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The History of Cider in the United States

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In Food History 101, we're hitting the books -- to explore the who, what, when, where, and why of what we eat today.

Today: The history of America's oldest alcoholic drink.

Cider from Food52

Let’s talk about cider. 

No, not the jug of juice you buy at the orchard in autumn, but the peculiarly complex, alcoholic kind we call “hard” cider. As industry giants like Woodchuck and Angry Orchard become increasingly ubiquitous, old small-scale cideries are shaking themselves awake, and new craft varieties are popping up everywhere from Oregon to Michigan to New York.

But cider isn’t a new trend. In fact, its roots go deeper in American culture than those of any other alcoholic drink. 

Early settlers -- and most influentially, those from England -- brought cider-making traditions to America in the 1600s. The drink was well suited to the rough-and-tumble colonial days: cheap, easy, and safer than water. It was also incredibly popular. In 1767, the men, women, and children of Massachusetts drank about 40 gallons of the stuff annually -- each.

To be clear, we’re talking about a real drink here. Most cider had at least 6% alcohol. Yet founding father John Adams drank a tankard of it every morning with breakfast, and Harvard’s students received a cider ration with meals in the 1700s. When William Henry Harrison ran for president in 1840, cider had so many happy associations that he made it part of his campaign. He passed the stuff out at rallies while supporters sang, to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”:

With Harrison our country’s won
No treachery can divide her
Thy will be done with Harrison
Log Cabin and Hard Cider!

He totally won.

Cider from Food52

But cider’s heyday would soon pass. First, young people began abandoning farm life in droves. The orchards that did remain were unorganized, small-batch producers who struggled to keep up with the industrializing economy. 

Then Temperance advocates set about loosening this iconic drink’s grip on home life. Some zealous farmers willingly took axes to their own cider trees. Others obligingly grafted in sweeter, eat-in-hand apples, undoing decades of careful cultivation of the acidic, tough varieties that make the best cider. 

So by the time Prohibition made the official swing of the axe in 1920, cider was already on the chopping block. Sales plummeted, never to recover, even after the end of Prohibition. It turns out that while cider might be easy to make, orchards are a painstaking art; a newly planted apple tree takes years to produce fruit. Seeds, once strewn freehand across the country, had been replaced with types better suited for pies or virtuous non-alcoholic juice.

On the other hand, fields of barley, wheat, and corn -- the primary ingredients of whiskey and beer brought by an influx of German and Irish immigrants -- produce a yield in a single season. From the early twentieth century, these drinks reigned and cider became, for a time, a lost art. 

Even today’s revival is only a glimpse of our formerly robust cider culture -- around 7 million cases are sold in the U.S. annually, compared to a stunning 22 million in the late 1800s. But considering barely more than 100,000 cases were sold in 1990, it’s certainly on the rise. 

So next time you see cider on the tap handle, remember to lift your glass to our forefathers.

Tags: Fruit, Food History