Autumn is the time of year when our thoughts turn to apples. When I was growing up, that meant visiting apple orchards, drinking fresh apple cider, and making taffy apples. However, I’d never heard of hard cider until a trip to England in the early 1990s.
In the British Isles, ‘cider’ refers to an alcoholic beverage made from fermented apple juice. It was the first thing I ever ordered in an English pub. One taste and I was hooked, but when I returned home, I discovered cider was hard to find in the United States.
Fortunately, times have changed. American brands like Woodchuck, Angry Orchard, and Crispin appeared on the scene, and English and Irish ciders such as Samuel Smith, Magners, and Aspall are now available in bars, restaurants, and liquor stores across the country. In addition, a wonderful cadre of craft cider makers has also emerged in the US.
Cider has been a mainstay in the British Isles for hundreds of years, and England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales all have venerable histories of cider making. Pressing apples and fermenting the juice was an excellent way to preserve apple harvests, and cider was an important alternative to questionable drinking water. As a result, it was enjoyed at every level of society from the working classes to royalty.
In England, cider is strongly associated with the West Country and the West Midlands, particularly the counties of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, and Worcestershire. In his book Ciderland, James Crowden says that it’s “so deeply embedded in the psychology and mystique of the West Country that it is very difficult to disentangle the tradition from the landscape itself.” Other important cider-making areas include Somerset, Kent, and Suffolk.
Cider’s popularity in the UK started to decline in the early 20th century, but it has experienced a major revival over the past 30 years or so. This was due in part to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), which started to promote traditional cider in the late 1980s. Today there are hundreds of thriving cideries across England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. You can learn more about traditionally made cider on CAMRA’s “Beer and Cider” pages.
Another great place to learn about British cider traditions is the Somerset Rural Life Museum in Glastonbury, Somerset, which is definitely worth a visit on your next trip to England. Highlights include a beautiful 14th century stone barn, an 18th-century cider press, and an orchard filled with rare apple varieties.
CIDER IN AMERICA
English emigres brought the cider tradition to America in the early 17th century. They started planting apple trees in the 1620s, and eventually, there were orchards across the English colonies. According to the Washington State University Extension Service, cider was the single most popular beverage in Colonial America. Even children drank a watered-down version.
However, by the late 1800s, beer had surpassed cider as the most popular alcoholic drink in America. This change was fueled in part by the Industrial Revolution, which triggered a migration from the rural communities where cider was typically produced to America’s rapidly expanding urban centers. At the same time, growing numbers of German emigres combined their beer brewing expertise and America’s cheap, abundant stores of grain to create hundreds of small breweries across the country.
The passage of the National Prohibition Act in 1919 was the final nail in the coffin for American cider production. Temperance supporters destroyed apple orchards across the United States, and production never rebounded after Prohibition was repealed.
AMERICAN CIDER TODAY
America’s taste for cider was rekindled in the late 20th century, thanks in part to a small Vermont cidery called Woodchuck. Woodchuck was founded in 1991 and went on to become America’s first mass-market cider, leading the way to an American cider revival.
Today there are numerous brands in the national marketplace, including Ace, Angry Orchard, and Ciderboys. These offerings are a great way to enjoy cider, but for an experience that brings you even closer to America’s English cider heritage, you’ll want to explore some of the craft cideries that have popped up across the United States.
Mass market ciders are often made with apple juice concentrate and may use artificial carbonation, colors, and flavors. Small batch cideries generally use fresh apple juice, avoid artificial carbonation and artificial ingredients, and often use production methods that date back hundreds of years. Cidercraft Magazine is an excellent source of information on American cider producers. You can access free digital copies of the magazine on the Cidercraft website. Here are a few of my favorite American cideries to get you started.
Albermarle CiderWorks in North Garden, Virginia, has been producing artisanal ciders since 2009. The apples for its ciders come from its sister company, Vintage Virginia Apples, which cultivates more than 200 varieties. You can sample more than a dozen of Albemarle’s small-batch ciders at its tasting room in North Garden.
Fieldstone Winery and Hard Cider Co. in Rochester, Michigan, has been turning out craft ciders since 2003. Fieldstone’s tasting room typically features six rotating ciders on tap, including Batch36 (its original dry cider) and semi-dry offerings such as Rogue Wit Apple and Cinnilla, which is brewed with Saigon cinnamon and Madagascar vanilla beans.
Lehman’s Orchard in southwest Michigan is a third-generation family fruit farm that started making wine and cider in 2008. The best place to try Lehman’s products is at its Orchard Brewery & Farmhouse in Buchanan. The family-friendly taproom typically has eight varieties of cider on tap and bottled ciders can be purchased in the adjacent store.
Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, New Hampshire, specializes in dry and barely off-dry ciders made from its own cider apples. Farnum Hill doesn’t have a tasting room, but tasting is often available at its farmstand store during the harvest season. It ships its ciders to more than 40 states.
Cider festivals, which have cropped up all over the country, are another great way to explore American ciders. Everfest is a good place to find more information. Many festivals were postponed in 2020 due to COVID but expect to return in 2021.
COOKING WITH CIDER
Dishes made with cider are perfect for crisp autumn weather. Ann Gomar’s cookbook, Somerset Country Recipes, has recipes for braised Exmoor venison with cider and cream, cider creamed pork, Somerset casseroled country chicken in cider, honey-iced Somerset cider cake, and other cider-based dishes.
Other sources for cider-related recipes include the Museum of Cider in Herefordshire, England, which has recipes for Herefordshire “Cider Rosie” cake and pork & cider hotpot on its website, and the National Trust, which features recipes such as cider fruit loaf and Hanbury Hall cider cake in the recipe section of its website. Cidercraft Magazine has an eclectic collection of cider recipes on its website, including recipes for cider cocktails, and there are more than three dozen cider-related recipes on the BBC Good Food website, including Irish coddled pork with cider; chicken, leek & cider pie; and slow-cooked pork, cider & sage hotpot.
Check out my October 2019 column on hearty autumn foods for other British dishes that pair well with cider.
TIME TO SIP SOME CIDER
Whether you enjoy your cider dry or sweet, on tap or in bottles, October is the perfect time to enjoy this classic British beverage.
Looking ahead, it’s not too early to start thinking about your Christmas menus. Many British import stores will be receiving their Christmas shipments in the coming weeks, and you’ll get the best selection if you place your orders in November. My December 2019 column on British Christmas foods will put you in a festive mood.