Well into fall, Adam Fincke steers his tractor between the rows of vintage apples on the tiny New York State orchard he farms, every now and then taking a glug from his cup holder. Not a Coke. Not a Starbucks. Cider. Hard cider. In a mason jar.
“You take nice big swigs and it’s a refreshing drink,” says Fincke, 25, who along with his parents, runs Annandale Cidery on a 200-year-old orchard once owned by a Revolutionary War widow. “My father and I, we drink like two a day.”
Wait a minute. Drinking while operating heavy machinery? Drinking in the middle of the day? It might seem strange now, but when the country was young, alcoholic cider was the drink of America and everyone in it. Time of day didn’t matter. John Adams famously quaffed a tankard of hard cider at breakfast. It was included in soldier’s rations. Even children drank cider, a watered down version called “ciderkin,” pressed from the dregs.
Cider culture began to wane in the late 19th century, the victim of its own success and of changing times, until it was finally snuffed out by Prohibition. Today, cider producers are popping up all over the country. Fincke and other cider artisans are on a mission to revive this slice of American heritage as well as to save orchards that might otherwise become parking lots.
“It’s getting hard – property taxes, labor costs, weather with flooding and frost,” says Fincke. “A lot of farms are selling because property values are so high. If you don’t make a profit, that’s your only option.”
Cider’s story is an unlikely one if you consider a basic fact: apples are not native to North America. They came here as seeds, in the hulls of ships from Britain, says Virginia orchard historian Tom Burford, with large plantings at Jamestown and in New England. The colonies had some native crab apples, including on the property at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, but they were largely inedible, historians say, and there was no evidence that Native Americans used them for anything.
Once the colonists got them growing, apples delivered. Though some people, probably the wealthy, may have eaten a few varieties as table fruit, apples were brought here for their tart-sweet, fermentable juice.
Cider had clear advantages over other drinks. Beer was complicated, says Ben Watson, orchard preservationist and author of “Cider, Hard and Sweet” (Countryman Press 2008) because barley, one of its prime components, was hard to grow. Making beer – at least beer that was better than the weak, sour home brews — also required equipment and someone with brewing knowledge. For cider, you simply pressed the juice from apples and stuck the jug on a shelf to ferment. Anyone with an apple tree could make cider.
“They were trying to find something that would not have to be shipped over from England or anywhere else, whether it be rum from the Caribbean, or whiskey,” Watson says. “Cider was easy to make, apples were easy to grow and it was a good way of preserving the apple harvest and turning very indifferent or even inedible apples into a useful, daily product.”
Notice the word “daily.” Watson says people certainly wanted cider as an alcoholic beverage – “It was a hard life, and people were sort of half in the bag most of the time,” he says – but cider also stood in for water, which could be contaminated by manure or just tasted funny to the settlers, whose European water would have contained fewer or different minerals.
“They didn’t trust the water, so that left milk, but there was no alcoholic beverage,” Watson says.
Cider was every man’s drink. Rich, poor, farmers, doctors, everyone of every profession, class and age drank cider. It was used for barter, a barrel of it suitable compensation for advice from a lawyer or a visit from the minister. A formula in New England dictated that you should make 10 barrels of cider for each member of the family, Burford says. It was so common, so “of the people,” that the 1840 presidential candidate William Henry Harrison painted himself as “the Log Cabin candidate,” writes historian Steven E. Woodworth (“Manifest Destinies,” Alfred A. Knopf, 2010) “a simple farmer who lived in a log cabin and drank hard cider, the simple beverage of the common man.”
But what about dehydration? What about being drunk all day? Cider, it turns out, is simply not that alcoholic. Most ciders clock in at 5 to 7 percent alcohol, cider makers say, about half as much as wine. Some ciders will reach 9 percent alcohol naturally, but only go higher if they’re fortified or goosed with sugar.
“It’s something you can drink and not be very impaired,” Watson says. “It was temperate.”
Cider reached its zenith in the 19th century, when books appeared that parsed varieties and methods, Watson says, and when people began to distinguish between good and bad cider. The best cider was said to come from New Jersey, from the Harrison apple. [cool fact: The Harrison disappeared and was long thought to be extinct until Burford identified it in a New Jersey backyard about 35 years ago.] The 18th century religious sect the Shakers were adept at apples, with roughly 50 recipes using them, and their cider was so prized that it sold for $10 a barrel, Watson says, about twice as much as ordinary cider.
Cider’s success may also have been its downfall. Swindlers out to make a buck began cutting it, Watson says, using rotten beets, vinegar or worse. Others began spiking it with rum or spirits to make it more stable for shipping, creating a highly alcoholic drink that drew the wrath of temperance crusaders. Industrialization was taking people off the farm and away from cider, and new immigrants – from Northern Europe and the Mediterranean – were moving the country toward beer and wine. Prohibition was simply the nail in the cider coffin.
Orchards that weren’t axed by prohibitionists were torn out by their owners, says Charlotte Shelton, co-owner of Vintage Virginia Apples and Albemarle Ciderworks. If they were replanted it was with less complex, more palatable apples, she says. Apples became something to eat, not drink, and the word “cider” lost its meaning. “When prohibition is over, the great cider orchards are gone,” Shelton says.
