Spanish Cider Stands at the Crossroads of Culture and Innovation - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Spanish Cider Stands at the Crossroads of Culture and Innovation

Story: Max Falkowitz

Photo: Courtesy of Trabanco

The first thing to know if you’re just starting to drink Spanish cider is that you’re probably drinking it wrong. I don’t mean something precious like, “The cylindrical shape of your pilsner glass isn’t doing justice to the aromatics of your barleywine.” No, this is a matter of culture and physics and where those forces meet.

Last autumn, before the world went quiet, I began a trip to Spain’s cider country by walking the streets of Oviedo. The medieval city literally has a street nicknamed Cider Boulevard, so it’s as good a place as it gets to learn about the correct way to drink cider, and on a random Thursday at midnight, the streets were bopping with cider lovers.

Here is what they taught me: You meet some friends at a crowded bar with few seats and many freely passed bites of sausage and Spanish tortilla. You order a 750 ml. bottle of cider for the standing table, which comes to you with a single tall glass, which your server lowers to their knee. They pour the cider from three feet above so the trickling stream ricochets off the inner edge of the paper-thin rim, forming an ephemeral froth. You knock back this 2- to 3-ounce pour in one gulp, letting the sour, tannic, and funky brew crackle in your mouth like a live wire. Then you dump the dregs of your glass on the floor so the server can repeat the process for the next person. The round-robin takes a while, so they keep your bottle chilled on the sidelines. You spend a lot of time tasting the aerosolized cider vapors of your neighbors’ glass, the bitter aroma of apple skin and seed holding you over until your next gulp.

We’ll see how the practice changes in a post-coronavirus world—a recommended social-distancing activity, this is not—but the important thing to know is that this frequently overlooked category of cider isn’t meant to be sipped, but relished. As a still drink, it requires careful aeration to unlock its potential, and that fizz lasts mere moments. As an intensely regional product of Spain’s northern cider-making communities, it demands to be made and drunk communally. Secrets of this strange, ancient brew only reveal themselves under certain conditions. Some demand you dive headfirst into the heart of Spain’s cider world to find them.

A resident of Lavandera brings his apples to Trabanco. | Photo courtesy of Trabanco

Apples are no more Spanish than they are American. The fruits—which are the ovaries of the apple tree—originated in Central Asia and migrated to Western Europe through Roman and Celtic trade and conquest thousands of years ago. While most of Spain is decidedly wine territory, the cooler northern regions of Asturias and Basque Country were better suited to apple cultivation, and even now, consumption of sidra (the Spanish term in Asturias, or sagardo, the Basque name for “apple wine”) remains pretty specific to those autonomous communities within Spain.

Cider freaks may quibble here, but there are more similarities between Asturian sidra and Basque sagardo than differences. Asturian ciders tend toward somewhat fresher, fruitier flavors while Basque versions lean harder into the twang of fermentation and oxidation. Overall, these brews are much drier than their American and English counterparts, and more sour and tannic than most French expressions. Traditional versions, called “natural cider,” are cloudy, still, and big on barnyard funk. They’re also light in body, another reason the long pour is crucial to aerate the drink and add some texture; without it, you’re only getting half the story.

The important thing to know is that this frequently overlooked category of cider isn’t meant to be sipped, but relished

Historically, cider in Spain was a low-alcohol farmhouse brew, made in rural homes and sold locally until a commercial industry gained momentum in the early 20th century. The drink’s rustic character is a product of its wild yeast and minimal-intervention production, similar to the ancient winemaking traditions of Georgia and Armenia. Yet while natural wine is the current darling of the wine world, Spanish natural cider is still regarded as, well, kind of a bumpkin drink. Asturian consumer expectations have set a low price ceiling of just a few euros a bottle, which is a growing problem for a few reasons, none the least of which is the amount of experience and sophistication required to make this seemingly straightforward beverage.

Luis Acebal is the fourth-generation owner and cider maker of Sidra Acebal, a llagar (ciderie) just 15 minutes’ drive from the coastal city of Gijón. There, he and his team produce 350,000 liters of cider a year, 90 percent of which is consumed locally in Asturias. On the afternoon of my visit, Acebal is preparing to receive a dump truck’s worth of apples that would be weighed, recorded in a lot-tracking system, cut down by machine into bite-size chunks, and loaded into medieval-looking presses made of wood and iron that use gears and gravity to slowly squeeze the juice from the apples over two to three days. At 55 years old, Acebal hops around the llagar like a man half his age, dashing between fermenter tanks, climbing the ladder to check on three workers who are turning over apples in a press for another round of the deep squeeze.

It’s this slow pressing that begins to develop the cider, Acebal explains, in translation through his daughter Laura. Prolonged contact with the apples’ seeds and skins gives the juice an immediate phenolic structure, even in this sweet, prefermented state. Meanwhile, slow-but-sure oxidation adds ripened complexity to the bitter, sour, and tannic elements of the pomace. Some cider makers—including many excellent ones—are migrating to faster, more advanced presses that can extract in hours what would otherwise take days. You can still get good results this way, but have to adjust your process accordingly.

