New England’s Insatiable Thirst for Apple Cider

An atmospheric fire adds to the view at March Farm, Bethlehem, Connecticut. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)
An atmospheric fire adds to the view at March Farm, Bethlehem, Connecticut. (Bar Lois Weeks)

A RENEWED INTEREST IN APPLE CIDER, fresh and hard, is evident wherever it is sold. Visitors to the New England Apples booth in the Massachusetts Building at the Eastern States Exposition (“The Big E”) bought more than 300 gallons of Carlson Orchards fresh cider in seven-ounce cups over 17 days in September — and fresh cider was sold at a dozen other places at the fair.

Beginning this Friday, October 31, cider aficionados from not just New England, but across the country and around the globe, will gather in western Massachusetts, to celebrate the 20th Annual Franklin County CiderDays. The event continues through Sunday, November 2, with a wide range of tastings, panels, orchard tours, and more at orchards across the county (click on the link above for a full schedule of events).

Next month comes Vermont Cider Week, actually a 10-day affair beginning Friday, November 14, through Sunday, November 23, with tastings at a number of venues.

Why this renewed interest in what was once America’s favorite drink?

Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield, Massachusetts, will have several blends of fresh cider on hand during CiderDays. (Russell Steven Powell photo)
Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield, Massachusetts, will have several blends of fresh cider on hand during CiderDays. (Russell Steven Powell)

IT STARTS with the incomparable flavors produced by squeezing the juice out of apples. Even the most sour or bitter apple is transformed into something special when pressed into juice, and the blends made by expert cider makers add richness and body to the experience.

Slightly fizzy, lightly alcoholic hard cider, once consumed year-round by young and old alike, expands the range of flavors even further, from sweet to dry.

New England cider typically is made from locally grown fruit. Drinking it connects us to the land, and to our past. To press, ferment, and drink cider is to partake in a tradition that dates back to the 1620s, less than a decade after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock.

For more than two centuries, nearly all New Englanders drank cider, and lots of it. Middlesex County, Massachusetts, to cite just one example, produced 33,436 barrels of cider in 1764, “or seven per family, well over a barrel for every man, woman, and child.”

Cider’s dominance ended in the mid-1800s, squeezed by temperance movements that targeted hard cider at the beginning and end of the 19th century. Rural New Englanders flocked to its cities during the Industrial Revolution, where immigrant populations, especially from Germany, demonstrated a talent for brewing beer, an inexpensive alternative to hard cider.

Passage of the Volstead Act in 1919 led to Prohibition, further reducing demand for hard cider, and the market never recovered even after Prohibition was lifted in 1933.

People still thirsted for fresh cider, though, and almost every orchard, large or small, pressed its own until 1996, when an isolated tragedy in the Pacific Northwest permanently changed the landscape for producers.

The incident involved Escherichia coli (E. coli) contamination traced to a single source, the Odwalla Juice Company in Washington state. One child died and more than 60 people became ill after drinking Odwalla fresh apple juice.

Odwalla immediately recalled all its products containing apple or carrot juice, and in 1998 pleaded guilty to 16 misdemeanor charges of selling adulterated food products, paying a $1.5 million fine. Odwalla made improvements to its production line in an effort to avoid future outbreaks, and began to flash pasteurize its juices.

Alyson's Orchard in Walpole, New Hampshire, one of the many small New England orchards that sell unpasteurized cider at the farm. (Russell Steven Powell photo)
Alyson’s Orchard in Walpole, New Hampshire, one of the many small New England orchards that sell unpasteurized cider at the farm. (Russell Steven Powell)

AS ITS LONG AND ILLUSTRIOUS history suggests, New England cider has always been safe to drink. In all of my research for Apples of New England, I did not encounter a single report of illness traced to New England cider, and I am not aware of any in my lifetime — including nearly 20 years working with the New England apple industry. Yet the Odwalla incident resulted in new regulations for how apples and other crops are harvested and processed.

The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) eventually required that all fresh cider be pasteurized, with the exception of small producers who sell at their orchard or farm stand (they must attach a warning label). Many small orchards chose not to invest in the expensive equipment needed to pasteurize and simply stopped pressing cider.

Common sense, tradition, and its irresistible flavor appear to be overcoming this latest taint on cider, judging by the demand for fresh ciders like Carlson’s, the popularity of festivals like CiderDays, and the proliferation of artisanal hard ciders and commercial brands like Angry Orchard, Harpoon, and Woodchuck.

It is not just fresh and hard cider, either, that appeals to the apple-loving palate. A new generation of vintners is coming up with distinctive dry and semi-dry apple wines in addition to the traditional sweet dessert ones, and niche products like ice cider are capturing the apple’s essence and showing its remarkable versatility in new and exciting ways.

Here are a few things to know about cider as you prepare to visit CiderDays, an orchard, or grocery store, or as you simply sit back to sip your favorite apple drink:

The term “apple juice” applies to the clear, amber liquid sold in bottles in grocery stores.

“Fresh cider” is the name for the brown, unfiltered apple drink sold at farm stands, farmers’ markets, and orchards, and in the refrigerated sections of grocery stores, usually in the produce aisles.

“Hard cider” is the alcoholic drink fermented from fresh cider, roughly as strong as beer.

Bottled apple juice is fresh cider that has been heated above 175°F for 15 minutes to 30 minutes, then filtered to a clear liquid. Commercial apple juice is also made from concentrate and water. With the help of stabilizers and preservatives, bottled apple juice stores indefinitely.

Fresh cider, the sweet, thick drink found at most orchards, contains nothing but apples. If sugar or any other ingredients have been added, it is not the same drink.

Unpasteurized fresh cider will keep approximately 10 days to two weeks, several weeks if pasteurized, and up to several months with preservatives like potassium sorbate, added by some of the largest producers and grocery stores. Fresh cider may be frozen for up to six months.

Any apple can be used in fresh or hard cider, even an unnamed chance seedling, and each variety contributes distinct sweet, acid, or astringent properties. All-purpose heirlooms like Ashmead’s Kernel, Golden Russet, and Roxbury Russet are particularly prized for cider, while varieties like Dabinett, Harry Masters Jersey, Tremlett’s Bitter, and Yarlington Mill are cultivated exclusively for fresh and hard cider.

Large-scale makers of fresh cider necessarily rely on varieties planted in sufficient quantities to meet their high demand, which rules out most heirlooms. Varieties like Cortland, Gala, McIntosh, Idared, PaulaRed, and other New England staples are used according to season. An early season batch may differ slightly in taste from one made later in the year.

*          *          *

'Apples of New England' by Russell Steven PowellAUTHOR RUSSELL STEVEN POWELL, senior writer for the New England Apple Association, and Executive Director Bar Lois Weeks will discuss apples, answer questions, and sign their new book, Apples of New England, at at three western Massachusetts orchards during CiderDays weekend.

As part of CiderDays, Powell and Weeks will appear at Pine Hill Orchards, 248 Greenfield Rd., Colrain, Saturday, November 1, from 10 a.m. to 12 noon, and at Clarkdale Fruit Farms, 303 Upper Rd., Deerfield, Sunday, November 2, also from 10 a.m. to noon.

Powell and Weeks will also appear at Atkins Farm, 1150 West St., Amherst, Saturday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

*          *          *

TO LEARN MORE about how commercial fresh cider is made, view this short video:

1 Comment

  • Kayk

    I still have yet to make these. I do have a few favorite orachrds in the area that make delicious cider doughnuts, but these homemade ones look so good!