The proper way to pour a traditional Spanish cider is from several feet above the glass. The cider should cascade from the bottle in an arc, hitting the bottom of the cup with such force that it splashes up the sides, resulting in a foamy white head. It is then consumed—not sip by sip, but in one giant anticipatory gulp. Some Spaniards then cavalierly toss out any drops that are left behind before refilling and starting the process all over again.
The northern Basque and Asturias regions have been ground zero for traditional cider production in Spain for some 800 years. In fact, the area was planted with apple trees well before grapevines. And while there have been some obvious advances in equipment (stainless steel, temperature control, etc.), the regions’ cider-making methods have remained largely unchanged for decades. This means using a blend of high-acid apples that are naturally fermented by yeasts native to the apple skins and bottling unfined and unfiltered, resulting in cider that tends to be a little bit cloudy and nearly still.
The most old-school producers still age their ciders in chestnut barrels, which are then drilled open from January into the spring, releasing a fountain of the season’s fresh cider for the locals and tourists that pack into the ciderhouses. They’ll chug this fresh juice alongside massive rib-eye steaks and salt cod tortillas.
Despite their close proximity to one another, there are some distinctions between ciders from the two regions. Asturian ciders tend to be fruitier and a little more approachable than their Basque counterparts, which are often more tannic and acidic, with distinctly savory qualities.
These traditional Spanish versions in no way resemble the ciders that have become the beloved salvation of the gluten-free and beer-adverse crowds in the States. They are tart, funky and tannic, with more in common with sour beer than American cider. The defining flavor characteristics of the most classic ciders come from the nearly universal presence of Brettanomyces, aka Brett, which gives funky, “barnyard” flavors, and volatile acidity, or VA, which can contribute vinegary, acetone aromas and flavors.
While the staunch adherence to tradition has endeared these ciders to many, the modern truth is that in some cases their slow evolution has hindered them in the market, at home and abroad. But their stagnancy isn’t necessarily by choice. Today, one is far more likely to find 20- and 30-somethings in San Sebastián drinking wine or beer; those who do drink cider don’t want to pay more than a couple euros for a bottle, leaving the cider houses (siderias in Asturias, sagardoas in Basque country) strapped.
“People just ask for cider in Basque country—not a style, not a producer. It’s the same with wine: white or red,” says Astarbe’s marketing director, Iker Zubia, of the challenge in marketing higher-end ciders and the lack of incentive many producers have to do so.
Despite this change in consumption, traditional Spanish ciders are still made on a commercial scale. The large majority are produced in industrial factories, rolling out hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of bottles every year, which is not so much a judgment as it is an important fact. This large-scale production is surely related to the primary gripe—that it’s “homogenous”—about Spanish cider among geeks. Even in a dedicated cider bar, like New York’s Wassail, the differences in these ciders are so subtle it just doesn’t make sense to have a whole list of traditional Spanish ciders when the box can be checked with one or two.
“The traditional ones are fun more because of the pomp and circumstance surrounding drinking them, more than actually tasting good,” says Dan Pucci, Wassail’s cider director.
However, there is no doubt that when done well, these ciders are fresh and absurdly drinkable—the VA character adding a pleasant tangy lift, so long as it doesn’t dominate. (In large amounts, it can make for cider that more closely resembles apple cider vinegar.) And while Spain’s north has seen a boom of more modern styles of cider—sparkling, sweet and even dry-hopped versions—those that are focusing on improving tradition are seeing the most success.
The Basque sagardoa Isastegi, for example, is fine-tuning its methods in order to make ciders that are cleaner and more accessible to the modern palate, rather than trying to change the style. They’ve done this by insisting on using stainless steel to ensure more cleanliness and transparency in their ciders, which, over time, have become increasingly apple-driven and finely textured.
In early October, Isastegi also pushed forward a new cider D.O. called Euskal Sagardoa, which will denote cider made from Basque fruit when seen on labels. This is a huge boon to regionality in Spanish cider, which today is often made from apples sourced from all over Spain, France and even Poland. Isastegi is also part of an organization called GORENAK, whose 13 members a list of standards—eschewing additives like carbonic acid, for example—and submit their ciders annually for flavor evaluation and approval by a panel of tasters. The group is also working to help subsidize apple growers in the area to encourage more producers to buy fruit locally.
