Ask just about anyone who has recently returned from Spain to describe their favorite part of the trip. Local wines will usually be near the top of the list. On a recent drive through northern Spain’s Asturias region, I discovered sidra natural, or Spanish cider, another beloved national drink I was completely unprepared for. It begins with acidic apples and is unlike any English or American hard cider I’ve ever tasted. In fact, I didn’t know much about it until I was looking for a restaurant one evening. Standing in front of a sidaria (a cider pub) I watched a waiter pour from a bottle in an elaborate ritual designed to generate fizz. But more on that in a minute.
Spaniards are reputed to drink more cider than residents of any other country in the world. Despite its popularity, most people have never encountered Spanish cider when traveling through the country. For starters, it is an acquired taste—vinegary and fruity with a heavy yeast flavor. It’s fairly flat and cloudy, too, but somehow this all melds in a good way. It definitely grew on me as I made my way through a bottle.
A sidaria makes for an unusual night out if you’re not familiar with the tradition. The escanciador is the waiter who pours the cider, and the process is one part mad skill and one part theatrics. His goal is to inject as much effervescence into the liquid as possible while he’s pouring.
I watched my escanciador hold the bottle as far above his head as his arm would stretch. In the other hand he held the glass at an angle, as low as he could reach. Then he looked straight ahead and poured. Part of the cider hit the floor but, impressively, the majority of it landed in the large glass. He poured two fingers with a slight foam on top, slapped the dripping glass on the wet table, and walked away. After taking cues from everyone around us, we drank it in a few gulps before the carbonation disappeared. He returned when we gestured for another pour.
Spaniards have been producing hard cider for centuries. They had apple trees well before grapevines. The majority of Spain’s cider production takes place in Asturias and the Basque region, and devotees the world over descend on the area when cider festivals are underway. Pressing apples in the fall results in an aged cider by winter. January through April is the best time for drinking when the newly fermented cider is flowing directly from the barrels. And, probably, most important: serving yourself is frowned upon. Even when the bottle is sitting on your table, and the escanciador is nowhere to be found.
According to an article in PUNCH, there are several U.S.-based producers making Spanish-style ciders should you prefer to give them a try before you pack your bags and head to Spain. They recommend Tilted Shed, Blackduck, and ANXO. Ciders of Spain lists lots of U.S. retailers, too.
The proper glass, an experienced escanciador, and the festive surroundings of a hopping sidaria set the stage for the most memorable cider tastings. There’s nothing like going to the source for an authentic experience. And the best part? There’s no need to mop the floor when you’re done.
If you’d like to know more about Spanish cider, check out this article in Cidercraft magazine and this article about the history of Asturian cider.
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