A traditional cider press at Sidra Acebal. | Photo by Max Falkowitz

Instinctual adjustment is a running theme in Acebal’s tour; his llagar is less a production facility than the digestive system of some great organism, with Acebal as its nerve center. Sidra ferments with the yeasts naturally present in the llagar’s air and barrels. Hundreds of varieties of apple grow in Asturias, 76 of which are now permitted by an Asturian origin-protection board for use in bottles labeled “sidra de Asturias.” Acebal typically uses between six and 10 varieties, not in prescripted percentages, but according to what’s available from the small orchards he works with at any given time, plus his own sense of how those apples interact. Even among the varieties he uses for his origin- protected label, no grower or picker could easily distinguish them all, he says, and the same variety grown in different microclimates will function differently in his cider. Instead, he and other makers prefer to classify cider apples as coastal—those that grow along Spain’s northern coastline—and mountain—those that grow farther south, and are cut off from the ocean winds by a range of hills.

I ask Acebal what makes his cider distinct from his peers’, a question American brewers or winemakers are usually all too happy to answer with musings on their methods and philosophy. Acebal politely demurs. When I press him on the topic, he looks to a nearby tank and says it’s all about the yeast. “Now do you want to try another one?” he asks, with a conspiratorial grin.

This is the fifth or sixth tank we’ve drunk from, him, Laura, and me all sharing a glass as one should. Each batch delivers the electrifying acidity and crisp bite I’ve come to expect from natural cider, but also an aftertaste evocative of an old country road cloaked in autumnal fog—wet peat, rich earth, the scent of apple trees collecting dew in the distance.

Luis Acebal’s sidra hews close in taste and method to the ciders produced in Asturias hundreds of years ago. In a beverage market increasingly defined by trend-chasing and globalized commerce, the Asturian devotion to its local cider is a remarkable thing. But the creeping influence of capital comes for us all. On a sunny autumn morning at Sidra Trabanco, one of the largest cider producers in the region, CEO and cellar manager Samuel Trabanco tells me, “Young people have many other beverage options now. They don’t need to drink cider all the time like years ago. Cider companies need to develop new products to survive in a global market.”

Trabanco is one of the few sidra brands Americans can readily find stateside, but 80 percent of its juice is consumed in Asturias. One of its newfangled experiments geared toward the globalized market is a natural cider vermouth, which is blended with white wine and typical botanicals like wormwood and gentian for a smooth-sipping, lightly bitter aperitif tinged with fresh-cut apple and a murmur of fermented funk.

This may not sound like a big deal for a country with a rich vermouth tradition all its own, but it’s a radical departure in a place with strict cultural boundaries around drinks and how they’re consumed. Trabanco also admits that these experimental products can be sold at a higher price point than traditional natural cider, which is important when your core consumers are exploring other drinks and the cost of labor, apples, and production keeps increasing. A century ago, there were hundreds of cider producers in Asturias. Now the number of commercial llagars is closer to 80.

spanish cider
Francisco Ordoñez Vigil, co-owner of Sidra Viuda de Angelón, sampling cider. | Photo by Max Falkowitz

James Asbel, the founder of Ciders of Spain, an importer that deals exclusively in Asturian sidra, is leading the charge on this experimental frontier. He collaborates with his Spanish partners on new products for European and American markets and sells bulk volumes of natural cider to American producers for their own creations. “The American market is driven in part by novelty,” he says, and new formats can act as a gateway to get Americans—who are used to domestic candy-sweet ciders— hooked on sidra’s funk.

In addition to natural ciders from three superlative llagars, he’s collaborated with one of them, Viuda de Angelón, to can and carbonate a sidra sweetened with a touch of honey from the llagar’s own orchard. When I visit Angelón co-owner, cider maker, and orchardist Francisco Ordoñez Vigil, he pours me a new concoction he’s been working on that by all rights should be the next drink of summer: lightly fizzy sidra blended with orange, lime, and lemon juices for an astonishingly floral shandy-adjacent brew I could drink all day long.

Viuda de Angelón is a sizable operation, producing 1.5 million liters of sidra a year. That’s given Vigil the room to expand his methods beyond the traditional. He’s adopted a line of pneumatic machines that allow him to press his juice much faster; by reserving a portion of the milled apples for a longer maceration period, he’s able to maintain the sidra’s crucial polyphenolic pucker. In addition to traditional natural cider, Vigil also makes a filtered cider that pours and drinks like a crisp yet creamy Chardonnay. It’s distinctly Asturian sidra, but with an unexpected weight and subdued funk. His naturally sparkling, bottle- conditioned brut is similarly reminiscent of an off-dry cremant, and similarly approachable for those turned off by sidra’s barnyardy upbringing.

The Asturian reaction to these new styles—which sell for two to three times the price of traditional cider—is tepid at best, Asbel explains. “It’s actually harder to introduce anything new or more expensive, as Asturians are reared on traditional natural cider. This is one reason the export market is so important to the growth of the industry.” Viuda de Angelón is far from the only brand exploring these new cider formats for emerging markets; several other producers have released their own versions in the past five years.

This is the promise and peril of Asturian cider. While the tradition is hardly endangered—yet—the economics are changing fast, and for the first time in a couple thousand years, it’s incumbent on cider makers to innovate to survive.

My only problem with the brut sparklers and cider vermouths is that they don’t lend themselves to the theatrical practice of pouring and sharing a bottle of sidra around the table. That theater is important. A drink this old and delicious and distinctly of its place should feel like a celebration every time we open a bottle. Looks like we have some new rituals we need to build.

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