Nobody understood the melancholy-tinged beauty of those transitional months between summer and winter quite like the great Romantic poet John Keats, whose “Ode to Autumn” famously celebrates that “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” Keats also enjoyed a good drink. So it seems fitting that “the last oozings” of the cider press make an appearance in his love song to the fall.
On a recent evening, I found his lines running through my mind while I tasted a range of utterly distinct apple ciders from Asturias — a remote rural region on Spain’s North Atlantic coast where one can still observe, as in Keats’ more pastoral time, how the season conspires to “bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees/ And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core.” For in Asturias, the apple is not just an article of produce; it’s a way of life.
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There’s something about the traditional style of Asturian cider — or sidra natural, as locals call it — that would have appealed to someone like Keats. Fermented with indigenous yeasts and bottled without any filtration, it’s the sort of frothy, pungent and unapologetically rustic concoction that has remained unchanged for centuries. Sidra natural represents the art of fermentation at its most elemental: The effect is not sparkling so much as gently effervescent, with low alcohol and a slight prick of fizz. Dry and earthy, with a pleasantly tart tang, this stuff is delicious. It also happens to be remarkably versatile at the table: think sheep or goat’s milk cheeses, shellfish or, at this time of year, even the traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
Asturias is home to more than 200 types of apples, which (because of the high moisture in this maritime region) tend to be less tannic than those grown in other cider-producing parts of the world. But in order to bear the proud label of Sidra de Asturias — the area’s officially protected Denomination of Origin (DOP) — the final blend must consist of a combination of as many as 22 preapproved varietals, of which the Regona and Raxao apples are the most common.
Almost as fun as drinking sidra natural is watching it be poured — in Asturias, this is a crucial part of the experience. The customary method, known as escanciar, involves pouring the cider from high above one’s head and allowing the free-flowing stream to plunge into the glass. According to John Belliveau-Flores, who imports a wide variety of Asturian cider through his company, Rowan Imports, this age-old technique accounts for more than just flashy showmanship.
“Pouring this way physically changes the character of the cider,” he says. “It breaks up the bonds which release the naturally occurring esters and unleash the aromas. Also, when you try to pour the cider normally, it ends up flat, but it effervesces when you pour from a height.” During my own attempt at mastering the art of escanciar, more cider wound up on my shoes than in my glass, but to watch an experienced professional undertake the act is mesmerizing.
‘New Expression’ Asturian cider cuts the funk
Despite the fact that sidra natural has remained a touchstone of Asturian culture over generations, in recent years producers have experimented with a more modern approach. Designed as a cleaner, more commercially viable interpretation for the export market, cider in this “New Expression” category undergoes filtration and stabilization to remove the sediment. Clear, crisp and lemony in both flavor and appearance, it shares more traits with white wine than beer. To be honest, the results often strike me as a bit too sanitized or refined, stripped of Asturias’ signature funky essence. But Belliveau-Flores is quick to point out the virtues of this style.
“In some cases, the New Expression ciders gain something,” he explains. “Although you’re taking away that funk, which removes a powerful layer, you can end up revealing more of the fruit expression, which would otherwise be covered up.”
I suppose it’s a matter of personal taste, but I’d still start by introducing yourself to the classic sidra natural first. One lovely rendition is the Val d’Ornon bottling from the family-run house of Sidra Menéndez. A refreshingly tart and milky blend of apples including Raxao, Regona, Perico and Carrio, it’s the perfect accompaniment to those bittersweet, “soft-dying” autumn evenings that Keats knew all too well. You might even be inspired to write an ode of your own.
Top photo: Escanciar, the art of pouring cider into a glass from above one’s head, releases the aromas. Credit: Greg Nesbit / Asturias Cider Commission