The presidential campaign of 1840 was going to be a hard fought one between Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison. In an attempt to paint Harrison as an old geezer who could not handle the strain of the presidency, a Democratic newspaper stated that “[g]ive him a barrel of hard cider, and … a pension of two thousand [dollars] a year … and … he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin.” Harrison, to show what a hard working regular guy he was, used that statement to start calling himself the “log cabin and hard cider candidate”. Harrison’s political rallies were swimming in the apple based beverage, and there are stories that people who voted for him on Election Day were given even more of the hard stuff. All of that helped to give Harrison an electoral landslide.
Modern drinkers most likely would scratch their head at this. How is hard cider a draw? Isn’t that a drink that people who can’t handle real liquor drink? It is too fruity and sweet for anything but a lightweight drinker to be able to handle. Prohibition killed many fine distilleries and truly altered the flavors that Americans sought for their cocktail time. Hard cider was one of the casualties.
Hard cider was widely considered a working man’s drink through the end of the 19th century, but was also on the table at every fine dinner in the United States. George Washington at one point offered it for votes. Thomas Jefferson brewed it while he was searching for a sturdier grape to bring to the United States for wine production. John Adams drank a tankard of it every morning (to soothe his stomach), and many children had it with their breakfast through the 1830’s. The love affair with cider began in the 1620’s when copious amounts of orchards were planted with English apples from Massachusetts to Virginia. The apples we enjoy today are not native to our land. Before colonization, America was a land mainly of inedible crab apples. When the apples matured, some were used for baking and eating, and some were pressed into what we know as apple cider, which they referred to as “soft” cider. It was unfiltered and unpasteurized, so it did not keep for a long period of time. More often, they pressed the apples and added yeast to them to encourage the fermentation. Fermentation made any beverage safer to drink than the water that was available, because the process killed bacteria long before Pasteur developed the process that bears his name.
While the colonies were producing enough grains to feed themselves (and make some beer and whiskey on the side), and many people tried to cultivate grapes to produce wine in the unforgiving costal climate, apples were plentiful. And cider is not incredibly difficult to make (squeeze juice, add yeast, wait). Depending on the sweetness of the apples, most ciders naturally ferment to an ABV of around 5% (right around typical lager beer ABV). With the addition of some natural flavorings and sugars that come from honey (which the colonists could also cultivate), molasses (which they could import from the Caribbean), or maple syrup (plentiful in New England), the ABV of ciders can get up to 14%, which is more on par with wines. In the United States, for tax purposes, ciders are defined as beverages made from apples with no more than 8% ABV. If it goes higher than that, it becomes classified as a wine.
There are many reasons that people look to when searching for the demise of hard cider as a staple of the American drinker. It was not long after the 1840 election that the country began to see the decline in demand for cider. One reason may be the faster expansion to the West. The country was growing at a rapid pace, and apple trees take a few years to mature. People were not planning on planting an orchard then staying around to see it grow. Johnny Appleseed was made famous by planting apple orchards all over this great state, and those apples were most likely used to make barrels and barrels of cider. The people that were pushing this expansion to the west were of German descent, and bringing a new style of beer, the lager, to the United States. Lager beer was safer to create than the ales the English brought over (less risk of spoilage and contamination), and Adolphus Busch embraced the railroad and refrigeration to spread this type of beer across the country. It was also at this time a small group of people made serious inroads to stop the excessive amounts of drinking that marked the beginning of the 19th century through the Temperance movement. People began to cut back on alcohol consumption, and cider was a large part of that consumption, especially in the east.
With the beginning of the craft beer movement in the 1980’s and 90’s, hard ciders began to make a comeback in America. They never really lost their popularity in Europe, being a staple there since England was still ruled by the Celts. Woodchuck, Cider Jack, Hornsby’s, and Woodpecker lead the charge back from obscurity to the big stage of American drinking, but it no longer had a big place at the table. Like Zima, Smirnoff Ice and other malt beverages, they were seen as a novelty, not a piece of Americana resurrected from obscurity. It was not until the later additions of their European brethren like Strongbow and Bulmers that the cider market earned some gravitas. Crispin, based in Minnesota, has also added to that heft, giving America a little more credibility when brewing a less sweet, crisper cider. Crispin and other ciders have started to move away from strictly apples, including pears and other flavors in their ciders. The evolution of cider has gone organic as well, with Samuel Smith adding cider to their wide range of traditional beverages. Rhinegeist is one of the first Ohio brewers to add hard cider to their stable, offering a Dry Hopped and Semi Dry version in cans.
A wide variety of ciders are available around the area, with the best selections being in your local liquor stores. Arrow Wine and Belmont Party Supply both have a fine selection. Maybe you would like to try your hand at it yourself? As was mentioned earlier, it is not incredibly difficult to do, cider being more akin to a wine than beer. If you are an adventurous spirit, Sally’s Place has a very simple recipe you can try, with just a few purchases from a local brew store. Cheers!