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.