Cider Power

I have to admit, I drank cider from an early age (way earlier than the legal requirement mandated here). It does not make me an expert, but it did make me question why it was so hard to find a very good quality cider (I should say hard cider) that I could enjoy with a meal, one that expresses complexity and gustatory pleasure. Then three years ago, I realized that as a wine and spirits retailer in the great state of NY, I’m also allowed to sell cider (not beer) and water (flat but not sparkling) – I’ve yet to score a bottle of Scottish water for our Single Malt section.  So at the shop we started to do some serious research, and by that I mean tasting, and we found that you could apply the same tasting techniques and descriptive we use for wine. Before we go into long descriptions of individual samples (which can vary from my Grand Ma’s apple pie to briny horseradish)we would like to share with you the history of this wonderful libation that has a great deal of history in our part of the world.

Quick Global Cider History


We know that the Hebrews drank “Shekar” and the Greeks “Sikera” (a drink obtained by cooking apples with fermented juice).

Before the Christian era, the various peoples of Europe had succeeded in producing beverages more or less similar to cider from a variety of fruit. Stabon, the Greek geographer, described the abundance of apple and pear trees in Gaul and mentioned the “Phitarra” in the Basque country, which was a beverage obtained by boiling pieces of apples in water with honey.

In the 4th century, the Gallo-Roman Palladius tells us how the Romans prepared pear wine. At the end of the 4th century, Saint Gerome actually mentioned perry (Piracium) and seems to be the first author to introduce the word into the Latin language. Similarly, we also owe him the term “Sicera” giving Cider (in English) or Sidre and Cidre (in French). There is little difference between Sicera and Sagara (the word for apple tree in the Basque language). The progress made in apple and pear tree husbandry and the care given to their preservation in Merovingian times are shown by the introduction in the Salic law of a special clause relating to fruit trees: those who damaged the trees were to be severely punished.


In the 9th century, Charlemagne, in the Capitulars, ordered that skilled brewers (the Sicetores) be kept on his estates to prepare ale, “pommé” (pomacium), perry and all the liquors liable to be used as drinks. In 1163, Enjuger de Bodon granted the Abbey of Moutiers, in Normandy, the tythe from the apples, the orchards and the woods. Other acts of a similar nature can be found throughout the century. The Normandy vineyards acquired their highest degree of prosperity in the 11th and 12th centuries.

In the 13th century, an event was to mark the history of cider: The invention of the press.

At the end of the 13th century, wine and cider brokers named by municipal officers were established in the city of Caen. The religious houses in High Normandy were provided with cider in plenty in the 14th century. It is also at that time that cider started to supplant ale and in the inns it competed with wine and beer. In 1371, about as much cider as wine was sold in Caen.

The Hundred Years War

The 100 Years War was for Normandy a period of ruin and desolation during which agriculture suffered a lot and cider was submitted to heavy levies. In the 15th century, cider had become the usual beverage in High and Low Normandy. From the 15th century, real progress was made in its presentation. Cider is a way of life. A gentleman from Biscaye, Guillaume Dursus, came to settle near Valognes in the Cotentin. He improved cultivated apple species, planted and popularized excellent varieties for which he had brought grafts from his native country where apple tree cultivation was already given special attention. In his diary, SIRE DE GAUBERVILLE also showed some interest in improving apple trees and in the fermentation of cider in Cotentin, producing his first vintage on 28 March 1553.

At the time, fruit growing specialists recommended the use of sour-sweet apples to press a delicate tasting cider, adding to them a few acid apples to avoid blackening. They distinguished and classified different types of cider by their color and flavor.

In 1588, Julien LE PAULMIER, a Norman gentleman and Charles IX’s physician, published a treatise called “De Vino et pomaco”. This book contributed to make cider better known and to give it the place it deserves as a healthy drink, and praised its medicinal properties. Under Louis XIII, because of taxes on wine, the vineyards in Normandy were nearly all pulled up, and the cultivation of apples developed and definitely spread to neighboring areas. The consumption of cider grew and grew but was then halted several times by a permanent state of war, crippling levies and the general poverty of the population. In 1720, the state got interested in fruit growing and set up nurseries.

In 1758, CHARLES-GABRIEL PORÉE, Cannon of Caen, inaugurated an initial numerical classification of apples based on their flowering and harvesting periods. Agricultural Societies created at the time instituted prizes to encourage the cultivation of apple trees for cider-making and thus contributed greatly to progress.

