This post is part of The Historical Cooking Project's special series Booze, Brews, and Drinks, which speaks to the confluence and the divergence of the histories of booze and food.
Since the 1990s, North Americans have been redeveloping a taste for hard cider. Between 1990 and 1996, hard cider production in the United States rose from 271,000 gallons to 5.3 million gallons, and by 2004 production had risen to 10.3 million gallons. Although demand is undoubtedly increasing, the fact that hard cider production amounted to some 55 million gallons in 1899 raises a few questions. What happened to the popularity of this delicious beverage during the twentieth century? Where is the future headed? And what does this mean for traditional cider production?
The rocky soil of New England was more suited to apple trees than to wheat, barley, and other grains. As a result, hard cider became the drink of choice for European colonists after the first trees arrived in 1623. By 1767, an average of 35 gallons of hard cider was consumed by every resident of Massachusetts. Even US president John Adams is said to have had a glass of cider with his daily breakfast.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the popularity of hard cider began to decline. Increasing urbanization led to the abandonment of many orchards, increased German immigration was accompanied by the establishment of many breweries, and the temperance movement caused many Americans to turn the axe to their orchards. These three factors essentially crippled hard cider production in the United States for nearly one century.
Although there has been a renewed interest in hard cider since the 1990s, traditional farmhouse hard cider doesn’t seem to have made it back on the market (yet). The style of cider I want to discuss is called "scrumpy," which is type of hard cider originally made in the West Country of England. Although there are many conflicting views as to the difference between hard cider, scrumpy, and apple wine, the name scrumpy is generally used to distinguish locally made ciders produced in smaller quantities and using traditional methods. Think of it as the hard cider equivalent of moonshine.
I first acquired a taste for West Country scrumpy while I was on a trip to Britain in 2011. I don’t remember the name of the cider I had but I certainly remember the taste. Out of all of the ciders I’ve tried on this side of the Atlantic, none have been able to match the taste of that scrumpy. I personally find most North American ciders too sweet and too carbonated. Eventually I accepted that if I wanted a cloudy, dry, and lightly carbonated cider then I’d simply have to make it myself.
As far as materials went, I’m fortunate enough to be the descendent of a “cider family.” My family has been making sweet cider in southern Ontario since the 1840s (rumour has it my great uncle even sold “special aged cider” behind the counter at local fairs in the 1920s, even though my Presbyterian grandfather denies it). Although we haven’t made cider for commercial purposes since the 1960s, my family still maintains the farm and, as luck would have it, the farm still has around thirty apple trees, an apple grinder, and a cider press dating to 1912.
I had some experience brewing beer and I was pleasantly surprised by how simple cider making was in comparison. For the rest of this post, I’ll discuss some of the questions surrounding the cider scrumpy making process and share some of my own personal observations in my pursuit to recreate traditional farmhouse scrumpy.
Unlike beer, cider only requires one ingredient: apples. The amount of juice you get from the apples is largely dependent on the type of press you’re using. My antique press is only able to squeeze roughly 12 litres of juice out of every bushel of apples. The yield is, of course, dependent on the variety and condition of apple being used. Smaller apples are likely to have a higher concentration of sugar (which means more alcohol!) but produce less juice while larger apples may contain less sugar but more juice (which means weaker but more cider).
So what variety of apple is best? Hundreds of apple varieties have been developed for hard cider production. Each apple has a different proportion of sugars and tannins that will determine the final flavour of the product. Some hard cider connoisseurs (snobs) will disagree with me, but I stand firmly when I say that no particular type of apple is superior when it comes to hard cider production. In my opinion, the best choice is to use a blend of different varieties. This will ensure that the flavours and characteristics of the cider will be well balanced. My opinion will probably change as time goes on but I’ll stand my ground for now.
If you’re considering planting an orchard then you’ll have to wait roughly five years until you get a significant yield of apples so plant ASAP. Heirloom apples are very appealing but are also very risky. Many heirloom varieties have been neglected by commercial growers for many decades and, as a result, are highly susceptible to disease and invasive species (I lost 9 out of 12 recently planted heirloom saplings to disease last summer). If you decide to purchase apples from an orchard, I would suggest contacting the orchard directly. It’s probably not a good idea to contact an orchard that caters to apple picking (they won’t adjust their price). Look for a smaller orchard and ask about purchasing the second-rate apples, i.e. the ones that are smaller, bruised, a little deformed, etc. They make great cider and are significantly cheaper.
Grinding and Pressing:*
In order to extract the juice, the apples need to be ground up. The ground-up apples, called pomace, needs to be wrapped in burlap and stacked with wooden grates between each layer. The resulting stack is called the cheese. It is important to note that the consistency of the pomace shouldn’t be too thin because it will leak through the burlap during the pressing process. The consistency should resemble something a little chunkier than applesauce. Alternatively, if you decide to use a material less porous than burlap (e.g nylon) then the consistency of the pomace doesn’t need to be as chunky.
At this point you should place a strong wooden board on the top of the cheese to ensure that the press will evenly apply pressure. Place a clean bucket at the base of the press and gradually apply pressure until the juice stops flowing. It takes me about 45 minutes to an hour to press a stack of 6 on my hand press. It might be a good idea to place a piece of cheesecloth across the bucket to filter out excess pulp and bees (on that note, it’s extremely important to have an EpiPen on hand because chances are that bees will be joining you).
As with other forms of alcohol production, cider becomes alcoholic thanks to a chemical reaction whereby the sugar in the solution is converted into ethanol and carbon dioxide by yeast. One way to add yeast to the solution is to add cultured brewing yeast. The other way is to rely on the natural yeasts that grow on the skin of the apples. If you decide to rely on the natural yeasts (as I do), it is a good idea to make sure about 1/3 of your apples are windfall apples, i.e. apples that have fallen from the tree and have been sitting for a few days. A bit of rot on the apples isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it can actually be beneficial to the fermentation process.
Once the juice is sealed in a fermentation bucket, complete with an air lock, you should store the cider in a relatively cool, dark place. Fermentation can take anywhere between a few hours to a few days to begin. I’ve found that the more windfall apples I use, the faster it begins to bubble. It should continue bubbling for a few weeks (depending on the temperature and volume of juice). Because I aim to create a dry and relatively still cider, I tend to let the solution ferment for 3 to 4 months.
If there are still high concentrations of sugar in the solution then it’s best to use champagne bottles and corks. Fermentation will continue after the cider has been bottled and will apply pressure to the cork. I use wine bottles because I let my cider ferment longer (I’ve only had a couple corks pop out). It should be ready to drink in a few weeks but, just like wine, it will get better with time.
To be completely honest, the hard cider I’ve produced isn’t exactly where I want it to be (it’s getting there though) but that’s half of the fun! Have fun making your own scrumpy!
*If you don’t have the equipment to make cider then I’d suggest checking this instructables website out. It has a number of pretty clever DIY hacks.
Andrew Stonehouse is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at McGill University, and a PhD Fellow at McGill's Indian Ocean World Centre. Before coming to Montreal, Andrew studied public policy at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. His current research focuses on the development and implementation of Germany’s colonial labour policies in the nineteenth century. He is also attempting to get Stonehouse Scrumpy on the market.