The Cider House Rules
Welcome to the land of cider. Asturias produces 80% of all the cider in Spain, and drinks even more. It is not out of place to say that life in Asturias revolves around sidra. Social life in Asturias most certainly revolves around the sidrería - the cider house.
A (Very) Brief History Lesson
Cider has been made in Asturias for roughly 1,000 years, and since the 18th century has been so wildly popular that only now, in the 21st century, is there any real movement to produce wine or craft beer in the territory.
If you want to know more, I have a more in depth history of cider in Asturias. For now, let’s look at cider houses and what to expect in one.
Picking A Cider House
There is no shortage of bars, taverns, terraces, and even corner stores serving cider in Asturias. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to avoid cider in Asturias, but why would you want to do that?
Disclaimer: Naming of businesses is as fast and loose in Spain as it is in the States. Much like my favorite pool hall and bar in the States has “cafe” in its name, you can find sit down restaurants in Asturias called “Chigre …” and plenty of sidrerías are just called “bar …”
The bar-tienda or ultramarinos, is a special kind of place in Asturias. Mostly found in small villages, these are a combination of grocery store, hardware store, bar, and owners house. The American general store is the closest thing I can think of to it. The small village pubs of rural Ireland that have a grocery room and perhaps a gas pump outside are very similar, and both those pubs and stores serve the same social purpose as the bar-tienda.
Essentially, this is your corner bar. A chigre is a local bar, focused primarily on cider these days, though almost all of them have at least one beer and one wine selection. Usually they do not have much (or anything) in the way of food. They are not good for large groups, nor for hungry people though.
This is both the catch-all term for places that focus on serving cider, and a pretty specific type of place, at least to most people. The essential aspects of a proper sidrería are:
- Table service. While you might get a bottle dropped off for you at a chigre, a sidrería almost certainly has wait staff circulating to make sure you have all the cider you require. As a matter of fact, in most sidrerías it is impossible to sit at a bar.
- Substantial food. At a chigre you can get snacks. At a sidrería you can get dinner. Some will be full-blown restaurants, some will have a chalkboard outside with a menu of the day, but all of them will feed you should you want to.
Sidrerías are my personal favorite of places to drink cider, by far. When you find one that fits you well, it is very easy to spend an entire evening there.
Visiting a Cider House
Asturian cider houses, no matter what they are called, have their own etiquette and norms of behavior. Once you have picked a place to go, here’s what to expect.
Step 1: Observe
Upon arriving at the cider house, you’ll be faced with the first decision. Should you sit inside or outside? As long as the weather is cooperating, this will largely be a matter of personal choice, but you should take a look around before deciding.
There are a few things to make note of, as they will tell you what kind of cider house you have found yourself in, and that will determine how you are expected to behave.
- Are there buckets made from sawed off barrel bottoms around the place, and maybe some sand or sawdust on the floor?
- Or are there weird tall bucket like things on wheels?
- Are their perhaps instead funny barrel or person shaped things sitting on top of cider bottles on most tables?
- Are there waiters circling the room or patio from table to table, pouring cider from bottles held over their heads?
Step 2: Settle In & Order
Once you’ve found your seats, it’s time to order. A waiter (or the bartender or owner depending on the size of the place) will come around to ask what you want. Since you are here to drink cider, you can simply respond with “una botella“, and in good time one will appear, along with a very short, fat, rather thin-walled glass.
Your waiter may immediately pour some cider into your glass for you. If so, they will pour the cider from far above their head, with the glass held at waist level. This is escanciar, and is meant to aerate the cider, which will then be handed to you.
The bottle may come with a machine sitting on top of it. This is called an escanciador. It is there to help you pour your cider yourself without splashing everywhere. The best waiters put the glass in the escanciador the first time, push the button, and hand you the glass, thereby showing you both how the machine operates and how much cider is considered appropriate.
Either way, you will likely think the glass is almost empty. The cider in the glass (the culín) is what you are expected to drink in one gulp. There is no such thing as letting a glass of cider sit. That’s what the bottle is for!
Step 3: Drink Some Cider
Drink it. All at once.
Congratulations! You’ve successfully navigated your way into drinking cider with the locals. Now the fun begins. It’s time to enjoy cider house culture.
If you’ve been left with a mechanical escanciador, feel free to drink your cider at your own pace. If not, and you now have a cider bottle sitting on your table with a cork upside down on top of it, you are expected to wait for them to come back and pour more for you.
The pouring service will certainly feel too slow at the beginning. Have patience. By the end of bottle number two or three, I promise you won’t think so anymore. By that point, you have probably had a snack or two, brought around on trays by the waitstaff.
Around bottle number three for the table you might want to order some food. My suggestion is to order something from the chalkboard menu, or stick to classic Asturian cider drinking dishes like chorizo a la sidra for the table to share.
If you would like recommendations for great cider houses to visit, contact me and I can share some personal favorites.