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The history and origins of cider

The history and origins of cider

by Jane Peyton 13 February 2019

In the first in a series of articles on cider, Jane Peyton charts the 5,000-year-old journey of the drink and how artisanal cider-makers are giving it a new lease of life.

Whoever coined the phrase ‘the humble apple’ must surely be unaware of the wild Malus Sieversii apple – ancestor of today’s domesticated Malus Domestica – and the journey it made from the foothills of central Asia’s Tien Shan Mountains along the Silk Road to fruit bowls the world over. It’s spawned a multi-billion pound global apple and cider trade in doing so, and when you consider that without English cider-makers there would be no sparkling wine business (more of that later), then the rather pejorative reference to the apple’s lowly status is amiss.

Cider is an alcoholic drink made by fermenting apple juice. It comes in a variety of iterations – still, naturally sparkling, bottle-fermented, methode champenoise, carbonated, dry, medium, sweet, ice cider, cider brandy, acidic, tannic, wild yeast fermentation. It can be made from dessert and eating apples, or bold and tannic cider apples.

Britons are the biggest consumers of cider per capita and fifty-six percent of apples grown in the UK go to make cider. At its best, cider is made of 100% freshly pressed apple juice, fermented slowly for months and then aged, often in oak barrels, for months (if not years). At its worst – well, that is the problem. Cider has negative connotations for many people – teenage hangovers, street drinkers on benches. There are poor quality iterations of all alcoholic drinks but people do not denigrate the entire category of other libations the way they often do with cider.

I am an accredited Pommelier (cider sommelier) and I am in a group of cider advocates intent on encouraging people to rethink cider. I’m firmly in the 100% juice brigade thinking of cider as apple wine. That’s what seventeenth-century English aristocrats did, an era when cider had an elevated position – King Charles I was said to prefer cider over wine. If only Queen Elizabeth II was a cider drinker, then cider would regain its past glory and be borne the respect it deserves.

Cider was consumed in the Roman empire, ancient Greece and the Middle East and the name itself probably derives from the Hebrew shekar or Greek sikera meaning ‘strong drink’. There is evidence that Celts in Britain made cider from crab apples as long ago as 3000 BCE, but the Roman invasion introduced apple cultivars and orcharding techniques to England. After the end of Roman occupation and once the Dark Ages began there is little information about cider in Britain, although cider-drinking Vikings and Anglo-Saxons colonised in this period so we can assume (although there is no proof) that apples were still being pressed and the juice fermented.

After the Normans invaded in 1066 they improved cider-making in this land forever by introducing tannic and acidic cider apples. They planted orchards and (very importantly) brought advanced pressing technology with them to make the extraction of juice from apples more efficient. Norman means 'North Man', and many of them were Vikings that had moved south from Scandinavia in the early ninth century. Vikings were keen cider drinkers and this explains why in France, a land dominated by wine, there is a proud tradition of cider in Normandy which exists to this day.

By the beginning of the fourteenth century, cider was being made in almost every county in England as far north as Yorkshire. As agriculture and market gardening increased during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, so did orcharding and cider-making on a commercial basis. Soil conditions and climates in counties such as Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Somerset suited apple cultivation perfectly, and even today the West Country is the leading cider-producing region. It’s also home to the world's largest cider maker HP Bulmer.

Between the fourteenth and nineteenth century western Europe underwent The Little Ice Age. Apples can survive cooler temperatures whereas grapes need a warmer climate, and so began a golden age for cider at the expense of wine. Two political factors had a major impact. War with France and Spain interrupted wine, brandy and sherry imports into England, while the English Civil War and subsequent execution of King Charles I in 1649 made aristocratic courtiers redundant. They retired to their country estates and some of them started experimenting with cider, cross-pollination of apple cultivars, glassware and corks. There’s evidence that seventeenth-century cider-makers were producing sparkling cider using a secondary fermentation in reinforced glass bottles sealed with corks on papers stored in the archive of the Royal Society in London. The significance of this is that they were doing it before the man widely credited as inventing Champagne, Dom Perignon, was born. West Country cider-makers were the precursors of one of France's greatest sources of national pride.

During the Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815) British farmers were pressured into producing grain and livestock to ensure a domestic supply. Consequently, cider orchards were neglected. As nineteenth-century commercial cider producers increased in size, small farmers started selling their apple-growing land to those powerful businesses. Ancient orchards were destroyed and with them old cider apple cultivars. By the 1960s big producers were using fewer tannin-rich, intensely flavoursome apple varieties, preferring apples that would make easy-drinking and unchallenging cider. This meant that once again heritage apple cultivars were lost.

By the 1980s cider was perceived as being uncool; a drink for rustic men who resembled Worzel Gummidge or as cheap loony juice for teenagers to glug in bus shelters. An unexpected saviour appeared on the scene in the early twenty-first century in the guise of an Irish company called Magners. Magners launched in the UK with a series of slick and attention-grabbing TV adverts of young good-looking professionals drinking cider. Suddenly, Magners was ubiquitous and its most enthusiastic customers were men and women in their twenties – a new generation of cider drinkers. At first sight that sounds positive for the cider sector and in particular for growers of cider apples, but the majority of cider now consumed in the UK is made by diluting concentrated apple juice (often imported) and adding lots of sugar, preservatives and colouring – nothing more than sweet-tasting alcopops.

Legally, cider must be made with a minimum of thirty-five percent apple juice. That means most of the contents of the glass is water. There is no comparison between them and the sublime 100% fresh juice ciders that are liquid expressions of the fruit in the orchard and the weather of that particular growing season. However, cider is a broad church, and if people want an easy-drinking sweet carbonated pint with a big refreshment factor, they are available in every pub and supermarket. For people who want to explore an artisanal product made with fresh juice, passion and, most importantly, time, then they can be harder to find. It is those ciders that are appearing on the tables of discerning diners; acidic, tannic and fabulous matches for food. Try it – you will be surprised.

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