During the 1840 presidential election, opponents of William Henry Harrison portrayed him as a hard-drinking bumpkin. In a savvy act of political jujitsu, Harrison embraced the charge, branding his campaign paraphernalia with a portrait of pure Americana: a log cabin and a barrel of cider. Harrison rode the image to a 234-60 Electoral College victory over incumbent Martin Van Buren.
Shortly after the Harrison landslide, Americans would begin to drift away from his beloved libation. (He was spared the pain of witnessing its decline, succumbing to pneumonia only a month into his presidency.) A century later, cider would be almost completely forgotten. Most Americans now consider cider—if they consider it at all—to be in the same category as wine coolers or those enigmatic clear malt beverages: chemically suspect, effeminate alternatives to beer. And who can blame them? America's mass-market ciders are comically weak and inexplicably fizzy. Many are made not from cider apples but from the concentrated juice of eating apples, which is a bit like making wine from seedless table grapes.
This is a sad state of affairs, given that hard cider was the favored beverage of America's founding generation. Beer makers may adorn their bottles with ale-swilling patriots, and aristocrats like Thomas Jefferson may have enjoyed imported wine. But cider was the drink of the people, from farmers to fighting men, and deservedly so. Good cider is light but not boring, complex but not dominating, satisfying but not sating. Let's get back to our roots.
A thirsty American colonist had limited beverage options. For everyone but the lucky few who lived near a natural spring or fast-running stream, water was often contaminated, sometimes deadly, and always unpalatable. Milk in those days was seen merely as a precursor to cream, cheese, and butter. Alcohol wasn't an indulgence; it was what we drank. It was hygienic: Even at relatively low concentrations, alcohol kills most pathogens. And, according to the prevailing view at the time, it fortified the body against illness and the backbreaking labor of subduing a wild country.
But the colonists had trouble procuring alcohol. English barley and hops—a crucial beer preservative—didn't grow well in their new environment. Vineyards failed from New England to Georgia, and native grapes made terrible wine. Importing heavy casks from Europe was expensive. Distilled spirits, particularly rum and whiskey, would eventually catch on, but much of the population feared their potency.
Some colonists employed their famous ingenuity in an effort to develop more sustainable alternatives. George Washington brewed with inexpensive imported molasses, and Benjamin Franklin tried spruce. Others attempted pumpkin-, parsnip-, and corn-based beers. None of these alternatives satisfied. (Ironically, America's current beer behemoths use quite a bit of cheap and flavorless corn to brew their insipid tea. Our forefathers knew a failed experiment when they tasted it.)
During the 18th century, Americans realized that the prolific, hardy apple tree—which arrived from England in 1623—offered a solution to their drinking dilemma. In 1767, the average Massachusetts resident drank 35 gallons of cider. (That includes children, who sipped a slightly weaker version called ciderkin.) John Adams drank a tankard of cider nearly every morning of his life. Cider was supplied to our nascent army and is credited with helping our soldiers defeat the British (hooray!) and conquer the Indians (oops). By the end of the century, apple orchards blanketed the American landscape.
Johnny Appleseed, by far America's most misunderstood folk hero, spread cider westward in the early 1800s. You see, what the Disney short doesn't tell you is that John Chapman's apples were unsuitable for eating. Apples exhibit tremendous genetic diversity, and a seed from an eating apple is far less likely to produce a plump, sweet beauty than a tart, tannic fruit suitable only to cider making. (Eating apples are made through grafting, a technique Chapman abhorred.)
As U.S. demographics shifted during the mid-1800s, cider began to fall out of favor. German immigrants, who fled a war-torn Europe in 1848, increased demand for beer, which soon surpassed cider in production. Unusually cold winters destroyed millions of trees in the early 1900s. The temperance movement encouraged the remaining orchardists to pasteurize and bottle their unfermented juice. Prohibition forced the holdouts to either chop down their trees or to convert their operations to grafted eating apples.
Once Prohibition ended, cider never came back. Part of the reason lies in the nature of the product. Unlike barley farmers, who could adjust annual plantings fairly quickly to meet surging post-Prohibition demand, orchardists would have had to graft cider apples painstakingly onto an entire field of eating-apple trees or spend years starting a new orchard from seed. Beer manufacturers also lobbied hard for Prohibition's repeal, which gave them an incentive to get brewing again when the laws changed. Cider makers, who typically worked independently and produced their wares in small batches, didn't have the same drive once the ban was lifted. Urbanization also worked against cider, which was grown, fermented, and consumed on farms.
Although the American cider tradition has long been dormant, the beverage lives on elsewhere. In England and France—to which the plague of Prohibition did not spread—artisanal houses are producing ciders that few beers can match for lightness and complexity. Cider makers haven't yet been infected with whatever fever has propelled vintners toward unreasonable alcohol levels and garishly imbalanced flavor profiles. Unlike mead, that other resurgent libation of antiquity, cider pairs beautifully with food. And, because cider is an agricultural product, it can lay claim to the currently fashionable quality of "somewhereness."
Made from apples like the Kingston Black, the Dabinett, and the Yarlington Mill and often fermented by naturally occurring flora, traditional English ciders are complex and typically dry. Like wine, good cider is a balance of acid, tannin, and the myriad flavors that result from fermentation. (Traditional cider tastes no more like apples than wine tastes like grapes.) These ciders might exhibit smoky flavors reminiscent of bacon, bright citrusy notes, subtle grassiness, or a barnyard aroma that is delightful in small doses. Carbonation is optional, and, when used, accents the flavors rather than concealing them.
Unfortunately, few of us can purchase great English ciders like Oliver's Herefordshire Dry or Burrow Hill here in the United States. The good news is that, while no American producers can match British know-how quite yet, a handful are reviving the craft. Wandering Aengus Dry can be had on the West Coast; Farnum Hill Extra Dry is widely available in the East. Westcott Bay, among others, can be purchased on the Internet. Better still, very small artisanal producers, like Bellwether and Eve's in upstate New York, are popping up everywhere. Which means it's time to make like a forefather and support your local cidery.