As autumn approaches and orchards begin to harvest their apples, there is a tradition dating back to the earliest days of settlements in the new world which, until recently, seemed lost to the ages. For all the things apple trees provided to homesteaders in this new world none was more important than cider.
If you have traveled to an orchard and had a glass of fresh-squeezed apple juice you probably thought you were drinking apple cider. In fact, many places sell a product they call apple cider, but it really is just apple juice. Cider is apple juice that has been fermented and turned into a sort of apple wine, a drink which years ago was made and handled with all the care of the finest grape wines in the world.
Orchards, in fact, were grown primarily for the purpose of making cider. The tradition of cider drinking was so strong that even the Pilgrims brought barrels of cider with them from Europe. In the 1600s, barrels of cider could be found in the cellars of virtually every farmhouse and home in New England. It was a beverage enjoyed by people of all walks of life, including the likes of President John Adams, who drank a “tankard” of cider every morning.
There is a wonderful book called Cider by Annie Proulx and Lew Nichols which not only tells the history of cider but gives step by step directions how to make it according to both old and new recipes. In that book they chronicle that in 1840 when the Whig party nominated William Henry Harrison as its candidate for president the campaign symbol was a barrel of cider. The “cider campaign” served free cider to everyone who could vote, and Harrison won a landslide victory.
Between 1870 and 1892 cider became the most popular drink in America. Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway wrote about the wonderful experiences they had while enjoying a glass of cider.
Cider has almost always been crafted by individuals who took great pride in their selection of apples, the blending of juices, and the handling, casking and clearing of the beverage. Many recipes were old-time family traditions from England or France. Cider making was considered an art and, though usually made in fairly large quantities of a few hundred gallons at a time, commercial production in larger quantities has only recently become popular.
What some today would call “hard cider” is available from a few small brewers and is served in restaurants and taverns, sold in bottles, and available in wine stores and even sometimes in groceries.
The British have a society of cider makers and they believe that cider has been around in England since before the Norman Conquest in 1066. The British, however, do give credit to the French who helped refine cider making and brought it to the level of perfection it enjoys today among those who study and preserve this tradition by making cider at home.
In fact cider making is such an old art, that there is still celebrated in some places an old Anglo Saxon tradition called “Wassailing,” which means “wes hal” or good health. It is a custom performed to protect the cider trees from evil spirits and to inspire good cider apples.
The British National Association of Cider Makers describes the ceremony this way:
The rite involves five main elements: gathering around an apple tree, singing the Wassailing song, pouring cider over the tree’s roots, loud noises and a toast.
The pouring of cider over the roots symbolized the carrying forward of the life juice of the tree from one year to the next. It was also the custom to place a cider-soaked piece of toasted bread in the fork of the tree to attract good spirits while guns were fired into the trees so as to frighten away the evil spirits. The health of the tree would then be drunk as often as was felt necessary. Nowadays, it is traditional to hold the rite on Twelfth Night.
Cider was such an important part of everyday life in early America it was common to pay part of a farm laborers wages in cider, reportedly 3 to 4 pints per day.
A number of poems and stories about cider still survive to remind us how this wonderful, natural way of preserving the sweet, aromatic taste of fresh apples all winter long, in a loving hands way, created a warming drink which for more than a century was the most popular beverage in America.
Some say that because cider is so easy to make and requires very little in the way of equipment or other ingredients that as American wine became popular in the 1980’s, cider making is growing in popularity and may have a bright future.
For me the study of such things is more a connection with the past, though I have to admit, drinking apple juice fresh wrung from a local orchard, has awakened my taste buds to learn more about America’s connection with cider. So, until the orchards produce their last apples this year, consider learning more about “cider” whether enjoying a glass of juice or not. “Good Health!”
Marcus Carey is a Northern Kentucky lawyer with 32 years experience. He is also a farmer, talk radio host and public speaker who loves history and politics. He is a prolific and accomplished writer whose blog, BluegrassBulletin.com, is “dedicated to honest and respectful comment on the political and cultural issues of our time.” He writes a regular commentary for KyForward.