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Pressed Into Service: The History of Hard Cider

Pressed Into Service: The History of Hard Cider

Story by ROHANA OLSON and JODI ANDERSON | Photos by ROHANA OLSON

Cider has a long and storied history. The first recorded reference to cider was in 55 BCE, when Julius Caesar found the Celtic Britons fermenting cider from native crabapples. The Norman Conquest of England in the 11th century introduced apple varieties from France and soon, cider was second only to ale in popularity.

The first English colonists to the States brought with them an appreciation and thirst for cider. Only nine years after landing, they planted apple trees in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Eventually, most small farms had an orchard. Pressing and fermenting apple juice was the easiest way to preserve a large fruit harvest, and the cider was often safer to drink than water. 

By 1767, the men and women in Massachusetts drank about 40 gallons of cider annually. Despite cider’s 6 percent ABV (alcohol by volume), John Adams drank it every morning at breakfast. Harvard’s students received a cider ration with their meals. The drink was in such high demand that, in rural communities, it was frequently used to pay taxes and wages.

Angry Orchard is still the most consumed cider, but local cider sales increased by 15 percent in 2019.

The popularity of cider waned in the 19th century for a couple of reasons. During the Industrial Revolution, many farmers abandoned their farms for the big city, leaving their orchards to fallow. German immigrants came in droves and brought a love of their favorite drink: beer. The Temperance Movement and the resulting Prohibition of 1919 sounded the death knell for cider. The production of cider had already fallen from 55 million gallons a year to 13 million by then. When Prohibition was repealed, beer was much easier to produce, as cider apple trees had been replaced by apples more suited to eating.

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Over the next several decades, the once booming cider industry was kept alive by a few cider enthusiasts. In 2012, Boston Beer Company launched an expansion and started to distribute a new hard cider product called Angry Orchard. This fermented beverage became an instant success and started a boom of hard cider. Its consumption rose over 75 percent in the United States that year. From 2014 to 2015, cider sales grew by 209.3 percent. While still relatively small, the industry is 10 times bigger than it was 10 years ago. There are over 820 cideries across the country (compared to 7,450 breweries) working to expand the distribution of cider and continue to advance its popularity. Angry Orchard is still the most consumed cider, but local cider sales increased by 15 percent in 2019.

There are two different camps into which cideries can be divided: the traditional and the modern. Traditional cideries are focused on the apple varieties and fermentation.  They tend to grow and press their own apples. Modern cideries are typically urban-based, source fruit from local or regional orchards, and rely heavily on the more familiar eating apple varieties. These cider makers often push cider beyond the basic apple, introducing different fruits, herbs, spices, and hops into the mix. The craft brewery movement is responsible for the largest resurgence of this locally sourced beverage that Americans- — and the world — have loved for centuries.

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