A maker only gets one chance each year to make cider, and so in the life of someone who starts making cider at 20, by the time they are 70 they will have had just 50 seasons, 50 attempts to make cider…
Every fall I’ve had to wait on farmers and brew shops to have cider available, or at the very least return my phone calls. At times, it’s put my cidermaking in jeopardy. That’s no way to work. Especially when the chances to make are already so limited. So this year I bought a grinder and press. This means I can cut out the middle man.
Now, instead of waiting for other people, I only have to wait for trees. This is not as hard as it sounds. For years friends have been offering me their apple trees and orchards. I’ve been turning them down because I didn’t have the equipment, but now I can run amuck. In a nice way, that is.
The Herr House is one of the oldest extant Germanic houses in the country. The Herr family emigrated with a small group of fellow Mennonites to America from Switzerland, by way of Germany, in 1710. By 1711 they had settled in the Conestogo area, and by 1719 they built the stone house. Over the next few years they expanded their agricultural operation, including building “One Appel Mill and Drough” and “One Cider Press.”2 It’s one of my favorite historic Pennsylvania homes. So I’m especially pleased I can continue the site’s cidermaking tradition, in my own small way.
An old friend, Tiffany Fisk is the site administrator. She offered to let me pick from the Herr House orchard. While we know they had cidermaking equipment, we don’t know what kinds of apples they planted historically, there is evidence suggesting they had an orchard. Today, the Herr House orchard consists of heirloom varieties planted and grafted in the 1970s.
Tiffany and I spent about three chatty hours picking fruit and talking about life, the universe, and everything. We even ate apples right off the tree.
1. Felix Nash, Fine Cider: Understanding the World of Fine, Natural Cider (New York: Dog’n’Bone Books, 2019), 97.
2. Steve Friesen, A Modest Mennonite Home: The Story of the 1719 Hans Herr House, an Early Colonial Landmark (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1990). For Christian Herr’s inventory listing his mill and press, see 59.
Maybe it’s the pandemic, maybe it’s been a busy year, maybe both, but my cidering has languished a little this season. It all started, as it often does, with research. I didn’t do any. Despite promising myself I would research new historic cider recipes, I never did. When cider season arrived, I knew I wasn’t going to recreate anything, but I figured I could at least make something interesting.
Unlike the research, I started looking for juice early. I began reaching out in August, hoping to get everything squared away. My emails and calls went largely unanswered and by October it was starting to look like I wasn’t going to have anything to ferment. Happily, I was wrong. I was able to get 16 gallons of three kinds of juice. It’s almost half of what I’ve been getting the last few years, but more than I thought I was going to have this year.
The Jonagold started at the end of November and the Granny and December blend came mid-December. All three are wild fermented (though I had to add some already-fermenting juice from the Granny to the December blend to get it going). The Jonagold fermented quickly and cleared very well. Within a five weeks it looked ready to be racked.
However, in keeping with this year’s pace, I didn’t rack it into secondary until yesterday.
The other ciders have apparently picked up on my vibe, because as of yesterday they’re both still pretty dark and bubbling away. Though the Granny (on the left) has recently calmed down. This isn’t really a complaint. I’d rather have a long, slow ferment than a fast one.
I combined yesterday’s racking work with a blending test. J and I pulled out three single-varietals from last season’s cidering to play with.
I was really excited to get the Porter’s Perfection, which has a reputation as a fascinating single-varietal. While it did start wonderfully, it had a leathery, almost chemically finish. J didn’t like it all, but I thought it was good, if a bit earthy. The Medaille, d’Or has always been perfumey to me, unpleasantly so. After a year in the bottle it retained its perfume and added a little vinegary tartness. It’s no good on its own and it easily overwhelms a blend if left to run amuck. The Dabinett was a good, solid cider, though I preferred it as the base of a blend.
It’s the first bottle of each we’ve opened and we went right to blending. I’d like to try the Porter’s and Dabinett by themselves. One thing I’ve noticed is it helps to decant these ciders and let them open up. Maybe taking a little more time isn’t all bad.
Jupiter Evans looms large in American cider culture. His name is increasingly included in cider-related articles. For over a decade he’s had one cider named after him, with a second one just released.1 And his association with Thomas Jefferson rarely goes unmentioned. Of course, that association was forced. Evans was an enslaved African American at Jefferson’s Monticello plantation.
