Walk into any grocery store these days and if you look you will find at least a few hard ciders mixed in with the myriad hoppy IPAs and hard seltzers that try to hide their lack of flavor behind a zero sugar label. However, if you take the few extra (well spent) seconds to give one of those ciders a try, you might just be surprised.
Cider has a long and storied history throughout the world from back as far as 55 BCE when the Romans found the Briton Celts fermenting native crab apples, to the earliest days of the US when colonials brought apples to America. In the early years of colonization, there was difficulty in getting grain to grow for beer making, but apple trees thrived in that environment. In fact, during this time cider was the number one beverage consumed in what is now America, with even children drinking a diluted form called “ciderkin” as a main staple.
Even today children are taught about John Chapman, AKA, “Johnny Appleseed” who traveled the countryside in the early 1800s, spreading apple seeds throughout what is today the Mid-West. In truth, he was a land prospector in mostly Illinois who planted orchards on the land to sell to settlers. Think turnkey cider house.
Cider was decidedly America’s drink until the late 1800s when cider production began to see a decline. Mostly this was due to the influx of German and Eastern Europeans who brought with them a taste for beer. However, the hardest blow to the industry came with the ratification of the 18th Amendment prohibiting the production of alcohol in the United States.
During this time not only did the production of cider become illegal, but also the production of fresh apple juice was limited. Prohibitionists also saw to it that nearly all cider apple trees in the country were either axed or torched. Even once prohibition was lifted it would take decades to replace the orchards that had been destroyed. To this day there are apple varieties that are considered “lost” due to prohibition.
Thanks to legislation in the 1970s that made home brewing legal again a huge craft brewing scene began to take hold allowing for easy access to economical cider equipment and advancements in yeast strains. In the case of the beer scene having been a contributing catalyst to cider’s decline, it’s ironic to see this reversal of beer having set the stage for the return of cider. Suddenly the availability of equipment and yeast varieties allowed Americans to enjoy cider making again.
In fact with advancements in yeasts and apple production the flavors of cider have matured and expanded greatly in the last decade. Nowadays, despite coming in mostly cans and 12oz bottles, ciders have taken on an almost wine like following with producers placing tasting notes and even food pairings on their packaging similar to wine tasting and pairings.
The similarities to wine don’t end there though. Even the production of cider is closer to wine than to something like beer.
As we all probably know, wine is at its essence: grape juice with select yeasts added and allowed to ferment. Cider is strikingly similar. Crush apples to make apple juice then add yeast, and ferment. Of course good wine is much more complex owing to the difference in grape varieties, yeast varieties, and the climate and soil of the region it was made in. The same can be said for cider. Different varieties in apples and strains in yeast can produce anything from a dry crisp cider with fresh citrus notes to a very sweet cider with perhaps cherry or peach flavors.
So, the next time you are wandering around the store wondering whether you should get the same tried and true wine, boring bitter beer, or simple seltzer maybe spend a moment and pick out a cider or two. Let’s give America’s oldest drink another shot.