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Edible histories: cider

Categories: History of food

From Charlemagne’s estates to East Anglian factories via Enlightenment thinkers and epic poetry, Mark Riddaway on the surprising history of cider

Such is its simplicity (being nothing more than pure apple juice, left to ferment), and so elemental is humankind’s quest for intoxication, it is easy to presume of cider that it must be a remnant of our misty past—the refreshing draught a Neolithic Briton would have supped upon after a hard day erecting megaliths. The relative brevity of its story may be something of a surprise, then—until you think for a moment about the form of an apple: its tight skin, its sinewy core, the dense, tense web of cellulose and pectin that provides its signature crunch. This is not a fruit that surrenders its juice easily. Even the crushing or milling of an apple, itself a labour-intensive task, is only half the job, with the resulting pulp then requiring a hard and heavy pressing. No doubt, apples have at various times been bashed with crude tools in the pursuit of inebriation, but when it comes to getting the party started, nature offers some far less tiring options.    

Certainly, if the ancients were routinely making cider, they left very little evidence. One of the earliest references to the drink came from the Roman writer Pliny the Elder, whose tone suggested it was of minimal importance to his contemporaries. In a chapter of The Natural History (77-79AD), he described 66 varieties of “artificial wine”, including drinks made “of the pods of the Syrian carob, of pears, and of all kinds of apples”. No further insight was offered into this apple wine—in fact, more of Pliny’s words were devoted to booze “made of the naphew turnip”.

It wasn’t until the early medieval period, in northern France, that cider visibly overtook turnip hooch in the pantheon of drinks. Compelling evidence of this came in De Villis, a management manual for the royal estates of Charlemagne, king of the Franks (768-814). This required that “siceratores” (makers of booze) be employed to create “pomatium” (cider), “pyratium” (perry) and other liquors. That Europe’s wealthiest monarch was making cider was telling: it was the development of the screw press that made its preparation viable (as well as transforming the speed of wine and olive oil production), but constructing a screw press was an expensive business. While the humblest of households could brew beer, only the rich could afford to make cider, and even then its production was usually a secondary pursuit: those abbeys and aristocratic estates that made wine in the summer used the same costly presses to juice apples in the winter.

Sailor’s rations
It is often said that the Norman conquest brought cider to England, but evidence of the drink being brewed here only really began to emerge in the 13th century. Over the two centuries that followed, occasional references to mills, presses and cider sales began appearing in estate records, but it was only after 1400 that the dam broke and the scrumpy began to flow. This move from the margins was closely linked to the progress of enclosure: the transformation of the English countryside from a system of vast, unfenced common fields, narrow strips of which were tended to by individual peasant families, to one dominated by larger farms. Orchards, which had no place in the old open field system, became a viable option for yeoman farmers, and hence, too, did the production of cider.

This was particularly true in the west of England. In the counties of the southeast, the flat landscapes and light soils lent themselves to intensive arable farming, but in the wet and rugged westerly regions, where cereals flourished less readily, apple trees and livestock offered a complementary combination: trees provided shelter, and the pomace from cider making—the mulch left behind after pressing—could be used as feed. As presses and mills became more readily available, Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire and particularly Herefordshire became centres of English cider making. One of the major destinations for this cider was the region’s ports, to be used in sailor’s rations. John Parkinson wrote in 1629: “In the West Country of England great quantities, yea many hogsheads and tunnes full are made, especially to bee carried to the sea in long voyages.”

The 17th and 18th centuries were a golden age of English cider making, chronicled and partly inspired by a group of self-described ‘ciderists’: intellectuals who loved cider, believed that its quality could be improved by embracing a spirit of rational inquiry, and aimed to embed it as our national drink. Two ciderists, John Beale and John Evelyn, were founder-members of the Royal Society when it was established in 1662, making the link between scrumpy drinking and Enlightenment thinking muchclearer than might be expected.

Part polemic, part practical guide
The ciderists’ ideas were set out in Pomona (1664)—part polemic, part practical guide—which was prefaced and compiled by Evelyn but built around the horticultural knowhow of Beale. Their hope was to “redeem” cider from the “opinions of those men who so much magnifie the juice of the grape above it,” wrote Evelyn, who argued that English tastes are “generally more for insipid, luscious, or gross diet, than for the spicy, poignant, oylie, and highly relish’d”, and that cider, unlike wine, was a natural fit for the native palate. As evidence, he told the story of a Mr Taylor, “a person well known in Herefordshire”, who had challenged a London vintner to put his best “Spanish or French wine” up against his county’s cider in a series of increasingly rigorous taste tests, every one of which ended in victory for the West Country draught.