Until relatively recently, Jefferson eclipsed Evans as Monticello’s resident ciderist, but more detailed observations of the records has brought Evans into sharper focus. Born the same year as Jefferson, Evans was Jefferson’s personal servant, stabler, stonecutter, and cidermaker.
This increased awareness of Evans has inspired some to search for other cidermakers of African descent elsewhere in early America. Unfortunately, since so little was recorded about American cidermakers and cidermaking, and much of what was written down remains difficult to access, it can seem nearly impossible to find others. While it may be true that there are not many other African American cidermakers as well documented as Evans, there is plenty of evidence that African Americans were actively, if not freely, making cider throughout early America.
The gentlemen in the country have among their negroes as the Russian nobility among the serfs, the most necessary handicrafts-men, cobblers, tailors, carpenters, smiths, and the like, whose work they command at the smallest possible price or for nothing almost. There is hardly any trade or craft which has not been learned and is not carried on by negroes…
In mid-1790s Englishman Isaac Weld noted that the, “principal planters in Virginia have nearly every thing they can want on their own estates. Amongst their slaves are found taylors, shoemakers, carpenters, smiths, turners, wheelwrights, weavers, tanners, &c.” Orcharding and cidermaking, like the crafts listed above, required a reliable and, preferably, cheap pool of both skilled and unskilled laborers. As Jupiter Evans’s life attests, many planters answered that with enslaved people of African descent.
Like the South, Northern slavery was justified in terms of economics and efficiency, particularly for labor-intensive tasks like cidering. Unlike the South, Northern farms had significantly smaller populations of enslaved labor, often just one or two people. Because their presence was not as dramatic as in the South, enslaved people in the North can seem to be invisible. But there are ways to identify their work.
For example, Rhode Island’s East Bay settlements were predominantly agricultural. These farms participated not only in the local market, but also supplied the trade to the West Indian plantations (where enslaved labor was used for sugar production). Researchers looked at probate inventories (inventories of property and goods taken after someone’s death) to investigate the relationship between six types of agricultural production in East Bay and their use of enslaved labor.2 They focused on large-scale livestock raising, fishing, spinning yarn and thread, cheesemaking, shoemaking, and cidermaking. Their study found that spinning, cheesemaking, and shoemaking were largely independent of enslaved labor, while livestock raising, fishing, and cidermaking were dependent on it.3
As these surveys show, cider and slavery were ubiquitous in early America, often existing side-by-side. We are just beginning to identify their connections and what they mean to our understanding of American cider culture. As we look at our cider history with this new lens, we need to continue to learn more about Evans. We also need to find other African American cidermakers who don’t yet shine as brightly. They are out there.
Though we’re passing the centennial of Prohibition, interest in Prohibition’s effect on cider isn’t diminishing. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Andrew Tobia at The Alcohol Professor site. Check out our conversation, “The Rise and Fall of American Cider Culture.”
In a century or so, historians and archeologists will be curious about what we’ve been up to during the COVID-19 outbreak, how we’re reacting to these sudden changes, and what we’re drinking to help get ourselves through it all. One wine blogger gave a boost to future researchers. He posted, “A Peek at the Drinking Habits of My Oregon Neighbors.” It’s a wonderful (and literal) look at his neighbors’ drinking habits while they’re self-isolating.
COVID isn’t the first time Americans have dealt with a pandemic. Which means it’s not the first time we’ve sought solace and escape in a bottle of something. I got to thinking about life during other outbreaks and what they were drinking to get through them. While it’s not as simple as an evening’s walk around the block, surviving records can offer us a glimpse into what was going on. One of the most well-recorded outbreaks is the 1793 Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic. It came on quickly, stretched from the summer into the late fall, and affected every aspect of life in the city.
Later in his life Samuel Breck described that summer for those left in the city, saying
The horrors of this memorable affliction were extensive and heart-rending. Nor were they softened by professional skill. The disorder was in a great measure a stranger to our climate, and was awkwardly treated. Its rapid march, being from ten victims a day in August to one hundred a day in October, terrified the physicians, and led them into contradictory modes of treatment. They, as well as the guardians of the city, were taken by surprise. No hospitals or hospital stores were in readiness to alleviate the sufferings of the poor. For a long time nothing could be done other than to furnish coffins for the dead and men to bury them.1
The first case of yellow fever was recognized on August 3 and spread quickly. On August 26, the College of Physicians published their recommendations to maintain the public’s health, which included social distancing and limiting (if not banning) large gatherings. The eleventh of eleven points suggested people should, “avoid intemperance…” and, “use fermented liquors, such as wine, beer, and cider, with moderation.”2
The term “moderation” is always delightfully ambiguous. Without a trash pit to dig to or a detailed inventory of consumption, it’s almost impossible to tell how people defined moderation, much less if anyone listened.
