We’re right in the middle of apple season, so let’s take a minute to talk about a very important fruit and beverage in the history of civilization and particularly our country.
Wild apples have been around for up to 65 million years, appearing around the same time as primitive primates. The modern varieties originated in central Asia, where you can still find domesticated apple’s (Malus domestica) sole ancestor, Malus sieversii. Apple trees, a relative of the rose, have an incredibly complex genome (57,000 genes, as compared to our own 30,000), meaning that a seed planted may produce wildly different apples than those of the tree that begat it. Still, it was for this highly variable fruit that apple trees were one of the first trees to be cultivated by man. They have long held importance in a number of religions, mythologies and stories around the world, being a symbol of anything from forbidden knowledge to fertility. Being an autumn fruit with some varieties that can be kept over-winter in sub-freezing conditions, the apple is one of the most important fruits in Asia and Europe for millennia.
Where exactly cider was first created is up for debate, but we’ve managed to narrow it down to southern England, France and Spain, where cider was being enjoyed by the time the Romans invaded. The oldest orchards, which were made up of planted seeds rather than grafted cuttings, often held such an array of apples that some of them proved to be too bitter for eating. These were the apples that were chosen for the production of cider. Eventually, these varieties were reproduced through the science of grafting, gaining names and known properties in the areas of acidity, tannins, sweetness and aromatics. Many of the most popular cider-making apples originated in Normandy.
When colonists spread through the new world, cider took on a new importance. It was difficult to produce the crops needed for the production of beer in New England, but European apple trees did very well in the climate. Seeds were planted, then wood grafted to create the best cider-making apples, and eventually it became the drink of choice of early American settlers. Because of the dangers of drinking water, everyone drank cider, including children, who got a less-alcoholic version of the beverage.
John Chapman, better known by the moniker Johnny Appleseed, did his part in the spread of apples throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Rather than grafting to create orchards, Chapman seeded nurseries as he went, which lead to many uniquely American varieties of apples, of which the tartest were used to make cider. During the settlement of the Midwest, there were periods when it was required by law to have apple or pear orchards on land in order to hold right to it, because the need for cider was so great. This made land seeded by Chapman high in demand.
The decline of cider only came in the early 1900s, when an influx of German and Eastern European immigrants arrived with a taste for beer over cider. By this time, the land in the Midwest, where barley could be grown easily, had been settled, and refrigerating technologies were improving, making way for a budding beer industry that thrives today.
During prohibition, cideries might have made it through better than their beer and liquor-making counterparts, except that not only was their hard cider production brought to a halt, but producing sweet (non-alcoholic) cider was limited to 200 gallons a year. Prohibitionists took it so far as to burn hundreds of orchards of cider trees, leaving only sweet, eating apple trees in their wake. After the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, breweries could go back to brewing relatively quickly simply by importing grains and waiting for the next year for their barley to grow. However, it takes decades for a tree to begin producing apples, and by that time, Americans had lost their taste for the drink in favor of beer.
This did not spell the end for cider entirely, though. Since cheap apples are often imported from all around, orchards have begun looking at other ways to stay profitable, including the production of cider. And thus is the resurrection of cider in America. Today, there are a growing number of cideries within the United States, and demand for foreign ciders is also on the rise. A few examples of this new wave of ciders are listed below.
McKenzie’s Hard Cider – Their Original cider is sweeter with a bigger body than ciders of old for a bold apple flavor, but their Green Apple variety has a tart kick to it. They also have a spiced Seasonal Reserve variety perfect for autumn. Additionally, they have Black Cherry, a step away from traditional ciders.
Bold Rock – Their flagship Virginia Draft is brightly flavored and crisp, while their Virginia Apple variety has more of a bite.
Stella Cidre- For an Old World style cider that has a burst of fruity flavors, try Stella Artois’ cidre (no, that is not a typo; it’s pronounced see-druh).
Johnny Appleseed Cider – Named for Mr. Chapman, this cider does not disappoint. Sweet and fizzy, it’s greatly drinkable.