As Pomona made clear, fundamental to the boom in English cider making was the cultivation of distinct local varieties of cider apple, known collectively as bittersweets and bittersharps. Beale’s cousin, Viscount Scudamore, was credited with propagating the most famous Herefordshire bittersweet, the redstreak. Cider made with its juice would, wrote Beale, “excel common cider, as the grape of frontignac, canary, or baccharach, excels the common French grape”. It had, according to Captain Sylas Taylor, another ciderist, “the flavour or perfume of excellent peaches, very grateful to the palate and stomach”. Other acclaimed varieties included the gennet moyle, which resulted in cider “of smaller body… yet very pleasant” and the summer fillet and winter fillet, which “passed for white wine” and when mingled with syrup of raspberries made “an excellent woman’s wine”.

Demand for good quality cider was inflated by a series of conflicts with France that led to French imports, including wine, being either scarce or embargoed (the ciderists’ aim was, in Beale’s word, to relieve “the want of wine, by a succedaneum of cider”). The best cider was made with the first runnings of the press, then racked from one cask to another (a process known as ‘keeving’) to inhibit yeast build-up and slow the fermentation, which improved its flavour. The sweetness (and strength) of the cider could also be increased by ‘tumping’ the apples—leaving them to age outdoors for several weeks—or, still better, keeping them in an indoor drying loft. Bottling the cider, a new notion, also added to its appeal. In 1615, when a timber shortage led to a ban on charcoal furnaces, glassmakers were forced to start using coal, which burns much hotter, and the glass that emerged was far sturdier than the delicate stuff of old—sturdy enough to withstand the pressure of a secondary fermentation, resulting in a lightly sparkling drink. It was English cidermakers who first experimented with encouraging effervescence in their bottles—innovations that would later be adapted by the creators of champagne.

An agreeable liquor
Posh cider was far from the only game in town. Hugh Stafford, in his Treatise on Cyder-making (1753), made a distinction between fine cider and “rough” cider, with the production of the latter requiring far less time and care than the former, making it more widely affordable—it was this rough cider that became a staple of public houses around the country. At the bottom of the scale was “an agreeable liquor, for common use, call’d water-cyder”. Also known as ‘cider-kin’, this was made by soaking the pomace in water, then pressing it one last time, the ferment of which produced an insipid, lightly alcoholic drink. This was often fed to farmworkers in lieu of actual wages—a practice known as ‘truck’, which remained common in the cider regions until it was banned in the late 19th century. “This the peasants blithe / Will quaff, and whistle as thy tinkling team / They drive and sing of Fusca’s radiant eyes,” wrote the poet John Philips in his Cider: A Poem in Two Books (1708), an epic paean, written in the style of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Despite its ability to elicit raptures from poets, English cider was destined to be a victim of its own success. Increased demand led to the arrival in the marketplace of cider merchants whose nose for a profit led to all kinds of dilutions and adulterations. Its reputation was damaged further by the 18th century outbreak of ‘Devonshire colic’, an illness attributed to cider but later found to be lead poisoning. Mostly, though, it was killed by the rapid expansion of the beer industry, which quickly out-stripped the largely farmhouse-based world of cider in its range and sophistication. Cider making entered a death spiral, with reduced profits leading to farmers turning their orchards over to other uses. The most prized cider apples, the fabled redstreak included, gradually lost their disease resistance, but a stagnant industry failed to cultivate replacements. In 1785, the agricultural writer William Marshall decried how “all the old types that raised the fame of the liquors of this country, are so far in decline as to be deemed irrecoverable.”

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that a partial revival was triggered, inspired in part by developments in one of the drink’s other great heartlands: northern France. In the 1860s, when their grapevines were ravaged by the phylloxera louse, French authorities had been persuaded to finance a significant survey of and investment in the region’s cider making capacity. This sparked considerable interest among a group of Herefordshire naturalists who began experimenting with French apple grafts and working with some success to bring the county’s orchards back to life.

Industrial ideas
However, the real spark for the resurgence of cider was lit not in its western hub but in East Anglia, previously a relative backwater (one survey of Norfolk from 1796 had famously concluded: “Orchards very few, and much neglected, consequently no cider”). In 1870, William Gaymer, a Norfolk cidermaker, invested in a hydraulic press and began building a national brand, creating a system of cider making based around factories rather than barns. Gaymer helped break the link between grower and manufacturer by buying in apples from far and wide: in 1903, when the Norfolk apple crop failed, supplies were brought in from Devon. Others followed his lead: Percy Bulmer opened a factory in Hereford in 1887 and proved just as innovative in his embrace of industrial ideas.

Farmhouse cider, and the regional distinctiveness that came from the use of single varietals, became a niche drink as the big factories gradually took over. In the second half of the 20th century, cider became a pasteurised, filtered, carbonated, mass market product, largely made from anonymous apple concentrate, much of it imported. In recent decades, industry ‘innovation’ has seen the creation of white cider: a strong, colourless brew made by adding glucose or corn syrup to pomace—think of it as a weaponised version of cider-kin. The idea of cider as a beautiful, simple, natural drink with a strong local character never entirely died out, though, as a visit to The Cider House at Borough Market will make immediately clear. As John Philips would say, could he see the stall: “Thy choice Nectar, on which always waits / Laughter, and Sport, and care-beguiling Wit, / And Friendship, chief Delight of Human Life. What should we wish for more?”