Edible Traditions

cider

America’s Native Beverage:
Hard Cider
by Paul Correnty

The history of European fermented beverages is rich in tradition. Wine conjures up images of Romans establishing vineyards in France that are still cultivated today, Belgian monks caring for wild-yeast brews unchanged for centuries, Celtic druids and latter-day Wiccans making tasty meads using the same recipes.

In the New World many of us know and enjoy these libations and are aware of their histories in their home countries. We are also proud of their growing up and becoming a part of American history and tradition.

But how many of us have enjoyed a glass of another traditional European beverage transplanted to our thirsty shores—a beverage whose importance in the history of America exceeds its historical importance in Europe? So important that with its tradition and pedigree it can only be the undisputed choice for America’s native beverage?

Yup, and it is also very tasty, very healthy and very easy to make yourself.  Sidre in Spain, cider in England, cidre in France—here in New England we call it hard cider.

Early immigrants in America needed a safe, storable drink. As in Europe, water supplies quickly became contaminated in places where people settled. Beer was the drink back home, but barley would not grow in the poor soils covered by thick forests. Apple seedlings, however, flourished in the rolling hills and sent deep roots into the rocky ground.

Soon apple orchards covered the settled areas extending from Maine to the Carolinas. Orchards of maturing trees produced a huge bounty of fruit suited for eating, for storage and for juice to produce vinegar and hard cider. Apples became one of America’s first cash crops, with significant amounts exported to the West Indies and Europe. Orchardists developed scores of apple varieties with qualities finer than those in Europe, the first being the Roxbury Russet developed on the hills above Boston in the late 1640s.

The amounts of hard cider produced and consumed were prodigious: The 1776 average for Massachusetts was 35+ gallons per capita, (yes, every man, woman and child!). Each town and village family put away scores of barrels down cellar to last them for the year. Fermented or hardened cider quickly became our national beverage and was consumed by city dwellers and farmhands, ladies and children, common folk and presidents (John Adams enjoyed a tankard a day). It was healthy, natural, plentiful, inexpensive and safe to drink.

Cider’s ubiquitous popularity continued well into the 19th century, becoming a subject of grass-roots politics in two presidential elections.  In the election of 1836 the Whigs attacked candidate Martin Van Buren as an elegant dandy out of touch with the common man because Martin had a taste for fine wine instead of the more pedestrian hard cider. Better known is the election of 1840, in which the Whig party candidates William Harrison and John Tyler bolstered their image of American values with barrels of hard cider at meeting places and rallies. Cider was dispensed to all thirsty voters with “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” winning the presidency handily.

By the middle of the 18th century, however, forces begin to erode the healthy image and popularity of cider. The growth of the cities with the migration of workers from the country to the urban centers gave rise to the change to beer as the beverage of choice. It defined a new image of the city worker, no longer a country bumpkin with straw hat and tankard of cider.

More destructive were the uncaring cider makers, those who produced a wicked, unnatural, high-alcohol beverage that had little to do with the original healthy beverage so long enjoyed. By adding copious amounts of additional sugars (usually in the form of molasses) to boost the finished alcohol content, these manufactured products became the bane of wives and families. Although nasty in taste, this cheap, high octane drink produced a new image of the cider drinker as a mean and violent drunkard. This change inspired the first Temperance movements in the small towns and villages of New England that had ironically been the locations of the early orchards. Long before Carry Nation took her ax to the saloons of the Midwest, New England towns were going dry.

The slow decline continued into the 20th century, and then came a double whammy: The brutal winter of 1917–1918 killed millions of long-established apple trees in the Northeast, and then in 1920 Prohibition became law throughout the country. Hard cider had lost its place not only as our national beverage, but as a part of our consciousness as well. For the next 70 years it was all but forgotten.

The resurgence of cider started with the legalization of home brewing signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1978. Home brewers were expanding their scope, rediscovering forgotten beer styles such as brown ales and porters. At the American Home Brewers National Conference hosted in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1991 many prominent home brewers got their first taste of America’s forgotten beverage and started making it themselves. Soon after, New England produced products such as Cider Jack and Woodchuck Cider and English imports Strongbow and Woodpecker became available on tap at many Irish pubs in the United States.

