Spanish Cider Stands at the Crossroads of Lifestyle and Innovation

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 aspanishbite bites of sausage and Spanish tortilla. You order a 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 to 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.

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 minutes’ drive from the coastal city of Gijón. There, he and his team produce liters of cider a year, 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 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.