The Mysterious Demise of Hard Cider in America

Beer is without question, like Pizza, Madonna, and fast cars, an icon of modern American culture. That the white working class American male is stereotypically referred to as “Joe Six-pack” is but one example of the dominance of beer as lower and middle- class America’s preferred alcoholic beverage. But this was not always the case. 150 years ago, in the 1840s, hard cider held the position now held by beer as the preferred alcoholic beverage of the working class. But somehow, by the end of the 19th century and well before Prohibition, Cider all but disappeared in the United States. That hard cider remains popular in all the other outposts of British culture, that apples are still a major American crop, and that every other alcoholic drink once popular in America came back after prohibition make the question of cider’s disappearance all the more perplexing. Order a glass of hard cider in an American bar today, and the bartender might look at you strangely. The only hard ciders to be found are relatively expensive English imports like Bulmer’s and Woodpecker’s. So foreign has this drink become that most Americans have never even tasted it. While hard cider remains a favorite draught beverage at most British pubs and is still consumed in large quantities in Canada, Australia, and its country of origin, France, descendants of anglo-culture in the United States, and only in the United States, no longer know what hard cider is. Had hard cider never been produced in the U.S., for whatever reason, then this might not seem such an oddity. But what makes this particularly problematic is that hard cider was not only widely produced and consumed in the U.S. but held a place of high esteem on American tables and in American taverns well into the 19th century. Perhaps the height of cider’s popularity came in the election campaign of 1840 when the conservative Whig candidate, William Harrison, managed to convince a majority of working class Americans that he was one of them by associating himself with the symbols of “log cabin and hard cider.” Numerous anecdotes testify to the popularity of hard cider as Americans’ preferred drink on the farm and in the town from the colonial period to its demise. Because public sources of water in unsanitary old England were not fit to drink from, the colonists at first distrusted the water in the new world, and their opponents even used the fact that they drank water as a sign of their obvious desperation. Apple trees for cider production were among the first fruits planted in the British colonies. John Hull Brown reports that from the early 18th century to 1825 even children drank hard cider with breakfast and dinner. By the 1670s, orchards in New England were producing up to 500 hogsheads of cider annually in some communities. In 1721, several villages in New England reported a cider production of over 3000 barrels a year per village. John Adams drank a tankard of hard cider every morning. Horace Greeley, looking back at the early years of the 19th century, recalled that a barrel of hard cider lasted his family barely a week; anybody dropping in had his mug filled again and again, “until everybody was about as full as he could hold….whole families died drunkards and vagabond paupers from the impetus first given by cider-swilling in their rural homes.” (Demon 21) Nor was this a peculiarly New England phenomenon. Cider appears constantly in the literature and letters of 17th and 18th century Virginia. William Byrd’s Diary provides ample evidence that cider was a staple drink on his plantation. In 1682, Nicholas Spencer, secretary of the Virginia House of Burgesses, speculated on the cause of the riots of the past two years: “All plantations flowing with syder, soe unripe drank by our licentious inhabitants, that they allow no tyme for its fermentation but in their braines.” Virginia’s Shenandoah valley continues to be a major apple producing region, and yet even there hard cider is little known today. In the one good study of patterns of consumption of alcoholic beverages in early American culture, W. J. Rorabaugh provides tables which attempt to catalogue alcohol consumption by different drinks. His data indicates a dramatic disappearance of cider as a favored drink in the year 1840 followed by the beginning of beer as a national beverage. By his own admission, however, the table, while it looks authoritative, is based on guess work from anecdotal and “literary sources.” No good hard data exists. Furthermore, there is ample evidence that beer, for instance, was consumed along with cider from the colonial period on, and that cider continued to be consumed along with beer and other alcoholic drinks well after 1840. Yet Rorabaugh’s table poses the problem sharply. What happened to cider? How can the almost complete disappearance of a popular cultural artifact be accounted for? And just what significance does this have for American cultural studies? While tastes in cider and beer may seem frivolous subjects for serious scholarship, foodways have come to be recognized as an important element of culture and are a fitting part of the recent emergence of cultural studies. The disappearance of hard cider is an oddity that provides important insights into American culture. Easy answers to this problem leap quickly to the mind. Temperance and prohibition were often cited by those to whom we posed the question. But these movements were directed against all alcoholic drinks, particularly whiskey and rum, all of which, except cider, survived to be drunk again. A popular example, cited in several texts, refers to a farmer who chopped down his orchard in a fit of Temperance enthusiasm. But this one example is only one anecdote repeated as if it represented a trend; it does not provide evidence of a movement, nor does it explain the continuation of significant apple production in numerous regions of the country. As long as apples continued to be grown, cider