In looking back, the first thing I learned is that most people were focused on the fever itself. They didn’t write much about what they were eating or drinking, unless they thought it was curative or necessary. It’s likely that people carried on drinking what they always had, just more of it. Instead, the records reveal the drinks caregivers and medical professionals thought were most beneficial.
I assumed cider would be all over the records. It was seen as curative for other afflictions and I thought there would be references to its medical use. But beyond the College of Physicians mentioning it, references to cider are almost wholly absent. Maybe cider was so common that it didn’t attract attention. It might also be that it was not seen as beneficial for those suffering with the fever.3
Wine and beer was mentioned more extensively. The yellow fever hospital established at Bush Hill provided meals and drink intended to aid recovery. An observer noted that “The sick drank at their meals porter, or claret [red wine] and water.”4
The hospital’s administrators, “directed all the drinks to be given in a tepid state,” including spiced wine, wine, and water. However, these drinks met, “with such bad success, that we cannot recommend them in such circumstances.” Instead, they suggested, “Hot brandy toddy… with the addition of a large quantity of powdered nutmeg….”5 It should be noted that brandy toddies were not on the College of Physicians’ approved drinks list.
Wine was also a primary ingredient in one “cure.” Some doctors prescribed “wine and bark” (a blend of red wine and quinine) to their patients, rather than bleeding. Since fewer patients died from wine and bark treatments than bloodletting, many believed it was an effective cure.6 It’s equally possible that bloodletting was simply an unhealthy practice.
Alcohol wasn’t the only drink offered to patients. At the Bush Hill hospital, patients’, “constant drink between meals was centaury tea [for digestive comfort], and boiled lemonade.”7
Perhaps the most sought after drink, the one recognized for being healthiest, was water. Certainly it was important for the hospital at Bush Hill to have it. At one point, the minutes mentioned that the, “pump had failed, but they had found a spring nearby which will be helpful.”8
For some, getting water was not simply walking to the pump or spring. One incident showcased that fear almost prevailed over people’s humanity. A “poor, probably homeless, man lay begging for water. No one offered him any, until a woman brought a pitcher to him. She put it on the ground some way off from him, so she wouldn’t have to get too close and he crawled to it.” Even so, “After a couple of days he died.”9
Absalom Jones and Richard Allen wrote about the contributions of African American caregivers who volunteered to care for fever victims throughout the city.
At the peak of the infection, they said, entire families were found dead in their homes without, “even a drink of water for their relief…” However, not everyone turned a blind eye to such suffering, noting that, “a sick man stood at his window begging for a drink of water. No one would offer him any, even after a reward was offered for the service, until an African American man did it for free.”10
It’s safe to say that these few references are not the whole story of what was going on in Philadelphia in 1793. Records can only tell us so much. The same goes for recycling bins. For example, since I use and reuse lightning stopper bottles, my household’s recycling bin isn’t reflective of our COVID-era consumption.11
What do you see when you look in your bin? What story do you think it tells and is there anything missing? Feel to share your thoughts in the comment section and help a future archeologist out.
3. So far the only cider reference I found was from September 17, 1793 when a traveling party stopped at a tavern outside of Baltimore. The tavern keeper refused them service for fear they might bring the fever inside his tavern, forcing them to sleep in their stagecoach. The next morning he reluctantly served them a breakfast of cheese, bread, wine, and cider. Carey, Short Account, 85.
Cider has a color problem. But it’s not the one in your glass.
If you stand around a cider festival long enough, someone is bound to ask, “why is cider so white?” Usually people get a puzzled look on their face while they stare absentmindedly into their cider glass, happy to be part of such a progressive group but hoping the subject will change. On really rare occasions someone will ask where are the cidermakers of color? That usually goes shamelessly unanswered.
To judge by makers, marketers, and drinkers cider looks pretty white. Surprising in a sector that talks a lot about demographics. Maybe not surprising, since those studies usual focus on age, gender, and sweetness preferences. Reaching people of color hasn’t really been part of those discussions. For all its talk about expanding audiences and reaching out to people, it’s painfully obvious that cider needs to take a long hard look at itself and its overwhelming whiteness.