The lost craft of American cider making, quietly kept alive for decades in New England family farms, had finally resurfaced with vigor. Sales of hard cider continue to grow as wineries and breweries add hard cider to their portfolio of offerings. It is neither wine nor beer, but fits comfortably into its niche again as a healthy and flavorful beverage whose sparkle and crisp acidity make it a perfect accompaniment to almost any dish or menu, and its moderate alcohol level makes it an ideal session beverage.

At this time the consumer has a variety of producers to choose from.  In addition to the aforementioned Cider Jack and Woodchuck, there are other local ciders to choose from. One of the best is West County Winery out of Colrain in western Massachusetts, which produces elegant and flavorful single-varietal hard ciders (one variety of apple, e.g., Macintosh, Baldwin, etc.) as well as superb balanced blends (Heritage Apple is terrific). Boston-based Harpoon brewery also produces an easily quaffable cider made from locally pressed apples and their house ale yeast. Nashoba Valley Winery offers a local apple wine, and Harvard’s own Still River Winery makes a dessert apple ice wine in the Quebecois style.

For my money, though, there is nothing better than making your own hard cider. And if you live around here the hardest part of cider making—getting the juice out of the apple—is already be done, as we are blessed with many cider mills pressing their own apples throughout the area.

So why make your own? The same reason that home brewers decided to make their own beer: variety. As good as the commercial offerings are, the home cider maker has the ability to make a variety of ciders.  Ciders fermented with raspberries, blueberries, elderberries; ciders enhanced with local honeys; ciders fermented and aged in bourbon or whiskey barrels…all are easily made with a few pieces of equipment.  Ciders made without preservatives, without additives, naturally made.  And for the anarchist libertarian living in all our souls…you can enjoy your own adult beverage without benefit of government or state taxes or tariffs… yippee!

Alright, so how do you make it?

Cider making 101: Yeast naturally eats sugar and produces equal amounts of CO2 and alcohol (“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”—Ben Franklin). So, pour sweet cider made from a variety of sound, late-season apples and pressed by a reputable cider mill that follows established sanitary procedures into a clean 5-gallon glass carboy (jug). Add 1 cup of white sugar per gallon of juice and add a packet of dried yeast. Close the carboy off to outside air using a plastic water lock and relax through the season as the cider ferments and matures during late fall and winter. Siphon off the clear and finished cider in the early spring into clean bottles and cap or cork them.

Your own home-fermented cider is no different than most other home prepared foods. Keep your bottles cool down in the cellar or in a closet in the dark, anyplace below 65 degrees and above freezing is proper.  Cider is very enjoyable as a young beverage (think Beaujolais Nouveau) a mere month after bottling but mellows considerably with at least 6 months of bottle age. Friend Tim Tierney (maker of Tim’s Firehouse Cider) still shares remarkably vibrant examples of excellence now in their early teen years.

Some of the finest ciders I have ever had have been made following these simple steps. Other fruit ciders have the additional step of fermenting the juice with the fruit and having to separate it out…no big deal. Like any other culinary endeavor, the key is healthy and sound ingredients and, as Escoffier is quoted as saying, “Faites simple”…make it simple!

So whether you enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labors or you decide to join the history of legions of patriots who made it themselves, cider is the traditional American beverage that deserves a place in your home, at your table, to be enjoyed with family and friends. Cheers!

There are many sources to acquire the skills necessary to becoming an accomplished cider maker. Any of the area homebrew or winemaking clubs or shops that sell to home brewers or winemakers is loaded with knowledgeable beverage makers. The Internet is a great resource for tips and techniques. And every year the first weekend in November is Cider Days in Franklin County in western Massachusetts (www.ciderday.  org) This has now become the largest festival for apples and cider in the United States with workshops and seminars geared towards making and improving your own cider.

Here are some local links to cider:

www.talisman.com/cider: the Cider Digest, handled by Dick Dunn.  The largest and most diverse resource for cider information.

www.beer-wine.com: established Boston-area home beer/wine/cider supply store. Excellent and professional advice.

www.wort.org: since 1984 one of the nation’s premier home brewers’ clubs, located here in Boston with a special interest in hard cider.

Paul Correnty is a Miami boy who at 14 years of age was uprooted with his family to southern France. Reveled through his teen years in the joys of topless beaches and la cuisine francaise. Arrived in New England in the ’80s and helped resurrect native hard cider through his book The Art of Cidermaking and festivals (www.ciderday.org). For the past 10 years Paul has helped provide real good school lunches as Food Service Director of the Harvard Public Schools.