The Sweet History of Hard Apple Cider

By Alex Starace

apple-shutterstock_127113824For most Americans, cider conjures childhood images of apple-picking outings wrapped up with a warm, comforting drink at the farmhouse before heading home. But for centuries, ‘cider’ meant something quite different. While still made from apples, it was a fizzy alcoholic drink, popular in Normandy and Brittany as early as the Dark Ages. With the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the cultivation of orchards for cider was introduced to the English. In fact, what we now refer to as ‘hard cider’ has remained consistently popular in Great Britain for nearly a millennium.

Early American settlers shared this taste. Upon arrival in New England, the founders of Massachusetts quickly realized the only native type of apple was the crab apple, unsuitable for either eating or drinking. So, they requested apple seeds from England to plant orchards of their own. These seeds produced an acidic, tough apple, unlike those found in today’s grocery store – but perfectly cultivated for cider-making. By the mid-eighteenth century, each resident of Massachusetts was drinking an estimated 35-40 gallons of hard cider a year!

Presidential Cider Makers
Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington produced hard cider from their own specialized orchards, while John Adams, America’s second president, reportedly drank a tankard of hard cider each morning with his breakfast. He claimed it settled his stomach. And, in the mid-1800s, hard cider played a role in presidential politics. In the race of 1840, Whig nominee William Henry Harrison was known as the “Hard Cider Candidate.”

A conservative, Harrison used cider to associate himself with rural, hardworking Protestants, who, as direct descents of the English, often had small cider-orchards on their farms, carrying on the traditions of their homeland. Harrison handed out hard cider at rallies and actively promoted himself as a rural candidate who lived in a log cabin, delighting his supporters. And, needless to say, it worked: He won.

However, this was perhaps the high point of hard cider in the United States. An influx of immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s from Germany and Eastern Europe preferred beer. And beer was more practical. In the Midwest, barley was easy to grow and produced yields quickly, even in the first year it was planted. In comparison, an apple orchard wouldn’t produce fruit until at least five years after the seeds had been laid. For a country that was expanding rapidly westward and had a mobile population, the time and care required to produce fruit-bearing trees simply wasn’t worth it.

By the Great Depression, cider ceased to be readily available in most areas of the United States. Breweries could transition to making soft drinks, or other products during the alcohol ban, but makers of hard cider couldn’t easily change their product. Their apples were not of the sweeter variety that people preferred for eating, and the fermentation process was so simple (crush apples and allow the resulting juice to ferment in casks) that it didn’t translate to other types of production. Most cider makers went out of business or tore up their orchards to grow another fruit.

The Hard Cider Renaissance
And so, while hard cider in England remained popular in the 1900s, it wasn’t until the twenty-first century that the United States experienced a cider renaissance. Americans’ current (and growing) taste for hard cider represents the best of two recent trends: the desire for locally grown food and the rising popularity of craft alcohol.

It may seem like a new trend, but cider has been involved in the conquest of England, the founding of the colonies and the winning of a presidential race. So, the next (or first) time you raise a glass of the crisp auburn spirit, give a toast to its long and rich history.

The Sweet History of Hard Apple Cider