could have been made. Nor does the mere citing of temperance answer the particular problems posed by the disappearance of cider; why should the temperance campaign affect cider so completely and not beer which is equally alcoholic? Rumors of apple tree blights and diseases that killed the orchards and forced people to switch to beer are not backed up by any evidence. And, again, apple production continued despite whatever blights may have occurred. To say, as some have, that Americans simply preferred harder, more alcoholic drinks does not explain the continuing popularity of beer. Perhaps the most often heard theory is that German immigrants arriving in the 1840s and 1850s brought with them superior methods of brewing which produced better beers which “just” tasted better and therefore replaced cider. Why this would happen in the United States, however, and not in the other British cultural outposts, or in England, remains a mystery unexplained by the “just tastes better” theory. Moreover, this ignores anthropologist Marvin Harris’ thesis that taste follows behavior and does not determine it. We like what we like for reasons of cost, efficiency, protein requirement, ecology, and hierarchical social desires. Even religious food prohibitions, argues Harris, follow and rationalize ecological and social/historical necessity; religious prohibitions are an effect and not a cause. What we then call “taste” is but a question of familiarity and habit. Taste is as conditional and as shaped by context as any other value. To say that beer “just” tastes better is to imply that there are no external causal factors responsible for this change in taste. But nothing in our cause and effect universe “just” happens. There are reasons for change and these need to be explored. One can readily understand German immigration and improved beer production as causes for beer’s assuming a much larger share of the beverage market, but why cider-drinking Americans should immediately give up their traditional drink for that of a recent immigrant group remains a mystery. If anything, one would assume resistance on the part of older inhabitants to the peculiar symbols of the cultural preferences of recent immigrants who are often viewed as an alien threat. Cider, before we get much further, needs to be defined. For tax purposes, the U.S. government defines cider as “a beverage made from fermented apples of not more than 8% alcohol.” The sweet apple “cider” available at roadside stands in the Fall is, literally, apple juice, the product of squeezing fresh apples. The thin, clear liquid sold in the stores as “apple juice” is in fact apple juice that has been homogenized, pasteurized, sweetened, filtered, and otherwise processed until almost all of the flavor, color, and content has been removed. True cider, or what is sometimes called “Hard Cider” is the result of fermenting fresh apple juice without the addition of any extra sugar. This produces an alcoholic beverage of about 5% alcohol, depending on the sweetness of the apples. Consumed before all the sugar is fermented, or kept alive by the addition of extra sugar, cider usually has a slight carbonation. With additional sugar added, historically in the form of molasses, honey, or maple syrup, the alcohol content can be brought up from an average 5% to around 10%. Any alcoholic drink over 8% but under 14% is technically a wine. Much confusion, therefore, still remains in any discussion of cider. Most people today use the term inappropriately to mean fresh, unprocessed apple juice. Many who do ferment the juice but add sugar still call the resulting 10 to 12% alcohol content “cider” instead of “wine.” For the purposes of this paper, the term “cider” refers to the beverage made from fermented apples without any extra sugar having been added. The very fact of cider’s disappearance also needs to be clarified. After all, even today, many road side stands will sell a gallon of cider along with their apple juice. In the last decade, several small wineries have begun to produce true apple cider and to market it nationally. And the English and Canadian imports still have a loyal if small following. But none of these are examples of a significant industry or market share. They remain at best marginal. Rorabaugh’s rather dramatic charts also need some clarification. The drop-off in cider consumption in the United States does not seem to have been nearly as dramatic as he implies. Anecdotal evidence in literature and in popular culture continue to link cider and rural American life even up to the turn of the century. Currier and Ives produced at least three paintings which all depict cider making in the late 1800s. There is, however, in each of these, a element of nostalgia that suggests that such scenes were indeed a fading part of the American landscape. It is even possible that the best evidence of the popularity of cider in the early nineteenth century, the Whig’s 1840 “Log Cabin and Hard Cider campaign,” owes more to nostalgia than to the contemporary popularity of cider. Just as having been born in a log cabin came to be a symbol of the values associated with the early republic, so cider seemed also to partake of the flavor of those earlier times. The suggestion here is that by 1840, cider drinking was already fading from the American scene and hence could be used to evoke an earlier, simpler, and supposedly more virtuous era. What we have then is not the sudden decline in cider drinking suggested by Rorabaugh but a gradual decline that began early in the century and took many decades to complete. The catastrophic theories presented by a few, such as the possibility of an apple blight that ruined the orchards and forced every drinking American to turn to beer, have no verification. Instead of such simple, unicausal answers as an apple blight, or the temperance movement, we are forced to recognize that the demise of cider occurred for a complex variety of interrelated reasons. These causes are