Ambitious Basque-style Cidery “Son of Man” launches in Oregon Gorge

Spanish Cider (or Sidra) of the Asturian and Basque regions of the country is a distinct style much different than American or English ciders and envied by cidermakers and fans across the world. A new cidery called Son of Man plans to bring the complex Basque-style cider known for it’s musty, funky, tart and dry flavor to the Pacific Northwest. Founded by Portland native Jasper Smith and his Basque partner and oenologist Guillermo Castaños, Son of Man Cidery will begin production in Cascade Locks, Oregon in the gorge this month but already has their first product made in Spain available now.

Though Spanish cider is called Sidra, In the Basque region they call it Sagardo which is the word Son of Man is using. It’s a slightly sour, spontaneously fermented beverage similar to natural wine or Belgian Lambic. Basque cider is bottled still but a natural carbonation is awakened in a pouring method called “throwing the cider” that involves pouring from the bottle into the glass at a height of a few feet, or approximately a meter. The cider splashes into the glass, creating a fizzy, bubbly head that quickly subsides like a sparkling wine.

Son of Man co-founder Jasper Smith is a Portland native who fell into the food and drink scene, recently curating the wine selection at acclaimed local bar and restaurant Bar Casa Vale in SE Portland. Smith returned to Portland after many years away with a business plan and a dream to bring Basque-style Cider to the Pacific Northwest. After ringing doors and rattling cages for backers, Smith says “Ultimately, I found 5 people who were really interested in the project and the product.” Although this put Son of Man Cidery on track, they were/are still short on funds. “Every dollar I take is a dollar I have to pay back. We are working on a shoestring, which is why we are also running an indiegogo campaign to help us with the purchase of our beautiful kupela (foeder)” Smith says hopefully.

Son of Man Cider’s future tasting room

You wouldn’t know they are on a shoestring budget from Son of Cider’s home, just off the banks of the Columbia river in a newish warehouse space. The big, breezy warehouse looks great with a fresh coat of white paint and Son of Man’s name and logo scrawled against the tasting room side of the building. Shiny, brand new fermentation and blending tanks are off to the back of the space with the previously mentioned horizontal foeder (kupela) sitting next to the tanks, ready to be filled. The place is a bit stark and ready to be filled out with plenty of room for growth.

Son of Man Cider

Smith grew up in Portland but moved away to Vermont for college. He spent four years in Burlington, VT before moving to Philadelphia with his now-wife. At the time he was focused on working for a progressive non-profit, something in the realm of social justice or campaign finance reform but after taking what he intended to be a temporary job in the kitchen at Vernick Food & Drink and fell into the foodie scene. Vernick was named Best Restaurant and Best New Restaurant in the first year by PhillyMag and even made it into Bon Appetit Magazine’s national best new restaurant list and was nominated for a James Beard Award which they finally just won this past year.

Smith moved on to San Francisco where he worked for the verticaly integrated and organic Belcampo Meat Company where he managed catering and special events. “Everything from events at Belcampo’s farm to Francis Mallmann style wood-fired private dinners, to serving 10,000 burgers in 3 days at Outsidelands Music Festival,” says Smith. “I was given a ton of autonomy – basically running a small business within a business.”<

Ultimately with the changing demographics and cost of living coupled with a desire to start his own project, Smith moved back to Oregon a little over a year ago to start his dream project – a Basque-style cidery. “I knew I had access to raw materials for cider, lower overhead and a more establish market,” says Smith of his planning.

Basque-style cider is nearly as popular as wine in Spain and is comparable to the growing thirst for “live” wines that are fermented with native wild yeasts. Most cider makers in Basque country do not pitch a yeast culture but rely on what’s naturally in the air and on the apple skins. So as you can imagine the cider can get a bit funky.

“There is always a slight touch of volatile acidity or acetic acid (vinegar flavor),” says Smith. He continues “In wine people scoff at this as a major flaw. In Basque cider I think it’s a huge benefit and part of the appeal. The same way that a splash of vinegar in a recipe can totally enrich a plate of food at your favorite restaurant, a little acetic acid in cider plays a harmonious role in opening up the entire spectrum of flavor potential.”

In Spain, Basque Cider is typically served in cider houses called sagardotegi with salted cod and plates of steak. “The vinegar flavor is also a big part of what makes Basque cider so food friendly, and the tartness is why it’s so refreshing to drink all day,” notes Smith

It’s also only made once a year, like wine, and Son of Man intends to follow these traditions to a “T.” Most cideries press or purchase juice year round from apples held in coolers year-round and in America most of these apples were not planted for cider. “To that end apples are hugely important. Although we don’t have the specific, indigenous Basque apple varietals to work with there are folks still growing cider specific and heirloom apples in the Willamette Valley and the Hood River area.”

Identifying and securing local apples is key to Son of Man’s production which will be only Basque-style cider, no semi-sweet, dry, fruited or English-style ciders for them.  Luckily, according to Smith who is close lipped about what apples they are using – “A big part of the story we are trying to tell revolves around the similarities between the Columbia River Gorge and Basque country. The regions sit on roughly the same latitude with a similar climate and verdant, epic landscape.”<

visitors enjoy Son of Man’s inaugural cider release at their production space in Cascade Locks

Smith acknowledges there is a riskiness to launching a new cidery on an obscure product to the American cider market that’s difficult to make and even more difficult to talk about. Smith is hoping for a change in the consumer thanks to the increased interest in cider but also sour beer, saisons and other farmhouse ales, even natural wines and kombuchas have a similarity but also a recognition that “Basque Cider” does not have.

“The vocabulary might be confusing to people at first, but we’re hoping we can get it into conversation around what Basque cider is and why it’s different,” confesses Smith.

For starters, the difference between Sidra and Basque-style cider is pretty vague but to Smith “Basque cider is singular in style. It’s wilder than Asturian sidra – more acetic, more funk, more exciting.”

Son of Man Cider’s first product is Sagardo Madre, now in 750ml bottles produced in a collaboration with Spanish Cidermakers Guillermo Castaños and Guillermo Montiel made with Montiel’s fruit from his orchard along the Bidasoa River. There is little enough of this first run that Smith is releasing it at a series of events in Cascade Locks and Portland with your next chance to try it at an End of Summer party at the cidery on August 25th with wood fired food and all you can drink cider.

Samurai Artist
Samurai Artist

Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding. Contact: SamuraiArtist@NewSchoolBeer.com

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