A good place to begin is to look at how we talk about cider. Or rather, who cider likes to talk about. Cidermakers and marketers love to lift up America’s Founders as cider producers and drinkers. It’s almost impossible to read about cider without seeing a reference to John Adams, George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson.
Is this focus on Founders because it makes cider seem more “American”? Is it because if the Founders did it, it must be good? For whatever reason, we keep linking them to cider.
However, for many, America’s Founders, and the events they represent, are at best problematic and at worst the problem. This isn’t a new perspective. Frederick Douglass in his “Oration, Delivered in Corinthian Hall” on July 5, 1852, asked, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” He answered it, saying,
a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
As Douglass said then and Black Lives Matter has reiteratated today, the Founders aren’t the shining examples white America hopes they are. After all many famous Founders supported, participated in, and benefited from slavery. That is why statues of some of the Founding generation have come under renewed scrutiny and a few have been targeted by protesters.1
While I am not suggesting that African Americans have entirely rejected the Founders, they have not embraced them as white America has. It’s possible cider’s focus on the Founders has contributed to keeping African Americans and other people of color away. As we’re seeing in other places in American life, the Founders are not the welcoming ambassadors some wish them to be.
It’s time that cidermakers and marketers end their fascination with the Founders. By no means am I suggesting we ignore history or our pursuit of a deeper understanding of our past. Perhaps if we drop the selective history then maybe cider culture and find new ways to broaden how we talk about cider we can begin to feel welcoming to every American.
Also, I’m not suggesting that if we don’t mention Washington anymore that’ll make it all better. It won’t. This is one small start to answering the question of why is cider so white.
While we’re changing things, perhaps we should replace asking, “why is cider so white?” with “what can I do to change that?”
The Pennsylvania Cider Guild celebrates July 4th with their “Cider: Fuel of the Revolution” campaign. One of the goals of the Guild is to get cider a spot at the table as the all-American drink alongside apple pie, the all-American food.
Perhaps there’s a slightly more revolutionary addition to suggest – why doesn’t the PA Cider Guild, and all American cider organizations, do as the state of Pennsylvania and 46 other states and the District of Columbia have done already and recognize Juneteenth as an independence day alongside the 4th of July?
The last time I made cider was two years ago. And the previous vintage was two years before that. Happily, I made so much both times that there was plenty of cider to get through the off years. I don’t like the lulls though. The whole idea of being a cidermaker is to make cider.
So I am happy that in November I started five batches of new ciders, which I racked into secondary yesterday. They include:
Cherry cider (6 gallons; potential ABV 7% )
Penn cider (6 gallons; potential ABV 8%)
Brown Sugar (3 gallons; potential ABV 8%)
Medaille d’Or single varietal (1 gallon; potential ABV 9.5%)
Raw blend (2 gallons; potential ABV 7.5%)
I’m hopeful there will be a few more ciders added, particularly Golden Russet. I’m waiting on the orchard.
While I’m not crazy about off-years, it does offer a little time to think and plan. This was especially helpful as these last two years offered a few unexpected opportunities, which have helped me refine my thinking about my cidering and cider history research.
One of the things I was noticing over the the last two vintages is how “bready” some of the ciders tasted, even a year after they were bottled. While it wasn’t all of ciders fermented in plastic, all of the “bready” ones were fermented in plastic. I decided to drop the plastic fermenting buckets this year and see if that changed anything.
Perhaps the worst offender of “breadiness” is the boiled cider. Since it’s so commonly referenced in historical sources, I was excited to try it. However, whether it was through the processing (you reduce the volume of sweet cider by half and then ferment that) or the plastic fermenters, or something else altogether, these ciders have not aged well. J. pointed out that I usually find something good to say about all of the ciders I’ve made. Not this one. It is unpleasant to drink.
Along with making goals, there are some research goals for the 2020. I want to continue to expand my archive of period recipes. Since we’re in the middle of Prohibition’s centennial, I want to get back to the “Did Prohibition Prohibit Cider?” series. And, after a heated conversation with someone on a cider Facebook group, I want to explore the desire to connect the Founding generation to cider. There might even be a survey.
Lastly, I want to get out into the world more. I’d like to increase the number of cider talks I give, particularly the Prohibition talk. I also want to finally make it to Franklin County Cider Days.
For now, I’d better call the orchard back and see if the rest of the juice is ready. Here’s to a productive 2020!