Basking in the heat of the sun

For all its accolades, achievements, and acclaim, for Basqueland Brewing there’s still nothing better than Basque life


For some, home is the place we were born, for others, home is the culture we come from, the people with whom we put down roots, or the atmosphere that makes us feel most ourselves. For US expats and founders of Basqueland Brewing, Kevin Patricio and Ben Rossi, The Basque Country is both a chosen and spiritual home. Ben and Kevin cherish the place, people and culture that has embraced them as its own, and that feeling of belonging has engendered Basqueland’s fierce sense of duty to its local community. Eight years on, the brewery’s mission is still to brew beer on par with the quality of Basque cuisine, and which Basque people can proudly call a local product. 

The extent to which Basqueland has integrated into the fabric of The Basque Country, is reflected in the fact that it celebrated its 8th birthday, not at its own San Sebastian-based bar or brewery, but at a local cidery that happens to be their exclusive distributor in Gipuzkoa, the region where both are from. “The reason why they're a good distributor and a great partner is because they've developed this network around Gipuzkoa, where we are. Zapiain cider has been sold in the area for nearly 500 years.

“As they became more modernised, they found they had some extra space in their delivery trucks, and so thought, ‘why don't we look into delivering something else as well?’ So that’s how the opportunity opened up for us, but beyond that, we’ve become really close friends and partners in the emotional sense, not just the business sense.”

Being based just south of San Sebastian’s city centre, you can throw a stone from the brewery’s front door, and hit two cider houses. If you extend that radius by five kilometres in all directions, you’ll find a further thirty. But far from acting as competing categories, Kevin says the beer and cider industries complement each other nicely in San Sebastian. 

Cider has been enjoyed by Basque people since before wine was made in the region, with beer only really emerging in the last hundred years or so. Today, your most direct route to Basque cider, locally known as sagardo, might be through a pintxos bar, where world renowned produce takes centre stage in dishes typically enjoyed in three bites or less. Whether opting for a light lunch of tortilla de patata and fresh fish, or filling up on mouthfuls of stewed offal, and creamy sheep's cheese, a txotx of Basque cider cuts through fat, and compliments freshness. 

After apples are pressed, sagardo is typically spontaneously fermented, making it tangy and light sans gas, unlike other European varieties. When serving, the bartender will pour the cider from its bottle, to your glass, from a height, aerating the cider and activating its subtle sparkle in the process. These small servings of cider are unbelievably inexpensive, and at such a low ABV, that you can easily enjoy one as an aperitif, and with each of the three to five plates one would typically order at a pintxos bar. 

As seasoned drinkers of Basqueland beer might already know, it was these kinds of settings, this food, and the culture that surrounds both, that motivated Ben and Kevin to undertake the project of brewing beer whose quality parallelled that of Basque cuisine. Having previously worked as a chef in fine dining settings, Kevin couldn’t stand the thought of enjoying a spectacular meal, made with incredible fresh, local produce, and rounding off the evening with a shitty, generic, mass-produced beer. Given the important role sagardo plays in Basque cuisine and culture, we have it – in part – to thank for the establishment of Basqueland Brewing. 

Although Basqueland beer and sagardo are both produced to be enjoyed before, during and after food, one is not a replacement for the other. Kevin says that typically between January and April, cider houses offer guests the opportunity to enjoy cider at its various stages of maturation. Traditionally, by having multiple fouders going at once, people could sample the maturing cider to select “futures” of a chosen batch, depending on their preference for sweet, light, dry, tangy, etcetera. Today, it’s more common for cider houses to be frequented by groups of friends who just enjoy the txotx. This term technically refers to the act of sampling the maturing cider. 

Kevin says during sidra season people will generally go for lunch or dinner where they will txotx and enjoy a traditional ciderhouse meal of a pintxo of txistorrsa, cod tortilla, fried cod with peppers and onions, rib steak, and Idazabal cheese. Many will start in the brewery’s taproom before dinner or end there after a long lunch. He says that although the process of making cider more closely resembles the process of winemaking than brewing, the circumstances in which cider is enjoyed is much more closely aligned with beer drinking and culture, making brewery and cidery peaceful cohabitants of a rich and dynamic drinks culture in San Sebastian. 

“Cider and beer are closely linked in so many ways that it feels fitting to have celebrated our birthday at their cider house. It’s also such an amazing place, their office and restaurant is at the street level, but behind them, there’s a big open space, and an area that’s been cut into the adjacent mountain so they can receive and store apples there. I believe that on the day our event was happening, they were actually pressing the apples for next year’s cider, which felt particularly fitting of our theme for the occasion, which is Basque Life.”

If celebrating its eighth birthday at a local cider house isn’t an emphatic enough endorsement of Basque culture, the brewery also marked the occasion with a series of beers brewed in collaboration with near and far-flung friends, and which celebrated various traditions in Basque history and culture. For example, Chop Chop, a beer brewed in collaboration with UK based brewery Deya, is brewed with the precision of an aizkolari’s axe, and depicts a woodcutter who might participate in an Aizkolaritza, a Basque wood cutting competition. 

Fresh Catch, a German pils brewed in collaboration with Dublin-based brewery Whiplash, features a small commercial fishing boat, on its label. Further collaborators include Fuerst Wiacek from Berlin, Brasserie La Débauche from Angoulême, Mumbo Jumbo from Bilbao, Oso Brew from Madrid, Laugar from Gordexola, and Lervig from Stavanger. This eclectic mix not only highlights the many ways Basqueland has nestled into the fabric of its locality, but points to the exceptional international reputation it has garnered in the process of pursuing beer worthy of Basque drinkers. 

While the flames of Basqueland’s prolific export practices – established to combat a challenging Spanish craft beer market – have only be fanned by adoring European drinkers, Kevin assures me that Basque “people’s very fervent brand ambassadorship and ownership of the brand is easily the thing that makes me most proud of what we’ve done here”.

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