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The Cider ‘Crush’ at Copa de Oro in Cholula

Sampling cider from an oak barrel at Copa de Oro in Cholula.The Spanish influence in San Pedro Cholula isn’t always quite as evident as it is in the nearby Colonial city of Puebla. Despite an abundance of Catholic churches, including one that crowns the world’s largest pre-Hispanic pyramid, the town maintains its older, distinctly indigenous vibe. However, just a few blocks from the archaeological site, inside a nondescript industrial building, the Castillo-Blanca family is working to preserve a centuries-old tradition from Asturias, Spain, and make it a bona fide Mexican one.

For three generations, its Copa de Oro distillery has produced sidra, or hard cider, from apples cultivated in the state of Puebla. The business began in 1936, when Ramón Blanca Amador started fermenting the regional red fruit into an aguardiente de manzana. He called the drink sidra actiopa, a nod to the Nahautl words atl (water) and teopa (temple) and a suggestion that his liquor was nothing short of divine. Today Copa de Oro produces several varieties of sidra gasificada, or carbonated hard cider, plus non-alcoholic sparkling cider, cider “coolers,” vinegar, applesauce, and more. The company turns out three grades of cider—Palencia, Copa de Oro, and Renetta—which are differentiated by their labels and the amount of time each cider is aged in an oak barrel (up to one, two, or three years, respectively).

Unlike many wines, hard cider doesn’t improve with age: After about two years, it’s properties change and it evolves into vinegar.

“The national palate is sweet,” sales director Mario García Roche explains to me after a tour of the factory. To cater to that taste, most of Copa de Oro’s ciders are on the sugary side, with one important exception: Renetta Reserva Especial, which the company produced for its 75th anniversary last year. “It’s the only cider made in Mexico that’s semi-dry,” García Roche boasts.

Copa de Oro Renetta is “the best cider” my Poblano hubby has ever had.His bragging is justified. The Renetta is, in a word, exquisite. “Wow! It’s the best cider I’ve ever had,” my husband declares after taking a sip of the ice-cold bubbly. Like many Poblanos, he’s accustomed to drinking the sweeter stuff, and mostly at family dinners around Christmastime or New Year’s. It’s said that hard cider became popular in Mexico as a festive yet less expensive alternative to Champagne and sparkling wines like Cava. And, comparatively, it’s a bargain. At 101 pesos (about US $7) per bottle, the Renetta semi-seco is Copa de Oro’s priciest product.

Copa de Oro expects to produce some 800,000 cases of cider in 2012.Copa de Oro is looking for ways to broaden cider’s national appeal by developing new products, such as cider “coolers” in single-serving bottles that come in different flavors and include rum, García Roche says. But its core product remains its amber and rosé ciders (the latter of which is 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile). In 2012, the company expects to produce some 800,000 cases of cider, he notes, all of which is made from 100 percent fruit that’s cultivated in Puebla. Most of that will be consumed nationally, but Copa de Oro is working to export more products to the U.S., Colombia, Cuba, and Spain.

The “crush” typically begins in July and lasts for about six months, as tons of apples — of the winter banana, perón, ripio, or panochera variety — arrive from orchards, most of which are located on the skirts of the Popocatépetl volcano or near the Puebla-Veracruz state line in Santa María Coatepec and San Salvador El Seco, García Roche explains. After the apples arrive, they are washed and pressed into juice, which is then fermented, filtered, pasteurized, carbonated, and bottled. Copa de Oro can process up to 30,000 bottles per day (5,000 cases) when operating at full capacity, García Roche says.

Copa de Oro plans to kick off the 2012 season with a “blessing of the apples” and a parade on Saturday, July 21, from 10 to 11 a.m., García Roche says. The route starts and ends at the distillery (3 Sur #904, Col. Centro), passing through downtown San Pedro Cholula. A tasting and cider pairing will follow at Copa de Oro, which also operates a tasting room and “living museum” called La Barrica. The public is invited; expect to pay about 120 pesos per person for the food and drink.
—Rebecca Smith Hurd

Free tours of the distillery (in Spanish only) are offered year-round, by reservation only, to groups of 10 people or more. Call +52 (222) 247-1989 for more information.

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