The 450-year-old Astarbe, likewise, is taking strides toward distinguishing itself from the sea of classically made ciders. Now run by 15th-generation owners, Astarbe is working with heritage apples grafted onto wild rootstock, working toward organic farming and experimenting with higher-end ciders made in the Champagne method, to excellent results.
Astarbe’s ciders are increasingly popular in Sweden, the Netherlands and Japan, and the hope is that they can make inroads in the U.S., where a burgeoning cider-making scene now includes several producers—Blackduck, Tilted Shed and Anxo among them—making higher-end, Spanish-style ciders.
Horticulturalists at Cornell have been working for years to cultivate a number of Spanish cider apple varieties and have just finally begun selling them to orchards. But it will take years, maybe decades, for these trees to produce the fruit necessary to make any real quantity of cider. For now, most of the U.S. producers making Spanish-style ciders are working with heirloom American varieties, and with great success. In fact, our favorite cider in a tasting of more than two dozen, mostly from Spain, came from Tilted Shed in Sonoma, California, prompting the discussion of what traditional Basque or Asturian could be like if more of it were made on a smaller scale, with more control.
At Tilted Shed, husband and wife team Scott Heath and Ellen Cavalli make their Inclinado (both a still and a sparkling version) using local Gravenstein apples, a several times-used chardonnay barrel and native yeast. The goal is to produce a Basque-style cider that is restrained, balanced and nuanced. The sparkling Inclinado is especially impressive—at once downright juicy and structured with teensy, enlivening bubbles.
“Cider makers in the Basque and Asturias have been selecting high-acid, tannic apples for millennia,” said Cavalli. “We’re exploring what our apples can do.” So far, they’re doing just fine.
Six Spanish (and Spanish-style) Ciders to Try
A couple weeks back, the editors at PUNCH joined Dan Pucci, cider director at Wassail, the best cider bar in New York, to taste through two dozen bottles from Asturias and the Basque country, as well as a handful of American takes on traditional Spanish cider.
When tasting these traditional bottlings, it’s important to aerate the cider to reduce the perception of VA. The best way to do this is to grab yourself an escanciador, which fits in the top of the bottle and allows you to pour into your glass from great heights without soaking yourself and everyone around you.
The Basque Country
Isastegi Sagardo Naturala | $10
Miguel Mari Lasa changed his methodologies a few years back to produce a cider that’s extremely expressive of the high-acid apples he sources entirely from the Basque Country. He uses stainless steel tanks for fermentation, in order keep the cider clean, focused and consistent. It’s one of the best examples of the style, year in and year out. [Buy]
Gurutzeta Sagardo Naturala | $11
Along with Isastegi, Gurutzeta is a member of GORENAK, an organization of 13 cider houses that use only Basque apples in their cider and submit their ciders to a tasting panel for quality assurance. This bottling shows a little bit of oxidation and some very ripe tropical fruit flavors, with the bracing acidity to back it up. [Buy]
Astarbe Byhur | $20
Although this sagardotegi has been around for over 450 years, it only started making this sparkling style of cider a few years ago, under the watch of 15th generation cidermaker Hur Astarbe. The Astarbe family uses two main varieties of apples, the Astarbe and Mendiola, plus a secret variety that Hur will not disclose. This salty, mouthwatering bottling, which is made in the Champagne method, is aged on its lees for 12 months before being released. [Buy]
Fanjul Sidra Natural | $10
Fourth generation cider maker Carlos Ballesteros swears by stainless steel in an effort to prevent oxidation. His cider, sourced from heirloom Asturian cider apples has a great spicy ginger edge and a super fresh, green apple notes. [Buy]
Riestra Asturia Natural | $11
A good portion of the apples for this cider come from the Riestra family’s Sariego orchard, high elevation plots (which sit from 300-800 meters) that expose the apples directly to maritime influence. The native apples are blended with varieties from Normandy to help mitigate the searing acid. The result is a full-bodied cider that’s spicy and floral with distinctly bitter tannins. [Buy]
Tilted Shed Inclinado 2014 Sparkling | $20
“I call us human-scale cider,” says Ellen Cavalli who runs this cidery with her husband Scott Heath. “We’re nowhere close to the size of those Basque producers.” Made from local Gravenstein apples, this fragrant, finely textured sparkling cider was fermented and aged in used chardonnay barrels for nine months before being bottled with a dosage of fresh juice from the 2015 harvest. It then undergoes secondary fermentation over a period of about six months. [Buy]