In the rest of the English-speaking world, the term “cider” means an alcoholic beverage made from fermented apple juice. It’s only here in America that “cider” has come to mean fresh-squeezed apple juice (a thing known as “sweet cider” elsewhere). The reason for that is something we’ll get into a bit later, for now the critical thing to know is that cider wasn’t always the seasonal refresher that it is today. Once it was a vitally important year-round drink, in the British Isles as well as America.
Though nobody can say where cider drinking first originated, the first recorded instance can be found in Roman logs that date to about 50 BC, the time when the first legions arrived in England. There the locals had been tying one on around the old apple tree for quite a while. Apples didn’t originate in England, however. They came from Central Asia, somewhere in modern-day Kazakhstan. They travelled the Silk Road with ancient traders probably as far back as 8,000 or 10,000 BC. Some of those folks, I think it’s safe to assume, figured out that apples could be squeezed and the juice fermented.
But the English are the ones who really refined the art. By the colonial period cider was such a popular beverage that colonists were bringing apple seeds by the caseload to the far corners of the Earth, including America, where the cool climate was just about perfect for them. But of course those apples were for eating, you might be tempted to think. By no means. People did eat the fruit, but apple orchards in America were planted primarily for cider. Why? Well for one because there was nothing else to drink, especially on the frontier. Natural water sources like streams, ponds and lakes weren’t always trustworthy, tainted as they were with biological contaminants. Alcoholic cider, by contrast, was safe. Which is why it was a common daily drink for children as well as adults.
Cider making was practiced in America as far back as the early 1600’s, especially east of the Mississippi. West of the great river, cider was less popular. The reason being that apples didn’t grow very well in the more arid parts of the country. And anyway more than a few of the immigrants who settled those parts were German. They mostly grew grain, so, their children mostly drank beer.
Cider remained a critically important — and popular — drink in the eastern US well into the 19th century, up until the arrival if the temperance movement in the 1880’s. Then, women (and indeed they were mostly women) armed with bibles and hand axes roved the landscape chopping down orchards and sermonizing against the demon apple. It wasn’t until a several decades later that commercial apple growers were able to fight back with a new marketing campaign: “An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away.” The apple has been a symbol of health ever since.