So you’ve taken our advice and are headed to Asturias! You’re welcome. If you’re headed to this amazing region you’re going to be drinking a lot of sidra, or cider! And I mean a lot. While this may seem like a straight forward enough endeavor, the culture around Asturian cider is pretty unique…so I thought I’d give you a head start and prepare you for everything you’ll see, wonder about and then eventually start doing yourself. We want you drinking in style when you travel Tippler Nation!
Let’s jump in!
Now, there are different types of cider…but most of the time when you’re drinking cider in Asturias you’re drinking Sidra Natural. So what does the Natural part mean? It means that there are no additives at all in the making of the cider. No sugar, no yeast, nada. So the only yeast in sidra natural is the yeast naturally found on the apples being used.
It also means that there is no carbonation added. So these ciders, which again are the most prevalent in Asturias, are pretty flat straight from the bottle. Which is why the pour approach is so important to introduce that touch of fizziness to really open up the aromas and flavors. But hold on, we’re getting ahead of ourselves!
If you see the DOP label (denomination of origen protegida) on Sidra Natural then you also know that the cider is using one of the 76 varieties of apples and cider making processes approved by the Asturian regulatory body…essentially ensuring you are getting the super authentic good stuff!
Sidra…without the word Natural
Basically anything that is not Sidra Natural falls into this category. It may be carbonated, or sweet due to added sugar, or flavored or made with frozen apples (ice cider), etc… Often there’s a label descriptor that will help you figure this out. So Sidra de Hielo would be ice cider. Or Sidra Brut would be a cider created in the dry champagne style, making it a sparkling cider.
While you won’t typically see this word on labels or talked about much, as an informed Tippler it’s good to know. It means chestnut and is referring to the type of barrels used in cider making in Spain. You’ll see a lot of large barrels while you’re there so if you’re wondering about them, they’re made of chestnut wood. Further – they’re really not used for aging, but more for storing (fiberglass and stainless steel tanks are also used, almost interchangeably).
So why chestnut? Chestnut is neutral, doesn’t impart any flavor and is a bit more dense which means it doesn’t allow as much air to be introduced. In fact, in Asturias they keep these chestnut barrels filled to the absolute tippy top so there’s no air in them at all. If you ever see cider being poured from a barrel in Asturias (rare since that’s more the Basque tradition) you can almost guarantee that the barrel is just a facade and there is an airtight stainless steel or fiberglass tank behind it. Or, you can be sure that they’re topping the barrel up as soon as possible to get it filled to the top again and minimize oxidation of their cider.
Escanciar (or El Escanciado)
Now we’re getting to the fun stuff. This is the pour…or how they “throw” cider in Asturias, which is how they refer to it. This method of “throwing” the cider from high above the head volatilizes part of the acetic acid (which to keep it high level is the type of acid found in vinegar that gives it a sour taste/smell) in the cider which leads to improved aromas, flavors and texture. It simply makes your sidra the perfect delicious sip that you want!
So, how does this work exactly? Well lucky for you, we have a video coming up where I’m getting taught by an escanciar master so you can learn right along with me! Can’t wait? Here’s a short clip of Xicu from La Tortuga restaurant in Tazones giving me a quick table-side lesson.
Ok, ok – so that wasn’t great. Ha ha. Want a real expert? Check out this article on Salvador Ondo, recent champion of the Nava escanciador contest. Here is what we’re shooting for to get the cider from bottle to glass:
First, the cork has to be removed.
The Asturians primarily use these fun little machines to remove corks quickly, while still leaving them partially in. It makes it much faster for servers and bartenders to grab a partially open bottle and start pouring. So, once handed your bottle pull the cork the rest of the way out…
Next, assume the proper stance!
Feet shoulder width apart.
Dominant hand holding the bottle and stretched high above your head. Your thumb should be on the bottom side of the bottle towards the floor, almost acting as a lever to feel the weight and tipping point of the bottle as you pour. A delicate, slow touch is needed here.
