war on the rocks

The Drink of Patriots: As American as Apple Cider

July 3, 2015

Apples were among some of the first crops grown in colonial America. Potted seedlings and bags of apple seeds were brought over on the Mayflower. The Bible-thumping Puritans were not teetotalers. Apple orchards in colonial America usually meant one thing: hard cider.

The apple tree is an unusual plant. It’s what’s called an “extreme heterozygote,” meaning the fruit it produces is highly varied from one plant to another. Even seeds planted from apples that fell from the same parent tree will yield offspring trees that produce completely different tasting fruit. Nowadays, we tend to think of apples as perfectly shaped, shiny red orbs that make for a healthy snack. As anyone who has tasted a wild apple can tell you, not all apples are good for eating. The different breeds of cooking and eating apples that we know and love today (Red Delicious, Granny Smith, etc.) are the result of centuries of apple roulette: finding that one special tree that produced an apple with perfectly formed skin, size and sweetness. Orchards of these varieties of apple aren’t planted from seed — they are grown from grafts, genetic clones of an original “freak” tree that produced apples perfect for eating or cooking.

However, just because the majority of apples were inedible doesn’t mean colonists left them alone. Apples that were too bitter or acidic to eat were frequently made into cider. In fact, this is likely what American colonists had in mind when they brought apples with them to the New World. The dearth of established apple orchards in North America meant that most of the apples would be grown for cider production. Producing cider from the apple harvest had the added benefits of helping preserve the harvest over winter by creating cider vinegar, which was useful for pickling vegetables for long-term preservation.

American geography is well suited to growing apples, which are native to areas of similar latitude on the Eurasian continent. Perhaps more importantly, the climate of the colonies wasn’t suited to growing any other alcohol-producing sugar sources such as barley (for beer) or grapes (for wine). Fermented beverages were an important source of safe drinking water, and cider was thus a staple in the colonial American diet. By the mid-1700s, the average American was drinking 35 gallons of hard cider a year. Men, women, and children would even drink it for breakfast.

As the colonies spread westward, no single man was more famous for bringing cider to the frontier than John Chapman. Contrary to what you probably learned in elementary school, Johnny Appleseed, as he is known in popular culture, didn’t just plant apple trees and strew apple seeds willy-nilly across the country. Chapman was an entrepreneur and prototypical land speculator. He followed the Ohio River system westward through modern day Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Illinois, planting apple orchards along the way. By staying a few years ahead of the expanding population settlements, Chapman was able to sell his orchards to pioneer families for a considerable profit. The orchards promised a steady supply of income and cider, a source of sustenance, and clean drinking water, and also helped entrench American settlements in the Midwest.

The popularity of cider in America grew as the nation’s territory expanded. George Washington even served up 144 gallons of hard cider during his first successful campaign bid to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758. John Adams drank cider for breakfast when he was serving as president. Cider’s popularity and association as the drink of “everyday Americans” reached its zenith in 1840 when William Henry Harrison was elected president, having run on a “log cabin and hard cider” platform that resonated with voters.

Cider’s former popularity in American culture is almost entirely lost — cider today is viewed as a kind of “soda for grown ups.” Its unfortunate decline as an acceptable beverage can be attributed to the deleterious effects of the Temperance movement, and competition from more urban-friendly fermented beverages like German lager beer. As Americans rediscover a rich historical drinking culture that was nearly eradicated by Prohibition, more craft ciders are appearing in the market.

There is perhaps no more patriotic way to celebrate Independence Day than to try this extremely American fermented beverage. Luckily, there are plenty of quality American options available for drinking on the Fourth of July (and they’re not just Woodchuck or Angry Orchard). Crispin is widely available in most of the United States and they produce a good variety of flavors with different degrees of dryness. If you’re not a fan of the soda taste, look for a dry or semi-dry apple cider. Farnum Hill, which may be hard to find (it’s mostly sold in New England specialty beer stores), describes their flagship cider as “radically dry.” Farnum Hill’s cider is sold in corked bottles, like champagne. For West Coasters and anyone else who likes hops, CiderRiot! in Portland makes a hard cider brewed with ale and wine yeasts, local apples, and Yakima valley hops. Like many of the finest American traditions, our fondness for hard cider was appropriated from somewhere else, in this case England. CiderRiot! pays homage to the English origins of America’s cider drinking traditions. Some of the finest hard ciders around, such as Samuel Smith’s Organic Cider, are still produced by the Brits today, and are an essential ingredient in the famous British beer cocktail, the snakebite.

If you’re looking for something to drink this weekend, I would humbly suggest a nice American dry cider. It will quench your thirst, improve the American economy, and remind you of your patriotic roots. Stay away from the British stuff though, unless you need something to dump in Boston Harbor. Cheers, and happy Independence Day.

 

Frank Swigonski is a recovering bartender. He is originally from Arizona but currently lives in Washington, DC where he works on energy policy.

Photo credit: Anne Dirkse