Hard cider. The name may sound tough, but this alcoholic beverage hasn’t had the easiest path to success. And while the moniker may be uniquely American — the rest of the world just calls it cider — the drink itself is not. It made its way from France to Britain, and from there, to the New World. But the history of hard cider, once it reached these shores, is as bittersweet as the wild apples of yore.

New England’s Beverage of Choice

By the time the Pilgrims and Puritans settled in what is now Massachusetts in the 1600s, beer was the most popular drink in England, followed by cider. However, it didn’t take long for them to figure out that cereal grains, such as wheat and barley, did not grow well in New England. As a result, they couldn’t really brew beer. According to Ben Watson, author of “Cider, Hard and Sweet: History, Traditions, and Making Your Own,” the colonists experimented with fermenting local ingredients, such as pumpkins, to see if they could come up with a satisfactory beverage.

Since nothing the colonists tried could compare to cider, they requested apple seeds from France and Britain. Some wealthy landowners were even able to import whole trees. The plants thrived on this side of the pond, and soon, cider became a major part of the colonists’ daily diet. If you’re wondering why they didn’t just quench their thirst with water, well — it tasted strange compared to what they were used to back home, which made them question its potability. Also, once cities were built and industry took hold, byproducts and sewage were regularly dumped into local waterways until, many years later, regulations to clean them up were established. By the late 18th century, the majority of the population in the northeast lived on farms, and one out of every ten had a cider press, which made it the number one beverage in New England for over a century.

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As time went on, westward expansion, the success of growing cereal grains in the midwest, and an influx of immigrants from other regions of Europe made beer more popular and readily available. But Americans continued to drink cider until Prohibition. It was then, Angry Orchard head cider maker Ryan Burk explains via email, that “apples that were grown specifically for cider making, apples with high tannins know as bittersweet, were systematically removed and replaced with apples more akin to what we find in the grocery store today.” Instead of cider apples, orchards planted eating apples (aka culinary or dessert apples). Cideries, forced to stop making alcoholic cider, instead began making sweet cider, which is nonalcoholic, unfiltered, unpasteurized, and has a much shorter shelf life.

Watson credits the craft beer movement of the 1980s with making hard cider (the “hard” was added to differentiate it from sweet cider) popular again. “It was a slow, organic growth,” Watson reflects. When his book originally came out in 1999, he had predicted that the cider industry would grow. He wasn’t wrong, but it was a slow process. Fast forward almost twenty years, and you’ll find hundreds of cideries across the U.S., with more opening up every year. “It’s great,” observes Watson, “but there’s a lot of competition now.” This forces cider makers to come up with innovative ways to differentiate themselves and stay relevant, with some pretty spectacular results.

Hard Cider, Then and Now

Tastes have certainly evolved over the past few hundred years. Burk surmises that, since the colonists relied on wild fermentation, their ciders “likely had a more funky farmhouse flavor to them.” He also points to the ciders coming out of Spain, England, and France as good examples of how Europeans, who have been growing and using the same types of bittersweet apples for centuries, have kept up cider-making traditions. “Today, sweet and medium-sweet ciders are still most popular in the U.S. when it comes to flavor profiles,” Burk says. He describes the number one cider in the U.S., Angry Orchard Crisp Apple, as crisp and apple-forward, with sweetness, bright acidity and dry tannins from combining culinary and traditional apples in the recipe. However, his team creates a wide range of cider styles, some of which harken back to what early Americans may have been drinking day-to-day.

Surprisingly, a cider’s sweetness is not a function of the amount of sugar in the fruit used to make it, according to Watson, unless you happen to be using antiquated methods. Many cideries use an apple concentrate, ferment it, cut it with water, and add juice or sugar after the fact, which is called back-sweetening. Alternatively, the alcohol content does depend on the amount of sugar in the fruit, which varies by factors such as climate and weather, in addition to which variety of apple is used.

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“There are over 6,000 apple varieties, all with distinctly different characteristics,” Burk writes. He and the team at Angry Orchard focus on sourcing quality fruit from growers across the country (and the world) and experiment with different varieties and techniques to create small-batch ciders that you can only find at their facility in Walden, New York. “Tradition is extremely important,” says Burk. “At the orchard, we also play around with many heirloom apples those long-ago cider makers would have had access to – like Newtown Pippin. At the cidery, we make a single varietal cider using that apple. It’s acidic and bright, and I think very similar to something you might have found in colonial times.”

Burk’s team also experiments with barrel-aging, wild and spontaneous fermentation, and an unfiltered process. “To continue growing the cider industry in America,” he adds, “we’ve begun planting traditional bittersweet cider apple trees and other heirloom varieties at our orchard in New York’s Hudson River Valley to see what varietals grow best in this region and which apples will continue to deliver high quality cider for years to come.” The resulting beverages offer a more complex flavor profile, ranging from slightly sweet to bone dry.

This is where the most innovative cider makers seem to be focusing their energy: ancient methods and a return to the wild. “Some people are looking back to tradition,” Watson relates, “foraging apples, going out and finding old seedling trees, grafting them, finding feral apples that would be good for contributing to cider…they’re doing very interesting things.”

Going backwards to move forwards may sound counterintuitive, but if the success of national brands like Angry Orchard, in addition to small regional makers here and there, is any indication, America’s taste in cider will surely follow.

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