Cider tasting in Spanish Basque country

Jason Wilson

In Spanish Basque country, cider is not just an alcoholic beverage—it’s a way of life

No one really tells you what to do when you first arrive at a sagardotegi, or traditional Basque cider house, especially if you don’t speak Basque. You’re simply given a glass, led to one of the long wooden tables in a vast room, and immediately served a plate of chorizo, followed by a cod omelette. It’s left up to you to figure out how to get a drink.

"I allowed the stream to hit the very rim of my glass, spraying a little on the floor, just as the locals do."

My brother, Tyler, and I learned this on our first night in Astigarraga, Spain, five miles southeast of San Sebastián, which happens to be the cider capital of Spanish Basque Country. In this town of just over 6,000 people, there are an astonishing 16 cider houses. We were spending several days here in late January, at the start of the traditional cider season. With Spanish-style ciders becoming more popular among some cider makers and cider enthusiasts, I wanted to see what they tasted like at the source.

At Gartziategi, a sagardotegi in a big stone shed on the outskirts of town, we learned that when a guy with a bucket yells “txotx!” (pronounced “chotch”), that means he’s about to open the tap on one of dozens of huge 13,000-litre barrels, shooting out a thin stream of cider. You’re supposed to stand up from your meal, get in line, and hold your glass at just the right angle to catch a few fingers of cider from that hissing stream. You drink the small amount in your glass and then follow the cidermaker to the next barrel.

Thinking it was a free for all, my first faux pas was coming at the stream from the wrong side and essentially butting in line. Then, I couldn’t quite figure out how to hold my glass so that the cider hit at the right angle, to “break” the liquid and create bubbles. Thankfully, the crowd at the Basque cider house was very forgiving. A kind white-haired man in a jumper, whose group was eating next to us, showed me the ropes, hopping up and waving me along with him at the next shout of “txotx!”

We eventually learned on our cider house tour that advice was forthcoming if you sought it out. At a modern cider house in the town centre, called Zapiain, a hand-painted mural of “don’ts” was on the wall: Don’t cut in line; don’t fill your glass all the way up; don’t sit on the barrels. Tyler grasped the technique much quicker than I did. “Here, take it here, at an angle,” said Igór, our tour guide at Petritegi, another sagardotegi just down the road from Gartziategi (the suffix “tegi” means “place of”). I did as Igór said, allowing the stream to hit the very rim of my glass, spraying a little bit on the floor, just as the locals do. (I got the hang of it on my fourth glass.) Some older sagardotegi actually have worn grooves in the cement floors from years of streaming cider.

The point, Igór told us, was to make sure the cider has good txinparta, or bubbles; if the cider is healthy, those bubbles should dissipate quickly. The cider in the glass disappears quickly too. The flavours are funky, crisp and acidic, and usually bone dry.

In late January, Astigarraga was still relatively mellow. But as txotx season rolls on, more than 15,000 cider enthusiasts can crowd into the town’s cider houses each weekend. Txotx season follows the apple harvest of September and October, then fermentation of the cider in early winter. In fact, in late January, some of the barrels might not be fully finished fermenting.

“The cider in the barrel is still evolving,” Igór said. “If you come back in two months and taste the same barrel, it will have evolved.” In Basque Country, most cider is made by spontaneous fermentation and no added commercial yeast, similar to natural winemaking. Once the season ends in mid-May, whatever is left in the barrel is bottled. The annual ritual harkens back to an era when cidermakers would invite clients, perhaps innkeepers, restaurateurs or the famed gastronomic societies of San Sebastián, to taste and choose which casks they wanted to purchase. “Here, cider is not just an alcoholic beverage,” Igór said. “It’s a way of life.” Petritegi, for instance, dates to 1526.

"‘Cider is deep in our culture’ said Mikel, our pourer. ‘We don't even know when we started making it’"

 

Over the years, a meal became part of the ritual. Every cider house serves the same basic menu for around 30 euros: chorizo, cod omelet, fried cod with green peppers, a medium-rare T-bone steak, and Basque cheese (such as Idiazabal) served with walnuts and quince paste. And all the cider you can drink. The cider house ritual is just one of many Basque Country cultural touchstones that make this autonomous community a very different place than the rest of Spain.

“Twenty years ago, there weren’t chairs,” Igór said. “The food was just in the middle of the table.” While Petritegi did indeed offer chairs—and a beautiful hake in garlic and oil as an alternative to the cod—we were served roughly the same menu in all seven cider houses we visited, and we stood and ate in three of them.

In Astigarraga, a sleepy but pleasant town, we took a lovely but steep hike up to an old church that had been a stop on the ancient Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. As we wandered past orchards overlooking the bay of San Sebastián, our guide, Ainize, told us stories of the Basque golden age. In the 16th century, Basque ships were built around cider barrels, and on long trips sailors drank three litres of cider per day to fend off scurvy.

The result, according to lore, was that the Basque fishermen and whale hunters were the healthiest and most renowned on the sea, fishing as far away as Canada. Their range was so famous that, only two years ago, the remote West Fjords of Iceland repealed a 400-year-old law that ordered the murder of any Basque visitor on sight.

As we descended back into the town square, Ainize pointed out the local pelota court, where a traditional handball game is played, based on a game played by the ancient Greeks. We also saw huge stones with handles used for lifting and carrying. The day before, we’d drunk cider with a woman named Olatz who told us, “I carry a stone weighing 87 stone with eight women.” She added, with a laugh, “We have our own sports here.”

At Petritegi, Igór took us through the orchards where we learned about Basque varieties of apples like Goikoetxe, Moko, Txalaka, Gezamina and Urtebi—a far cry from Granny Smith and Golden Delicious. A Basque cider can be made from more than 100 varieties—some bitter, some acidic, some sweet—and 40 to 50 might be blended in a single cider. We were told that 2.2lbs of apples will make one bottle. We were also told that apples are sometimes trucked in from as far away as the Czech Republic to keep up with demand.

In the town center, Sidería Bereziartua operates a tasting room, and so we booked a tasting. “Cider is deep in our culture,” said Mikel, our pourer. “We don’t even know when we started making it.” Ciders using the official denomination of origin, Euskal Sagardoa, must be made entirely from Basque apples.

When he poured Bereziartua’s Euskal Sagardoa, Mikel said, “If you want to take one bottle, drink this one.” Then he poured another Bereziartua cider, one that they produce using foreign apples in the blend. “If you want to drink three bottles, you take this one,” he said. Buying bottles at these cider houses is relatively inexpensive. I never saw one priced above ten euros, and most were under five euros. On our last evening, we went to Lizeaga, a sagardotegi in a 16th-century farmhouse that’s next to Gartziategi. Earlier, our stone-carrying friend Olatz had described the house as “the real txotx.”

Our reservation at one of the tables was marked with a long baguette. There were no chairs. After the opening plate of chorizo, we strolled into the barrel room. Gabriel, the cider maker, was opening the ancient taps with what looked like pliers. Gabriel went from cask to cask, and we followed, dashing back into the dining room in between.

After the eighth or ninth txotx, and after some debating of technique with my brother, I thought I had finally gotten the catch down like a true Basque. But on the next txotx, when I put my glass under the stream, Gabriel gently corrected my form: “No, no,” he said, “have the cider hit here.” Well, no matter. Soon enough he tapped another barrel, and there was another chance to learn.