Geneva, New York is home to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Plant Genetics Resource Unit (PGRU). It’s a compound of 80 acres of plant fields and orchards, plus buildings that house both freezer seed storage (-20 degrees Celsius) and liquid nitrogen seed storage (-198 degrees Celsius, a temperature at which, theoretically, plant material could be stored forever without degrading).
C. Thomas Chao, curator of apples, grapes and tart cherries at PGRU, says the USDA National Germoplasm System maintains, catalogues and preserves seeds from basically every vegetable crop grown in the U.S. The PGRU houses 6,000 types of tomatoes, for example. Essentially, he says, “If someone can’t find a seed in our collection, they’re not going to find it.”
PGRU is also one site where apple budwood and seeds imported from abroad are released from their initial quarantine at a USDA site in Beltsville, Maryland. One reason customs officials ask whether you’ve handled livestock, plants, soil or snails abroad is because these foreign species can carry potentially devastating pathogens capable of wiping out economically and ecologically crucial American crops, not to sound alarmist. There exists an entire quarantine process for importing international crops, and it generally takes at least five years to introduce a new plant to U.S. soil. One case in point: After longer than a decade, the USDA is in the process of releasing more than a dozen species that are incredibly tantalizing to U.S. cider makers—Spanish cider apple varieties never before available in America.
Prior to the release of this most recent batch, only one or two varieties of Spanish cider apple trees had been sneaked over—through less-than-legal means—and grown on a very small scale in the U.S. Because Spanish cider apples are so different in acid levels and tannins than American, French and English cider apples, these dozen new varieties constitute an explosion of new material for American cider makers. Don’t be surprised if in 10 years’ time, after the apple rootstocks have had a chance to grow into fruit-bearing trees, small domestic cideries are crafting their own versions of acidic, lively Basque and Asturian ciders.
“With the huge growth in the cider industry over the last five years, I think there are many commercial cider makers looking at how to make a product that’s quite different from what’s out there,” says Greg Peck, Ph.D., a pomologist and assistant professor of horticulture at Cornell University, who is working with the USDA to test and release the new Spanish apple varieties. “In the same way that people are very interested in different styles of wine or craft beer, it’s an avenue where people think they could have a niche.”
Though only about a third of the quarantined varieties have been fully released to just a few nurseries (that are still in the process of grafting, storing and growing the dormant wood into trees), eager cider makers have already taken note.
“Cider has become so popular, and because we’re a boutique nursery that has access to the Geneva repository, all the cider geeks out there by way of the internet get funneled to our email and phone,” says Tino Navarro, nursery operations administrator for Cummins Nursery in Trumansburg, New York, one of the few nurseries to receive the newly released Spanish apples. “It’s all very exciting and promising. The only thing available in North America to this point is American, French and British cider varieties, so it’s nice to have new varieties from Spain.”
Why the excitement? Spanish cider is vastly different from American, British or even French cider, due in large part to its specialized fermentation and the types of apples that grow there. Even the most robust British cider is a world away from the funky, tart, smoky and sometimes challenging ciders Spain produces.
“People are just starting to appreciate what they call ‘Spanish-style ciders,’ which is a term that bothers me because they make so many different types of cider in Spain; it’s different in Galicias than Asturias than Basque,” says Ian Merwin, a retired Cornell horticulture professor and an orchardist and cider maker at Black Diamond Farm in Trumansburg, New York. “I really enjoy the Spanish cider scene. It’s the original, the most similar to what it would have been a hundred years ago. It’s very diverse. People generalize Spanish ciders as high-acidity, but that’s not a fair generalization. There’s effervescent and dry; they make all kinds in Spain.”
At Washington, D.C.’s, ANXO Cidery & Pintxos Bar, beverage director Tim Prendergast generalizes the two main regions of Spanish cider, Basque and Asturian, this way: “Asturians tend to be a little less tannic, a little less acidic, a bit more fruity and floral, whereas Basques can have earthy, almost umami flavors. There is definitely overlap between the two, but the Basque don’t have a lot of floral or fruity notes; they might have some yeasty, savory and smoky notes.”
While most of the Spanish-style ciders offered at ANXO are imported, there are a few domestically made ciders in that style, including some from Sonoma, California’s Tilted Shed; Monkton, Maryland’s Millstone Cellars; and Portland, Maine’s Urban Farm Fermentory.
“I don’t think anyone in the States is making one that they would claim is authentic; it’s more that those ciders are in the Northern Spanish style,” Prendergast says. “Most are just trying to get a funky fermentation with lots of volatile acid but using American apples.”
That volatile acid, by the way? It’s the reason Spanish ciders are often poured from a bottle or porron (a kettle-shaped glass vessel with a long spout) from a few feet above the glass. The long pour helps blow off some of the volatile acid, reducing its vinegarlike flavor, and lightening the mouthfeel of non-carbonated, still ciders. After they’re poured, most of these ciders should be consumed rather quickly; ANXO’s servers leave small bottles on the table so customers can pour themselves a few ounces at a time. Left sitting in a glass, these ciders can regain their sharp acidity and mask secondary floral and fruity flavors.
Above all, Spanish ciders are unique, offering characteristics that aren’t normally found in American- and other Europeanstyle ciders. But with 13 new apple varieties in their arsenal, American cider makers can take aim at creating ciders that are inspired by these unique Spanish specialties.
“They’re not going to taste exactly like Spanish ciders because so many aspects of the process are different here,” says Merwin. “But I’m looking forward to it. We’re going to plant 10 of each of the new varieties in our orchard as soon as we can get them. And I anticipate we should be able to make some really interesting ciders.”
SPANISH CIDER GLOSSARY
sidra: Spanish word for cider
sidra naturale: Asturian term for traditionally fermented, still cider
sagardoa: Basque word for traditionally fermented, still cider
porron: A glass pitcher with a long spout used to pour Spanish cider from a tall height to aerate the liquid
sagardotegis: A Basque ciderhouse and restaurant
sideria: A cider bar
txotx: A ritual of Spanish cider drinking, essentially a call of “cheers” in which a large barrel of cider is uncorked and drinkers fill their glasses from the stream