Cider played a crucial role in the beginnings of American life. The English settlers brought cider to America by cultivating orchards with seeds from England to jumpstart cider production as soon as possible after arriving in the new land. Apple trees flourished in New England, whereas grains and barley did not, which led to cider becoming the social beverage of choice over beer.
However, cider served as more than just a beverage that lubricated social events. Cider was traded for votes to sway political opinions and elect officials. Even more importantly, cider was a healthy alternative drink in areas that had unsafe drinking water. It was also instrumental in preserving enough food to get through harsh winters when transformed into apple cider vinegar used to pickle vegetables. It even became a staple of the colonial economy in place of currency, used to pay bills and barter for goods and services.
As the landscape of America and its people expanded west, cider moved right along with it into the new frontier. The tale of Johnny Appleseed is a common story many people are familiar with from childhood, but the fact that he was planting apple orchards across the country fit for cider production rather than eating apples is sometimes left out of the story. Cider continued being a huge part of life for Americans in the new frontier. But as the American culture changed and shifted over the course of the next 100 years, the relationship with cider would be changed drastically.
In 1920, Prohibition put a stop to all (legal) cider production. Apple orchards were destroyed by Temperance advocates and cider disappeared as the American beverage of choice. Even after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, cider never made a complete comeback.
Many of Johnny Appleseed’s orchards were gone. Farmers had replaced previously destroyed hard cider apple varieties with sweeter dessert apple varieties for eating, which many people agreed made inferior cider. American drinking culture shifted away from cider to beer within a matter of weeks, as the beer industry was able to explode quickly into production by having raw materials available immediately after the repeal. Apple growers on the other hand need 5-6 years to get a significant harvest. Despite the important role that cider played in the early days of America, it would take nearly 80 years for cider to make a comeback.
Starting in the 1990’s, cider started to get some traction with the creation of small to mid-sized craft cider makers. American drinkers were searching for new choices and alternatives to beer, wine and spirits. By 2011, major beverage companies recognized the potential growth of cider and started production. For the next 2 years, cider sales would skyrocket, growing as high as 75.4%. This is great news for cider makers and farmers. Growing hard cider apple varieties has become a great option for growers in states like Michigan. Modern styles of cider utilize dessert apple varieties, which is an even better option for farmers and their existing orchards.
Cider has played a very interesting role in American life. While it no longer sways elections or prevents illness from drinking contaminated water, it certainly still plays an important role in our social and economic life. Craft cider makers are striving to preserve heirloom cider, as well as create new modern styles to enhance our culture. Meanwhile they are buying local apples to support local farmers. The potential effects cider has on American culture, farmers and cider makers in the near future will be something worth paying attention to.
When attending the 10th Annual Grand Rapids International Wine, Beer & Food Festival, be sure to stop in and check out Cider Row (inside Beer City Station) which features dozens of dry, sweet, sparkling and specialty ciders from Michigan (including Starcut Cider, Booth #544) and beyond. Check out the list here.