2015-02-26 / Front Page

Former Architect Builds Hard Cider Trade

By James Merolla

Newport importer James Asbel has been fascinated by Spanish culture and cuisine for more than four decades, since he first visited the country as a student in 1974.

“I am captivated by the people, environment, sounds, smells and flavors of the place. Professional assignments and the friendships that have grown out of them have made Spain’s cider region in the north, Green Spain, my regular haunt,” he said.

In Spain, Asbel noted, hospitality means sharing the pleasures of the land and the best local food and drink. To that end, Asbel imports and sells the finest Spanish ciders to complement his favorite foods and yours.

Spanish cider, he said, is unique in its fermentation, with only the natural yeast present in the apples, the orchards and the cidery. Unlike French and English cider apple varieties, Spanish varieties have yet to be cultivated in the U.S.

A former architect and professor, Asbel’s life now is a transitory, sensory existence – from travel to the region, picking, savoring, smelling, tasting, pouring, storing, distributing and sharing. He delights in sharing his experiences, both personally and professionally.

NTW: How did you first visit the region of Spain you savor so much now?

JA: I went to Madrid in 1974 in the usual study abroad deal. I was this suburban kid from the Hartford area and this was my first city and I fell in love with it. I bonded. But my ciders come from the north of Spain. I didn’t know how important that region would be in my life now. Who’d have thunk it?

NTW: Was there a compulsion to return? Did you know you would?

JA: It just evolved. That’s the rich thing about life, how these subliminal things work their way back to reality. I founded the first study abroad architectural design program for American students in 1990. I spent 10 years running that program and during that time it became my community.

NTW: What was your previous career?

JA: Architecture and architecture professor. I taught for 15 years. I had tenure in North Carolina. It was a full commitment and a major part of my life.

NTW: Did you ever have a connection to cider before?

JA: I’m a foodie. I figure if you are going to take a picture of me it should be in my kitchen. I was eating my way through Spain. The thing I have always found about people in Spain is that they are incredibly proud of their regional culture and it almost always involves food.

People are feeding me all the time. Asturias is the oldest region in the world still actively making cider. The tradition goes back at least 2,000 years. There are 99 producers of cider and they all use the same type of bottle. Like milk bottles here. They wash them, clean them and reuse them. You can’t go anywhere and not have cider.

But they didn’t know that they had was a marketable idea. It was just what they produced. I was just consuming it as part of the natural meal and not really focused on it.

NTW: When did you decide to change your life and become a Spanish cider importer?

JA: I like moving around. I renovated my house in 2007. I really enjoyed the work. We renovated again in 2011. But I was kind of out of projects. I wanted to find something physical that I could keep doing. What popped into my head was making cider… rent some land, cultivate an orchard. I had the whole thing figured out. In the winter of 2011, I made a few gallons of cider and, you know what? It went bad.

I like the tactile physicality of connec- tion to the earth. The next thing was: How do I make great cider? I thought, “I’m going to go back there and learn how to make cider from people who really know how to do it.”

NTW: When did you realize you had made the right decision?

JA: The litmus test for us was when one of my producers gave me a taste of one of the new products he had just made (Guzman Riestra) and it was awesome. Other than the maker itself, I got the first taste.

I’m now importing the best cider in the world. Why would I go back to making cider? I took it with me to an event, and people just went bonkers. I looked at my wife and said, “Hmm, it looks like we have a business.” Now, the question becomes, how do we get more people to be aware of it?

NTW: What would you like Americans to know about Spanish cider?

JA: It’s the oldest continuous tradition of cider-making in the world. These orchards have been in operation in all that time. This is the richest source. In this region, about the size of Connecticut, there are over 200 varieties of cider-making apples, but just 99 producers. It’s kind of like basketball in North Carolina. They are so into basketball, they are producing Michael Jordans.

It’s how you make wine, but with apple juice. The alcohol levels come up to the level of beer, six to seven percent. Marketwise, it’s not highfalutin, like wine, but it has appeal to beer drinkers. Unlike beer, it has zero carbs. Unlike wines, it has less alcohol.

NTW: If I went to a supermarket and bought some fresh seafood, say, shellfish, what beverage would complement it best?

JA: Oysters, a dry sparkling. Fried calamari, traditional Sidra Natural.

NTW: Will American apples ever match the flavor of Spanish cider?

JA: That’s a great question. I probably wouldn’t be in this business if it weren’t for some leading American orchardist cider makers who hadn’t decided to revive heirloom cider apples and make ciders again. My ciders will never sell in a commercial market. They are not sweet enough and they are not cheap enough. My market is really rooted in the success of these growers. Americans have a long way to go to have the kind of range, diversity and richness of fruit that my producers have, and they know it, but it’s a great project. It’s a great industry and we are all in this together.

For more information, visit cidersofspain.com.

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