The History of Cider Making

See how our ancestors figured out how to use apples in cider making.


| June 2013



The-Drunken-Botanist

Learn which plants you are drinking tonight in “The Drunken Botanist.”

Cover Courtesy Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

It seems there isn’t a plant or flower that hasn’t been harvested, brewed and bottled. The Drunken Botanist (Algonquin Books, 2013) by Amy Stewart explores the botanical history of some of the world’s greatest spirits. In this excerpt, learn the history of cider making and how cider was the first concoction made from apples. 

Apple
Malus domestica 
rosaceae (rose family)

The apple best suited for cider and brandy is what we would call a spitter: a fruit so bitter and tannic that one’s first instinct is to spit it out and look around for something sweet to coat the tongue—a root beer, a cupcake, anything. Imagine biting into a soft green walnut, an unripe persimmon, or a handful of pencil shavings. That’s a spitter at its worst. How, then, did anyone discover that something as crisp and bright as cider, or as warm and smooth as Calvados, could be coaxed from it?

The answer lies in the strange genetics of the apple tree. The DNA of apples is more complex than ours; a recent sequencing of the Golden Delicious genome uncovered fifty-seven thousand genes, more than twice as many as the twenty thousand to twenty-five thousand that humans possess. Our own genetic diversity ensures that our children will all be somewhat unique—never an exact copy of their parents but bearing some resemblance to the rest of the family. Apples display “extreme heterozygosity,” meaning that they produce offspring that look nothing like their parents. Plant an apple seed, wait a few decades, and you’ll get a tree bearing fruit that looks and tastes entirely different from its parent. In fact, the fruit from one seedling will be, genetically speaking, unlike any other apple ever grown, at any time, anywhere in the world.

Now consider the fact that apples have been around for fifty million to sixty-five million years, emerging right around the time dinosaurs went extinct and primates made their first appearance. For millions of years, the trees reproduced without any human interference, combining and recombining those intricately complex genes the way a gambler rolls the dice. When primates—and later, early humans—encountered a new apple tree and bit into its fruit, they never knew what they were going to get. Fortunately, our ancestors figured out that even bad apples make great liquor.

Cider

The first boozy concoction to come from apples was cider. Americans refer to unfiltered apple juice as apple cider and usually drink it hot with a cinnamon stick. But ask for cider in other parts of the world and you’ll get something far better: a drink as dry and bubbly as Champagne and as cold and refreshing as beer. When we drink it at all in North America, we call it hard cider to distinguish it from the nonalcoholic version, but such a distinction isn’t necessary elsewhere.