A Brief Introduction to a Deep Cultural Phenonmenon
Spanish cider is unique in being fermented with only the natural yeast present in the apples, the orchards and the llagar (cidery). This and the long established regional cider apple varieties root the flavors in time and place giving Spanish ciders their wine-like terroir. More than 200 varieties of cider apples grow in Astúrias with some 21 of these being most commonly used. Sharp (acidic) varieties such as the Raxao apple predominate not only in the orchards, but in the sidra blends (roughly 70%), while bittersharps (tannic/semi-acidic), such as the Regona apple, make up 20-25% of the typical blend. A small amount of sweet apples are included to increase sugar to achieve a 6-7% alcohol level by volume. In contrast, French ciders blends are typically a ratio of 70/25, just the inverse; with bitter varieties comprised of both bittersharp and bittersweets.
Until recently only French and English cider apple varieties were available for cultivation in the U.S. However, emerging American production of natural, wild yeast ciders is driving growers to cultivate the first few Spanish varieties that have come to our shores. As debate rages on about whether a reasonable Spanish style sidra natural (natural cider), can be produced here, authentic imported sidra from Astúrias, and the similar sagardoa from the Basque region are here in force now, and they are exciting American cider, wine and beer drinkers alike with their intensity, complexity and quaffable refreshing quality.
Cider production is rooted in too moist a soil under too little sun for the luxury of vineyards. As such cider and the food culture in which it is embedded is quintessentially regional and has been, until recently hidden behind mountains and stereotypical notions of dry, sun-drenched, wine-rich Spain.
Asturian bartenders traditionally pour Sidra (escanciar) from overhead to a glass held below the waist in order for the resulting aeration to release the full flavors, but the Basques don’t bother and many Asturians use special pouring spouts (training wheels) to achieve this “long pour” which releases dissolved natural carbonation and delivers a pleasing “fluffy” mouthfeel. For this effect, the Basques offer, seasonally, the txotx, a direct, high pressure shot right from the huge wooden tanks at their cider houses. Traditional sidra/sagardoa should be shaken in the bottle just before opening to dissolve the sediments and activate the natural carbonation.
Running parallel to the coastline a mere ten to twenty miles to the south the snow-capped Picos de Europa mountain range creates a climactic wall between the arid central Spanish plateau and this verdant yet rugged, rainy jigsaw puzzle of estuarine and alpine valleys.
Most of the new ciders fall into two categories: filtered, or Nueva Expresión, which are either still or lightly sparkling; and Brut, which is produced through second in-bottle or in-the-tank fermentation to achieve higher alcohol levels and full champagne style effervescence. Both categories meet more typcial American expectations of fine ciders: clarity and bubbles. They all fall nicely on the dry side of the spectrum as American drinkers flee from the soda-pop sweetness of the early cider spectrum.
Ever experimenting, this new generation of Asturian producers has even introduced a spiritous and sweet dessert style cider by adapting the process of Canadian ice cider. Since apples never freeze on the branch in Asturias “Frost Cider” is made by freezing the freshly presssed juice to minus 20˚ C. The juice is then thawed gradually to extract a concentration of flavor with five times the sugar allowing fermentation to higher alcohol levels while arresting fermentation with ample residual sugars.