Cider Revival Gives New Life to Ancient Traditions
07 Aug 2020
Experience the distinctive ciders and rich traditions of other cultures
By Ann Marie Thornton
Although the cider renaissance in the United States is a recent phenomenon, cider-making and cider culture have endured for centuries in rural pockets of Europe. With the cider revival, these ancient traditions have become fashionable as cider lovers, foodies, and adventurers seek out these ciders to understand them and the traditions that influenced their distinctive characteristics.
In England, traditional cider-making is found primarily in the rural western countryside. The UK makes and consumes about 50% of the world’s cider production, however the bulk of this is mass-produced ciders such as Magner’s and Strongbow which use imported concentrate, sugar and flavorings (Brown and Bradshaw). However, in the rural areas, traditional ways endure. In the West Country, cider is produced as it has been for ages, using local apple varieties high in tannins grown specifically for cider-making. English ciders tend to be dry and still with low to moderate acidity. Many also have a bit of funk, akin to wet wool, that give them depth and complexity. Premium or vintage ciders from Aspall, Hogan’s or Oliver’s are all good bets for ciders that exemplify the traditional English style.
Normandy, with its long-shared history with England, and Celtic Brittany are the primary cider-making regions in France. Situated in northern France, these areas are ideal for apple production but too cold for growing grapes. Like the West of England, Normandy’s lifestyle remains agrarian, and the region features green rolling hills with pastures, orchards, and forests. The region is also world-renown for its cuisine, especially cheese, and its abundance of local seafood, beef, and lamb. Cider is an integral part of the local cuisine and a delightful complement to a dish of mussels Normand or a creamy crepe.
Cidre de Normandie tends to be lower in alcohol than English or American ciders, about three to five percent, rather than about five to eight. After milling and pressing the apples, the French use a process called keeving that serves to prevent some sugars in the apple pomace from fermenting, yielding a sweeter cider with lower alcohol. Keeving also promotes aromatics and the rich coloring of French cider, typically a medium gold or darker. Often, the cider is bottled before fermentation is finished, leaving it to become sparkling in the bottle. In addition to being sweeter and sparkling, French ciders typically have medium to high tannins and low to medium acidity. Some of the classical French ciders available locally from Normandy are Cidre du Pays d’Auge from Christian Drouin and Cidre fermier from Manoir de Grandouet, and from Brittany, Le Brun’s Cidre Brut.
Basque and Asturias, the cider producing regions of Spain, are also in the cooler northern areas of the country. The Basque region is in the western Pyrennes next to France. Asturias, in the northwest on the Bay of Biscane, has a maritime climate. Traditional Sidra Natural generally begins with sharp and tannic apples pressed and left to ferment naturally to dryness. The still cider is then matured in large chestnut casks. Sidra Natural is astringent and acidic, suggestive of a sour beer to many American palates, and often has a touch of volatile acidity.
As one would expect, these assertive ciders pair marvelously alongside the rich, fatty foods of the region, such as olives, manchego, and chorizo. What is unexpected are the convivial serving rituals, which not only bring people together, but also aerate the cider with bubbles and froth. In Asturias, cider is mainly served in cider pubs where bartenders “throw” cider from a bottle held above their head into a wide-mouthed glass at about hip-height. They pour just a mouthful at a time for one to toss back while enjoying tapas. In the Basque region, the ciderhouse proprietor invites guests to gather for a txoxt (begins with a “ch” and rhymes with coach) in between courses of a farmhouse meal. Guests line up as a little plug is pulled from a huge barrel sending a stream of cider out into the room which guests catch in their glass and then toast each other with a hearty “txoxt.” For the next best thing to sidra straight from the barrique, try Trabanco from Asturias or Sarasola from the Basque region.
The revival of cider in the US has been a boon not only to apples and cider culture here at home, but has also opened the door for us to experience the distinctive ciders and rich traditions of other cultures.