not merely economic, or political, or horticultural, or ecological, or social but all of the above. If anything, they demonstrate the extreme complexity of any attempt to unravel even the most seemingly innocent of cultural changes. And they demonstrate that understanding such changes requires an understanding of the way in which different, seemingly unconnected cultural factors reinforce one another. Among the causes that contributed to the demise of cider in the United States, without question the Temperance Movement belongs near the top of the list. From the 1820s onward, Temperance spread steadily and had significant impact on American drinking habits. According to Rorabaugh, the United States in the early years of the century was on a massive drinking binge. Release from the constraints of a more rigid social order, anxieties that accompanied the unsettled mobility of life in a rapidly expanding country, succeeding waves of prosperity and depression, the availability of cheap alcohol, and a justified fear of drinking contaminated well water all contributed to this binge. The Temperance Movement was part of a reaction to what was perceived to be a growing lack of social discipline. Temperance advocates feared that drunkenness would destroy the republic. Coupled with this was a perceived threat from recent immigrant groups. The Irish and the Germans, particularly in the massive waves of immigration in the 1840s, were seen as threats to Anglo dominance. Temperance was very much a WASP movement centered in the Protestant churches geared towards maintaining the hegemony of WASP institutions. The disintegration of the family due to alcoholism was seen as particularly dangerous as prolific German and Irish immigrants competed for jobs and political control. Cider, as a traditional English drink, was much identified not so much as an American drink but as a symbol of rural WASP culture. The earlier English settlers who drank cider could be distinguished from the Germans who drank beer and the Irish who drank both beer and whiskey. When in an effort to end drunkenness among the WASP majority Temperance advocates urged their countrymen to refrain from alcoholic beverages, cider was therefore peculiarly vulnerable. The Cult of Domesticity was also a part of the Temperance movement. The establishment of the home as a secure haven from the cultural and economic storms of the early Republic, separating male and female spheres, was part of the larger movement to reassert some sort of control over what seemed to be the disintegration of traditional, WASP values. Women were among the most active proponents of Temperance citing the damage that alcoholism did to the family. Temperance literature was colored with stories of wife beating and child abuse. In their influential Domestic Economy, Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister, Catherine Beecher, who has been called practically the founder of the Cult of Domesticity, wrote that even such seemingly “innocent” alcoholic drinks as apple cider have no place in a Christian home where children might be led into unwholesome activities. Hence, even those not in danger of becoming alcoholics or of harming the home were obliged to observe strict temperance in order not to set a bad example for those weaker than they. Cider drinking in the home such as that which Horace Greeley remembered from his youth had to go. Against this decline in alcohol consumption generally among the temperance-minded WASP majority, German settlers in Pennsylvania and the mid-West found themselves obliged to produce their own alcoholic drinks, something they would have done in any case. Among the technological innovations that the immigrants brought from Europe was the recent introduction of bottom fermenting yeasts. Previously, beer made in the United States had been made with top fermenting yeasts, yeasts that floated on the top of the wort exposed to air during the brewing process. This exposed the beer to numerous bacteria and unwanted yeasts which more often than not produced off flavors or outright spoilage. Prior to the 1840s, American beer was of fairly poor quality. With the introduction of bottom fermenting yeasts, these spoilage problems were overcome. At the same time, waves of German immigrants provided a ready market for the new and improved styles of beer. What’s more, many of these new immigrants settled in urban areas. Urbanization was an important part of the changes in social life that lead to the decline of the dominance of cider and the rise of beer. The concentration of immigrant Germans, particularly in Pennsylvania and later around the Great Lakes in cities like Milwaukee, was one factor that favored beer in the cities. Another is that cider production has to be done on site near the orchards or in towns surrounded by orchards. The apples required are too heavy and bulky to be shipped over great distances, and without refrigeration they would spoil. Hence, cider had to be produced from apples at the orchard and then delivered to urban markets in large wooden barrels. Beer on the other hand could be brewed right in the middle of the city. The only ingredients required were barley, which was light and easily shipped without spoilage, and water, which was plentiful. Thus a combination of German ethnic preference for their native beer, the development of bottom fermenting yeasts, and the economics of cider and beer production all favored beer over cider in the cities. Another factor which influenced urban drinking patterns, and kept the Temperance Movement at bay, were the repeated Cholera epidemics of the 1830s and 1840s. Polluted water in the cities was the cause of several extremely serious Cholera epidemics. Water become as feared in the Urban United States in the middle of the nineteenth century as it had been in England in the seventeenth century. Unspoiled alcoholic beverages were known to be safe from the disease. Not until the beginnings of sanitary water