The American Cider Tradition
The growth of the hard cider market in the US has gotten a lot of buzz lately. So much so that a lot of folks are requesting and drinking cider that hadn’t even heard of it a few years back. Surprisingly though, cider is often considered America’s first beverage and the favorite beverage of our founding fathers! What we’re experience now is a resurgence in popularity, not the creation of a new product.
The earliest colonists brought European apple trees with them, which they quickly planted and began crossing with some of America’s native crabapple trees. Because of the lack of infrastructure and resources, safe drinking water was a luxury that most couldn’t afford. One way to keep beverages safe was to ferment them because alcohol kills most waterborne bacteria. Given that there were plenty of apples but no access to grapes, barley, or hops, making cider was the most accessible way to stay safely hydrated (if not a little bit tipsy). In fact, rumor has it that John Adams had a tankard of cider each morning for breakfast!
A tidbit for our local friends in Indiana – William Henry Harrison, our 9th president (and maybe not a great president, to be honest) ran his campaign with a claim that he was a man of “log cabins and hard cider”, meaning he was one of the people, not a fancy aristocrat. Think of how presidents these days may talk about how they drink Bud Light or have Coke with dinner to endear themselves to Middle America, and that’s what Harrison was trying to do. How times have changed!
By 1850 over 1,000 cultivated varieties could be found in the US. (Let’s see if we can list them…Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, Gala, Fuji…ummm, maybe not). And unlike today, very few of these apples were edible without being processed first. They were tart, bitter, and sharp, not sweet and juicy like today’s eating apples.
When Prohibition hit in 1920 and didn’t seem to be going anywhere, people cut down huge swaths of orchards because they were pretty much useless to farmers compared to the other crops they could grow since they weren’t edible for the most part. By the time Prohibition was lifted more than ten years later, it was much easier to plant wheat and barley for beer, which can yield a crop the next year, instead of replanting apple trees, which take about five years to reach maturity.
Of course, apple trees did get planted again, but the majority were ‘eating apples’, not cider apples. To this day, as cider grows in popularity, there aren’t enough traditional cider apples to keep up with demand. Many orchardists are beginning to plant heirloom varieties again, and many cider makers are using eating apples for their hard cider, which still produces quite a tasty – if not completely traditional – version of America’s first beverage.
For more information about the history of cider in the United States and the world, check out the excellent book, World's Best Ciders by Pete Brown and Bill Bradshaw.