What Did Historic Cider Taste Like?

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…

Zell’s Popular Encyclopedia, Vol. II (1883) described cider in less glowing terms, calling it

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.

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  1. 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!”
  2. For our purposes today “then” is anytime before Prohibition (1920).
  3. 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.
  4. There are many seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century sources which compare cider to other alcoholic drinks, most commonly to Rhenish wine (think dry Riesling).
  5. Oh,to make cider like this!

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This post was updated on 25 February 2017.

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The Lazy Man’s Cyder is Perfect for Now

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.

2016-gr-ns

Left: 3 gallons of Golden Russet ~ Right: one gallon of Northern Spy.

Single-variety cyders, with nothing added (or the lazy man’s cyder), are perfect for these busy times.

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Ciders to Cheer Your Holidays

blackledge-holiday-advert-2

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November 28, 2016 · 9:02 pm

Getting Cyder Liquored Up

img_3406Next 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.

boiling-sweets

I boiled white sugar, eggs whites, and water into a syrup. It was basically a meringue. I had to keep skimming it.

Boiled Sweets

It took a couple of hours before it cleared up.

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%.

large_pearsonsquare-300x225

The formula can be found here. Or you can use an online calculator.

Last week I bottled everything and sampled both.

IMG_3411.JPG

L: Fortified – R: Royal

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.

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Cider Helps Sway the Election

The candidate, himself a wealthy man, convinced the country that his opponent was a snob who could never understand real Americans. As proof the candidate said his opponent didn’t like hard cider.

It was the election of 1840, and William Henry Harrison was running his
Log Cabin & Hard Cider” campaign against incumbent Martin Van Buren. As you might imagine, Harrison’s campaign created a plethora of log house- and hard cider-related art.

A favorite among them is this not-so-subtle mechanical card

van-buren

Left:
A BEAUTIFUL GOBLET OF
WHITE HOUSE CHAMPAGNE

pull the tab at the bottom and it changes the image to

Right:
AN UGLY MUG OF
LOG-CABIN HARD CIDER
Special Collections Research Center
Syracuse University Library

His campaign worked and Harrison became our 9th president.

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Blackledge Winery’s Latest Release: Eliza’s 28 Apple Brandy Barrel-Aged Cider

14479780_659172867584781_2696001937589604157_nIntroducing our barrel-aged Eliza’s 28 cider. A blend of four heirloom cider apples, fermented dry using the apples’ natural yeast to an ABV of 7.8%, then barrel-aged in a freshly emptied apple brandy barrel. Extremely limited quantities!

For more about the Eliza’s 28 Barrel Aged, including how to order, check out the Libations page.

Please note that we still have Penn’s 74, but we are completely sold out of the original Eliza’s 28 and the Fisher’s 58 (ginger) cider.

And stay tuned – there are new ciders coming soon.

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Upcoming Presentation

29336_117281461647390_3195673_nAt noon on Wednesday, September 14th at the Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center I’m presenting Cider: Pennsylvania’s Once (and Future?) Favorite for their Brown Bag Lunch series.

Hope you can make it.

You can find more about the SLHC here and get driving directions here.

 

 

 

 

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