DRINK – A Brief History of Apples and Cider – PART ONE

04 Mar 2003

Cider is the fermented juice of crushed apples. When and where man discovered apples is not known. Whether this event predates the Garden of Eden is not clear and whether or not it was an apple that Eve picked in the Garden is in question. It may be that this fruit was not know in the Middle East at the time the Book of Genesis was written and only at a later time did writers come to call this tempting fruit an apple.

But at some point man did observe the impact of overripe fruit on bees and other insects and it did not take long for him to observe in himself that overripe fruit had a good taste and warmed the heart and body. Hence the beginning of alcoholic fruit juices and cider.

It is now believed that the apple originated in the early days of history in the mountains near the Baltic Sea and spread along various trade routes to other parts of the world. Several thousand years ago when the Romans arrived in England and France they found that the residents were happily consuming cider, a practice continuing to this day in parts of those countries. Other beverages that we drink today—coffee, tea and/or chocolate—only came to Europe relatively late, in the Middle Ages, well after cider was established and, as imports, were far beyond the means of the average person. For whatever early public health reasoning, there was wide spread suspicion and aversion to water, either for drinking or bathing. Physicians of the Middle Ages advised against consumption of raw fruit. All these factors, plus the low cost of production, led to the creation and consumption of fermented cider.

Colonists brought to the American shores their thirst for cider and their apple seeds and planted many small family orchards. Apples were not native to the US, with only one form of crab apple having been identified by our early botanists. Seeds and scions/cuttings were easier to transport than trees and had a better survival rate when crossing the ocean on board ships. And as apples do not reproduce true to seed, cuttings were to transport than trees to these shores in the mid-1700s and early-1800s. As efforts were made to reproduce desired European varieties. S. W. Fletcher, in his A History of Fruit Growing on Pennsylvania, quotes a European visitor who told of the building of a colonial home in 1685 where he said, ‘They first fix upon the spot where they intend to build the house, and before they begin it, get ready a field for an orchard, planting it immediately with apples chiefly, and some pears, cherries and peaches’.

Apples and cider were of such import to the beginning of our country that Benjamin Franklin (who carried a crab tree walking stick) and others, including John Bartram, established the American Philosophical Society in 1743 whose charter and mission called for members to ‘… communicate to each other, their observations, experiments, etc.’ regarding ‘… Improvements of vegetable juices, as Cyders, Wines, Etc …’. And Fletcher again reports that John Taylor of Virginia stated, ‘Good cider would be a national saving of wealth, by expelling foreign liquors; and of life, by expelling the use of ardent spirits. Apples are the only species of orchards at a distance from cities capable of producing sufficient profit and comfort to become a considerable object to a farmer. The apple will furnish some food for hogs, a luxury for his family in winter, and a healthy liquor for himself and his laborers all the year’. In 1762 Thomas Chapman, a wine-cooper- published the Cyder -Maker’s Instructor, Sweet-Maker’s Assistant, And Victualler’s and Housekeeper’s Director in Three Parts, in which the first part ‘Directs the Grower to make his Cyder in the Manner foreign Wines are made; to preserve its Body and Flavour; to lay on a Colour, and to cure all its Disorders, whether bad flavour’d, pick’d, oily, or ropy.’ His recipe, in part, called for the adding of yeast to a hogshead of cider, mixing in some jalap (‘an excellent Purger of serious and watry Humours’ according to the History of Druggs by Monsieur Pomet, published in 1709) and letting it ferment for about two weeks, cleaning the bunghole every morning with your finger. This recipe, with the addition of raisins and sugar, became known in the 1800’s as New England hard cider.

In the first 200 years of our country, apple orchards sprang up everywhere and varieties blossomed. Where and when cider, and the fermentation of it, began as indicated above, is lost in the amber fog of folk history but our colonists knew a good thing and thought no ill of cider with a kick. Cider was a foolproof product. If the cider fermented one way, it was good to drink; if it went to vinegar, it was used for cooking and other household purposes. It was transportable and , in barrel form, was for a time, a standard of barter and exchange or an asset to be left in a will. In some parts of the colonies, laws regarding the establishment of claims to land required the planting of orchards. Beginning in Northwestern Pennsylvania, Johnny Appleseed/John Chapman (1774-1845) planted apple nurseries and had as his principal source of income the sale of seedling stock to settlers. He would gather seed from cider mills, travel to and beyond the established frontier (from Pennsylvania through Ohio and further west) and plant in the wilds a nursery of seedlings encircled with a brush fence with the product being ready for sale in three-five years when civilization caught up. It may be heretical today in light of the Johnny Appleseed myth that has sprung up but consider, in fact, that Chapman was primarily bringing to the frontier the means of establishing rights to property and a way to make alcohol and not a dessert fruit.

Mike Tomlinson finds, propagates, preserves, sells and uses heirloom American apple trees and fruit, and produces cider commercially in Pennsylvania and California.

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