Today we usually think of apple cider as a wholesome children’s drink, but for most of the past thousand years, cider often contained as much alcohol as beer. Thanks to wild yeast present in the air, the natural sugar in apple juice begins to ferment (turn to alcohol) within a few days after the juice is pressed from the apples and it will continue to ferment until something (such as cold temperature) is introduced to stop the process. Before the days of widespread refrigeration, sweet or non-alcoholic apple cider had a very short shelf life. But hard cider would last long enough to bottle and store for a year or more.
Evidence suggests that the English were turning the juice of crab apples sweetened with honey into intoxicating beverages even before the Norman conquerors brought over sweeter apple varieties from France and forced the natives to grow them. For hundreds of years, apple cultivation became a part of any farm that would support the fruit. Some were used for cooking, but most were pressed into cider.
We can thank the little ice age for the prevalence of cider in English and American society. Regions of Normandy and England that once produced wine grew inhospitable to grapes when the climate turned colder, so farmers planted apple trees instead. Cider became so prevalent in certain parts of England that workers’ wages were partially paid in cider, and there are even stories of babies being baptized with it.
When British settlers reached America, they found it much easier to grow apples for cider than to grow barley and hops needed for beer. So cider became the most common drink in early America. Remember the story of John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed? He was sowing crops of cider apples. And he was a missionary. (Kind of makes me want to join his church!)
By drinking American cider, our Founding Fathers avoided two deadly problems with 18th Century British cider. “Devon colic” was a form of lead poisoning resulting from repeated consumption of cider made by presses that contained lead parts. Meanwhile, cider drinkers in Hertfordshire suffered lead poisoning when cider makers used lead salts to sweeten their product because it was cheaper than sugar. There’s no saying that these maladies didn’t occur in this country, but no one connected the problems to cider.
We hear about Thomas Jefferson’s wine collection and Sam Adams “brewing” beer (see my earlier post on that) but we don’t hear much about the Founding Fathers drinking cider. That’s because it was so common it was beneath notice. In his diary, John Adams mentions drinking a gill of cider (a cup about the size of a large shot glass) in the morning to settle his stomach. And Thomas Jefferson professed to an associate that his “table drinks” were cider and malt liquor. Ben Franklin mentions cider on three occasions, one time saying it is “bad to eat apples, it’s better to turn them all into cider.” But really, Franklin wrote so much about so many things that three measly quotes is really damning with faint notice. The Founding Fathers didn’t collect or cultivate fine ciders. It was just something they produced and consumed like butter or cabbage. A household necessity. But one with a punch! In fact, Washington is said to have purchased 144 gallons of it to reward his supporters on election day. They probably would not have voted with as much enthusiasm if he’d handed out cabbages.
Though cider remains popular in England to this day, hard cider virtually disappeared in the U.S. until relatively recently. Why? German and other European immigrants began producing great quantities of beer in the 19th Century, but cider remained very popular until Prohibition devastated the industry in 1920. Not only did the Volstead Act prohibit the production of hard cider, it placed severe limits on the amount of non-alcoholic cider the orchards could produce as well. On top of that, crazed prohibitionists went around burning apple orchards. Growers replaced the cider apple trees with sweeter varieties of apples designed for eating. And when Prohibition was repealed, orchards could not simply change their apples overnight. The cider apples were gone, and most of the industry with it.
Fortunately for those of us who like cider, the American cider industry is beginning to rebound. The resurgence is probably due to economics as much as taste. With the market for eating apples flooded with cheap foreign produce, domestic growers find they can make more money with cider apples.
And that’s fine with me! The damage of Prohibition is finally being rectified.