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The History of Hard Cider & How It's Made

May 17th, 2024

Cider is making a comeback these days, and with more varieties on store shelves and bartenders’ taps than ever before, it’s high time we dive into the process behind this remarkable drink that’s been around for over two thousand years!

Here’s all you need to know about how hard cider is made and what makes it so special!

How hard apple cider is made

Cider’s globe-trotting history

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact origin of many ancient things, but we do know that cider as we know and think of it today likely originated in Britain several thousand years ago. 

The first real mention of the drink, however, was recorded in the first century. Julius Caesar himself encountered cider during his invasion of Britain in 55 B.C. and documented the Celts' practice of fermenting apples.

As with most of their occupation-related interactions, the Romans took what they saw and soon spread the news across their empire. Thanks to their established agricultural practices and trade routes, the Romans are believed to have introduced new apple varieties from the Mediterranean and Asia and potentially improved fermentation techniques during their occupation of Britain.

However it happened, we just know that the Romans were very personally invested in the production of cider. 

Following the fall of the Roman Empire, historical records concerning cider became scarce. However, the presence of cider-drinking Vikings and Anglo-Saxons suggests the tradition continued through the upheaval. 

The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 A.D. marked a turning point in Britain's cider scene, as the invading Normans brought with them tannic and acidic cider apples from France that significantly altered the character and taste of English cider. By the 14th century, cider production had become widespread across England and had even surpassed ale in popularity! Apples were readily available in the cool, damp climate, and the fermentation process offered a way to preserve the harvest through the cold months. Eventually, cider even served as a form of currency used for paying tithes and rents. 

Cider’s popularity in Britain grew even more in the 16th century. Wars with France and Spain limited the imports of sherry, wine and brandy into the British isles, and a spell of colder temperatures made growing their own wine grapes not worth the effort. Apples, on the other hand, were readily available and were easy to grow — thus, cider became the go-to brew in Britain!

Fast forward another hundred years to the European colonization of the Americas, where Massachusetts Bay colonists brought apple seeds with them to plant orchards. Apples grew well in the soil and, thanks to growers like Johnny Appleseed, cider was soon the beverage of choice in many new communities. Not only did the apples store well and could be used to make vinegar, food and other staples, but water was not always safe to drink and the apple drink was considered to be a safer option. Even children drank it in small amounts!

Even founding father John Adams reportedly enjoyed a daily tankard of cider, highlighting its prevalence in early American life.

Grain and barley didn’t grow nearly as well as apples did, so cider was far more popular than beer in the United States’ early history. However, several factors introduced in the 19th century began to affect the market. First, the Industrial Revolution brought many people into cities and away from rural areas, leaving orchards abandoned and harvests plummeting. The network of railroads and the success of cheap grain in the Midwest also meant beer was far easier and cheaper to brew, and an influx of European immigrants from Ireland and Germany bolstered the popularity of beer over cider. Finally, the Temperance movement and the subsequent Prohibition meant that alcohol production as a whole was significantly hampered, and cider wasn’t one of the easiest things to brew legally, never mind illegally. 

Cider is still far more popular in Britain than it is here in the United States, but its popularity here is starting to grow back thanks to a recent interest in craft brewing. Today, the industry is one of the fastest-growing in the U.S. liquor industry, and we’re sure to see much more cider on the shelves in coming years!

Types of apples used

The core ingredient for cider is, unsurprisingly, apples. However, not all apples are created equal.

Culinary apples (the ones most often found in grocery stores) are bred for their sweetness, texture and eating quality. In contrast, cider apples boast a unique balance of tannins, acidity and bitterness that contribute to their characteristic tartness, and factors like texture and mouthfeel don’t really play much of a role at all. While some cider makers may add some culinary apples to add extra flavor, cider apples are the real foundation for creating a truly authentic and worthwhile cider. 

The process of turning freshly-harvested apples into cider involves several key steps, many of which are similar to those of making beer and wine!

Pressing the juices

First comes apple pressing, where the fruit is crushed and milled to extract its juice. Traditional methods employed large wooden presses, while modern producers utilize hydraulic presses that can extract more juice in less time. The resulting mixture is called a must, which is a mixture of finely crushed juice, pulp and skin.

Fermenting the must

The must is then transferred to fermentation tanks where yeast is introduced, triggering the conversion of sugars in the mushy must into alcohol. The type of yeast and fermentation temperature can significantly impact the final flavor profile of the cider, and it’s up to the producer to decide how to control the length and strength of the fermentation. 

The fermentation process can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on the desired style. Some ciders also undergo a secondary fermentation in their bottles that creates additional carbon dioxide, turning it into a sparkling cider!

Aging the cider

After fermentation is complete, some ciders may go through an additional aging period. Most of the time, this involves storing the cider for several weeks (or months) in oak barrels that add additional flavors and complexities to the cider. Ultimately, the length of maturation varies depending on the desired outcome, and it’s up to the producer to choose what barrels to use, how long to store it and what the end result should look like. 

Carbonation and bottling

While some ciders are naturally carbonated during their first and second fermentations, others might undergo a secondary carbonation process to achieve a higher level of fizz.  They’re also pasteurized in order to kill any remaining bacteria lingering around from the fermentation process, so you know you’re getting only the best of the best when you open your cider!

Finally, after all the final checks and quality control testing, the cider is bottled or kegged for distribution and consumption. From there, it’s up to us consumers to enjoy it!

Cider is an age-old drink that people have been enjoying for at least two millennia, so it’s great that it’s starting to make more of a comeback here in the United States. With many regional varieties to choose from and some very talented brewers making them, there’s plenty to try and plenty to like, no matter where you de-cider to look!


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Featured photo by Olivia Bauso on Unsplash 

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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