Outside the Box: Asturian Sidra

I have to admit, when I first moved to northern Spain in February, I was disappointed. I had left sunny, late summer Sydney for a very cold rainy town of Santander. While the weather didn’t help, the beer was the worst. I mean I would happily take a Miller over a Mahou or Estrella, seriously. The main flavour evoked from any of their mainstream lagers is overwhelmingly corn… great. Im my mind, I had left the promised land and entered a desert.

Thankfully, I now realise that I had judged this place way too quickly. Thanks to the godsend of an independent bottle shop here, I have been able to get my hands on some of the small but growing Spanish craft beers. Naparbier in Pamplona shines brightly among them. A strong sense of local pride [okay very strong] in the Basque country, Barcelona and the province of León for instance have helped independent brewers immensely to produce and distribute a local product. They have a very young market; however, their support is remarkable.

In fact, I have come to learn that the Spanish have a pride for local products of all sorts. I’m not talking about the ‘local’ movement that seems to have thankfully taken in the US, UK and Australia. The Spanish have had this for years. Ask someone on the street about nearly any food and they will tell you where in the county it is made the best. Oh you want paella?  You have to go to Valencia. Light bodied red wines? Rioja. The best sardines? Sañtona. You haven’t lived until you have had pinxos (the name for tapas in the north) from San Sebastián. Don’t bother with a sherry from outside of Jerez.

You could write volumes over the regionality of cuisines here. Its amazing to me not only how proud the residents are of their products but also how they delight in their neighbour’s success. I really respect their almost self constraint to do what they do and do it well while letting others succeed in their own specialty. It’s a mentality that harks back to not being a mile wide and an inch deep from the previous post.

The Spanish have a classificatory system called Denominación de Origen (DO) which protects  certain foodstuff products providing a certification of quality and geographic origin of the countries finest producers. Unlike the French appellations, a DO certification extends beyond wine to a large number of high quality products with specific ingredients and identifiable characteristics derived from a veritable and identifiable source. The system benefits producers and consumers alike. Not only does it protect a region’s tradition or craft, it’s also a benchmark for quality for the consumer.

I love this system immensely. It has guided me to so many great foods and I have learnt the terroir of many of Spain’s finest regions. When you enjoy a food with a DO, you get product and soul, like a Farmhouse beer. One of my favourite DO finds through my musing was sidra from Asturias.

Sidra

Before I came to Spain, I had been told in passing about the drink and tradition; however, it took me getting here to realise how ‘down my alley’ it was. Sidra is simply the Spanish word for cider; but, in Asturias, one of Spain’s northern provinces, sidra is the defining product of their region and their culture revolves around enjoying it. As a spontaneously fermented cider, sidra has a beautiful crisp dryness with a subtle tartness, so naturally I loved it and it much prefer it to the light lager option.

On my first visit to Gijon, the largest city in Asturias, I saw sidrerias everywhere. A sidreria is a bar where they serve sidra, which due to it’s serving process requires an experienced server. The thing that was strange is that outside of Asturias, I hadn’t seen one such place. It was weird, only a 1 hour drive away, the people of Santander in Cantabria couldn’t care less about sidra but a stone’s throw away was brick and mortar infrastructure to meet local demand. In fact when my wife and I visited one of the Lagares (literally a mill) to see the process we were told that over 90% of the sidra production in Asturias stays in Asturias. These are big productions for not a huge population, the Asturias simply love their product. Sidra from the region has its own DO board with an informational english website here.

After another trip to Gijon which included visiting an old, out of commission farmhouse lagare, I started to think about what I could take away from these producers for the benefit of Farmhouse brewing. With a spontaneous fermentation there is an obvious connection that I wanted to explore; however, I think we have greater lessons to lean from the DO of Asturian sidra which helps give this product its soul.

Process, Fermentation and Service

Sidra begins it’s life in regulated orchards in the hills and mountains across Asturias. Some lagares own their orchards while others purchase theirs from certified growers. It’s great, when you drive around the region you pass orchard after orchard whose fruits you can just tell end up as sidra. Asturians have been producing sidra for hundreds of years and while they have honed and modernised the process for production volume, it fantastically hasn’t changed much at all.

During harvest these trees get their apples shaken off of them and transported to the lagare. The farmers dump the apples out of the trucks into these huge collection troughs that end up looking like organised mounds of apples. These hills of fruit then get sprayed with heaps of water to propel them into concrete canals where the apples float the current towards the presses. As the fruit rides this stream they get a light and natural wash with the water that carries them. They then go into a little elevator which transports them to a sorting table where trained eyes pick out the bad apples.

Immediately after this the apples drop into a mill and get shredded and pumped to the presses. A the lagare I visited, Castañón, they used a modern cylindrical press to get the max out of their apples. From here, the must is pumped directly into their huge temperature controlled fermentors. That’s it. Producers rely on the natural yeasts and bacterias that lived on the skins of the apples for fermentation. They never add yeast or wash the apples with anything other than water, in fact they aren’t allowed to according to the DO.