19th century

At the beginning of the 19th century, Odolant Desnos was quoting 300 varieties of apple trees. From the second half of the 19th century, the local worthies became fascinated by the “natural sciences”. They collected plants, they grafted, they planted, they read ancient texts and collected sayings. But whatever fruit growers might say or do, cider remained a country drink made in a traditional way. Cider production quadrupled in 30 years, as diseases devastated vineyards and opened up the market for cider. From 4 million hectares in 1870, it reached 14 million hectares in 1900. In Paris, cider replaced wine. At the beginning of the century, the profession recommended making new plantations of apple trees and introducing strict regulations to control the quality of the products. While the making of cider remained essentially localized in apple growing areas, cider plants were set up near large towns. 

20th century

Around 1914, war preparation both artificially boosted and decreased French cider production. The government commandeered the apple trees. Indeed they were counting on the orchards to provide alcohol for industry and armament needs.

All the efforts made at the end of the WWI were to be annihilated by the WWII. Both wars got the better of the Norman orchards and many independent producers disappeared.

The decline in French cider production was planned. In 1953, the French government issued an order starting a policy of pulling up apple trees. In 1956, they stopped all support policies to producers. Land redistribution, rural depopulation and changes in lifestyles marked the end of traditional farmhouse production.

Nowadays, ultra-modern processes guarantee the qualities (hygiene, stability, pasteurization, bottling, etc.) essential for mass production in plants, whereas traditional operator production is disappearing at the local level.

American Cider history

America’s love affair with hard cider goes back to the first English settlers. Finding only inedible crabapples upon arrival, the colonists quickly requested apple seeds from England and began cultivating orchards. Grafting wood to produce proper cider apples arrived soon after and American cider production was born.

While apple trees had little trouble taking to the New England soil, it was trickier to cultivate the barley and other grains required for the production of beer. So cider became the beverage of choice on the early American dinner table. Even the children drank Ciderkin, a weaker alcoholic drink made from soaking apple pomace in water.

By the turn of the eighteenth century, New England was producing over 300,000 gallons of cider a year, and by midcentury, the average Massachusetts resident was consuming 35 gallons of cider a year. It sounds like a lot, but it’s no more than the equivalent of a can of soda daily. John Adams supposedly drank a tankard of cider every morning to settle his stomach.

As the settlers began moving west after the Louisiana Purchase, they brought along their love for cider. You’ve probably heard of John Chapman (better known as orchard-starter Johnny Appleseed). Chapman was in fact a missionary for the Swedenborgian Church, who traveled just ahead of westbound settlers and grafted small, fenced-in nurseries of cider apple trees in the Great Lakes and Ohio River regions. Chapman visited the nurseries once or twice a year, but he left neighbors in charge to sell the saplings to the arriving settlers. By the end of the nineteenth century, it was not uncommon for to find a small cider orchard on the grounds of most homesteads.

Cider’s popularity began to wane in the early 1900s. Huge numbers of German and Eastern European immigrants brought with them a penchant for beer over cider. Plus, the soil in the Midwest was more barley-friendly, so beer production was easier than it had been. The advent of mechanical refrigeration also improved the quality of beer year round.

While all this beer swilling did have an adverse effect on the cider industry, it did little compared to the devastating blow of Prohibition and the Volstead Act. While some breweries survived these dark times by producing a range of goods from sodas to refrigerated cabinets, cider orchards had less flexibility. In addition to outlawing alcoholic cider, the Volstead Act limited production of sweet cider to 200 gallons a year per orchard. Prohibitionists burned countless fields of trees to the ground and surviving orchards began cultivating sweeter (non-cider) apples out of necessity.

American’s love for cider never really returned after the repeal of Prohibition. While breweries could go back into production almost immediately with imported grains—and barley fields could yield their first crops within a year—it would take decades to convert the orchards, and the demand, back from snacking and cooking apples to cider-making ones.

But almost a hundred years later, American cider is once again on the rise. As globalization brings cheap apples to grocery stores from half way around the world, many American orchardists have turned to cider to keep their farms profitable. More and more cider makers are showing up every year, honing their craft, and helping us rediscover this delicious lost American beverage

(thanks to Drunkenapple and drink.seriouseats )