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A Brief History of American Apple Cider

Just like apple pie, apple cider isn’t truly an American invention, though the claim isn’t completely untrue for a country so focused on fall celebrations. While apple cider’s origins can be traced to the Romans, who learned to ferment crab apples from ancient Celts, America has always had its own take on this favorite fall beverage.

American Influence

Apples in a bucket of water
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Modernized DIY cider pressing is often a family-friendly fall activity, but when early European settlers arrived in the Americas, it was less seasonal fun and more lifesaving necessity. Those who survived crossing the Atlantic knew that drinking water in the colonies was just as dangerous since it potentially harbored waterborne diseases that could wipe out families and entire communities.

But beer, the common alternative to water, wasn’t available thanks to the difficulties colonists faced in growing the barley, wheat, and rye used for brewing. Luckily, English settlers were already familiar with another safe drink — cider. Thanks to how well apple trees adapted to the New England climate, apple cider became the standard drink for everyone including children, who were often served a watered-down version called ciderkin or applekin. The average family at the time consumed 90 gallons of cider each year!

Within a decade of colonial settlement, farmers began planting orchards in order to harvest bitter apples for cider, as well as vinegar, which was essential in pickling and preserving food. In the early 19th century, John Chapman, better known as the famed “Johnny Appleseed,” made his fortune from growing apples in early America. By planting temporary tree nurseries throughout unsettled areas in the Midwest, Chapman was able to sell large, established apple trees to families bound for the West.

Cider was considered to be exceptionally valuable in early America and even became an acceptable payment for work. Virginia planter William Fitzhugh noted around the late 1670s that his 2,500-tree orchard and the cider it produced was as valuable as 15,000 pounds of tobacco at a time when the plant was Virginia’s top cash crop.

Is It Juice or Alcohol?

Apple cider being poured into a glass with a sliced apple in front
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At one point in American history, apple cider was only a fermented, alcoholic beverage, but the ability to brew beer year-round and the Temperance Movement led to a sobering switch. Many cider apple orchards were cut down or burned during Prohibition, which forced farmers to grow other crops. Even after Prohibition’s end, cider orchards remained decimated since the cost, work, and time involved in planting new apple orchards wasn’t worth the limited demand for cider. Farmers who did stick to growing apples switched to sweeter varieties that could be used for baking or pressing fresh juice that was marketed as a healthy drink.

However, the fall tradition of pressing apples didn’t die with Prohibition, which is probably why American cider drinkers often consider any type of pressed apple juice to be cider, even if it’s unfermented. Regulating organizations such as the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources have their own definitions that mostly depend on filtering. In Massachusetts, apple juice is filtered and pasteurized, while apple cider retains its pulp and dark coloring. Cider manufacturers may also use cinnamon and other spices to help differentiate the two (though major apple juice company Martinelli’s says the only difference between juice and cider is the name on the bottles).

As for other apple cider products, the popular term for alcoholic apple beverages is “hard cider,” which has been making a comeback in the U.S. since the 1990s. The fancy, kid-friendly version is called sparkling apple cider, which boasts bubbles and is often served in a cocktail glass. Don’t be fooled, though: It’s simply apple juice that’s been carbonated, and you can even make your own at home.

Differing Alcohol Content

Two glasses of apple cider with cinnamon sticks in them
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If there’s any cider-related faux pas, it’s calling the drink “cider beer.” This is because cider brewers note there are huge differences between cider, beer, and even wine. The easiest way to remember the difference between the three is by knowing their bases. Ciders are made from apples or pears and may feature other infused fruit flavors. Wines are generally made from fermented grapes (the exclusion being mead, a wine made from water and honey). As for beers, starchy grains are boiled and then fermented to create a variety of styles. All three beverages undergo some level of fermentation, though the process varies slightly. Generally, wine has two to three times the alcohol content by volume (ABV) of either beer or cider, which are comparable with 4-6% ABV.

And what about apple cider vinegar? This apple juice-based product can resemble cider and shares its name but undergoes a longer period of fermentation that converts the initially created alcohol into pungent vinegar. While apple cider vinegar is promoted as good for gut health, it’s unlikely you’ll want to down a glass like you would a refreshing glass of actual apple cider.