Serious Eats: Drinks
The Cider Press: A Brief Cider History
America's love affair with hard cider stretches back to the first English settlers. Upon finding only inedible crabapples upon arrival, the colonists quickly requested apple seeds from England and began cultivating orchards. Grafting wood to produce proper cider apples arrived soon after and American cider production was well under way.
While apple trees had little trouble taking to the New England soil, it was trickier to cultivate the barley and other grains required for the production of beer. So cider became the beverage of choice on the early American dinner table. Even the children drank Ciderkin, a weaker alcoholic drink made from soaking apple pomace in water.
By the turn of the eighteenth century, New England was producing over 300,000 gallons of cider a year, and by midcentury, the average Massachusetts resident was consuming 35 gallons of cider a year. John Adams supposedly drank a tankard of cider every morning to settle his stomach.
As the settlers began moving west, they brought along their love for cider. You've probably heard of John Chapman (better known as orchard-starter Johnny Appleseed). Chapman was actually a missionary for the Swedenborgian Church, who traveled just ahead of westbound settlers and grafted small, fenced-in nurseries of cider apple trees in the Great Lakes and Ohio River regions. Chapman visited the nurseries once or twice a year, but he left neighbors in charge to sell the saplings to the arriving settlers. By the end of the nineteenth century, it was not uncommon for to find a small cider orchard on the grounds of most homesteads.
Cider's popularity began to wane in the early 1900s. Huge numbers of German and Eastern European immigrants brought with them a penchant for beer over cider. Plus, the soil in the Midwest was more barley-friendly, so beer production was easier than it had been. The advent of mechanical refrigeration also improved the quality of beer year round.
While all this beer swilling did have an adverse effect on the cider industry, it did little compared to the devastating blow of Prohibition and the Volstead Act. While some breweries survived these dark times by producing a range of goods from sodas to refrigerated cabinets, cider orchards had less flexibility. In addition to outlawing alcoholic cider, the Volstead Act limited production of sweet cider to 200 gallons a year per orchard. Prohibitionists burned countless fields of trees to the ground and surviving orchards began cultivating sweeter (non-cider) apples out of necessity.
American's love for cider never really returned after the repeal of Prohibition. While breweries could go back into production almost immediately with imported grains—and barley fields could yield their first crops within a year—it would take decades to convert the orchards, and the demand, back from snacking and cooking apples to cidermaking ones.
But almost a hundred years later, American cider is once again on the rise. As globalization brings cheap apples to grocery stores from half way around the world, many American orchardists have turned to cider to keep their farms profitable. More and more cider makers are showing up every year, honing their craft, and helping us rediscover this delicious lost American beverage.