The Highs and Lows of Hard Apple Cider History

Chances are that our ancestors wouldn’t recognize the cider sold in supermarkets today as anything worthy of the name. The lily-livered sweet cider that we like to sip this crispy time of year (hot, with cinnamon sticks) was considered next to undrinkable by our forebears. The colonial farmhouse cider barrel held fermented cider—the hard stuff—and people guzzled it like modern Americans slurp soda.

Cider wasn’t the only game in town for the 17th-century American drinker, but it was certainly the simplest, the cheapest, the most plentiful, and the most accessible. Runner-up was beer, which was made from everything from pumpkins and persimmons to spruce, sassafras, and green cornstalks. (Barley grew poorly on the eastern seaboard.)

In both cases, colonists drank a lot of it. Alice Morse Earle, in Customs and Fashions in Old New England, cites a town of forty families that, in 1721, turned out 3,000 barrels of cider; and a Massachusetts survey of 1790 calculated that every citizen over 15 consumed an annual 34 gallons of beer and cider, five gallons of distilled spirits, and a gallon of wine. (Americans today, according to a report by the World Health Organization, down on average 3.8 gallons of alcohol a year, about half of it beer.)

Johnny Appleseed, when he headed west with his sacks full of apple seeds, was supplying the frontier not with crunchy eating apples, but with the raw material for booze. (See The Plate’s The History of the Forbidden Fruit.)

Cider, with its helpful content of purifying alcohol, was manifestly safer for consumers than potentially contaminated water, which threatened drinkers with such diseases as typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. It was also optimistically touted as an aid to digestion, and a preventive for rheumatism, gout, bladder stones, colic, laryngitis, and fevers; and was sensibly recommended, in the face of brutal New England winters, as a handy means of keeping warm.

Even better, it was said to promote longevity. John Adams, who routinely started his day with a tankard of hard cider, lived to be 91; and an ancient and much-repeated English tale tells of a famous Morris dance performed in 1609 by 12 sprightly cider-drinkers whose ages totaled 1,200 years.

Hard cider averages about 4 to 6 percent alcohol, since cider apples don’t contain a lot of sugar. Those for whom this wasn’t nearly enough periodically beefed their cider up by mixing it with hard liquor. Ethan Allen’s favorite, for example, the stonewall—so named because its effect was that of running into one—consisted of half rum and half hard cider, and was rumored to be at least partly responsible for the Green Mountain Boys’ heroic capture of Fort Ticonderoga in the early days of the Revolutionary War.

Cider vanished from the American landscape during Prohibition, when many cider orchards were burned to the ground by die-hard temperance advocates. Even after the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933, cider never recovered. The nation, by the early 20th century, had turned to beer, and the apple crop reverted to eating apples—the kind used by hopeful kids to woo their teachers. Many heirloom cider apple varieties—the acidic, high-tannin bittersweets and bittersharps—simply vanished. Post-Prohibition, cider—when it was produced at all—was often made from eating apples such as the ubiquitous Red Delicious which, most cider aficionados agree, makes lousy cider.

Recently, however, cider has been making a comeback, with sales up by 75 percent over the past two years, for a total of $366 million in 2014. It’s not a patch yet on beer—cider has just a one percent share in the massive beer and flavored malt beverages market—but cider makers are optimistic that the trend will continue to head upward.

Orchards now feature such old apple varieties as Kingston Black, Foxwhelp, Esopus Spitzenberg (reportedly a favorite of Thomas Jefferson), and Ashmead’s Kernel, a 300-year-old English russet whose juice has been compared to sherbet, with a touch of champagne. See ‘Tis the Season: The Best American Ciders for some great places to get in on the revival.