A tradition that is here to stay
The Spanish invasion is here to stay but few know it.
This summer, 14 American cider experts traveled to Gijon, the biggest city of Asturias, in Spain, to learn first-hand about the production and the tradition of Asturian cider and, incidentally, foster business exchange.
They say to talk Asturian is to talk about cider.
In the region, one goes to "quedar" (meet) with friends in a “chigre" (cider bar) to drink one or several "botelles" of cider. Then you are usually asked: "Quies one culin?" (do you want not too little, nor too much, but just the right amount?) to continue.
“It doesn’t matter if its one, two, three ... bottles or boxes. What does it matter when you have the time?" asked blogger El trastero de palacio, as he described the Asturian cider drinking tradition.
The production and consumption of this ancient drink in the Asturias area dates back to the Middle Ages, in the eighth and ninth centuries, and apparently is ready to conquer new areas.
"Cider wants to expand to different parts of the world, particularly conquer the U.S., where it is becoming popular in Washington and New York, a new favorite among American consumers," said editor of “Directo al Paladar,” Esther Clemente.
Today, the average American consumer knows little or nothing about drinking cider, somewhat ironic if you realize it was the favorite drink of the Founding Fathers. This “foreign” beverage was once considered the quintessential American drink.
Rebirth of an American tradition
As in other parts of the country, some say appreciation of cider is on the rise in Philadelphia.
With the revolution of Philly’s restaurant scene, residents currently have access to local and foreign “craft” ciders on tap that go beyond the average, everyday brands.
For Tim Kweeder, general manager and wine director at Petruce (1121 Walnut Street), the difference is as easy as comparing a fast-food burger with a gourmet burger.
"I like small production ciders. The brands you usually see at bars are generic and kind of watered down," Kweeder said. “They usually have 35 percent real apple juice and the rest is chemicals.”
Petruce opened its doors eight months ago offering American, wood-fired cuisine and an extensive drink menu that includes wine, drafts and three cider options that can be tasted through their "Cider Flights" (3 oz. of each).
"We are serving ‘Weidmann & Groh’ cider from Frankfurt, Germany, the highest in alcohol and is completely still... no carbonation," Kweeder said. "We also have ‘Castañón,’ an Asturian cider, which tends to have brighter acidity and a little bit of funkiness. They are kind of the wild child, edgier."
If you go for a more rustic flavor, you might want try “This Side Up” cider from Normandy, France. “It has a little bit of funkiness, a bit more carbonation and lots of hay and baked apple notes to it. Reminds you kinds of the autumn," Kweeder said.
The selection for the menu varies, depending on market availability. According to Kweeder, cider is far from ousting the grand old mighty drink in Philadelphia: beer.
"Because beer is such a popular product, and is easier to make money on, it is less expensive for businesses,” Kweeder said. “Wine and booze are much more expensive for the restaurant owner. We pay retail pricing and we don’t get wholesale discounts."
An expert in developing top-notch wine lists, Kweeder introduced the cider program three months ago and he said the response has been positive. “I am kind of shocked at how many people get excited about the ciders, they come here and say ‘I was just in Spain or in this part of France last year.”
On the other side of Center City, Tria Taproom has developed its own original concept of providing a “bar for the people, where beer could grow and wine chill-out,” and over the years they added cider to their menu as a classic fermented product of the world. “We have a fetish for fermentation, we serve cheese, wine, beer, cider and meat,” said Michael McCaulley, Tria Taproom beverage director.
As a bottleless establishment in Philadelphia, Tria Taproom (2005 Walnut Street) celebrated its one-year anniversary on Nov. 11 with a general concept is which beer is the star of the menu and wine is secondary. Cider is in-between the two.
"We saw it as a burgeoning wave that sort of coincided with the craft beer movement. So as the craft beer happened more and more, craft cider became more and more relevant," McCaulley said. “We first added cider at at TriaCafe, it started selling very well right from day one.”
They rotate one cider at a time, featuring a different one every month or until the availability runs out.
As a cider drinker, McCaulley finds the history of cider one of the great aspects of its tradition, especially its deep roots in American history.
"Cider is the first alcoholic beverage in the United States. It was brought by the colonist who thought our water was as bad as the water in England,” McCalley said. “In early colonial America, cider was the most popular beverage and you would typically have an orchard if you were a homesteader.”
“It is not as sophisticated as wine, and today is not as American as beer, but it is that taste in between. I like celebrating it for just that,” he said.
“People are really going back to it”
Rowan Imports, a company located in Queens (N.Y.), was founded by John and Anthony Belliveau-Flores, two brothers who traveled the world in search of the best cider.
A combination of their love for food, drink and travel, and strong family roots in Spain, set them on the direction for the company.
The Belliveau-Flores’ initially wanted to open their own cider bar, but when they realized that the market for cider import was almost nonexistent, the project switched.
"I'd have to say that my favorite aspect of cider is the drinking tradition. From the ‘escanciar,’ to the sharing of a glass, to the tapas," said Anthony in interview with AL DÍA.
"The most wonderful thing about Asturian ciders is that it is part of the culture. You never feel as much part of a place as when you are drinking with people, eating food and sharing free time, " he said.
Founded in 2011, Rowan Imports started with the mission of sharing its founders’ love for the historical drink, focusing on ciders made by small farmers and family-owned businesses. Traditions which Anthony Belliveau-Flores deeply respects.
"I recently was hanging out with Henry Chevallier, of Aspall's cider. His family has been producing cider for 230 years! A lot of brewers are getting into it, which I am not as keen on," he said. "Companies like Miller Coors are now trying to make cider.”
Belliveau-Flores often stays with the producers and works with the families. “I get to know them, I sleep on their couches. It is really amazing to see how they have been producing this for generations. I love supporting that kind of product out there," he said.
Recently several publications have declared the revival of cider in the U.S. market. Belliveau-Flores says that although the ciders are still a very small part of the market, he has seen massive growth and widespread interest.
According to a report by Impact Databank, which tracks wine and beer industry statistics for WineSpectator.com, in 2012 the top 10 brands of cider in the United States grew 62 percent.
Rowan Imports began three years ago, and only got its first shipment of cider two years ago, but its expanding as well.
"We started in New York and Rhode Island. Now we have expanded to 10 states, including Pennsylvania," Belliveau-Flores said. "We currently represent 70 different ciders and we just launched an Irish portfolio."
Still, the biggest challenge for is education of retailers and consumers. "Our main consumers are in New York, Washington and Oregon. I think is really coming back, there is a greater appreciation for agricultural products. People are really looking back to it and there is much more development for sustainable food practices and local food culture," Belliveau-Flores said.
He added that American ciders are developing interesting products with innovative practices.
“The change that I’ve seen in the three years that we’ve done this is that, when we first came out, people were asking ‘is this made from apples?’ Now they are actually coming to me and talking about specific variety of apples they like," Belliveau-Flores said.