Here is an old school mill
Here is an old school mill in the roof of an old farmhouse

Because of these natural yeasts, fermentation occurs over a few months meaning the first sidra of the season hits the market around the new year. During fermentation however, the producer samples each tank and occasionally blends more acidic ones with less acidic or a drier with a sweeter to achieve their house flavour. Also, the temperature control allows for a producer to encourage certain growth and compound production. This varies across producer but since they rely mainly on a mix of brettanomyces and saccharomyces they usually hover around the 18-high 20’s celsius mark.

When a tank has reached maturation and an appropriate level of dryness the producer will send the sidra to packaging. It is packaged still in a green bottle with a cork. Every producer in the region uses the exact same bottle so that they can be reused by any other producer for years. Castañón packages around 80% of their product into recycled bottles every year. Packaging doesn’t happen all at once for the whole year; instead, the matured sidra waits in its vessel until the producer needs more stock. So throughout the year you can notice slight differences from longer fermentation and maturation times as well as small differences in the residual carbonation levels from different packaging runs. While no secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle for carbonation, any beverage at atmospheric pressure still retains a small volume of CO2. The hotter a liquid gets, the more it will release of that small carbonation so a sidra packaged in the winter will have slightly more life than one packaged in the summer. This rule holds true for beer too. Ask any brewer, or better yet blender about atmospheric carbonation and they will tell you about this baseline carbonation which must be accounted for in bottle conditioning.

The generally flat product necessitates the specific serving procedure referenced before. Asturias like to drink their sidra with a little bit of vida (life) but to tease out this innate carbonation, the drink must be agitated enough to release it. Traditionally the drink is then served as pictured below, with a server pouring the drink from above his head and ‘catching’ it well below his waist.

IMG_0110
these guys are the cool kids in Asturias

The small pressure created by the substance hitting the lowered glass releases the CO2. Its awesome, the sidra turns a milky white and you have about a 5 second window to consume it before all that CO2 moves out of the substance. This means that you really end up taking shots of the stuff in about 100ml equivalents. When you are ready for your next drink, you call the server over, he pours again, you drink again and the process repeats all over the bar. When you watch this, you start to understand how so much of the stuff can be consumed in such a small regionality. The service and consumption of sidra is total pageantry.

From a brewing perspective however, I love the independence the drink is given. Year after year, these producers rely on their native yeasts and bacterias to produce their house flavour, similar to lambic brewers. They have found this respectful balance between making their product and at the same time letting it make itself.

At the bottom of each sidra bottle is a small yeast cake. While I would love to break out the microscope and see whats in it, its pretty easy to pick out a nice blend of brett, saccharomyces and lactic bacteria. If you are in NYC, you can head to 508 Gastrobrewery to try their saison, The Hop Whisperer, which uses sidra yeast from the same lagare I visited, Castañón. In the mean time however, I’m using some of it to help along my sourdough starter but Ill have to wait for the results of that.

I recently heard Jean Van Roy of Cantillon on the Brewing Network podcast, The Sour Hour (a fantastic resource btw) say that you can brew spontaneous beers anywhere in the world. While I knew this was the case, sidra is a great example of an entire tradition remarkably similar to lambic tradition that really stands to prove this.

Soul

While I do love this drink, I love even more the culture that surrounds it. From the respect with which it is made to the specialised bars, servers and drinking technique, sidra truly represents more than a drink. In protecting the production with the DO, the Spanish recognise and respect this culture. While there are a lot of differences between making sidra and making beer, Farmhouse brewers specifically can learn from the sense of soul evoked from sidra.

Firstly, it’s regionality. Sidra comes from a certain place. Not only are its ingredients local but also the yeast. While Farmhouse brewers generally have a dedication to local yeast, I really think we could do more to encourage local production of raw materials. Not every latitude is suited for hop or grain production, however we can at least dedicate to use the most local ingredients. If your local producers yield inferior product, we can try to work with them and support them anyway before turing to international producers. This is far harder to do than it sounds, but I am merely advocating a mentality shift that could lead to a raw material shift. Customers love it when brewers use their local coffee roaster for their stouts, or even if a local farmer picks up their grain instead if throwing it away. There are small choices brewers can make which pay homage to this idea. The further down the road you go, the more your beer is an actual product of a place.

Secondly, it’s service. This step of the process is often overlooked by brewers. What does it look like when a customer receives your beer? What glassware is it in? How is it poured? I don’t want brewers to start packing flat beer and dudes to learn to pour from over their head… that would probably result in a lot of spilled beer getting caught in the huge beards of craft beer bartenders. Instead, I do think we can learn from the event which is drinking sidra. It’s special not only because of what it is but also because of how it is served. For a brewer, we can look to the Belgians who strictly advocate for branded glasses not only for marketing but also for the specific designs of glassware which accentuate their beer. Look also to to lambics, poured carefully from their wicker baskets which help keep their yeast sediments squarely at the bottom of the bottle. These differences evoke a sense that the beverage is different.

For brewers, many of these things are out of the question due to their structure or current production demands. If that is the case for you, then think of it as a thought experiment. These Asturians have elevated their beloved drink to something which induces a real sense of place. They have produced a beverage which is greater than the sum of its parts. Every bottle contains not just fermented fruit juice but also the soul of it’s producer and its region. To me, and I would hypothesise the consumer too, its the latter which is farm more important.

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