you consider that traditional cideries tend not to be technology savvy.
Those producers are, almost with no exception, concentrated in the northern part of Spain, where wine growing is less common. The provinces of Galicia, Navarra and Alava have a couple of cider makers each, but the sidra fortresses are undoubtedly Asturias, Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa, the two latter of which belong to the Basque Country. I have not had the chance to tour Vizcaya, but I’ll work under the hypothesis that its ciders are quite comparable to the ones of its Basque neighbour Guipúzcoa, just like the ones from Navarra and Alava were.
There are a few things concerning Spanish sidras that you don’t encounter elsewhere to my knowledge. Firstly, the service method is quite unique. The Asturian waiter will lift the bottle over his head, hold the rather large glass just under waist level at a 45 degrees angle, look towards the horizon and pour apparently blindly, straight on the edge of the bent glass. In Basque Country, the bottle is not held as high, but the principle is the same. Most Occidentals would get offended at the provoked waste, with perhaps 10% to 20% of the sidra splashing out of the glass as it hits its side. The locals would not have it any other way as only this pouring method ensures the oxygenation of the liquid which gives it the breathed freshness that they crave. Here, your reporter must confess not really grasping such a considerable difference, but in Spain, do as the Spaniards do. The service ritual involves only a small amount of liquid being poured in the glass, perhaps 2 good sips, which the patron will engulf immediately. Otherwise, he “kills” the sidra by letting it rest and breathe.
Secondly, there is the seasonal “Txot”. I unfortunately missed the event myself, but the Txot is simply the festivities circling around the new sidra releasing. The apples picked in the fall will only be sidra ready for sale by next January. Then, until late April to early May, the public - and it’s a very popular activity - can go and visit the cider producing houses (sidrerias) where enormous barrels loaded with fresh sidra are pierced. People will stand several feet from the barrel, on the receiving end of a long jet of sidra straight from the cask and will queue and drink until the barrel is empty and everyone is ready to move to the next one. The whole thing is accompanied by traditional food and events. Obviously, the producers have some barrels set apart, the content of which is going to be bottled. With the forgiving weather that they get over there (an average temperature of about +15C or 60F) in the winter, I must say I regret not having been there at the right time.
Thirdly, as may not have been clear earlier, you can’t get draught sidra. Outside the Txot, you can only get it from the bottle. A huge majority of sidrerias will be closed to the public out of the season. And even in season, while I’m sure you have a brilliant time hopping from producer to producer, sidra gets you drunk rapidly and the producers, even when in small villages, are rarely in the town’s center and very frequently on the rural outskirts where public transportation is practically nonexistent. This means two things: my list of sidrerias was not as useful as I had hoped for last July and if you head there outside the January-April period, you will need to find other means of getting your share of sidra.
Fortunately, Northern Spain is a gourmet oriented region, which means that you will find lots of small grocery stores selling regional products. They will usually carry a small range, perhaps 3 to 5, of sidras from nearby town. The good news for the hunting soul is that in the cities, that is any town with a few thousand souls or more, the different stores tend to have a considerably different selection. Another good piece of news is that the stuff is rather popular over there, so most bars carry one or two brands. A confusing fact is that many such bars are actually called sidrerias themselves, especially in Asturias where a city like Oviedo must have perhaps up to a hundred of them. They are simply very traditional outlets that specialize in regional cuisine and sell sidra on top of a few other beers or drinks. They are simply the northern Spanish equivalent of the English pub and just like you would take the cask ales in a pub, trust me, you will want the sidra in a sidreria.
Asturian sidras generally come from 720mL corked, but not caged green glass bottles. Basque sidra will be dispensed from 750mL bottles. In an Asturian sidreria, the average price of a bottle of sidra is 2,20 Euros whereas the more expensive Basque region would probably have you spend twice that amount in a bar. On the other hand sidreria bars are far less common in Basque country so you will have to visit more local stores if you’re on a hunt and in the stores your average sidra should not be much more than 2 Euros. Even the grocery chains in smaller villages like Hernani, Astigarraga, Villaviciosa or Andoain will usually carry around 2 of the local products year-round.
Now what does the juice taste like? Well, we should first set apart real Spanish sidra from the rest. Authentic Spanish sidra will always be called sidra natural, an unfiltered and unpasteurised cider. Sidra natural has an alcohol content of 6% or close (never under 5% and never over 7%). It is of a cloudy, pale and rather bright golden colour and shows no or little natural carbonation. As the “natural” would indicate, its fermentation is natural, activated by regional wild yeasts feeding off the juiced apples’ sugars. You will seldom encounter other sidras, which can sometimes be sparkling, inspired by the French style and usually far sweeter or the obvious more industrial examples which do not come from bottles of the same format. Let’s forget the rest, we are talking about sidra natural, the soul of the traditional Spanish sidras.
Again, I must confess that unlike my Spanish hosts, I did not find so great a variation from the sidras of different producers. I suspect that often, my preference between one example or the other depends more on the freshness than on the actual production methods, as they are very similar from place to place. They all use a blend of eating and cider apples. While the proportions vary slightly, I can tell you that I was not fond of Spanish eating apples, which were not very juicy and generally bland and that I would spit almost instantly the small cider apples which you would not want to consume if you had had nothing to eat for days.
A Spanish sidra will generally smell fresh, juicy and flowery and have a restrained funky yeast note. The palate will often feel vinous though alcohol will rarely be felt. It is a treacherous drink as it is very refreshing and easy to drink, yet packs quite a punch and it’s hard to keep count of the amount you’ve had in a sidreria where you’ll often share and receive numerous small glasses of varying content. The apple flavour is always generously extracted, will apple skin being quite obvious in the tannins that it procures. The acidity will rarely reach real lambic’s PH, but Spanish ciders can definitely be described as sour, perhaps as much as a Boon Oude Geuze for instance. The flavours will almost invariably have a woody component to them. Sometimes, sidra will be complex and hint at leather, medicine, cheese or tropical fruits and at other times, it will be simple, juicy and just a pleasant thoughtless drink. The fresher examples frequently display a fresh hay component to their nose, regularly bordering breadiness. While the juiciness may make the product seem rather sweet at first, a vast majority is actually quite dry and frequently astringent.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, most sidras are not really so far apart taste-wise. You will never find the variety that you meet when drinking English farmhouse ciders which can be the sun or the night. Nonetheless, if you forced me to set apart Asturian from Basque ciders, I could not tell you my favourite, but a few differences would come to my mind for the very archetypal example of each origin. I would say that Basque sidras are generally less floral and perhaps a touch less woody, thus less funky and less phenolic. In revenge, they tend to showcase brighter fruit flavours and a bit of extra acidity. It makes them a bit juicier and crisper. The Basque apples may also impart a slight extra bitterness compared to the Asturian that will procure more apple skin texture. Whatever the differences are, I can tell you that whichever origin your sidra is from, they all pair extremely well with almost any food that may cross your place.
If on your visit, you may want to learn more about production methods, be aware that there exists an Asturian sidra museum in Nava, Asturias and a Basque one in Astigarraga, Guipúzkoa. And please drop me a line before heading there!
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