Cider is a beverage made from apples.
Exactly what Cider means, however, depends on where you are. First, let’s go back a bit. Many hundreds of years ago, “Cider” could mean a drink made from various fruits, such as peaches, pears, or apples but recently — say in the last two or three hundred years — it has been restricted to meaning a drink made from apples. Agreement, however, on what it’s made from may be breaking down again: small specialty companies have now re-started producing pear and peach Ciders. These, though, will be prefaced with “Peach” or “Pear”, and though you will still see people saying “Apple Cider” out of some kind of genetically inherited habit from those very old days, generally it is still quite widely presumed that the word “Cider” on its own equals apple.
Regardless of the fruit the Cider was made from, the Cider was always fermented, as in “grandma’s had too much Cider.” The new “specialty” Ciders from pears or peaches are alcoholic, too. British colonists in Canada and America made Apple Cider, with the full expectation that it would turn out to be alcoholic, and they would have been mighty displeased if it hadn’t. Along the way, though, something has happened, and while in countries such as the UK, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia (as well as many European countries) the word “Cider” continues to mean an alcoholic drink made from apples, in North America it has come to mean a drink made from apples that is not alcoholic.
Let’s look at what happened in North America. The first thing settlers did when they arrived here was plant apple trees. While the wife was complaining about the half-finished roof over the kitchen, the men were out back planting apple trees. These weren’t apple trees for pies or for yet another jar of sauce in the cellar: these were trees that would grow what people called “Cider apples”, apples with the tang and tannin needed to produce that perfect batch of Cider in the fall — and this was the kind of Cider that the kids weren’t allowed into. One perhaps needs to ask some hard questions about just what Johnny Appleseed was up to; would he have gone down in history from planting apples for Apple Brown Betty? Even before John Appleseed Chapman was born, people like Ben Franklin, John Adams and John Hancock were enthusiastic advocates of Cider, and even more enthusiastic after a few glasses.
Up until the mid 19th-century in America, Cider was two or three times more popular than beer. Everyone could make Apple Cider. People lived on farms, farms grew apple trees, to make it you just squished some apples and set the juice bucket in the back porch for a few weeks, and kept the dog out of it. If you think about it, you couldn’t make anything but alcoholic Cider: there was no refrigeration, so it was going to ferment, and ferment fast, whether you liked it or not. If it didn’t ferment, it wouldn’t have kept. And before guaranteed-safe water supplies, anything with alcohol in it was safer to drink than water. (Come to think of it, at the rate that governments are spending your tax money on everything except basics like safe water, maybe it’s time to go back to that alcohol.)
After the middle of 1800s in America, Cider began very slowly losing ground to beer. German immigrants coming to the country began setting up commercial beer breweries, so reliable good beer could be obtained more widely and more cheaply. Just as importantly, however, was the population shift into the cities — and away from the apple orchards out back. Without easy and affordable access to apples, one of Cider’s main appeals — ease and cost (e.g. free) — disappeared. Farmers here and there in upper New York state might still have been making it for sale from their front yard, but in the days of horses and buggies in the latter half of the 1800s, a trip for Apple Cider wouldn’t be a pleasant two or three hours out in the car. Meanwhile, the commercial beer breweries were on top of things, and expanded their distribution to bars and taverns.
These trends accelerated into the 20th century, until everything came to a screeching halt with the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1919. Though none of the great crusading women like Susan B. Anthony or Frances E. Willard had lived to see the day, Prohibition had arrived in America. (It had arrived in most parts of Canada earlier.) When Prohibition came in effect in 1920, there were over 2,000 breweries in the United States, which were now no longer allowed to brew. Prohibition even covered homes: making Cider in the back shed became illegal as well.
Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment of 1933 (which broke all land-records for the speed at it which it was ratified.) When the “noble experiment” ended, 750 breweries still operated, having stayed alive by making soft drinks or processing food. Out in the country, though, Cider was in a worse state. Many large producers of Cider had razed their orchards of Cider apples, seeing no future in them. Even many small farms didn’t have their apple trees anymore: in fits of Christian purity, farmers cut down any kind of apple tree, Cider apple or not, to remove all temptation.
The breweries swang back in operation quicker than you can say “Johnny Appleseed.” It was easier for them, after all: think about the amount of time to get barley crops back in the ground and ready to harvest compared with the years needed to re-establish an apple orchard from scratch. And Cider wasn’t really made by commercial businesses, it was made by someone’s Uncle Bob or your neighbour over on the next road, didn’t make his living from it.
