“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

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Apple Cedar Rust: What on Earth is It and Why Does It Matter?

Apple Cedar Rust (2).JPG

Sometimes nature can be stranger than fiction.  At George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we are currently experiencing such a phenomenon:  Apple Cedar Rust.  Hideous in appearance, yet strangely fascinating, this fungus erupts on our cedar trees every few years when temperature and moisture are just right. It’s a monstrous growth with bright orange tentacles.  Like some bizarre alien fruit, they hang from the cedars after which they shrivel up and disappear until the conditions are just right for the fungus to become active again.

But what are these odd gooey orbs, called ‘galls’, on the cedars and what do they mean in a greater context?  Well, what we are seeing at Ferry Farm and all around the Fredericksburg, Virginia area is actually only one stage in the life of the Apple Cedar Rust.  This fungus requires two trees to complete its two year life-cycle, as is evidenced by its name.  The gall on the cedar erupts with orange protrusions, called ‘horns’, during the spring and release millions of spores that will float on the wind for several miles trying to find an unsuspecting apple or crabapple tree in bloom.  At this point, the spores infect the leaves and blossoms of the poor tree, causing unappealing blemishes on the fruit and, occasionally, a total loss of the apple crop.  At the end of the summer, the fungus that developed on the underside of the apple leaves also releases spores that travel back to the cedars, where they lay dormant for over a year before eventually sprouting the orange jelly-like grows and starting the cycle again.

Apple Cedar Rust (1)This disease had the potential to devastate colonial-era apple crops.  Although wild crabapple varieties were native to the Americas, European immigrants quickly introduced domesticated apples to the New World and widely cultivated the fruit.  Baked into pies and puddings, dried, turned into preserves, and even added to savory dishes, apples were very popular.  Not just prized as a food, the delicious fruit was also commonly converted into hard cider, which could be stored much longer than fresh apples and rivaled beer in popularity with colonials.  In years of abundant crops, excess apples could even be used to finish livestock prior to butchering.  As such, most colonial households grew at least a few apple trees. The loss of some or all of this fruit would have been tragic.  Native Americans also suffered the loss of indigenous crabapples, which provided food for them and for animals they hunted and relied on.

It is unclear if the complex phenomenon of Apple Cedar Rust was understood by European settlers and Native Americans. Did they know that the strange orange masses on cedar trees signaled a drop in apple yields?  It is a question to ponder. Lacking the fungicides of today, early Americans’ only recourse would have been to destroy all the cedars within a few miles of their trees – not a very practical solution.  Most of us today do not grow our own food so Apple Cedar Rust is merely a gross curiosity, but to colonial farmers and past inhabitants of the early North American landscape, the ugly fungus may have caused real problems.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist