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In the last few months I’ve given my cider presentation, “Cider: Pennsylvania’s Once (& Future?) Favorite” to several civic and museum groups. I enjoy these talks. I get to share a little cider history with folks, I get ideas for new areas to explore or add to the talk, and I even do a little advertising for the Blackledge ciders. Most importantly though, I learn from the audience.
These public presentations are not the place for intense, academic study. Instead, I try to share a survey of cider history and the current growth of cider. Originally this talk was 45 minutes, with a few minutes left over for questions. Over time, I have added information and shortened the program. This leaves time for the Q&A session to be more conversational. This has been interesting to me since it turns out domestic cider production is not as historic as my early-American focus has led me to think.
Many of my audiences are what demographers call “seniors.” Almost all are from Pennsylvania. It wasn’t that long ago that much of the state was heavily agricultural. Making cider on the farm and at home is still within living memory for many. And boy, do they share their memories.
These stories (oral histories, really) are replete with family and neighbors making cider in their basements, barns, and garages. Sometimes they traded their cider locally, sometimes it was for their own use. The memories of picking and pressing apples as children return and with them a surprise that what they did as kids has been done by kids for centuries. As you might expect, there are occasional misconceptions over what their adult memories of their childhood selves think they saw or heard.
Even so, it’s pleasant for them to remember and for me to listen and realize that for some, the “back then” of cidermaking wasn’t that long ago.
Whenever I give someone a bottle of cyder, I ask them to let me know what they think, good, bad, or indifferent. I sincerely want to hear their reactions. Usually I get back the bland, overly-nice, “it was good,” or “I liked it.” If they didn’t like it I usually hear things like “it’s not my taste, but I’m sure it’s good,” or, if it was too sharp or sour for their taste they might say “something must have been wrong with the bottle.”(1)
I gave a bottle of cyder to a casual acquaintance. I expected he and his wife would try it and say something similar to the above. Instead they held an informal tasting with friends. They even made comment cards, which they shared with me when they returned the bottle.
As you can see the general consensus from their tasting is the cyder was somewhere from spicy to sour.
This is not an uncommon reaction to my cyders. Especially since I don’t arrest the fermentation to leave a residual sweetness or back sweeten. Most modern commercially-produced ciders are heavily back sweetened, which is what most people are used to.
But the charm of historical cider is that it’s generally what nature gives us and nature can be on the tart/sour side. At least that’s what my cidermaking experiments suggest. But what do historic sources say cider tasted like in the past?
Before looking at the records, it’s important to say people back then weren’t asking the same questions we are.(2) To them, cider tasted like cider. They didn’t see the need to parse flavors and there was no flavor wheel to consult.(3) They did refer to ciders as being too acidic or sweet. Common as they were, those are relative terms. For example, today what Americans think of as dry cider is not the same as what the Spanish think of as dry cider.(4)
What I’m looking for is a more direct explanation of cider. The earliest I’ve found is from Ephraim Chamber’s Cyclopædia, or, An universal dictionary of arts and sciences (1728), which defines cider as
…a brisk, tart, cool Liquor prepar’d from Apples.
The Cider Makers’ Manual (1869) says
When cider has been properly prepared in this manner, it will possess a pleasant acid, agreeable taste…
Acid; sour; harsh; rough; austere; as, hard cider…
Later, The Cider Makers’ Hand Book (1890) said cider
…should be tart, like Rhine wine, and by no means sharp or harsh. It should have a pleasant, fruity flavor, with aromatic and vinous blending, as if the fruit had been packed in flowers and spices. It should have mild pungency, and feel warming and grateful to the stomach, the glow diffusing itself gradually and agreeably throughout the whole system, and communicating itself to the spirits. It should have a light body or substance about like milk, with the same softness and smoothness, and it should leave in the mouth an abiding agreeable flavor of some considerable duration, as of rare fruits and flowers.(5)
It seems our pre-Prohibition ancestors enjoyed ciders which were significantly sharper, tarter, or sourer than most modern ciders.
- Occasionally comments are much more direct and contradictory. Recently, on social media, within moments of each other, one person said my cider was “undrinkable” and another said, “I love your cider!”
- For our purposes today “then” is anytime before Prohibition (1920).
- Some general flavor preferences are known but they’re usually extreme examples.For instance, one cider history stated that, “…Herefordshire labourers preferred cider so sour that it tasted like vinegar to strangers.” R.K. French, The History and Virtues of Cyder (New York: St.Martin’s Press, 1982), 17.
- There are many seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century sources which compare cider to other alcoholic drinks, most commonly to Rhenish wine (think dry Riesling).
- Oh,to make cider like this!
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This post was updated on 25 February 2017.
I realized recently that I haven’t said much about this season’s cidering. Only because there isn’t much to talk about.
You may remember that in August 2015 we moved. We had to move again in August of 2016. Not long afterwards, and before much else was settled, I changed day jobs. Not only did this increase my hours at work, it now includes an hour-and-half commute each way. Figuring there would not be a lot of time for cider while adjusting to all of these changes, I decided to focus on a couple of simple single-variety cyders.
Single-variety cyders, with nothing added (or the lazy man’s cyder), are perfect for these busy times.
Next to straight cider, cider royal was the most common cider-based beverage in early America.
Cider royal is a fortified drink, made by blending cider with a distilled spirit, like French brandy or apple brandy. To make it cider royal one also has to add what was called sweets (a boiled syrup of sugar, water, and egg whites) and letting it condition for several months to several years.
Last fall I fermented a batch of cyder intended for royalling and fortifying. Once the cyder was finished in the spring I made a batch of sweets according to one of William Salmon’s 1710 receipts.
After the sweets had cleared and cooled I added French brandy (I used French brandy for the simple reason that it was on sale) and then blended the the fortified sweets with the cyder. I let them condition for five months before bottling.
As part of the experiment, I also made a one-gallon batch of fortified cyder, just adding a quantity of French brandy to straight cyder.
To figure out the final alcohol content for both the cider royal and the fortified I used a Pearson’s Square. Based on the proportions they both went from being a straight cyder at 7% ABV to fortified cyders at 10%.
Last week I bottled everything and sampled both.
As you can see the fortified cyder is clearer. It also has a noticeable alcohol burn on the tongue.
The cyder royal is cloudy, sweeter, and smoother. In some ways the cider royal is definitely closer in profile to modern industrial ciders (but without carbonation).
I wonder if one of the reasons cider royal was popular was because the sweets helped overcome any harsh sharpness or other extremes in the cider. Having a higher alcohol content probably didn’t hurt either.