What did happen during that time to Cider, however, was that it was transformed. During prohibition, alcoholic drinks were defined as something that contained anything over .5% alcohol. Cider, as long as it was sold fresh and unfermented, would be legal to sell. How quick people drank it after they bought it, or whether by accident they sat it out in the summer kitchen and forgot about it for a bit, wasn’t your problem. And so America acquired the taste and the habit of “sweet Cider”, Cider that hasn’t been allowed (by the vendor at least) to ferment into alcohol.
The default definition of Cider had changed. “Cider” came to mean non-alcoholic Cider: “sweet” Cider, or “soft” Cider, or “fresh” Cider, as people sometimes say. And the “hard” stuff, the Cider that had been allowed to ferment, became “hard Cider.”
So, while to the rest of the world the word “Cider’ by itself continued to mean alcohol, no if’s, and’s or but’s about it, in North America the word “Cider” had seen the light, reformed, and become “non-alcoholic.”
Cider is made by pressing the juice out of apples. Ideally, both sweet and tart apples should be used to give it a complex taste. In Britain, many varieties of tart apples are grown specifically for Cider and referred to as “Cider apples.” The apples are washed, and rotten ones are discarded (contrary to myth.) The apples are not cored or pitted, but they are chopped up: the chopped up apple is referred to as “pomace.” The pomace is pressed to get the juice out. The juice starts to turn brown within a very short while of being exposed to the air, just as apples do. The juice is then strained, but not filtered. At this point, it can be sold as “sweet” Cider. Sweet Cider is generally sold in plastic jugs. I think this is partly owing to plastics replacing glass everywhere these days, but I think it is also safer: as your sweet Cider gets on in age, it will start to ferment and produce gases, and plastic will allow a bit of room for expansion. Some people used to have the glass jugs explode on them in the fridge. Can you imagine waking up to that mess in the middle of the night, if the sound of the explosion hadn’t finished you off in your sleep?
To make hard Apple Cider, the Cider is allowed to ferment, then clarified and bottled.
Now, if you thought that was complicated enough for something as simple as Apple Cider, it gets more complicated for North Americans. The rest of the world can sit this next part out.
Apples fallen to the ground
© Denzil Green
Formerly it was assumed that the acidity in the sweet Cider would make it safe from any contaminants in the Cider. But in fact, without the alcohol in “sweet Cider” that is present in what the rest of the world calls “Cider”, the problem of E-Coli in the sweet Cider has arisen. Some of the E-Coli contamination comes from the manure used in the apple orchards, especially when “grounders” (apples that fall from the trees onto the ground) are used. But it doesn’t have to be manure deliberately put there by the farmer; it could be deer or other animal droppings, or it could be squirrel or bird droppings right on the apples themselves. The E-Coli contamination can survive in sweet Cider for up to 4 weeks, and it can survive even if the sweet Cider is frozen. The problem with the 4 week number is that as you approach four weeks, you’re well past the point when most people would have drunk it before it started “going funny” (fermenting and turning alcoholic and, ironically, safe.)
Sweet cider can be made safe by pasteurizing it. “Flash pasteurization” is used, otherwise known as HTST, or “High Temperature for a very Short Time.” The cider is heated quickly to 170 F. It doesn’t make the Cider shelf-stable, which is why pasteurized Cider still needs to be refrigerated, but it is enough to kill anything harmful in the Cider (esp. E. Coli.)
The problem is that no one wants to drink it after it’s been pasteurized. It tastes like a completely different product. Even that brief flash pasteurization is enough to wreck the sweet Cider for many people’s tastes. There’s no doubt that the taste and the tang of the unpasteurized is superior by a country mile. Pasteurized Apple Cider, on the other hand, basically equals a good apple juice.
Surprisingly, there is no legal requirement in either Canada or the US for pasteurizing Cider, so you must look at the label to see if it has been. This is surprising, because health authorities in both countries are always itching to ban cheese made from unpasteurized milk.
Currently, instead of legislating, Canadian and American governments are cooperating in trying to educate sweet Cider producers about safe production methods. These include keeping livestock out of apple orchards, not using manure as a fertilizer, keeping wild animals out of the orchards (though if farmers knew how to keep squirrels and raccoons out, they would likely give up the farms and make millions selling the secrets to house owners.) The producers need to ensure that safe, potable water is used in watering the trees, in applying pesticides and in washing the apples, and they need to ensure that no “grounders” (apples that have fallen to the ground) are used, as even one contaminated apple can infect an entire huge vat of Apple Cider.
