Making Apple Cider

Don't settle for the thin, pasteurized, store-bought stuff. Making apple cider is cheaper and infinitely more refreshing.

| December/January 1994

Let the apple cider renaissance begin! Bring forth the jugglers of Newton Pippins. Roll out the barrels of pomological splendor. Squeeze the bland and insipid back into the Red Delicious whence it came. Americans are set to rediscover colonial notions about making apple cider.

Cider is a word that means different things to different people. Its root meaning, from the Old French sidre, is "the fermented juice of the apple." Go anywhere in Europe and ask for cider and it will be alcoholic to the last drop. Our colonial forebears here in North America desired nothing less of their first cider than a warming taste to get through a long winter. "Hard cider" came into vogue as a means of distinguishing the first pressed juice of the apple — today's "sweet cider"— from the fermented brew that once flowed by the barrelful. Changing the term "fermented" to "fermentable" ends this ambiguity, and settles the commercial debate of whether apple juice that's been heat-treated or had chemical preservatives added is still cider. Federal regulations somewhat skirt this issue by empowering the word "fresh" to give consumers assurance of purchasing a true apple cider. But be warned: all apple juice sold today as cider isn't necessarily "fresh" cider.

Even without such linguistic meandering, cider is still far from the rich drink enjoyed a century or more ago. Varietal blends have fallen by the wayside along with a once-vibrant regional agriculture. Small farm orchards have been consolidated into an "apple industry" that favors but few of the varietal thousands. The best cider is made from a blend of apples that balances sweetness with tang and body with clarity. However, many good cider varieties are no longer grown in commercial orchards because today's apple profits lie with dessert-quality fruit. The dropped apples and graded culls that now go into store cider and juice blends do not have nearly the value of dessert fruit, and orchardists need 80 percent or more of their crop in this latter category to survive economically. Cider has essentially become a waste product in a country where it was once the treasured national beverage.

Where once grocers chose from 20 to 30 regional favorites, the apple varieties available in supermarkets today are limited to but three or four,. What can we say of a society that apparently supports a greater choice of paper towel brands than apple varieties? I've even heard it said at one industry meeting that commercial cider makers are better off not blending their insipid juices, as the juices in a blended cider might dare to separate (by density) on the grocer's shelf. Taste, as anyone who's eaten a tough winter tomato can affirm, is sacrificed to such commercial "perfection."

Happily, interest in regional fruits has been increasing among both backyard gardeners and smaller commercial orchardists, and you need no longer be held hostage to the few cider blends available in the grocery store. Making your own "juice of the apple" will not only do your palette a tremendous favor, but give you an entirely new idea of what America really tastes like.

Gathering Your Apple Varieties

The road to cider ambrosia begins with the varieties of apples available to be pressed. You can grow those apples, purchase them from nearby orchards, or take to the countryside and explore abandoned farmsteads and hedgerows in search of palatable fruit. Wild apples, in offering something more than the bland sweetness of today's commercial favorites, have a place in a robust cider blend.

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