The Fall and Rise of Hard Cider

Photo courtesy Thinkstock.

Photo courtesy Thinkstock.

The latest issue of Inside Jersey Magazine has a nice article by T.J. Foderaro about the new American hard cider craze.  Mr. Foderaro called me up early this summer and we had a nice conversation about the history of hard cider in America.  I was pleased with the article, and that Mr. Foderaro was willing to help me explode the popular myth that it was 1920s-era prohibition that was the cause of hard cider’s demise.

This myth is in part the result of a common confusion about the history of anti-alcohol movements in the United States.  A popular temperance movement emerged in the 1820s, and quickly gained ground, but most early supporters of that movement embraced a strategy of moral suasion, not prohibition, believing alcohol abuse to be a sin, and seeking to give the sinner the opportunity to repent and save themselves, rather than denying the sinner the possibility of redemption by using the force of law restrict access to alcohol.  Many early advocates of temperance even drew a distinction between distilled spirits, and the milder levels of alcohol in cider, beer, and wine, and simply urged people to stay away from demon rum, whiskey, and other potent forms.

Carrie Nation may have used her axe on a number of saloons, but she can't take credit for the demise of the cider apple.

Carrie Nation may have used her axe on a number of saloons, but she can’t take credit for the demise of the cider apple.

To be sure, from the outset one wing of this early temperance movement, often described as “ultras” opposed the consumption of alcohol in any form, and some embraced a strategy of using the force of law to prohibit production and sale of alcohol.  By the late 1820s, stories circulated about temperance advocates chopping down their own seedling orchards, as the apples which grew on this tree were the prime source of hard cider and cider brandy. (I discuss that early war on the cider apple in this post.) But evidence that widespread, temperance-motivated destruction of “wild apple” orchards is slim.

After the Civil War the anti-alcohol movement gained strength, promoted by groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement which adopted a campaign for legal prohibition. That movement claimed victory with the ratification of the 18th amendment in 1919. Long before that time, beer had eclipsed hard cider as the popular choice of Americans who chose to imbibe.

So what led to the mid 19th century demise of hard cider?  It is my contention that it faded with the frontier.  Unlike today’s popular craft ciders, most early American cider was a homemade hodgepodge of any available apples, dumped into the press in any condition.  It was the poor man’s drink.  In 1840, when William Henry Harrison ran a successful populist campaign for the presidency, he employed the log cabin and hard cider as symbols of his fictionalized common roots. (I examine that story of that campaign in this post.) By the middle of the 19th century, as Americans increasingly embraced the modern, a new wave of German immigrants offered them the alternative of beer brewed in state of the art breweries, and hard cider faded from the scene.

Oregon-based Reverend Nat's Hard Cider is one of more than 350 American Cider producers to appear in recent years.

Oregon-based Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider is one of more than 350 American Cider producers to appear in recent years.

Apples continued to be an important part of American agriculture, however and regional, national, and transatlantic markets for American dessert apples began to grow by the end of the century. By that point cider orchards had mostly disappeared, swallowed up by returning forests in regions like New England, or in some cases grafted to produce sweet apples.  (One minor error in Mr. Foderaro’s otherwise excellent article is the implication that dessert apple market didn’t begin taking off until after prohibition.)

Mr. Foderaro also interviewed Chris Lehault (aka @bittersharp) and Anthony Belliveau-Flores for the article. Mr. Lehault is a writer for the Serious Eats website, and is among the most knowledgeable experts on the modern hard cider movement.  Anthony is a cofounder of Rowan Imports, which has worked tirelessly to bring the finest imported ciders to the American market.

The entire article is well worth reading. I’ve excerpted the first few paragraphs and added a link to the full article:


njcom-unveils-new-logo-81cbb6f1917dde88In case you haven’t noticed, Americans have rediscovered a taste for fermented apple juice, aka hard cider. Cider sales have grown about 100 percent annually for the past few years, and new brands — both domestic and imported — are proliferating on store shelves.