In any event, this is where the great North American Cider debate currently takes place, in the field between pasteurized and unpasteurized Apple Cider. Which one you drink is your call, but put it in context by remembering that salmonella cases have been known to occur from unpasteurized orange juice, and who’s ever said no to freeze-squeezed orange juice at a restaurant? If you decide not to drink the unpasteurized Cider, to be consistent you should also give that freeze-squeezed a miss.
Sweet Cider versus Juice
People from outside North America at this point will basically say, but if there’s no alcohol, it’s apple juice, isn’t it? And they’re not the only ones confused. What makes North American Cider, or “sweet” Cider, different from juice? The rest of the world, adhering to their definition of Cider, won’t be moved by any of the following distinctions, but to North Americans they are real and they are important.
- Cider is generally more expensive. It isn’t shelf-stable, so spoilage can occur. Freezing it will extend the life of the product before purchase, but freezing raises the storage costs;
- Cider is strained, but not filtered, so that it remains cloudy. Some people say that Cider should look like very cloudy ice tea, and that if you can see through it, it’s juice. Juice is filtered and clarified;
- Cider seems to have several notes of taste in it, while juice has the same consistent taste from the first moment it enters your mouth till when you swallow;
- Cider always seems to have a bit of a tang or almost carbonated taste on your tongue, as though it is just on the edge of fermenting;
- Apple Cider needs to have some tannin in it, just as wines do;
- Apple Cider is usually unpasteurized. Not only is juice pasteurized, it goes beyond that and is “heat treated” to make it shelf stable. So, while Cider remains “raw juice”, apple juice is a cooked juice;
- Kids drink juice, adults drink Cider
That being said, you can buy apples juices that are edging their way towards tasting like sweet Cider, as producers try to break into an adult market, and you can buy pasteurized, processed, jarred Ciders that producers seem to be doing their darndest to make taste more like what you would pour in a glass and hand to your kids.
The enthusiasm for making hard or “alcoholic” Apple Cider hasn’t entirely gone away though. Some enthusiasts even start right with selecting the apples themselves. The apples need to contain a bit of tannin. Apples with good tannin in Europe include Brown’s Apple, Yarlington Mills, Tremblett’s Bitter, Stoke Red and Gottingen. In North America, the list includes Virginia Crab, Geneva Crab, Cortland, and also Golden Russet, though with Golden Russet you have to boost them as a percentage of the batch. Next, they press their apples. Some rent presses in the fall, some build them, others improvise, using anything from car jacks with old boards to one person I heard saying that they had rigged up an old Hoover washing machine, which was doing a great job.
Once the apples are pressed and you have your sweet cider, it takes about 5 weeks to turn it into hard cider. Some people rely on the vagary of what’s in the air to ferment, but others recommend populating the sweet cider with some brewer’s yeast.
Some people make hard cider from cider they have bought at the store. If the cider is pasteurized, a brewing yeast has to be added.
You can use apple cider to glaze hams or poultry with, poach fish in, or as a more flavourful substitute for water in many bread, cake and muffin recipes.
Apple cider can be used to deglaze pork roast pans to form the foundation of “cider gravy”, which is traditional (and very good) with pork roast dinners.
In cooking, beer or apple juice.
“Sweet” cider will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks before it starts to go off. To keep it for longer periods, freeze for up to 1 year.
Cider was popular in the UK before the Romans arrived.
Literature & Lore
Comes from Middle English “sidre”, from the Anglo-Saxon “seider.” During the Middle English period, it could mean something made from fruits other than just apples.
In Suffolk and Norfolk, England, they often spelled cider as “cyder”. There, instead of using cider apples, they made it from cooking and dessert apples such as Bramley’s.
Nowadays, some producers are using “cyder” as an attempt to distinguish their cider product from more commercial cider. Some say “cyder” is made from just a single pressing of the apple, as opposed to “cider” which can be made from several pressings, but this is reading back into what the word used to be, which is just a variant spelling. What’s certain, though is that whether spelled “cider” or “cyder”, it was always alcoholic, both in the UK and in America.
In the Ozarks, there were several superstitions around making cider:
Some hillfolk believe that there is no use in trying to make cider or wine when the moon is waning – it will turn sour every time. Others tell me that the best cider is made in clear weather, with the wind a-blowin’ from the west, and the moon has nothing to do with it. There is an old proverb to the effect that the best way to keep cider sweet is to drown a water snake in it, but this is not to be taken literally. Who wants to keep cider sweet, anyway?”1
Randolph, Vance. Ozark Superstitions. Columbia University Press, 1947. Chapter 4. ↩