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 . . .




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