• Image about José Manuel

Great Spanish cider has a history and a taste that go down smooth. By Gail Harrington

“We’d never bottle cider on a stormy night,” says José Manuel Alonso. “Or on a full moon,” chimes in Antonio Villar. And they know the rules of good cider making; they’ve been at it for most of their lives. These 73-year-old best friends got their start at the age of four, helping their grandparents mash apples in their small village in Asturias, a coastal region of Spain that’s too far north for good winemaking but perfect for growing apples.
 
Until the nineteenth century, when industrial cider making began here, that’s how this quintessentially Asturian drink was produced; families in the countryside made cider for their own use. Today, some factories produce a sparkling hard cider and a new variety that’s more like wine, but the cider Asturias is famous for is called traditional natural cider, an unfiltered type with pouring and drinking rules that must be followed in order for it to taste good.

Made from a blend of sweet, acidic, and sour apples, Asturian cider has an alcohol content between 4 and 6 percent and tastes nothing like apple juice. So what does it taste like? That depends. Producing tasty cider is as complicated as making good wine. When I get my first sip of the stuff, I describe it as light and dry, but it’s so unfamiliar I can’t pick up on any specific flavors. And while it isn’t love at first swig, that may change as I explore Spain’s cider region — easily accessible via train or plane from Madrid — during a week that will take me from fishing­ towns on the Atlantic to villages in the grassy foothills of the towering Cantabrian Mountains.

For centuries, cider was considered the beverage of poor people from the countryside. Then cider bars started opening in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the drink became more and more fashionable among young people — and among the not-so-young too. I discover its popularity as I shyly inch my way into the cider-drinking scene on a cobbled street in Gijón’s historic Cimadevilla, a colorful old fishermen’s district at the end of a peninsula that juts into the bay.

I feel awkward joining what looks like a giant street party of locals, though my discomfort disappears when I order a cider at a bar called El Lavadero. Instantly I feel as if I’m one of them. Holding the stubby-necked green bottle horizontally above his head, the barman looks straight ahead, never downward, as he pours cider into a pint glass held below his waist. I am stunned by this impressive pouring feat. And I’m mesmerized by the sight of dozens of green bottles in the air, so I’m quickly pegged as a novice by a young man nearby who teaches me some of the rules. “Drink it fast — you must before the air bubbles disappear, ruining the flavor,” says Manuel. “Bottled flat, cider must be poured from at least three feet above the glass in order to create bubbles.” Only an inch is poured — I thought that was because so much gets spilled during the pouring, but Manuel explains that by the time a glass could be filled, the bubbles would be gone. Suddenly I’m part of Manuel’s circle of friends, nibbling on Cabrales cheese, spicy chorizo cooked in cider, and croquetas while sharing bottle after bottle (each about the same size as a standard wine bottle) of cider — a single glass passed among friends is the custom here.

Forty miles up the coast, the passion for cider is just as powerful … because Daniel Tarodeo’s boat sank. Cider drinking hadn’t yet caught on in the fishing village of Cudillero 20 years ago, when Daniel’s vessel slipped under the waves, but the young fisherman bet his future on the emerging trend. He bought the town’s oldest bar and slowly converted the villagers to cider drinkers. When his son, Daniel Jr., became a teenager, the two of them started visiting traditional cider bars, and they learned together how to properly pour cider.

Now Restaurante el Faro (“the oar”) is the cider-and-seafood hot spot in this village of colored houses tiered on a ­horse­shoe-shaped hillside overlooking the harbor. When lunch hour begins, the regulars come in for the restaurant’s famed fish in cider sauce, and the pouring pace picks up — with only seconds between serving and popping another cork. “The two of us pour 300 bottles a day during the slow season,” says Daniel Jr., “but in the summer we have 10 guys pouring all at once.”

I’ve experienced the livelier side of cider drinking, having tasted only commercial cider so far, but I’m thirsting for some earthier brews — homemade cider, I hear, is much more flavorful because it’s aged in chestnut barrels. So I hook up with translator and historian Patricia Martinez Zapico to find some rural cider makers. As we follow a winding road through the rugged Picos de Europa National Park, Patricia points out a mountaintop cross marking the place where an eighth-century Moors attack of the kingdom of Asturias took place. “Asturians are very proud that King Pelayo defeated them and never let an enemy take our territory,” she says. “His victory marked the beginning of the reconquest. Of course, talk to us about it during an evening of cider drinking, and this proud gibberish sounds like the most outstanding military feat in history.”