“’Hard’ cider is a particularly American term. Everywhere else in the world ‘cider’ is presumed to be alcoholic. Since prohibition, we’ve referred to juice as ‘cider.’”
Today cider orchards – and true cider — are coming back. In the North Garden, Va., orchard she owns with her brother, Shelton grows 80 acres of mostly vintage apples, nearly half of them for cider. Apples such as Winesap and Albemarle Pippin (also called Newtown Pippin depending on where the grower is from) go into Shelton’s single variety ciders, sparkling beverages closer to Moet than Motts. At Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, N.H., Steve Wood and his wife, Louisa Spencer, tend 80 acres of specialty or inedible apples, planted expressly for cider. [Listen to AFR editor Bonny Wolf’s radio piece on the apple-growing couple.]
Wood pioneered the movement, shifting to cider apples in the early 1990s when mechanized packing machines eroded demand for his premium, hand-packed Courtlands and McIntosh. What people wanted in supermarkets were big, red, shiny apples.
“So we took a deep breath and got out the chain saws and grafting knives and converted many acres from the stuff that had always been our bread and butter,” he says. In its place, they planted heirlooms such as Esopus Spitzenburg, golden russet, Ashmead’s kernel and prized cider varieties such as Yarlington Mill and Medaille D’ Or.
Not many were as brave. Though some apples are good both for eating and for cider, many of the finest cider apples are too tannic, too bitter, too dry for eating. The prized Harrison, for instance, most people would spit out. So growers had to shift perspective, and take a risk. Tear out their supermarket apples and plant those yucky cider apples and others that would complement them in a cider. Wood realized that there was strength in numbers – that the only way to establish the product was to have product available. That would mean convincing other growers to plant cider orchards.
“We’ve been in this weird job of trying to create competition with ourselves,” he says. “To help growers grow the right fruit, help them figure out how to make better cider.”
More and more are taking up the challenge. For years, Wood has given other growers cuttings and grafting equipment – for free. Most years, he would give out enough for a few hundred trees. Last year, he says, he gave away enough for 10,000.
Today, Watson counts nearly 200 cider makers dotting the country. And though they are mostly concentrated in big apple producing states such as New York, Washington, Michigan and Virginia, they span the continent. Texas, known more for cattle than Calville Blancs, has three cider makers.
With growers on board, the trick now, say Wood and others, is to convince buyers. The craze for local and artisanal foods has definitely helped. Industry-wide sales rose 60 percent in the last five years, according to figures from the lobbying group The Beer Institute, with Americans drinking 12.6 million gallons of cider in 2011. Interest is so strong that big companies such as Anheuser-Busch and Boston Beer Co., which makes Sam Adams, have also begun producing cider.
However, if cider has enjoyed critical success – Farnum Hill and a few other ciders are served in New York’s Gramercy Tavern – it remains a niche drink, a speck compared to its bar buddy beer. The Beer Institute says there is more beer consumed in Rhode Island each year than the total amount of cider consumed in the entire country.
“Getting into Gramercy Tavern is very cool, but it does not a market make,” Wood says. “We’re in Gramercy Tavern, but can we get into the corner bar and grill? No, we cannot.”
Enter the Glynwood apple project. Glynwood, a Cold Spring, N.Y.-based non-profit that promotes sustainable farming, launched the project two years ago to help orchards remain viable by producing cider, which gives more value to their apples. The project is focused on New York’s Hudson Valley, but works with growers in other parts of the country.
The project began with an exchange between Hudson Valley farmers and French cider makers from France, where the centuries old tradition still thrives. It has branched out into consumer education, establishing events such as “Cider Week,” a cascade of dinners, workshops and tastings in New York City, the Finger Lakes region, Virginia and Washington state. Aimed at consumers and the trade – chefs, restaurants, bartenders, wine sellers – the goal is to create demand for cider.
“The biggest challenge is making people understand what cider is, that it’s not this sweet fizzy stuff you get in a deli or as a beer alternative,” says Sara Grady, Glynwood’s director of special projects. Grady also is passionate about cider’s place in food history and its relation to the land on which it’s grown.
“Having a sense of place through food is very powerful,” she says. “The idea that there is something that was very American, very much a part of American culture and American history that is also tied to that sense of place. … People feel connected to that idea, that this is something that was a part of our history and can be again a part of our culture.”
Wood says demand has increased significantly in the last few years, and that he might be looking at a 20 percent uptick in his sales for 2012. Albemarle Ciderworks’ soft and fruity Jupiter’s Legacy, its Virginia Hewes Crab — a modern reproduction of the cider Thomas Jefferson made at Monticello — and other offerings line the shelves at some Virginia Whole Foods. And Fincke, whose supply is admittedly limited – about 2,000 gallons a year, compared to 17,000 produced by Farnum Hill – says he sells out almost immediately.
Glynwood’s Grady envisions a day when wine stores and restaurant menus will have a “cider” section. Fincke wants to see cider pulls next to the beer taps in local pubs. Not just to sell more product, but to claim what he sees as America’s rightful legacy.
“Cider should be our thing,” he says. “You think France you think wine. You think Germany you think beer. This should be our thing.”
For some fun facts, check out Things you never knew about apples