Spain’s Basque region is best known for its fine dining—the place, after all, has the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in the world. But, venture high into the Basque mountaintops and a very different eating and drinking tradition reigns supreme. I’m talking about sagardotegi, ancient cider houses serving up raw cider and rustic Basque food in a large, communal setting.
The Basque region happens to be one of the oldest and best cider-producers in the world. It’s cool, sunny climate is absolutely perfect for producing sharp, bittersweet apple varieties like Blanquina and Perezosa that are used to make cider the old-fashioned way.
The Sagardotegi tradition started in the 11th Century, when farming families made the cider to utilize the native apple species, which were too bitter for everyday consumption. They aged the cider in enormous barrels, allowing time and natural tannins in the apples to flavor and ferment the beverage. The result was a dry, tart, unfiltered drink that became a signature of the region.
Eventually, these families started hosting dinners for friends in their farmhouses to celebrating the tapping of the first cider of the season. Guests would “catch” the cider directly from spigots inserted into the barrels—the pressure release natural carbonation into the cider as well as fresh aromas. Cider was enjoy alongside whatever food was available—typically rib-eye steaks with tortillas or omelettes made of bacalao, the salted, preserved cod that is still representative of today’s Basque cuisine. The dry cider cut perfectly through the rich flavors of both dishes and a new tradition took hold—one that continues today in those same, historic farmhouses.
Few people outside of the mountainous Basque region know about sagardotegi, but that’s changing now, thanks to the recent opening of Brooklyn Cider House, the first sagardotegi in the U.S. Located in Bushwick, it is overseen by former wine buyer Peter Yi, his sister Susan and their friend Lindsey Storm. Its 12,000-square-foot space is in a sprawling converted meatpacking plant with wood-lined walls, enormous barrels of aging cider and the familiar yeasty funk. Here, Yi is bringing Basque cider making and the communal dining traditions of sagardotegi to the Brooklyn masses.
Yi became interested in sagardotegi when a friend took him to one of the Basque cider houses during a wine buying trip. “It was a transformative experience,” he says. “I was ignorant to this beverage. I didn’t have respect for cider. But the cider houses changed that. I finally understood. This is why people drink cider.”
He continues, “You’re with 50 other people. You’re relaxed, because cider takes away those inhibitions. Everyone is sharing stories and food. The energy is incredible. You’re bumping elbows with strangers as you are catching cider. That social element I fell in love with.”
Compared to the haute cuisine in the central Basque region, the beauty of sagardotegi, Yi says, is that it “still has that high food and drink standard, but it’s more of a rustic, multi-dimensional experience.” It’s also significantly more accessible—only about 25 to 30 Euros for dinner plus cider. At Brooklyn Cider House, the experience is similarly affordable, at $37 for dinner, plus $15 for the cider supplement.
Yi wanted to open Brooklyn Cider House not only because he loved the interactive nature of the dining experience, but also because he wanted to bring the Basque cider-making tradition to the U.S. “Cider is a beverage we once had in America hundreds of years ago,” he says. “But that method of making it without manipulation was lost during prohibition.” It was later replaced with commercial ciders made with added sugar and preservatives.
He’s producing cider by “working within the bounds of mother nature.” He’s doing so by growing heirloom varieties of bitter cider apples native to New York like Kingston Black, Manchurian Crab and Ashton Bitters at an orchard out in New Paltz, NY. “There’s a reason New York is called the big apple,” he says. “The growing conditions for apples are perfect.” The apples are stored in large barrels shipped directly from Spain. Guests can taste the cider directly from the barrels as it evolves and ferments.
Brooklyn Cider House serves four main varieties of Basque-style cider: Raw (cloudy, unfiltered, salty), Bone Dry (smooth, soft, slightly nutty), Half Sour (like a mild caramel apple) and Kinda Dry (sweet, nectar-like). There are even more varieties in the barrels that are works in progress, each one given a nickname like Punk, which tastes almost exactly like sour candy; Goldilocks, so named because it’s a just-right balance of sweet and sour; and Baby, bitter and immature.
The entire experience at Brooklyn Cider House is wildly convivial. You and your fellow guests get up in between courses of steak, chorizo and bacalao to meander over to the barrels, tipping your glasses away from the stream of cider to maximize the foamy, carbonated top and getting sprayed a little in the face in the process. You return to your table to discuss the merits of the latest batch you all have tasted over the next course. Repeat the process until you are left with dessert—a simple plate of whole walnuts, quince paste and salty Spanish cheese.
“What other restaurant allows you to socialize, walk around and talk to other people, and do something interactive?” Yi says. “It’s a totally different way to eat.”
Brooklyn Cider House has only been open since December, but Yi has ambitious plans. His hope is that by bringing back Basque cider making, treating it with the same care and curiosity as he once did with wine, and showing American drinkers the merits of raw, unfiltered cider. For example, he’s working with a variety called “Still Bone Dry” that he plans to age for upwards of 20 or 30 years.
“People haven’t done this, but cider has the potential to age and evolve just like a wine—like how a Rijoa gets secondary aromas of leather and tea when you age it,” he says. “The cider industry is a few years behind the wine industry, but it will get there.”