The Growler’s Field Guide to Cider, Chapter 2: Cider in the Old World

Astarbe Sagardotegia ciders have been produced at the same farmhouse in Astigarraga, Spain, by members of the same family for close to five centuries // Photo by Javier Lus, courtesy Astarbe Sagardotegia

Astarbe Sagardotegia ciders have been produced at the same farmhouse in Astigarraga, Spain, by members of the same family for close to five centuries // Photo by Javier Lus, courtesy Astarbe Sagardotegia

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The U.S. has been experiencing a boom in craft cider recently, but many of the practices employed by American cidermakers today are the result of traditions that span hundreds of years and thousands of miles. Let’s take a trip to Europe and delve into the traditional techniques and distinct flavors that have made their mark on cider as we know it today.

Our journey starts in the southwestern United Kingdom, where most traditional cidermaking practices can be found in the Three Counties—Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, and Worcestershire—and in the West Country—Somerset, Devon, Dorset, and Cornwall.

These regions are home to dozens of small, family-owned farm cideries that use the highest percentage of true-to-form, bitter cider apples of any cider region in the U.K. The term “scrumpy” originated in the West Country, used to describe the unfiltered “rough” ciders typically made from fallen or otherwise undesirable apples.

Traditional cider from the southwestern U.K. is sometimes uncarbonated and is very dry, tannic, and opaque. Due to a long fermentation process, these ciders typically range between 6 and 9 percent ABV, the highest among Old World styles. They are commonly produced in small batches and distributed locally.

The Torre Cidery orchard in the United Kingdom // Photo courtesy Torre Cidery

Torre Cider Farm is located in the countryside of Washford, near the historic town of Watchet in Somerset, U.K., and has been producing traditional scrumpy ciders for more than 20 years, ranging from dry to medium-sweet // Photo courtesy Torre Cider Co.

These ciders starkly contrast the other notable styles produced in the West Country, namely mass-produced, force-carbonated varieties like Strongbow and Blackthorn, which are much sweeter due to the use of added apple concentrate and sugars. Since U.K. law states that cider must contain just 35 percent apple juice to be considered cider, these varieties still qualify, even though British cidermakers observing traditional practices commonly use no less than 90 percent juice, with minimal to no added sweeteners.

Just over the English Channel we find the idyllic, rolling pastures of France’s cider regions: Brittany and Normandy. Much of France is ideal for growing wine grapes, but these colder, more volatile climates are ideal for cider apple trees. Three main styles come from these regions: doux and demi-sec, which are sweeter and lower in alcohol content (around 3 percent ABV), and brut, which is drier and higher in alcohol (around 5 percent ABV).

Cider from La Ferme du Bout de Chemin, St-Laurent-du-Mont, France // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

Cider from La Ferme du Bout de Chemin, Saint-Laurent-du-Mont, France // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

French ciders are known for their rich color, high carbonation, and relative sweetness, all of which comes from a process called keeving. This technique involves letting juice macerate on the pomace for 24 hours, causing enzymes in the juice to break down the natural pectin into pectic acid, which binds with nutrients into a gel that floats to the top of the liquid and ensnares yeast cells along the way. This blobby substance, called the chapeau brun, is then removed and the clarified juice is siphoned away to undergo a slow, incomplete fermentation. The result is a sparkling cider that is high in tannins, low in acid, sweeter, and has a Champagne-like mouthfeel.

Spain has been producing ciders on its northern coast since at least the 11th century. That’s when the Sagardotegi tradition began, which involved farmers making cider from the inedible apples growing in their orchards and then inviting friends and families over to dinner to celebrate the tapping of the first cider of the season.

Sidras // Photo by Javier Lus, courtesy Astarbe Sagardotegia

Spanish ciders (or sidras) are typically uncarbonated and have a more funky, acidic flavor than other European ciders // Photo by Javier Lus, courtesy Astarbe Sagardotegia

Spanish-style sidras come from the Basque Country and Asturias, located in the lush España Verde region in northern Spain, named for its cool temperatures and ample rains. Sidras, such as the one pictured to the left, are not carbonated and are often spontaneously fermented. Sidra natural is especially popular in the region of Asturias, where cider is fermented with the wild yeasts found on the apple skins.

Spanish sidrerías center around the Basque tradition of txotx (pronounced /CHO-ch/). Locals claim that “txotx” is the sound made when puncturing the barrel to release the cider and, over time, it has taken on many meanings, used in reference to everything from the barrel to the style of cider to the toast made before drinking. Basically, a txotx involves pouring cider from the spigot of an elevated barrel and catching the liquid in an angled glass about five feet below. This method, while entertaining to watch, does serve a purpose: because Spanish cider normally isn’t carbonated, the height and resulting contact with the glass creates a small amount of effervescence.

While historically misunderstood for its distinctly funky flavor and cloudy appearance, Spanish cider is quickly catching on outside of northern Spain, which may be tied to the simultaneous rise of sour ales in the beer market.