Every year, with the arrival of spring, the apple trees in Spain’s Cider Region are covered with pink and white blossom. The profusion of flowers, colours and fragrances in the vast orchards announce the arrival of the new harvest for the production of natural cider. It is here in this spectacular landscape that the process of creating Asturias’ most traditional and famous drink begins.
As the blossom gradually fades, it is replaced by fruit, which grows throughout the summer until the trees abound with fully-fledged apples. With the arrival of autumn, the area’s harvesters visit the orchards with tractors and trucks for the harvest, known as the pañada in the Asturian language. The time has come to go tree by tree and gather kilo after kilo of apples.
Coloraona, Prieta, Xuanina, Perezosa… there are estimated to be over 500 varieties of apple in the Principality of Asturias, although the Governing Counsel for the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) for Asturian Cider officially recognises just 22. The wealth of styles creates a spectrum of subtleties in the different ciders produced in the region, and all from just a single ingredient – apples.
The cider-making process continues in the press, or llagar, where the apples are crushed into small pieces and pressed. The resulting liquid is stored in large chestnut barrels, in which it is left during the autumn months. Inside the barrel “the natural sugars transform into alcohol,” explains Samuel Trabanco, manager of Sidra Trabanco. Between January and March, the cider is transferred to different barrels (a process known as trasiego), helping ensure the distinctive and unique profiles that characterise the final product. Finally, the beverage is bottled and distributed to cider bars and bars in Asturias and across Spain.
The production of cider, which has been part of the Principality of Asturias for centuries, remains a slow process characterised by the craftsmanship involved. It has hardly changed with the passing of time and the advent of new technology. In the case of Sidra Trabanco, which has been producing cider since 1925, the company still uses its old wooden presses and has only mechanised the bottling process.
The result is an alcoholic drink with a low alcohol content (between four and six percent), characterised by the “flavour of the raw materials from which it is produced, namely apples, with a healthy acidity and freshness and a pleasant aftertaste,” explains Samuel Trabanco.
Another peculiar feature of Asturian cider is that it is a drink that is poured from height. The ritual of serving it, with one arm outstretched holding the bottle and another holding the large glass below, is, without doubt, a characteristic trait. The process allows the cider to fall from a considerable height and hit the contours of the glass, which activates the CO2 and aerates the beverage, giving it an unforgettable flavour that would be otherwise impossible to obtain. However, take note: you should only pour a culín or culete (no more than a couple of fingers’ width of cider) and drink it in one gulp before it goes flat. The tradition also states that you should leave the dregs in the glass to throw onto the ground in the place where you are drinking. This is a way of cleaning the glass, since in Asturias it is traditional to share one among two or three people. This is also said to symbolise giving something back to the earth for what it has given us.
Some 40 million bottles are produced in the principality every year and, according to the Governing Counsel for the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) for Asturian Cider, in 2016, there was a 10% increase in sales of natural cider. What’s more, there are 22 orchards, 271 harvesters and 605 hectares registered for growing apples.
As they say in Asturias, cider is playful and sweet-toothed, the ideal companion for the traditional prao festivals, the soul of the chigres (a cider bar), the perfect accompaniment for the local cuisine and the favourite tipple of the principality’s inhabitants. It is a living tradition that goes back various centuries and one whose history is stored in a green glass bottle.