Cowbells ring in the distance as we pull into picturesque Sirviella, a mountain village of 43 people. It’s here that Patricia promises I’ll get my first taste of the real thing. Third-generation cider maker Pepín Díaz explains that his uncle once had a deal with the villagers: They supplied the apples, and he gave them bottles of cider. But these days, he makes the cider just for the family (1,800 bottles a year) — plus a bit more for visitors. For $26, Pepín offers visitors a tour of the village, his farm, and a typical mountain sheepherders hut, as well as cider tastings paired with Asturian specialties such as smoked cheeses made by the sheepherders, meat filets stuffed with cheese, spicy sausage rolls, meat pies, croquetas, bread, and corn tortillas.

“These are the traditional foods served at espichas,” says Patricia, “a special celebration of the first cider of the year, which is poured directly from the wooden barrels before the rest is bottled.” For homemade cider, the apples ferment in chestnut barrels for about three months before bottling, she explains. “If it’s been cold, the fermentation takes longer,” adds Pepín. “And if the apples had more sunshine, the juice will be stronger and sweeter, so it takes less time.”

Inside his stone cider house, which is old and very clean (as it must be for cider making), Pepín uncorks an unlabeled bottle, pours the first glass, and shares this tip: “For good-tasting cider, there are three things you must see: small bubbles formed during the pouring, foam on the sides of the glass, and bubbles that last for a while before you drink it.” My glass has all three, so I take a gulp and throw the dregs on the floor — a giving-back-to-the-earth philosophy that’s customary even inside cider bars. And when I give him a thumbs-up, Pepín jokingly shares the credit. “Four professional tasters in the village decide when the cider is ready to drink,” he says.

Cider bars and factories can be found mainly in the central area of Asturias, from Oviedo (about 275 miles north of Madrid) to Nava and from Gijón to Villaviciosa, near the coast. A few miles outside Villaviciosa is where we make a chance stop in Pandu and ask if there’s anyone in the village with a cider press. We’re in luck. A small boy runs off to fetch José Manuel Alonso and Antonio “Toño” Villar — each has his own cider house. When we finally meet them, they look like an Asturian version of the Odd Couple — José Manuel’s wife made him dress up for us, while Toño is still dressed for farmwork and has a white handkerchief tied on his head.

But there’s nothing strained about their decades-long friendship, which began when they were just learning to walk. “We feel like we’re brothers, even though we’re not,” says José Manuel. But in fact, they are family: José Manuel’s cousin is married to Toño — not so unusual in a village of only 26 residents. “We help each other with everything — taking care of pigs and cows, helping when a cow has a calf, harvesting apples in the fall, and making cider,” says the rosy-cheeked José Manuel. Even without a single word between them, I feel the love in every glance and laugh they share.

Since we meet them at Toño’s cider house, he’s the one opening the bottles and pouring the golden-hued cider into a single glass shared among all. “It’s the best I’ve tasted,” I tell Toño — and that’s not the cider talking. But I also admit I’m under the spell of this place and of the cider makers. There are so many stories I’d love to hear if those cider-house walls could talk. José Manuel keeps telling Toño to open another bottle. And he does, until José Manuel’s daughter, Montserrat, tells them they can’t open any more cider because it’s time for them to go to bed. But as soon as she turns her back, Toño pops another cork.

“So, who makes the best cider?” I ask. Without hesitation, José Manuel answers, “Toño,” while Toño modestly credits his dearest friend. So what’s their secret? “Never bottle on a stormy night, which brings a storm to the barrel and stirs up sediment that ends up in the bottle,” explains José Manuel. “We only do it during the small moon, when cider’s carbonic gases are low, because it needs to be flat when bottled,” Toño says. “And before we bottle cider, we put the corks in boiling water with pig fat so they go in and out of the bottle easily,” reveals José Manuel.

“There’s a lot of love in this cider house,” I exclaim as we say our farewells. José Manuel spontaneously plants a brotherly kiss on Toño’s cheek and then jokes, “We don’t want anyone in the village to see that.” Somehow I feel closer to them than I’ve ever felt to someone I’ve known for just a few hours. And now I understand why Pepín says that cider is the drink that links everyone in Asturias: Friends share the same glass; families, with their baby carriages, congregate on the town squares after church for cider and tapas; and if you venture solo into a cider bar, you won’t remain alone for long. Some Asturians will take you under wing and teach you the rules.