There was a time when apple cider was the preferred drink of Americans. To be clear, we’re talking about so-called “hard cider” here, apple juice that’s undergone fermentation to convert its sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Early European settlers relied on fermented alcoholic drinks like cider, beer, mead and wine as a safe source of hydration. All too often, water was contaminated with any number of pathogens and was not considered wise to consume.
Appleseed was a barefoot vegetarian who walked the country wearing a tin pot on his head and a burlap coffee sack with holes cut out for his head and arms, which earned him quite a reputation. If that didn’t get people excited about purchasing apple seedlings from him, certainly the samples of hard cider he carried around with him would be the proverbial cherry on top.
But as the temperance movement began taking hold in the early- to mid-1800s, alcohol consumption was demonized and cider was used as an experiment of sorts. German and Irish immigrants were becoming more prevalent, bringing with them their advanced beer brewing techniques, and teetotalers began expanding their scare tactics. Not only were they advocating for sobriety because of the deleterious effects alcoholism can have on families, but they could now prey on the timeless xenophobia of Americans (immigrants themselves) by associating drinking with these German and Irish “foreigners” … and you wouldn’t want to be like them, would you?
Apples also got a bit of a PR image makeover. Many of the apples used for making cider aren’t exactly eating apples, far too tart, tannic and bitter for most palates to enjoy. (Henry David Thoreau described wild apples as “sour enough to set a squirrel’s teeth on edge and make a jay scream.”)
But as selective breeding and grafting techniques took hold, sweeter so-called dessert apples gained favor as a healthy snack. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” became a marketing campaign that apple growers clung to fiercely as Prohibition loomed. Many apple trees were actually chopped down to curb cider production, though dessert apples’ growth in popularity extended beyond eating; the juice of these sweeter apples made for a delicious nonalcoholic drink, which pleased both apple growers and prohibitionists alike.
“It was the temperance movement that transformed the American and Canadian use of the word cider to include unfiltered sweet juice in an effort to change drinking habits,” reports Drew Beechum, local homebrewing guru and author of The Everything Hard Cider Book. By calling fresh, unfiltered juice cider, they were able to make people think they were imbibing something “sinful” when they were in fact consuming a very nutritive and nonalcoholic drink.
After Prohibition, much of the apple diversity that America had enjoyed for centuries had all but disappeared. Cider apples had lost their use and practically vanished from the American landscape. Even before Prohibition, though, cider had long been losing its dominance. The influx of German and Irish immigrants—with their taste for beer and their affinity for brewing it—gave rise to the culture of beer. (That beer’s fermentable ingredient, malted barley, was much cheaper and easier to grow, harvest, store, and ship than apples also undoubtedly played a large part in the shift.)
It can take anywhere from one to three or more pounds
of malted barley to make one gallon of beer; it takes 15 pounds
of apples to make one gallon of cider.
Cider is just now beginning to recover, seeing renewed interest as an alternative to other adult beverages. Its flavor can be redolent of white wine, but with a lower alcohol content (typically 4% to 8% alcohol by volume) more akin to what one would find with beer.
Cider has also become a popular choice for people who either need or want to avoid products containing gluten. A recent Boston Globe article points out that hard cider makes up less than 1% of the nearly $100 billion US beer market, but cites that several analysts think that could grow to more than 3% in the next few years. Already, the 690,000 barrels (one barrel=31 gallons) of cider produced in 2012 is a roughly 70% increase from the 408,000 barrels made in 2011.
However, many of the mass-market ciders now being produced are taking a few liberties, working with apple juice concentrate and added sugars to stretch out their product, which also eliminates a good deal of the complexity that great ciders contain.
“They’re making something cheap, syrupy and sweet with the mindset that it’s something for girls to drink while their boyfriends drink beer,” laments Beechum, frustrated not only because he feels they make lackluster cider but also because they underestimate women’s taste. “Their ciders are balanced like a really cheap wine, and it’s a shame given cider’s rich history in this country.”
And it’s certainly not just an American drink; cider has roots in many countries, but it’s most prevalent in the UK, Spain and France. Beechum explains that in the UK, cider is still very popular, available “all over the place” and is “very influenced by British beer brewing traditions.”
French ciders, typically from the regions of Brittany and Normandy, have what Beechum describes as a “pleasantly nutty sweetness” thanks to a unique fermentation called keeving, the explanation of which is a bit beyond the scope of this article. France and Spain’s Basque region, along with Asturias in Spain, make up the home of sidra, a bone-dry style of cider that is still, not sparkling. “They’re typically quite sour,” explains Beechum, “with a lot of lactic acid.”
He credits spontaneous fermentation—relying on yeasts and bacteria only naturally present on the fruit and in the surrounding air rather than using a commercial yeast strain—for the sidra’s complexity and lactic character. Since it is still and not sparkling, sidra is poured with great fanfare, with the bottle held as high as possible in one hand and the drinking glass held as low as possible in the other hand, introducing a great deal of air into the drink to mimic carbonation.
Having fallen hard for these traditional cider styles, I’ve become a little dismayed at how limited their availability can be in these parts. Some varieties can be found at K&L Wine Merchants, BevMo!, Total Wine & More, Vendome Wine & Spirits and some larger Whole Foods Market locations, but Beechum contends that great cider can be made at home easily. Even with simple storebought juice? “Absolutely!” exclaims Beechum. “But better juice will always make better cider.”
If using storebought juice, Beechum recommends going with a higher quality, unfiltered juice. For those looking for something a little closer to home, there are several local cider mills such as Snow-Line Orchard in Oak Glen (just under a two-hour drive on the 10 East) that will freshly press unpasteurized juice for homebrewers that call ahead.
HARD CIDERS TO TRY
- Julian Hard Cider Harvest Apple (Julian, CA)
- Two Rivers Original Hard Apple Cider (Sacramento, CA)
- Wandering Aengus Wickson Single Varietal (Salem, OR)
- Tieton Blend Cider (Tieton, WA)
- J. K.’s Scrumpy Farmhouse Organic Hard Cider (Flushing, MI)
- Virtue Sidra de Nava (Fennville, MI)
- Eric Bordelet Sydre Argelette (Normandy, France)
- Etienne Dupont Cidre Bouché Brut de Normandie (Normandy, France)
- Isastegi Sagardo Naturala (Basque Country, Spain)
Click to learn how to brew cider at home!