Last year, I started living an alternative lifestyle. I unwillingly transformed into a gluten-free human being. Being gluten-free might not be as shameful as having a micro-penis or a father who is the BTK killer, but it’s close. It automatically excludes you from important things like pizza, sandwiches, and beer. The last one was the hardest life change to accept because of all the things that are associated with beer: Clydesdales horses, rocky mountains, Trappist monks, steins, hops, and neon signs. All of this was taken from me when I realized that drinking beer is not supposed to make you feel like you have a cold, give you a pounding headache after the third round, or have you shit your brains out after the fourth drink.
I thought that my days spent talking to friends from the seat of a barstool were over. Drinking beer allows me stay for hours—sipping my frothy beverage—all the while maintaining a somewhat sane level of sobriety during conversation. Once I was diagnosed as gluten-intolerant, I thought my former life was stripped away forever. That was until I decided to give cider that second chance. In the past, I figured that Woodchuck was reserved for dorks. English and Irish ciders that usually populate draft lines in bars seemed like they were reserved for cool old ladies and European soccer fans.
It was only in my desperation to enjoy the bar atmosphere I so dearly missed that I ordered Magners and begrudgingly poured it over ice. I raised the glass to my lips, and sipped. Much like your first oyster or sexual experience, it was something beyond the initial enjoyment that fascinated me about this new beverage. I began to seek out other brands. I went from Strong Bow, to Samuel Smith’s organic cider, and even back to Woodchuck. My love for the beverage spiraled into such an obsession that I began to impulse buy my newfound booze on select shelves for fear that stores would never restock the label.
I began to do research about what I dubbed as “God’s apple juice.” It turns out that the US was fueled on cider for the first couple odd hundred years of its life. I knew that I was doing more than getting a buzz—I was folding into a history, a tradition of radicalism, and whatever the fuck else the founding fathers were into. Last week I watched Ken Burns’s documentary series, Prohibition. Lo and behold, he waxed poetic about John Adam’s daily ritual—a tankard—of cider. I almost cried when I heard the narrator speak these words. My cider mania, now justified by a founding father, reached a whole new level upon this information.
I recently listened to food historian, Rowan Jacobsen—the guy who’s written the bible on food topics like oysters, the collapse of honeybees, and his forthcoming book, The Apple Bestiary—expound on the history and virtues of hard cider culture. While I sipped on four different types of NY cider, Rowan spoke about the history of the beverage that fueled the birth of our nation. Cider has been produced in Europe since time immemorial, first referenced by Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55 BC, when the Roman legions discovered locals fermenting crab apples. The practice splintered when British colonists brought apples to the US in the 18th century, one of the only fruits that managed to stay fresh throughout the journey across the Atlantic. In the mother country, apple trees had been carefully grafted to produce identical fruits season after season. But farmers in the new world planted the seeds they brought in their pockets, engendering a diverse array of fruits ripe for experimentation.
Some of the new apple breeds tasted like shit when eaten straight from the tree, but these spitters—as the colonists called them— made for delicious hard cider. This was the beverage of choice for early Americans like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. The popularity soared into the 19th century, when verbose quotes from Victorian intellectuals like Henry Ward Beecher and Henry David Thoreau drunkenly gushed over the virtues of apples and hard cider.
Despite our nation’s initial obsession with the beverage, cider would soon fall to the wayside of discarded Americana into obscurity, like Pogs and Little Caesar’s. Rowan Jacobsen asked the audience of cider aficionados to envision an alternate universe in which a common form of booze—wine, for example—went into extinction because of agricultural and social change. Imagine if vineyards were converted into resorts or retirement communities, wine decanters left to reside like relics behind glass at museums, and the notion of ingesting a grape for any purpose other than an after-school snack, completely foreign. After countless centuries of popularity, wide spread home and industrial brewing, and apple varietal cultivation rivaling the Jurassic Park embryo collection, such was cider's lot. The drink dried up altogether, a casualty of extinction by way of Prohibition and the Industrial Revolution.
Over the past few years, hard cider has slowly made its triumphant return to frosted mugs and sticky bar counters. According to a report in 2012, the top ten ciders gracing American bars, booze stores, and home refrigerators surged by 62.6 percent, a number that reflects the $90 million dollars of fermented apple juice consumption.
Above, Aaron Burr Cider via.
We should thank the juice gods’ for this new generation of American cider distilleries that are revolutionizing the diversity of hard cider drinking, like Andy Brennan’s Aaron Burr Cider, located in upstate New York. Even NY Governor Cuomo is in on the restoration. Cuomo recently signed the farm cideries bill, which approves of proper licensing for NY farm cideries to generate more booze. This boost is helping to allow Aaron Burr and other small craft cideries revive the beverage, creating a new paradigm of imbibables that share similar characteristics—a fizzy sweetness, bottled-ness—with beer and some wine varietals. The results of these sophisticated craft ciders can pair with almost any meal, that transcends beyond the bar stool environment. I can’t wait to drink more cider to fuel the birth of my newfound gluten-free existence.