Pressing Matters

In the previous post on Deep Dives (“What is Artisanal” ) I discussed the origins of today’s Asturian cider mills, llagares, as a pre-modern industry that has continued to grow through a continuity of artisan practices to a large scale of production. Francisco Ordoñez of Sidra Viuda de Angelón was asked by the local press if this evolution has produced a lesser quality of sidra than in the old days. His response was that in earlier times, given the diversity of conditions in which sidra was being made and non-professional status of llagareros, truly good sidra stood out against a backdrop of generally poorer cider than what is consistently produced today.

Just a handful of labels from 99 commercial llagares in Astúrias

That general increase in quality can be attributed to the emergence of a critical mass of professional llagareros and apple farmers concentrating on the art and science of sidra, their organization into a guild and the dedication of governmental resources to technical research centers such as SERIDA in Villaviciosa. A cadre of dedicated researchers work closely with growers and makers as in most modern cider producing communities. Additionally, the development of university enology programs, while not offering education in cider making (much as the case in the U.S.), at least offer highly related training to technicians who work for some of the larger Spanish cider companies or consult with smaller producers. Fran Ordoñez himself graduated in enology from Universidad de Valencia and then worked for wine makers before taking over his family llagar. Having this expertise himself, rather than outsourcing it, drives what is acknowledged to be the most inventive cider operation in Spain.

Carlos Ballesteros, also raised in a sidra-making family, but educated in data driven social sciences before taking over at Sidra Fanjul, has become an avid modernizer of cider making technology through computerized metrics and operations management. This has permitted him to run a large llagar and orchards primarily by himself. While most llagares employ a mix of chestnut, fiberglass and stainless steel fermenting and maturation vessels, Carlos has dispensed with his inherited chestnut tonelas to assure the sterility of his fermenting environment for maximum consistency and to limit available oxygen to what is dissolved in the freshly pressed juice, eliminating osmosis through the wood. This allows him to control acetic levels to a very fine tolerance.

Raul Riestra draws on his university education in international business to market his sidra througout the EU, exposing him to other important European tastes, leading to his development of a champagne method sidra brut and familiarity with appropriate apple varieties for import.

Rough hewn lever press in El Museo de la Sidra, Nava, Astúrias

What appears to present a challenge to the continuity of the old craft in modern Spanish cider making is the evolution of the press itself. The enormous leverage of the pre-modern long beam-presses allowed llagareros to press large troughs (maseras) of shredded pomace. The hand-carved wooden screw at the far end from the masera was screwed up to bring the press-head down into the masera as far as resistance permitted. The expressed juice gradually slowed from a rush to a trickle over hours before enough liquid volume had run out of the pomace to back the press out, fluff the pomace with hand-carved wooden pitch-forks, and bring the press-head back down to squeeze out more juice.

This was done repeatedly over as many as three days until no more juice could be extracted. It produced a high volume of juice per bushel for the time, but was slow. In fact, what I am calling a press-head was really just a horizontal beam transferring the force of the lever to a plane of separate parallel planks laid across the top of the pomice confined to the corral. Between each cycle the separate planks had to be pried up with the pitch-forks and then set back down one-by-one.

The first modern innovation to these presses was the replacement of the huge, space-consuming lever beams with compact electric-powered hydraulic jacks. This was not merely a change of equipment, but of the whole configuration of the llagar. Now the same space could be filled with several smaller maseras each with its own jack-press. In smaller maseras the pomace could be squeezed dry in 1/3 the time, smaller components made the hand work lighter and quicker, and total tonnage being pressed per day was multiplied. Whether old-school wood-framed maseras with transfer beam and planks or modern steel cylinders with a piston head, hydraulic presses are still used.


Hydraulic piston and cylinder press

The new kid on the block is the large cylindrical bladder press adopted from modern wine-making. In these a large fabric bladder stretching from end to end along the center axis of a stainless steel cylinder is inflated pneumatically to expand with great force, pressing a fill of pomace against the perforated walls to force out the juice. The cylindrical chamber is set horizontally to keep it at a manageable height, to allow for a level hinged filling hopper and so that gravity will help drain the juice along its entire length. Given the force limits of such an apparatus, this type of press extracts less juice per bushel than its precursors, but it does its work much faster, netting significantly more juice per day over the harvest season. During peak harvest, though, the hydraulic presses are also kept operating to keep apples moving through the process when the lone, or few, expensive pneumatic presses are fully occupied. During peak harvest llagareros are working day and night.

Llagares can now lay up more sidra for breadth of selective blending than ever before, and volume storage is one of the keys to the craft of making sidra. But the devil is in the chemical details. With pomace time in the press now reduced from 1/3 (hydraulic) to 1/24! (pneumatic) since the days of the lever-beam press, the traditionally and inherently long maceration process is short-circuited. And, that’s the process by which a significant amount of polifenols (tannins) are produced by pre-fermentation of the pomice – seeds, skins and al – before the juice is even extracted for tank fermentation. This may not be a problem for regions pressing very tannic apple varieties, but for Spain, with an abundance of acidic fruit and a dearth of tannic varieties, the response of llagareros would suggest that maintaining the more gentle balance of tannins in their traditional style requires new tactics. I say this because I see, among my own producers a distinct effort boost the tannins in their blends.

While Raúl Riestra imports partly to secure higher volume in low-yield years, he specifically selects tannic varieties to boost the number of tannic batches in the bodega for use in his blending cycle.

Carlos Ballesteros cultivated a new orchard in the adjacent Province of León, on the dry southern slopes of the Picos de Europa, successfully propagating tannic varieties that do not do well in the wet soil of Asturias. He gets moisture readings from sensors in soil a 2 hour drive from his headquarters in Asturias and activates drip irrigation from his mobile phone. His first production scale harvest was 2018, and he is enthusiastic about the results.

Raúl Riestra follows the development over time of the sidra in of each of his many tanks.

Raúl Riestra follows the development over time of the sidra in of each of his many tanks.

At Viuda de Angelón, Fran Ordoñez segregates a certain amount of pomice from the triturador, or grinder, and holds it for extended maceration before pressing. Higher tannin batches can be produced from this juice that can then be blended into the straight-to-press cider to achieve the customary Asturian light tannic profile.

Raul Riestra, Carlos Ballesteros and Fran Ordoñez each demonstrate a personal response to evolving practice in making sidra. Each comes from a long family tradition of cider making, inheriting a skill-set of purely indigenous craft, each contributing aspects of their own modernity. For Raúl, educated in Business Administration, his approach to changes in pressing methods is through international business practice. He has traveled to identify new apple sources. For Carlos, the response has been to extend orcharding practice through digital technology. For Fran, the response has come from internationally shared wine-making practice newly applied to a formerly parochial craft.

These days we celebrate the label “craft”. We do so mostly to distinguish hands-on, locally sourced goods from mass-produced, mass-marketed things made without the touch of personal integrity; and we attach a constellation of real and mythic characteristics to the label. Being a bit leery of slippery labels I should hesitate to add more grist for misappropriation, but as a conclusion to a piece on modernity and tradition in sidra it occurs to me to propose that “artisan” is not merely “craft”, for which it is commonly regarded as an interchangeable term. Looking at sidra I suggest that to be an artisan is to employ and critique one’s inherited craft from the vantage point of the conditions of one’s time, new insights and expanded capabilities to take one’s output to the highest possible level of quality according to personal conviction and sensibility. We don’t expect any less from serious writers and painters. Why would we do so for serious cider makers?

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