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In each monthly installment of Bender, Caroline Ferguson will explore the social, cultural, and historical context of a single cocktail or boozy beverage. From settling which country lays claim to Pisco to exploring the Carthusian Monks’ chartreuse caves, Caroline will try to track down all the places your drink has been before it gets in your glass—always ending with a recipe of her own creation. Pull up a chair and a glass.

 

At the risk of sounding lofty, to try to write about the history of cider is to end up writing about the history of Europe itself. After all, before pasteurization was developed in the nineteenth century, unfiltered apple juice (the cloudy stuff sold in jugs that most Americans would incorrectly call cider) could only last so long before the sugars started converting into alcohol on their own with the help of wild yeasts. [1] It’s no surprise that most countries in the EU have some measure of cidermaking tradition—the stuff literally brews itself.

However, two countries arguably lead the pack. There’s northern France, whose cidermaking history is predicated upon the claim that Kazakhstani caravaners brought apples to the country by littering cores on the roadside. Amazingly, it turns out that apples are only truly native to the ancient forests of the Kazakhstani and Kyrgyzstani mountains, [2] so the theory holds up pretty well. Cider production in Normandy and Brittany goes back to the Middle Ages, and Charlemagne reportedly enjoyed French cider in the 10th century. The invention of the cider press 300 years later helped things along, and the regions are renowned to this day for their cidre and apple brandy.

Depending on whom you ask, the UK was either introduced to cider via the Norman Conquest or other nomadic travelers passing through the country—or it could have arrived with the Romans, who knows.  Whether the Normans brought cider to England or not, they surely helped it take off. Between their history of orchard-keeping and the suitable climate they found in England, the Norman Conquest brought a veritable cidermaking renaissance to the UK. A large variety of apple cultivars made their way to the country and the tax records began to reflect the successful new industry. Today, what the French cider industry is to quality, the UK’s is to quantity: they lead the world in per capita cider consumption, and it’s nearly as easy as beer to find on tap at restaurants and pubs.

Notoriously fond as the English are of sending colonists to all four corners of the earth, apples eventually found their way to the Americas. As Rowan Jacobsen writes in American Terroir, American colonists found their apples grew even better in their new home:

At first, Europe’s grains and grapevines withered in the New World, but its apples took to the country like they’d found the promised land. In a way they had: The Colonies have a climate more similar to the apple’s ancient Kazakhstan home than to Europe’s Gulf Stream–moderated one.

The rocky bluffs, rough terrain, and bitterly cold winters of New England proved challenging for the colonists, but their apples, accustomed to the harsh central Asian mountains, felt right at home. As the fledgling country grew, a vibrant culture of orchard-keeping and cidermaking grew alongside it. Soon, Americans were drinking cider like water (sometimes literally, when the former was safer).

These days, American food bloggers are busy working themselves into a lather about cider’s newfound popularity. TIME named it the fastest-growing alcoholic beverage category, and trendy cider pubs have popped up in several cities around the U.S. Yet, based on early American history, cider should already be as American as Bud Light. What happened?

Well, the temperance movement, for one thing. Late nineteenth century teetotalers campaigned to chop down cider trees. The species suffered a biodiversity crash, later exacerbated by the twentieth-century shift toward industrialized agriculture and the hostile takeover of the mealy Red Delicious varietal. [3] Johnny Appleseed spun in his grave. Because ciders sometimes require a blend of up to twenty varieties of apples to achieve balance, [4] the loss of heirloom apple species utterly devastated the cider industry and debased what was once a captivating drink.

Cider’s resurgence, led by growers in New England and Oregon, isn’t so much a new trend as it is a return to apple growing as it once was. Small farms are reviving long-ignored species and cloning and grafting trees to create new cider apple varietals—slowly but surely undoing the damage caused by generations of short-sighted, profit-led apple growing. The new abundance of kickass ciders on the shelves is really just a bonus.

 

Kir Normand

This variation on the classic Kir uses dry cider in place of wine, making it lower in alcohol but just as refreshing. Try to find a French-style cider, which bears less resemblance to achingly sweet American ciders than it does to a “champagne of the apple.” The cider should be light-colored, dry, and higher in tannins. Though Kir is traditionally made with crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), many American bartenders have started using Chambord (black raspberry liqueur) in its place. They’re not interchangeable per se, but they’re both tasty.

Ingredients:

1 part crème de cassis or Chambord

3 parts dry cider

Small apple wedge for garnish

Pour crème de cassis or Chambord into a glass and top off with cider. Garnish with the apple wedge and enjoy.

 

 

1. Jacobsen, American Terroir, 68–69

2. Jacobsen, American Terroir, 64

3. Jacobsen, Rowan. "Eat Me: New England Cider and Yakima Valley Apples." In American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields, 63. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010.

4. Jacobsen, American Terroir, 71.