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Apple Cider – The Refreshing Drink Which Never Went Away

Probably not the apple cider Johnny Appleseed would have chosen to be remembered for

Probably not the apple cider Johnny Appleseed would have chosen to be remembered for

If you are like the millions of people worldwide who claim to be health conscious (but really aren’t), you have a juicer in your kitchen, and from time to time – the times being very distant from each other – you actually put something like an apple into your juicer and drink it.  And after you’ve polished off that glass, you always ask yourself why you don’t do this more often. The answer always comes during the next visit to the grocery store where it is always so much easier to just pick up a carton of a mainstream brand of apple juice made from concentrate.

But not with apple cider. Apple cider enjoys more of a mystique. Apple cider has a stronger apple taste and you never make it at home. When I was a kid, it seemed to only be available at fairs or at roadside stalls you passed on drives into the country.

It must be noted that where I grew up, in the USA, the two words apple cider always denoted a non-alcoholic type of unfiltered apple juice. Cider had a stronger apple taste because it contained many of the apple solids apple juice filters out. It wasn’t until another decade that I discovered that most of the world considers apple cider to be an alcoholic beverage which, at its best, can resemble an apple-tinged champagne.

This hard alcoholic cider has been around for over 2,000 years. When the Romans came to invade England in 55 BC, the locals were already enjoying cider. Fermenting and distilling apples later became a perfected art in southern England, France, and Spain. Formerly used circular grinding stones for apples still dot those countries’ fields. 

Traditional apple cider was not simply fermented unfiltered apple juice, an alcoholic version of the cider I enjoyed as a kid. Hard ciders, as they were made in Europe and later in America after the first settlers arrived, were made from an entirely different type of apple, one called a spitter.   Spitters are bitter and tannic, not suitable for eating.   

Today, it’s elementary to graft a particular variety of apple plant onto the root stock of a new plant to come up with a predictable apple variety.   Far more common back then were seedling orchards – apple trees started from seeds.  Because of the apple’s tremendous genetic diversity, a seedling will taste nothing like its parent.   Early ciders were made from a mix of various types of spitters, none sweet enough to eat. 

Ciders were a delicious and efficient way to process inedible apples, and cider consumption became widespread after the Norman Conquest of 1066. Monasteries produced and sold vast quantities of spiced cider to the public. By the mid-1600’s, every farm in England had its own cider orchard and press. 

The drink found its way to America with the first English settlers. Grains were costly to bring over and more difficult to grow in what was then a foreign and inhospitable climate. Cider apple seeds were easier to transport and cultivate.  Apples were cheap and widely available, and alcoholic apple cider emerged as one of early America’s most popular drinks.  Johnny Appleseed, America’s itinerant missionary, planted many apple trees in the Midwest, always doing so from seed over grafted plants. The resultant ciders were distinctly American in taste, made from distinctly American apples instead of the popular English and French cultivars. 

In regions near apple orchards, people consumed about a half liter of apple cider a day. Cider was a safe way to ingest liquids and vitamins in an age when much of the water supply contained parasites and disease.  Apple cider was the perfect all around beverage. Because apples are low in sugar, they could not produce a drink of more than about 5% ABV, low enough for children to drink it, too.   

Cider continued to stay popular, in America and in Europe, until the nineteenth century when a series of events chipped away at its popularity. After 1860, pilsners became the rage in Europe.  More modern types of refrigeration systems wiped away ales’ traditional dominance and many alternative beer styles yielded to lager. High quality beers which can ferment faster than ciders shifted demand away from cider. In America, German immigrants arrived to set up larger breweries that could easily outproduce the small farm cider mills.  The changing times made mass produced industrial products less costly and more amenable. A growing temperance movement eventually led to Prohibition which contributed to the initial death throes of hard cider in the U.S.      

Alcoholic ciders never died completely outside the USA.  They just took a back seat. Tasmanian brewery Cascade has been producing their popular Mercury Cider since 1912. Magners Irish Cider has been produced since the 1930’s and is available worldwide. Strongbow, a major brand in the UK, has been around since 1962 and is now owned by Heineken.

Ironically, where it was breweries which once edged hard apple cider out of the pub, it is now breweries which are bringing cider back in. The popularity of craft breweries changed peoples’ perceptions about enjoying other locally produced artisanal products.  Likely, craft breweries were just riding a larger wave of the public’s interest in smaller, more regional, yet higher quality food and drink production. Riding in the wake of craft breweries’ success were the cideries, some (as in Forbidden Brewing Company of New Zealand) set up as an extension of a brewery.  With alcoholic apple cider becoming acceptable once more, the big boys stepped in. MillerCoors launched Smith & Forge, a “sturdy drink for the hardy gent.” Anheuser-Busch InBev followed suit with their Johnny Appleseed brand.  Though just 1% of the market, from 2011 to 2013, consumption of alcoholic cider in the US tripled, actually exceeding the growth of craft beers. 

Johnny Appleseed would be proud – and probably very drunk.    

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