Non-dominant hand holding the glass (vaso de sidra – see below!) below the corner of your hip on your dominant side beneath your outstretched arm. The base of the glass should be held in close to your body with the top of the glass tipped outward and to the side slightly. Almost like a 45 degree angle from your hip.
Now it’s time to pour…yikes!
This is a scary stance right? You have a feeling you’re about to get really wet. I poured in the privacy of my own shower as I was learning, I get it! So you want to slowly tip the bottle forward until a very small stream of cider is coming out. The thinner the stream the better this all goes. For me, this is the hardest part – not getting a giant pour coming out.
The first splash will most likely hit the floor…that’s ok! That’s what happens with the pros too! Now that the stream is running though you can move your glass ever so slightly into the stream. The goal here though, and this is important, is to get the stream of cider to hit the side of the glass. Not the bottom. This is the best way to really “break” the cider, volatize the aecetic acids and aerate. Which is why we’re doing this in the first place! Now this is key – only pour about two fingers high. That’s it. Then stop.
You did it!
Your feet may be wet, but you did it. Now hand it to the first person to drink (as the escanciador – the pourer – you should always drink last) and let them swallow it down…immediately please…and throw out any last remaining bit on the floor and hand the glass back to you. Practice makes perfect, you’re up again! And don’t worry…it’s entirely customary that about 1/4 of the bottle goes to waste in this process, lucky for you you’re in Asturias where cider is very affordable and plentiful.
Vaso de Sidra
Seriously? We really have to talk about the glass we’re drinking the cider out of? Yes…yes we do. I’m telling you, this culture runs deep and every part of it has a story and tradition. So, the glasses that Sidra Natural are served out of are typically about 5″ tall, 3.5″ wide and made out of very thin glass. For festivals and special occasions they often have a beautiful design on them as well, like you can see in the photo from the Gijón Festival de Sidra, above.
When you order a bottle of Sidra Natural with friends at a bar you only get one glass per bottle. Or rather, one glass for your group to share. What? See, I told you there was a story! Historically glass was relatively expensive and hard to come by in Asturias. So friends and family would only have one glass and would share it while drinking cider. Making it, over time, a very communal experience.
See, I told you there was a story!
This experience also led to a unique way of drinking. So after you get poured your sip and swallow it down you typically leave just a bit of cider in the glass. You then throw that last sip out of the glass onto the ground from the side of the glass your mouth was touching. Essentially “cleaning” the glass with the last sip of cider before passing the glass back for the next person’s sip.
And, of course, how do you actually drink the cider. I know, I know – you’re like I’ve sipped on plenty of beverages before Suzanne. I got this. Do you though? Hold on here. As we mentioned, you’ll only be poured about two fingers worth of cider at a time, referred to as culín. And while that’s not a lot it’s certainly enough to take a few sips of over a minute or two. But don’t do that! Trust me, it’s a hard habit to break.
Instead, you really do want to gulp down the whole sip they poured you (except that last teeny bit if you’re sharing a glass) right away. If you don’t you lose the whole benefit of the escanciado and that slight effervescence that truly does make the cider taste better than drinking it flat. And, if you’re sharing a glass and you take too long you’re also making the next person wait for their sip…no one likes a cider blocker!
While not as common in Asturias, this refers to pouring cider directly from a barrel or tank. This method is mostly used for cider makers as a means of taste-testing during production. Since aeration is important whenever tasting Asturian cider, this method includes either allowing it to shoot in an arc from barrel to glass (similar to the way Basque cider is served in cider houses) or holding the glass far beneath a vertical spout and catching it down below. This depends on the type of barrel and spigot, of course.
So where are you going to experience this?! Well a sidreria, of course! This is the ever-popular cider bar in Asturias. While loosely translated to “cidery,” this may make you think it’s a cider house where they’re actually making cider. In Asturias,at least, that translation is not accurate. There are sidrerias on almost every block of every town in Asturias and they truly are cider bars. Meaning they have lots of cider and are ready to pour it high and often for you. This is where the majority of Asturians are consuming their cider when outside of home (although many of them are making their own at home and consuming lots there as well!). Asturians don’t really go to the true cider houses where the cider is being made. And if they do, it’s often to just pick up a large quantity of cider to bring home.