works in the late 1840s was it safe to follow the Temperance crusaders cold water army. Milk drinking did not become widespread in urban areas until later in the century with the development of railroads and the invention of refrigerated railroad cars. By then, cider drinking was already a quaint, peculiarly rural WASP tradition. Even among rural WASPs, however, cider drinking remained largely an Eastern tradition. The five to ten years that it took for an apple tree to mature to full fruit production made it a less desirable crop for a mobile population. The rapid expansion of the frontier westward, often by entrepreneurial settlers who cleared the land, built a farm, sold it, and then moved on, was not congenial to the time and stability required for cider production. Barley, on the other hand, could be grown and harvested in a single summer. Even further to the West, in the plains, the winters were too harsh for apple trees, but the flat, rich prairies were ideal for grain. There was only one Johnny Appleseed, and his efforts were more symbolic than representative. Assuming then a niche for low-alcohol beverages such as cider and beer, in the competition between them, cider never had a chance. Even if the Temperance campaign had not seriously restricted cider drinking in the ethnic WASP community, the comparative economics of cider and beer production, the relative ease and cheapness of beer brewing compared to the time and expense of apple growing, would have favored the growth of beer over cider. The anthropologist of foodways, Marvin Harris, has developed what he calls “Optimal Foraging Theory.” This states, in essence, that humans will like those foods which are the easiest and the cheapest to obtain. Hence, Americans do not eat insects, not because they taste bad but because the amount of energy required to gather them is high and the return in protein is relatively low. Our perception that they “taste Bad” follows their undesirability as a source of food. Presumably, if insects in the new world were slow and fat, our ancestors would have developed a taste for them. We can state then that beer became America’s favorite working class drink, not because of any defect in the taste of cider, but because of the economics of production. This still leaves behind the curious question of why cider consumption disappeared so completely. One would assume that some remnants of the old habits would persist, just as some people continue to favor peculiar regional foods or to use hula hoops. One answer has to do with the identification of cider drinking with the older WASP values of rural America. Because that ethnic group was the primary carrier of Temperance, its peculiar favored beverage, cider, was particularly vulnerable. Beer and rum and whiskey and wine had consumers outside of the WASP community. Hence these beverages maintained a market share and were available after the temperance movement and later after Prohibition. When later generations of Yankees and other WASPs did return to drinking low-alcohol beverages, beer was already cheaply and widely available. Moreover, cider drinking had become so closely associated with that older rural lifestyle that although it was rejected by the Temperance crusaders it still was perceived as a part of the culture that produced Temperance. In other words, a younger generation in rebellion against the teetotaling habits of its parents rejected those things which smacked of that quaint old Currier and Ives culture. What little commercial cider production still existed in the United States by the turn of the century seems to have been done in completely by Prohibition in the 1920s. When prohibition ended in the 1930s, there was neither the desire nor the means to resuscitate the cider industry. Another curious factor seems to have been added to the mystery early in the century, however. Evidence exists that the beer industry, keeping a wary eye on its once formidable rival, perhaps aware of the fact that cider continued to rival beer consumption in England and Canada, bought up what little remained of the cider industry. And as if this wasn’t enough, in the Federal alcohol regulations of 19??, for unexplained reasons, cider was expressly prohibited for sale if it contained any added preservatives. What made this suspiciously noteworthy is that wine and beer were not subject to the same restrictions. They could continue to be sold across state lines even though they contained sulfites and other preservatives. Only cider was so restricted. The result, of course, was to forestall the redevelopment of any cider industry. This explains why today cider can be sold at farm stands but that there is only a tiny cider industry which is just now trying to become national. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the beer industry did its part to make sure that cider would never again become America’s favorite low alcohol drink. Last but perhaps not least, in addition to the attack on cider from the beer industry at the turn of the century, soft drinks, notably coca-cola, seem to have been marketed for exactly the niche once filled by cider. The slight degree of stimulant promised by the cocaine with which Coca-cola was first produced and the effervescence both imitate aspects of cider. In 1896, an editorial in the New York Times even made this comparison explicit calling on American workers to switch from debilitating alcoholic refresheners like cider and to try the new cola instead. Thus, the temperance movement remains as a major culprit responsible for the decline of cider consumption in the U.S., but the association of cider with rural WASP culture was the added factor which distinguishes cider from beer or wine. Add to this the economics of beer production, growing urbanization, German immigration, a predatory beer industry, and a substitute drink in coca-cola, and there seems to be enough factors working together to explain why and how cider so completely disappeared.