And yes, I did say “rediscovered.” Much has been made of our Founding Fathers’ taste for rum imported from the Caribbean and fortified wine shipped from the island of Madeira. But the fact is that locally made hard cider was the alcoholic beverage of choice for most Americans during the first couple hundred years of our country’s existence.

“Everybody had an orchard,” says William Kerrigan, professor of American history at Muskingum University in Ohio and author of “Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard: A Cultural History” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). “For a lot of Americans, cider was a homemade drink — it was a frontier drink.”

There were as many different styles of cider as there were varieties of apples — which is to say hundreds. Many growers boosted the alcohol level of their ciders by setting barrels out to freeze in the late fall, Kerrigan says. The ice that formed on top was mostly frozen water, leaving a higher level of alcohol in the remaining liquid. The more alcohol, the less prone the cider was to spoilage.

Truth be told, though, most of the cider made back then was of poor quality. According to Kerrigan, visiting Englishman often would comment on the sorry state of Colonial cider-making.

But that only partly explains why hard cider all but disappeared from the American scene by the late 19th century. Historians continue to debate the reasons for cider’s demise, but Kerrigan believes it’s rooted in Americans’ newfound sense of progress, modernity and industry. Then, following the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe, waves of German immigrants introduced America to beer.

“Beer was made in breweries, which are like factories — they’re modern,” Kerrigan says. “Beer seemed cleaner and a more efficient, modern drink.”

So much so that, even before Prohibition, Americans had all but stopped making and drinking hard cider.  Continued . . .




New Look, New Subtitle

I created American Orchard in the wake of the publication of my book, Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard (Johns Hopkins, 2013), and envisioned it as a place to share stories and excerpts from the book, as well as many of the interesting tangents and stories which were excised from that book as I sought to preserve a more focused narrative. In the year and a half since the publication of Johnny Appleseed I have continued to explore themes related to apples and other orchard crops, but have felt constrained by the original subtitle of this blog: “A blog about eating, drinking, sharing, and stealing apples.”  I am excited about my next project, a more comprehensive history of the apple in America, which will be unconstrained by the narrative of one man’s life (and trajectory of his myth in this afterlife) and allow me to explore more broadly the role orchard agriculture has played, and continues to play in this history of the United States, from northern New England to the Southern Hill Country, as well as from the highlands of New Mexico to the high plains of eastern Washington. Furthermore, as a professor at a small liberal arts college, it is neither my purview nor desire to constrain my historical interests too narrowly, so I intend to explore subjects pertaining to my broad teaching fields in American History, especially American Environmental History in American Orchard version 2.0. The new subtitle, “Historical perspectives on food, farming, and landscape,” will serve as the new broader boundaries of this blog,and I look forward to sharing with you perspectives and insights that come from my research as well as the material I am teaching in my classes. I am currently working on a chapter on the transformation of the apple industry in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in the early decades of the twentieth century, so questions surrounding orchards and labor are foremost in my mind, which explains the picture I am currently using for a header. But expect to find more than just apples on this blog. I intend to write about Americans’ relationship with trees, both wild and cultivated, about changing American diet and foodways, about the ways in which capitalism continues to transform food production, and controversies over pesticides, genetic modification, and globalization, often, but not always, using the orchard fruit industry as a lens for viewing these issues.

Disney’s Johnny Appleseed

Johnny Appleseed's Bible features prominently in the Disney version of the story, from the 1948 animated feature Melody Time.

Johnny Appleseed’s Bible features prominently in the Disney version of the story, from the 1948 animated feature Melody Time.

John Chapman earned the nickname “Johnny Appleseed” during his lifetime, and people started sharing stories about the eccentric apple tree planter in the Ohio and Indiana communities where he spent much of his life long before he died in 1845.  But Johnny Appleseed did not emerge as a figure in the American national origin story until the 1870s.  In the late 19th century and throughout the first half of the twentieth century, most of the promoters of the Johnny Appleseed legend were social reformers, some of a socialist bent, who celebrated Johnny Appleseed’s efforts to promote a common social good by providing apple trees available to all.   After World War II, the range of acceptable national myth narratives narrowed considerably. As the United States increasingly defined itself against Soviet communism, interpretations of Johnny Appleseed

Disney made Appleseed part of its team of early American superheroes, alongside Paul Bunyan, John Henry and others.

