Cara/Andrea here, Regardless of what the lunar calendar says, here in the U. S. this first Monday in September marks the End of Summer. We reluctantly kick off the flip-flops, shed shorts and bathing suits for “real” clothing and say goodbye to lazy afternoons in the hammock. Yes, the weather is still hot and the noonday sun feels as bright as a July firecracker, but here in the Northeast, I’m already seeing the first small hints of Autumn.
Apples are a big part of the traditional change of seasons—the first crop of Macintoshes are starting to appear in the farmer’s markets. Fresh pressed cider, an iconic part of my childhood, is also hitting the shelves, its cinnamon-dark hue and spicy scent setting off all sorts of sweet memories.
Cider was also an integral part of Autumn in Regency times, where it was hugely popular, but its roots go much deeper into history. It’s thought that the apple tree originated in the area of present-day Kazakhstan and spread across Asia and Europe. There are references to apples trees along the Nile River delta in Ancient Egyptian writings, and both the Greeks and the Romans created libations from apples. The Romans found that the local tribes also were making cider when they arrived in the British Isles. (It likely was learned from contact with Brittany, whose weather and soil is particularly well-suited to apple cultivation.) And by early medieval times, cider was popular throughout Europe. (The word cider is likely derived from the Hebrew word shekar, which means “strong drink.” Most cider was what we today call hard cider—fermented with natural yeast to create an alcoholic drink.)
The Norman invasion of Britain brought with it an even greater thirst for the beverage, and cider became an integral part of British life. (The famous Wycliffe Bible, created in the early 15th century, makes reference to cider!) By the 18th century, orchards were a common part of the landscape, and it had become common to pay farm laborers in Britain their wages in part with cider.
So it's no surprise that the early English colonists brought their love for cider to the New World. New England had only a very bitter type of native crab apple, so seeds from Britain were quickly planted and grafts made (grafting is important to establish a trees that bear the desired fruit—a botanist will explain this better than I can!) so the colonist in America were soon enjoying their favorite brew. The fact that barley and other grains—the raw material for beer—didn’t grow well in the rocky soil of New England helped ensure that apple-based alcohol was the beverage of choice.
According to historical records, by the end of the 18th century, New England was producing over 300,000 gallons of cider per year, and the average individual consumption in Massachusetts was 35 gallons!
As settlers headed West, they brought the apple with them—you’ve probably all heard the legend of Johnny Appleseed, a man who supposedly was responsible for planted myriad trees on the journey across the continent. Cider remained extremely popular in America until the beginning of the 20th century, when a wave of German and Middle European immigrants to the Midwest brought a thirst for beer. The farmland there was well-suited to hops and grain, and improved transportation allowed for beer to be easily distributed to other areas of the country. Cider, which has a very low alcohol content due to having less sugar than grapes, slowly gave way to the more potent punch of beer.
But it was Prohibition and the Volstead Act which caused cider to evaporate as a staple of American life. Hard cider became illegal, and many of the orchards devoted to cider apples—they are too tart to be used as eating apples—were destroyed by Prohibitionists. And with the Volstead Act limiting “sweet” cider to 200 gallons per year per orchard (to prevent people from making their own apple moonshine) the remaining orchards were hard-pressed to stay in business.
Today there is a resurgence in hard cider production. Like the microbrewery trend, local orchards are developing an enthusiastic following for their handcrafted brews. So while many people toast the end of summer with gin and tonics or other summer cocktails, I think I’ll raise a glass to cider, and salute its sweet place in history!
How about you—do you like cider (either sweet or hard)? And what’s your favorite eating apple? Mine is the Macoun, which doesn’t keep well, so is best right now. And if apples aren’t to your taste, what’s your favorite Autumn drink or food?