In Northern Spain, when January rolls around, cider, or sidra, flows like a river. Literally. Drop into any one of the hundreds of stone-walled sidrerías that thread Spain’s Basque region, and this is what you’ll see: Spaniards filling glass after glass with a small draught of cider from long, arcing streams that pour from barrels stacked to the rafters.
Known as the txotx season, it’s the beginning of a three-month-long release party for Spanish cider. Worlds apart from syrupy-sweet American ciders and their light, crisp British brethren, sidra is cloudy and still, bone dry and pricklingly tart with a musty, earthy bloom. And txotx—the Basque word for the act of tapping a barrel as well as for the wooden stopper used to plug it—is the essence of this ancient drink. The act of removing the peg creates those impressive streams, which aren’t just for show. The practice of escanciar, or “throwing” the cider wakes up the still liquid, adding a natural sparkle as it hits the glass.
It’s a tradition that dates back to the 11th century. Cider is a farm country refreshment, made from wild apples too sour or ugly to sell, and fermented with wild yeast. Farmers had no patience for—or, back in the day, knowledge of—purebred strains or scientific sanitation. While wine rules the southern plains, cider is found only along Spain’s northern edge, in the apple-growing patch known as España Verde. Encompassing Asturias, the Basque region, and bits of neighboring states, España Verde is all rolling hills and winding roads. The landscape feels closer to the English countryside than to Spain’s Mediterranean south—and it’s ripe for a road trip.
One stop along the way: Zelaia, a sidrería founded by Joaquín Gaincerain in 1942 and now run by his three granddaughters. Though some sidrerías are moving to more industrial processes, tradition still reigns, for the most part, at Zelaia: The place opens only during cider-tapping season, January through April. There are no chairs and no plates in the stone-walled farmhouse; guests stand and eat from communal trays.
Here, during the high season, locals will happily wait for hours, shoulder to shoulder, to fill their glasses again and again, a cycle that can last all night. As traditional sidrería rules mandate, you drink only one crystalline sip, called a culín, from the glass, then dump anything that’s left on the sawdust-covered floor. That’s because, made the old way, cider is always changing as it rests in the barrel. Each moment, each culín, is different.
“Cider is a natural product,” says Oihana Gaincerain, one of Zelaia’s three co-owners. “We don’t add sulfites, pasteurize it, or filter it, so it’ll keep developing. It’s a living drink.”
That means the first sip from a fresh barrel might taste like tart apple candy, all high notes of green skin, fresh grass, and bright lemon. Fill a glass from the same barrel a year later, and what started sweet and sharp may have mellowed into a rustic, barnyard-y blanket of must and spice. Trays of country fare—steak and olives and cheese and jellies— crowd-surf over the masses, who fortify themselves amid laughter, impromptu songs, and toast after cider toast.
“Some other sidrerías are newer, more industrialized, or focus more on dining.” Oihana says. “But our heart is still cider.”