If you’re in Gijón you should also check out Transito de las Ballenas. They tranlate to “Traffic or Way of the Whales.” This is a super fun roadside right on the water where all of the locals sit on the wall and hang out and drink cider at night. Particularly on weekends, but pretty much all the time. You simply go inside one of the nearby sidrerias, walk up to the bar, ask for a bottle of sidra and a glass (they’ll only give you one as discussed – sticking to tradition and minimizing their losses if you break or walk off with one. They do keep a small deposit as well until you return it though!), walk back out to your friends on the wall and get pouring and drinking. It’s truly a perfect way to spend a night…
Ok, so now THIS is the word for a cider production facility. Llagar literally translates to “cider press” but it is used to refer to the whole production. During my time in Asturias I came to think of Llagar almost meaning house of cider since many of these cider producers are small family run operations with the family name on the label.
Casa Trabanco is one notable exception here where they blur the lines between Llagar and Sidreria. They do a really nice job of combining the two, which is currently pretty rare. Indeed making all of their own cider and having a restaurant on site. They don’t currently offer public tours but if you want to eat and drink cider where it’s actually made this is your best bet (delicious food too!).
So What If I’m At A Restaurant?
So when you’re drinking cider at a restaurant, how does this work exactly given they’re only pouring you a gulp or so at a time? Well, dear friend, you have some patience and settle into a cultural experience. When you first order the cider (always served by the bottle…but given it’s low ABV at about 3-5% don’t feel bad about ordering a whole bottle for yourself if you’re dining solo!) the server will pour everyone at the table their first sip. Then he’ll leave the bottle at the table and go back to the rest of his job.
Now, it’s tempting with that bottle sitting on your table for you to pour yourself, I know. But don’t do it. UNLESS they put a plastic little pour spout thing – called a tapón escanciador – on the top of the bottle. Or unless the bottle has a cork left in it that is carved in a way to aerate when you pour, like shown above. If they do either of these things then you are welcome to pour yourself, and honestly kind of required to. It’s a sign that they won’t be pouring for you. But if that doesn’t happen just be patient, enjoy your food and company and your server will be back. When he is, he’ll say “¿otru culín?” which is his way of asking if you’re ready for another pour.
While I was in Asturias I had my own little running joke of “¡siempre sí!”- meaning, “always yes!” So don’t feel shy or like you should occasionally say no when they offer to pour. If you’re ready for another sip, go for it. And while you shouldn’t expect someone there pouring for you every two minutes if it has been a while and you really are ready for another sip feel free to flag someone else down and ask for “otru culín por favor.”
So how much is too much? I know – none of us want to look like the ignorant foreigner! Honestly though, the Asturians are pretty laid back about this. Some couples will only drink 1 bottle over the course of a meal while others will have 3-4 empty bottles by the end. Enjoy yourself, be responsible and don’t worry too much about it.
Ready to Start Throwing Some Cider Yourself?
Ok, so maybe you can’t make it to Asturias right away…but you’re pretty excited to check out this unique drink and cultural expression, right? How can you not be? Don’t worry we have you covered…in our next article in this series we’ll lay out some of our favorite Asturian ciders you can get here in the States. We’ll also tip you off to some domestic craft ciders that are being made in this style as well. And coming up we’re going to have a whole video series of shorts going into some of the unique elements of the cider culture with 3 Asturian local cider experts and enthusiasts. If you’re as excited as we are about that, sign up here to join Tippler Nation to make sure you don’t miss it!
Oh, and a quick heads up? Cider, whether Spanish in style or not, is PERFECT for our upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. And can you imagine the added flair your party will have if you’re throwing cider for everyone? Don’t forget to send me an invite!