In the brisk autumn months rife with cooling & constant change, the phrase ‘apple cider’ has the same perfect syllabic beauty as the phrase ‘cellar door.’ Henry David Thoreau avowed, “The apple is the noblest of fruits,” and at this time of year, I am wholeheartedly inclined to believe him. With over 7,500 varieties of apples on the planet (2,500 varieties in the United States alone), there is as much depth of flavor possibilities as there are colours in the autumn-into-winter landscapes.
The apple, with its hardy fruit and abundant nutritional properties, has been the subject of deep symbolism, myth & mysticism. The apple tree itself is dated to have graced its presence as far back as 6500 BCE, growing lushly along the Nile River Delta. In some circles it has been slated as a forbidden temptation, while in others, a symbol of metamorphosis, wisdom and enduring love. In ancient Greece it was the sacred fruit of Aphrodite, and the throwing and subsequent catching of an apple was symbolic of both the declaration and acceptance of love. Even Plato penned a poem stating, “I throw the apple at you, and if you are willing to love me, take it and share your girlhood with me.” In these modern times, there is less of an inclination to toss a fruity projectile at one’s intended love interest, and likely the invitation to share one’s girlhood via apple would result in applejack to the face, but the staid love of apples and its beverage concoctions is a timeless tradition worldwide. In fact, the historical significance of cider alone is as rich as the juice it is made from.
This ‘noble’ fruit, besides being baked, poached, and eaten raw, is also made into a variety of healthful beverages. These are as simple as straight-pressed juice, fermented vinegars, and production into soft cider (non-alcoholic) and hard cider (alcoholic). Plain apple juice, chock full of potassium and iron, has benefits that can include a decrease in dementia and neurological impairment, and the pectin in soft cider has been noted to keep serum cholesterol levels down. It should be noted, however, that when hard cider is imbibed in excess (such as in the form of snakebite or applejack), it is likely that neurological impairment is increased, not the opposite.
For me, and I know for others, there is something about the warmth of soft apple cider that brings my nomadic soul home; it makes me reminisce and drink in the sweetness of life, all in one comforting cup. In my family, we mull together baking spices, a little pat of butter, and a dusting of brown sugar into our cider, then top it off with some fresh whipped cream. In one magical moment, no matter how frigid the temperatures or how loudly the winds are howling outside, the inside howls of sibling discontent are held at bay, drenched in glowing warmth and steaming sweetness.
On the other side of its teetotaler twin, hard cider has a special place in the hearts of beverage connoisseurs, and has enough delicious history to satisfy anyone’s inner epicurean. From 55 CE onward, in part due to the expansion of the Roman Empire and its effusive delight in drinking cider, the spread of this precious fermented juice became widespread. Hard cider has a global presence in 26 countries, ranging from the United Kingdom to New Zealand, and as many taste expressions as there are cider presses. In South America, sidra is available in the form of a sweet and effervescent champagne-style beverage, often consumed in celebrations and family gatherings. In France, a consumer can find cidre doux (sweet cider), cidre demi-sec (semi-dry), and cidre brut (dry cider) in all of their sparkling glory. In the United Kingdom, the ciders are typically distinguished in two categories; clear, strong ciders from the Kentish and East Anglia traditions, and the cloudy, unfiltered scrumpy ciders more prominent in the Western Country.
It is perhaps in the United States that hard cider has become a bit of a mysterious presence in the beverage world. Its origins were not as romantic as its global counterparts; water was too toxic to drink for the new settlers, and as apples were easily preserved, it was commonplace to drink cider at meals. Because it could be consumed during any part of the day, it quickly became the most popular beverage in its time, well beyond whiskey, wine or beer. Add to that the legendary and iconic Johnny Appleseed, whose seed-slinging, missionary style made him the colonial Dionysus during the 1800s, planting orchards and the rooting the art of cider wherever he went. Hard cider became as stolidly American as log cabins.
However, as settlers moved westward, and German immigrants brought with them the knowledge of beer brewing, hard cider’s popularity took a turn for the worst faster than Snow White biting into the poison apple. The Prohibition Law was the death knell for hard cider, and for a long time cider making became a lost art in the United States. With post-Prohibition came the advent of Coca-Cola, and the cocaine-infused, carbonated soda made any interest in hard cider fall flat. Fortunately, an influx of hard cider imports from France and the UK began reviving the consumer urge for something different, and the rise of the artisan beer movement allowed the hard cider industry to bear more fruit with beverage connoisseurs. And that bodes well for those of us desirous of all that this niche has to offer.
As the days turn cooler and the nights come faster, delve into the refreshing richness of apple cider with friends and family, either as a fancy hot concoction or a cool, simple pleasure. Let the vast variety and history of this sweet beverage be the apple of your eye and the core comfort of this season.