Basque Cider Comes to the Columbia Gorge

By: Becky Garrison 

Unlike the domestic ciders that dominate the Pacific Northwest, Basque cider (known in the Basque region of Spain as Sagardo) has a wild, untamed quality. These ciders are made only once a year using heirloom apples and native yeast strains that naturally occur in a given orchard.

  The result is a cider with a taste very unique to the region where the apples were har-vested. Similar to natural wine, Basque ciders are made without chemical addition or manipulation and fermented with wild or native yeasts. These unfiltered ciders have a cloudy look with a flavor profile akin to a Lambic, a Belgian style of beer that also un-dergoes spontaneous fermentation. The funky tart taste of Basque cider pairs well with a wide variety of foods ranging from seafood to grilled steak.

  An aficionado of natural wines, Jasper Smith, sampled a Basque cider on the recom-mendation of a server in San Francisco. Finally, he found a cider that spoke to his pal-ate. He began scouring the internet and ordering any Basque ciders imported into the US. Then he took a trip to Basque country in Spain to visit the cider houses near San Sebastian. Here he met his eventual partner – an oenologist named Guillermo Castaños.

  When Smith surveyed the American cider market, he began to wonder why, in an in-dustry experiencing massive growth, no one was trying to produce a Basque-style ci-der domestically. “I decided that I wanted to fill that hole in the market and create a product that paid homage to the wonderful ciders of Northern Spain, while creating and promoting the identity of the Columbia Gorge in the Pacific Northwest.”

  Smith brought to this venture a range of experiences in the food and drink scene.  While living in Philadelphia, he worked as a line cook at the award-winning Vernick Food and Drink. Later, he developed and launched the private event and catering pro-grams at Belcampo, a vertically integrated, sustainable meat company based in Oak-land. Then, this Portland, Oregon native moved back home, where he curated the wine selection at southeast Portland’s acclaimed local bar and restaurant, Bar Casa Vale.

  While these experiences gave him the background he needed to make his mark in the food and beverage industry, Smith knew he needed to learn how to make Basque ci-der. So, he spent a few weeks in October and November 2017 in Basque Country with his partner Castaños, and their friend Guillermo Montiel, making cider at Montiel’s small family farm in Bera, Spain. “That was a compelling and inspiring moment – the cider was fantastic and the low intervention production method was exactly how I wanted to pro-duce cider back in Oregon,” he said.

  Smith makes his ciders using the same method he learned at Montiel’s farm. Genera-tions of Basque cider makers use this method to make the unique beverage. He starts by sourcing cider-specific apples once a year in August and September. Currently, Smith works with four small Oregon farms. While Smith won’t divulge the specific farms where he sources his apples, he did say that two growers are in the Willamette Valley and, according to Smith, grow wonderful European cider apples. The other two growers are located in the Hood River/Parkdale area. Smith said they have beautiful 20- to 50-year-old orchards full of heritage and heirloom American apples.

  According to Smith, “These apples are harvested at the exact moment we feel they have the right balance of acid, sugar and tannin development.” Then this rustic, Basque-style cider is made using a process more akin to winemaking than brewing beer. They crush and press the fruit and ferment the must spontaneously with whatev-er wild yeast is present on the apple skins and in the cellar. There are no flavors added, no chemicals, and no clarifying agents.

  Smith set up shop in a cavernous warehouse space just off the banks of the Columbia River. A fresh coat of paint gives the cidery a stark, clean look with a giant mural of Basajuan, the mythical Basque “wild man” covering one of the walls. Brand new shiny fermentation and blending tanks sit off to the back of the space. A spacious, wood-lined bar and long wood picnic tables give the space a welcoming, woodsy feel. Weather permitting, the warehouse doors open to a private view of the Columbia Gorge.

  In late August 2018, Smith’s cidery, Son Of Man Sagardo, kicked off their first vintage, becoming the first cidery in the Pacific Northwest to specialize in Basque-style cider. After four months in the tank, and weekly batonnag, they released their Sagardo in Fe-bruary 2019 with an initial production of 2,200 cases of 750ml. These bottles are avail-able at the cidery, select retail outlets, and on their website. 

  Overall, Son of Man’s Sagardo cider has a soft tannic structure with a hint of vinegar—the latter is a hallmark of Basque cider. The nose has a light musty pineapple feel fol-lowed by a clean, bright, green apple taste that feels dry and slightly tart on the palate.

  While Basque cider is bottled still, its natural carbonation is awakened using a pouring method called “throwing the cider.” This method involves pouring the cider from the bottle into the glass at the height of a few feet. This movement causes the cider to splash into the glass, creating a bubbly, fizzy head that resembles sparkling wine.

  Currently, the cidery is open for tastings by appointment and special events. During a tasting, visitor have the unique opportunity to sample cider from three tanks instead of being poured from bottles. The method employed to sample Basque ciders from the tank is called the “long pour” where one holds their glass at an angle about two feet from the spigot to catch the cider. This method unlocks the aromatics, activates the natural carbonation, and aerates the cider. 

  While Smith is a Portland native, he chose to establish Son of Man in Cascade Locks, a region he views as the most exciting winemaking region in the country. In the forty miles west-to-east between Cascade Locks and The Dalles, visitors travel from rainfor-est to high dessert. In the 10 miles north or south away from the Columbia River one can encounter ten unique micro-climates and soil types.

  “By setting up our business in Cascade Locks, and by sourcing fruit for the Gorge, I am helping to promote this incredible region and the diverse array of products that come from it. The Gorge also reminds me of Basque Country. The craggy cliffs and verdant landscapes that invite you to be active and outdoors are similar to those found around San Sebastian,” said Smith.

  Currently, Smith shares his space with Graham Market of Buona Notte Wines and Bethany Kimmel of The Color Collector. While the three operate independently, Smith describes their connection. “Both winemakers are deeply connected to the Columbia River Gorge and make wonderful natural wines with fruit from the Gorge. The three of us are all creating products we are proud of in a very special, but nascent winemaking region. Creating a community of like-minded producers is a priority at this stage so that we can start to open consumers’ eyes to the bounty of the area and the diversity it has to offer.”

  Emily Ritchie, Executive Director of Northwest Cider Association, observes how Son of Man plays a part in the burgeoning Pacific Northwest Cider scene. “He’s doing won-ders for the cider industry by opening up a cidery that makes a unique style of cider not found in most parts of the world,” she said. Basque-style cider can be so enticing when done we, l and I know it’ll raise the profile of cider here in the Pacific Northwest.”

  Moving forward, Smith plans to continue to fine tune their product. His biggest project on the horizon is working with small apple growers to grow particular varietals, allowing him to continue experimenting and creating the best possible Basque cider.

  Smith believes Son of Man falls somewhere between the new farmhouse brewing and wild beer movement currently developing across the country and the natural winemak-ers promoting old school, low intervention winemaking techniques.

  “It might sound odd, but I feel like I’m closer to the progressive brewers and winemak-ers than to the general American cider culture,” said Smith. “This is because our prod-uct is so much different than most of the stuff on grocery store shelves. I’m working to define a category and reset consumers’ expectations around what cider is and what it can be. There are a number of other fantastic cider producers doing the same thing across the country, but we are a minority in a very immature market. There is still a ton of education and growth to be had.”

  For more information about Son of Man Cider or to order their cider online, visit https://www.sonofman.co/

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