“It is Indeed Bad to Eat Apples. It is Better to Make Them All Cider”: When Cider Reigned Supreme in America

Happy-Thanksgiving-“It is indeed bad to eat apples. It is better to make them all cider” — Benjamin Franklin

Name a beverage consumed by all age groups, men and women alike, the poor and the very rich, from sun up to sun down, that is touted as healthy and refreshing yet also contains alcohol.  If you were a colonial American, the answer was hard cider.  In America’s early days, cider reigned supreme and, even though the beverage is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity, consumption of cider is nowhere near as high as it was during George Washington’s lifetime. To better understand early Americans’ obsession with cider, one must go back to the first European colonization of America (What a great idea! Let’s do that).

It’s the early 17th century and colonists are trying to make their new home a bit more like their old home.  One sure way to do this is to bring over plants to grow the food you already like.  Sometimes, this doesn’t work very well (grapes, for example) but, sometimes, the introduced species thrive in their new environment.  Such was the case with apples.  Technically, there are already two varieties of crabapple native to the Americas but these are not especially good eating compared to domesticated apple varieties in Europe.  Ultimately, the apple became such a popular cultivar, some land grants stipulated that to claim legal ownership you had to plant apple trees to prove you intended to stay and improve the land.

Still Life with Apples, Grapes and a Pot of Jam (1700s) by Luis Meléndez

“Still Life with Apples, Grapes and a Pot of Jam” (1700s) by Luis Meléndez. Credit: Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya / Wikipedia

That North American climate and soil was well suited to apples was especially fortuitous since colonists were also looking for things to ferment into alcohol. Alcohol was a large part of their diet, and it just so happens that apples lend themselves very well to this end.  Think about it, in addition to providing fresh fruit, apples could be dried for storage, fed to livestock in the fall to fatten them before butchering, made into apple cider vinegar which is both useful for medicinal purposes but also a key ingredient for pickling, one of the most common preservative methods at the time, and finally turned into lots of yummy fermented beverages like, apple brandy, and applejack (we’ll talk about this interesting drink a bit later), and cider..

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 loves to eat sugar and throw off alcohol as a pleasant byproduct.  So, colonists didn’t have to work very hard to turn perishable cider into hard cider, which could be stored longer.  Furthermore, if you expose hard cider to oxygen for too long, it will naturally turn into vinegar. What’s not to love?

Cider Making (c.1840) by William Sydney Mount

“Cider Making” (c.1840) by William Sydney Mount. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wikipedia.

Did I mention how much cider was consumed during the colonial period?  It should be noted that even though it did contain alcohol it wasn’t necessarily considered an alcoholic drink.  John Adams drank a large glass of cider every morning (yep) and fancied himself an abstainer of strong drink.  Cider was described as healthy and a thirst quencher, likely owing to the slight carbonation which is also a byproduct of fermentation. Children regularly consumed hard cider, which isn’t nearly as horrific as it sounds when you take into account that it had a low ABV of around 3% and this probably made it safer to drink that most water available.

However, children were not encouraged to partake of cider’s much bigger and somewhat brutish brother, applejack.  Applejack resulted when you allowed hard cider to freeze and removed the frozen water crystals, leaving the concentrated alcohol behind.  The more times this simple distillation process was repeated the stronger the applejack becomes.  This method also 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 of colonials.

Although cider was a very common drink, it could also be elevated to gourmet status. Just as wine drinking has advanced to a fine art, with enthusiasts who obsess over the distinctive notes each grape produces under distinctive growing conditions, so did gentry 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, especially given that they had access to a wider variety of apples than we do today. There were thousands of varieties available across the colonies and early Republic producing thousands of distinct ciders.  So perhaps the saying should not be ‘As American as apple pie’ but rather ‘As American as apple cider’.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Further Reading

Brown, John Hull.  Early American Beverages. Bonanza Books, New York. 1966

Grasse, Steven. Colonial Spirits. Abrams Image, New York. 2016

Oliver, Sandra L.  Food in Colonial And Federal America. Greenwood Press, London. 2005

Root, Waverly and Richard De Rochemont. Eating In America. The Ecco Press. 1995