Disney made Appleseed part of its team of early American superheroes, alongside Paul Bunyan, John Henry and others.

reflected this change. When Disney released an animated version of the Johnny Appleseed story in 1948, John’s faith in God was front and center. The narrator stated that three other great nation builders had their distinctive tools in their mission— Paul Bunyan had his axe, John Henry his hammer, and Davy Crockett his rifle— but Johnny Appleseed’s tools were his bag of apple seeds and his Holy Bible. The cartoon opens with a young Johnny singing a Disney-created song that has come to be known as “The Johnny Appleseed Grace,” and many believe it was actually written by Chapman.

disneyjohnnypotbibleThe Lord’s been good to me

And so I thank the Lord

For giving me the things I need

The sun and rain and the apple seed

Yes He’s been good to me

disneyjohnnyguardianThe Johnny Appleseed story told by Disney is a near perfect sermon on postwar American values. Faith in God and the ability of the individual to make a difference in history are the central themes. Johnny celebrates American freedom, singing, “Here I am ’neath the blue blue sky, doing as I please,” thanking God for that freedom. Soon his attention is drawn to a long train of Conestoga wagons pushing west, each containing a pioneer family. The wagon train has its own song celebrating American individualism:

disneyjohnnyconestogaGet on a wagon, rolling west

Out to the great unknown

Get on a wagon rolling west

Where you’ll be left alone.

The rivers may be wide

The mountains may be tall

But nothing stops the pioneer

we’re trailblazers all.

While John longs to join them, he believes he cannot— that he is too weak and too small,

The diminutive Johnny goes west without a gun, but in the Disney version, this is a result of his poverty and small size. No pacifist, he dreams of emulated the gun-toting frontiersman.

The diminutive Johnny goes west without a gun, but in the Disney version, this is a result of his poverty and small size. No pacifist, he dreams of emulated the gun-toting frontiersman.

and does not own the gear he needs. Johnny’s “private guardian angel,” sent down from heaven, convinces him that all he needs is his faith, his Bible, and his apple seeds. Johnny sets out through a rugged wilderness, “a little man all alone, without no knife, without no gun,” but to avoid the impression that Johnny is a pacifist, Disney included a scene where he imagines he is shouldering a rifle like the ones he saw the men on the Conestoga wagons hold, and another where he picks up a stick from the woods, and pretends to aim and shoot with it.

The creatures of the wild forest Johnny Appleseed will transform into an ordered orchard embrace him as a friend.

The creatures of the wild forest Johnny Appleseed will transform into an ordered orchard embrace him as a friend.

Notably, the Indian makes only a minor appearance in Disney’s Johnny Appleseed. Instead, Johnny Appleseed works to win over the trust of the forests animals, convincing them, by his kindness, of the benign nature of his mission to transform the wilderness. The Disney story ends with an image of an aged Johnny Appleseed atop a ridge, his shadow stretching across a transformed landscape of fields and orchards:

disneyjohnnyoldhilltopnurseryThis little man, he throwed his shadow clear across the land, across a hundred thousand miles square and in that shadow everywhere you’ll find he left his blessings three love and faith and the apple tree.

Despite the story’s celebration of individualism, Disney’s Johnny Appleseed stopped short of praising difference in favor of conformity. Johnny Appleseed was a generic Christian in the story, not an apostle of unconventional Swedenborgianism. Johnny Appleseed could be an eccentric in postwar America, but the boundaries of that difference were increasingly constrained in a culture that valued conformity even as it professed to celebrate the power of the free individual.

You can view the entire Johnny Appleseed animated short here: