The largest producer – and consumer – of cider or sidra is in the Northern Spanish region of Asturias. Cider there is not only considered a beverage, it is forged into the hearts and minds of the area’s 1 million inhabitants as an intrinsic part of its culture and folklore, thanks to its artisan elaboration.
Traditionally bottled in dark green bottles to protect it from sunlight, it is served in small chigre taverns or larger, restaurant like sidrerias, its unique serving method forms part of its irresistible attraction.
Commonly known as escanciar, the cider is poured in small quantities from the height of a fully extended arm into an angled, wide glass, allowing the cider to oxygenate or ‘break’ and generate air and acidity. Drunk the moment it is poured, it presents a fresh, acidic champagne like taste that normally doesn’t exceed a quantity of three fingers in the glass.
The apple is, of course, the essence of the cider experience, and with over 500 different variations of the fruit to be found in Asturias, the diversity and quantity of product available is nothing short of remarkable. The apples used to make traditional Asturian cider, however, are non-edible due to their high acidity.
Of the 45 million litres produced every year – a figure that fluctuates year on year depending on the weather – 95% of the cider is consumed within the region’s borders, be it in bars and restaurants or at traditional spring and summer outdoor festivals, known as ‘espichas’.
The cycle starts when the apples are collected in autumn, pressed using the traditional ‘manyar’ method using wooden machines or, as is now the norm, with large pressing machines in the form of fine wire mesh cylinders with a membrane inside to crush the apple pulps. After the juice is extracted, it is left to ferment for five months before being bottled the following spring.
It’s an entirely naturally produced product free from additives and chemical compounds, and has been medically proven to help with digestion and prevent kidney stones.
Andrés Canal, proprietor of the Canal brand (winner of this year’s best cider at the 2016 Festival de la Sidra) what makes the perfect cider, in a recent interview with local paper El Comercio.
“It should have good colour, a great aroma and most importantly the right acidity. The latter is key to achieving a cider of peak quality. This acidity is generated right after the fermentation process, so you need to be very careful and terminate the process at the right time.”
For Canal, the key to success lies in his family’s philosophy, whereby their cider is made from a balanced mix of both apples picked from coastal and mountainous regions to obtain the best possible final product. One which, for him, is interwoven firmly with the region.
“Cider is more than just a drink here, it’s something cultural. You can’t explain Asturias without cider.”
Cider also offers the flexibility of being a perfect addition to a dish, be it fish, meat, salads and even desserts. Popular choices include hake served in cider, chorizos, pork tenderloin, mushrooms and cider and green apple cider sorbet.
More than anything else, it’s a social drink. With a lower alcohol content (normally around 4% – 6%) than most wines and spirits, it is normally served by the bottle between groups of people, each of whom share and pass round the same glass. Custom dictates that once a measure or culin is drunk, the little cider left in the glass is emptied so as to clean it for the next drinker.
And for Javier Vallina, frontman of popular indie band Bueno, it’s the traditional social attraction that comes with drinking cider that makes it unique amongst alcoholic drinks.
“The most important thing about cider is its social component. People drink cider so as to share not only the glass, but also every possible type of conversation. The social part is its essence. When people say “Let’s go for a cider” it’s a reason for people get together to share stories, experiences and reassert their social circle, one with cider at its heart.”
Its origin as a home made beverage, is one that Javier feels remains present in the minds of his fellow Asturians, even as its popularity sees its commercialisation attach rigorous standards of quality and denomination of origin to the production of the drink.
Cider began thanks to people with fields and apple trees. They would collect apples, press them and then leave it to ferment. It’s always been a family drink, something people made, drank and utilised as a family. Only much more recently did it become commercialised, but it still retains its family tradition.
Other types exist from the traditional ‘natural’ cider, with sweet cider (without fermentation) and sparkling cider also very popular, with the latter brand made by ‘El Gaitero’ a necessary accompaniment for Christmas and New Year celebrations.
In September/October time the collection of apples starts across the region, and while most of it the collection is left to ferment to then sell as alcohol, the unfermented cider is used to form part of the traditional ‘Amaguestu’ celebrations.
These take the form events held right across the region to welcome in the Autumn months, whereby the sweet cider is enjoyed alongside roasted chestnuts collected from the forested areas by children. And due to the non alcoholic content of the cider, it’s a time where children share in the festivities.