Cider: A Brief History

So, food for thought: apples have been around for a while. We’re talking fifty, sixty million years, and from the get-go, they managed fairly well on their own: reproducing and flourishing, centuries before the first humans wandered onto the scene. When that lucky caveperson - whoever they were - bit into an apple for the first time, you’d think they’d have hit the prehistoric jackpot because, as we all know, apples are pretty great. Delicious, nutritious and extremely versatile, they’re a fruit that has become a staple for much of the world’s population. However, until fairly recent history, apples generally weren’t for eating. People hadn’t figured out how to cultivate them for taste buds yet and as a result, the wild crops were often too bitter to be enjoyable. 

As it turns out, however, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Alcoholic distillation has been a recognised science since the eight century (at least). As far back as 2000 BC, people were taking everyday items and turning them into booze (many historians believe that India got the ball rolling with sura, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice, barley, jaggery and madhyaka tree flowers). Apples, it seems, were no different. They may have initially been too bitter to munch on, but this didn’t stop people from pressing their juices, fermenting said juices and leaving them to bubble away into what would now be recognized as apple cider.

We know that there were apple trees growing along the River Nile as early as 1300 BC. Yet despite being one of the first civilizations to brew beer, the Ancient Egyptians don’t appear to have experimented with the fruit alcoholically. In fact, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where cider draws its origins from. What we do know, however, is that when the bevvy did catch on, it caught on quickly. In the Middle Ages, many people enjoyed a rough, fermented drink known as dépense: a beverage made by steeping apples and various fruits in water and leaving them to ferment naturally. When the Roman armies stampeded through the British Isles around 55 BC, they saw the appeal of the cider-like drink the locals were already sipping. As a result, alcoholic apples spread across Europe, and it was a particularly big hit with the Normans: we can thank them for bringing both apple orchards and the word ‘cider’ itself into the English paradigm. They furthered the art of cider making by introducing a tannic and an acidic variety to the drink, as well as advanced (for the time, anyway) pressing technology that made extracting apple juice much easier. 

Back in the day, all apple orchards were ‘seedling’ orchards. This means that each apple tree was grown from seed, and due to the fact that apple seeds, when left to their own devices, don’t produce fruit identical to that from which the seeds are taken, the result was a collage of mishmashed, never-before tasted apple varieties. To grow the popular, specifically-selected apples that we would recognise today, farmers needed to use a grafting technique. Essentially, grafting involves combining the rootstock (the bottom of the apple tree) with the scion (or budding branch) of another tree. It’s a complicated process, but it’s one that has been employed on and off since 50 BC. It would seem that the Normans mastered the process and by the late 1500s, there were at least sixty-five named and recognisable apple varieties across Normandy. This meant that the cider created was more controlled in flavour and characteristics, and to this day, many maintain that the best cider-making apples come from this region of the world.  

The early Europeans were not alone in their love of cider. Across the pond in America, the early colonists had also developed an apple addiction. While it’s true that beer was the preferred choice in the New World, the colonists had a hard time growing the grain and barely needed to brew it. Apples, on the other hand, grew easily, and this made cider the perfect alternative. Historians attribute the prevalence of alcoholic apple juice in America to John Chapman: a pioneering nurseryman who is better known today as Johnny Appleseed. He spearheaded the spread of apple trees and orchards in America in the early nineteenth century; however, Johnny was vehemently opposed to grafting. He grew his apples from seed - as ‘nature intended’ - and as a result, American apples were nowhere near as refined or palatable as their European counterparts. The early colonists didn’t eat their apples: they drank them, almost exclusively.

When it comes to cider consumption prior to the twentieth century, records may not be as comprehensive as our curiosity would like them to be. What is clear, however, is that early cider was not simply a drink for special occasions. In regions where apples grew in abundance, it wasn’t unusual for most people to drink, at minimum,  a pint of cider a day. And while this might lead us to believe that our forefathers were having the time of their lives, in reality, they didn’t have a whole lot of alternatives. Early cider was very, very different when compared to Cedar Creek - or to any modern cider, for that matter. It was heavy, boozy, and its appeal lay more in its nutritional value and reliability than in its tendency to get people sloshed. Water wasn’t a safe beverage - not unless you were after a solid case of cholera, typhoid fever or dysentery. Cider, on the other hand, had an alcohol content that made it less-than-appealing to bacteria, and the apples offered a boost of nutrition that came in handy during long winters. As a result, everyone drank cider - there was even a (slightly) less alcoholic variety brewed specifically for children, known as ‘applekin’. 

These days, if you handed a toddler a pint of cider, there would be some serious questions raised. Indeed, the cider landscape as a whole has changed drastically since medieval peasants first began soaking apples. During the Napoleonic Wars, which raged from 1792 to 1815, practical focus migrated from dedicated cider orchards to grain and livestock. And as commercial cider production increased throughout the nineteenth century, small farmers were compelled to sell apple-growing land to these big businesses. Huge numbers of ancient orchards were destroyed in the process and by the 1960s, the majority of commercial cider was made from apple varieties that produced an unchallenging, easy-going beverage. Beer was the name of the game, cider became ‘uncool’, and the tannin-rich, intensely-flavoured bubbles of the past were left by the wayside. 

Over the last few decades, cider has certainly made a comeback. The majority of modern commercial ciders still tend towards culinary apples: low-tannin, high-acidity varieties such as Golden Delicious, Gala, Fuji and Granny Smith. As apples themselves are naturally low in sugar, many of these ciders rely on added amounts to increase both alcohol content and sweetness. And although these beverages make an enjoyable summer afternoon booze, it’s unlikely that the Romans or Normans - or even the early colonists - would easily recognise them as cider. 

Recreating the past is always tricky. To say that their cider sits on the same level as its historical source would be a bold claim for any producer to make. However, it’s safe to say that some producers pay far more homage to the traditional taste than others. On the craft side of the tracks, there are several varieties of cider - Cedar Creek being one of them - that have moved away from the overly-sweet palette adopted by the majority of commercial brands. A mid-tannin cider such as Cedar Creek would probably taste like watered-down apple juice to a Roman centurion. That being said, we try to let the flavour dictate its own path. Every batch is slightly different, and we like to think that in some way, our cider is a homage to the founding fathers of the broad church that is cider making.

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