Cider has a long and rich history in America. It was the beverage of choice from the first English settlers in the 16th Century until well into the late 19th Century. When the Mayflower suffered beam damaged in a storm badly enough to consider turning back to England, a large iron screw was taken from an apple press and fashioned as a brace so that the ship could continue to its destination in New England. When the apple trees they planted thrived and the barley and grains they planted for beer struggled, cider cemented its place as the top beverage in early America.
Cider was a staple at most dinner tables and was often treated like a food item. A lower alcoholic version of cider called Ciderkin was usually served to children. While some households opted for fresh cider, most allowed theirs to ferment as the fermented cider had a much longer shelf life. Typically, a farm family would endeavor to produce an entire year’s cider immediately following the apple harvest. Alcohol was a large part of their diet, and it just so happens that apples lend themselves very well to this end. Apple cider vinegar was useful for medicinal purposes and also a key ingredient for pickling. Finally, we can’t overlook that apple cider is very easy to distill into apple brandy, and applejack. Applejack is made by allowing hard cider to freeze then removing the unfrozen liquid from the frozen water crystals. This simple distillation process was repeated multiple times to produce ever stronger applejack but the process does little to remove impurities contained within the cider so the result can be a very high octane skull splitter, which was still much beloved in colonial taverns.
Our founding fathers were quire fond of cider. John Adams was said to have drunk nearly a tankard every day for breakfast. Benjamin Franklin once wrote “It is indeed bad to eat apples. It is better to make them all cider.” Clearly this was a very important beverage in America. Although cider was a very common drink, it could also be elevated to gourmet status. Just as wine enthusiasts obsess over the distinctive notes each grape produces under distinctive growing conditions, so did elite colonists enjoy comparing fine ciders from different regions and varieties of apples. Much was made of the ‘terroir’ of ciders, or the climate, soil, and landscape where the apples were produced. Modern varieties of apples are much different than those available three hundred years ago so it’s interesting to ponder over the distinct flavors colonial ciders would have had. There were thousands of varieties of apples available across the colonies and early Republic producing thousands of distinct ciders.
As America expanded westward, so did cider. This is best illustrated with the story of John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed). Although the legend would have you believe that he spread apple seeds randomly throughout the Midwest motivated solely by his love of the fruit, he was actually a land prospector and savvy businessman. Moving from Pennsylvania to Illinois, Chapman was able to acquire land, plant orchards and nurseries, and sell them to incoming pioneers for a profit. All of his trees were planted from seed, which rarely produces apples fit for eating, but usually suitable for cider. This was just as well, at this time in America an apple was far more likely to be pressed into cider than eaten as a snack. Chapman’s contributions not only sowed the seed for westward expansion, but because of the extreme variation that occurs when apple trees are grown from seed, also established a range of new North American apple varieties that are still enjoyed today.
During the late 1800s cider began to see a decline in popularity. A large contributor was the influx of German and Eastern Europeans who brought with them a thirst for beer. As they settled deeper into the Midwest, they found land that was more suitable for growing the barley and grains needed for beer production. As beer was produced on a larger scale cider became relegated to the countryside.
Finally, on January 16, 1919, the United States ratified the 18th amendment, and the prohibition of alcohol in the United States took effect one year later. The production of cider became illegal, and even fresh apple juice production was severely limited. Prohibitionists saw to it that nearly all cider apple trees in the country were given the ax or the torch. While the industrialized beer manufacturers were able to adjust their operations to bottle soda and other products during the ban, cider production did not survive the prohibition.
Like craft beer, interest in making cider again began in 1978 when home brewing was legalized. Cider fruit is making its return to the orchard. More varieties of apples are being grown in America and the popularity of American cider is growing.
Making apple cider is very simple, and it’s even simpler to make hard cider. In fact, left to their own devices, apples practically ferment themselves since they are covered with wild yeast. That said, getting the apple juice ready for fine cider takes a bit of effort and that work is the subject of today’s demo. We first condition the apples (mellowing) then we crush the apples (grinding), finally we press the juice from the apple pulp. By the end of the harvest, you are ready to sit back and enjoy a few draughts. The good news is that this wonderful beverage will last a very long time and if you expose your hard cider to oxygen, it will naturally turn into vinegar which you can use to pickle the other vegetables in your garden. What’s not to love?
Process (6-gallon batch):
- 1 bushel of apples (any variety)
- 10 lbs brown sugar
- Distillers Yeast
- Store apples at least 5 days in a warm room (>20C).
- Wash apples before processing.
- Grind apples into a fine pulp with fruit grinder. There is no need to remove the peel or cores as these will be retained by the press.
- Load pulp into cider press and apply enough force to expel juice.
- Once pulp no longer produces juice, remove from press and place in a large kettle with an equal measure of water. Bring to a boil.
- Return rehydrated pulp to press and repress. Mix first and second pressings with sugar.
- Pitch with yeast and allow to ferment for 10 days.
- Rack fermentation to secondary, discarding dregs.
- Allow to ferment another 10 days or until fermentation stops.
- Bottle or keg.
- Age for at least 6 weeks.
Expected yield = 40 (0.5 litre) bottles at 12% ABV