The Fall of Cider

Although you would never know it now, apple cider was the most ubiquitous drink in America for a long time, maybe the most popular drink this country will ever have.  Whether rich or poor, old or young, Americans consumed cider more freely than anything else.  Children drank it cut with water.  This continued for many generations.  Cellars and sheds were lined with kegs, which were tapped for each meal.  Before apples were for eating they were for drinking.


Settlers as early as the late 1500's, finding only miserable mouth-puckering crabapples on eastern shores and islands, recruited other immigrants to bring starts and seeds from the Old World.  Yet most of their grafted starts never made it, being better adapted to different climates and soils.   


Apples don't grow true from seed.  For example, a Gala seed won't grow into a Gala tree but into some other unique variety, which will most likely bear inferior fruit.  But the colonists planted millions of seeds, and once in a while one did produce outstanding fruit.  Unique American apples were soon everywhere, with memorable names like Cathead, Northern Spy, Blue Pearmain, and Arkansas Black. Many weren't even named at all, just shared among neighbors and friends.  There was tremendous variability in color, size, ripening dates, and storage life.  Quirky flavors were common.


Because virtually every household had its own orchard, cider was easily made on site, to the tune of 15 - 40 barrels per family per year.  Apples were picked, ground up, and pressed, sometimes using horse power.  John Bunker called it the ultimate small-scale drink completely unsuited for mass production, apples being too heavy and perishable and fragile for shipping to centralized areas.  Production remained independent and family-based for about 300 years.


In the early 1900's huge influxes of German and Eastern European immigrants began to arrive, bringing with them a preference for beer and the know-how to make it.  And the newly plowed Midwestern soils were barley-friendly, unlike the rocky acidic ground of New England.  Beer fermented a whole lot faster than cider, and grain was relatively easy to transport.  Soon industrial scale brewing was underway.


When the prohibition movement came along, cider was forced underground.  Zealots torched or cut down many thousands of old apple trees and somehow managed to pass laws limiting even the production of fresh non-fermented cider to 200 gallons per orchard.  


Even after prohibition ended, cider making never recovered.  While barley can be grown in one season, it takes ten years for a standard apple tree to fruit.  About this time the cider barrel became a symbol of backwoods Americana. 


In a nutshell that's how the quintessential American drink faded out.  In its place we now have apple juice, in all its insipid sweet yellow pasteurized glory.  Lacking taste to recommend itself, and mostly made in China, it can proclaim its biologic sterility even if it has a touch of arsenic. 


But there are a still a few intrepid orchardists and scattered fanatics that spend time each fall making the real stuff, filling their freezers and casks with that tart historical brown turbid nectar that nourished and hydrated so many of their ancestors.  For them, at least, no standardized juice will ever do, especially if it is filtered and cooked and made from apples with industrial names like Nova EasyGro, Delcon, and Splendor.

Fall 2013