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  • Writer's pictureNorfolk Towne Assembly

The Most Popular Beverage in Early America

Throughout the late summer, fall, and early winter, apple cider (also known as cyder in the past) is everywhere. It is a mainstay of farmer’s markets as well as of fall and winter festivals. Year-round, we can order “hard” cider in bars restaurants as well as purchase it in the beer/wine department of many of our grocery stores. But what is the “backstory” of this seasonal drink that has been gaining in popularity over the last half century?

Evidence of apple trees growing along the banks of the Nile River can be found dating back to about 1300 B.C., but there's no evidence that ancient Egyptians ever used them for cider. The first recorded reference to cider dates to Roman times. In 55 B.C., when the Romans under Julius Caesar sailed to the British Isles, they found the Celtic Britons fermenting cider from native crabapples. A drink that the invading Romans quickly fell in love with. Before long, cider spread throughout the Roman Empire and across Europe.

The people of northern Spain were making “sidra” before the birth of Christ. The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 resulted in the introduction of many apple varieties from France and cider soon became the most popular drink in England after ale. Cider began to be used to pay tithes and rents – a custom that continued later in America. Today, in addition to England, cider is a traditional product in Brittany and Normandy, both areas of France previously held by England.

In modern American usage, raw apple juice that has not been filtered to remove pulp or sediment is referred to as “fresh cider” or “sweet cider.” The term “apple juice” denotes the juice has been filtered to remove solids. Fermented apple juice is called “hard cider.” In Europe, all non-fermented apple juice, whether filtered or not, is referred to as “juice,” and fermented apple juice is referred to as “cider.” In the colonial and early republic era here in America, almost any reference to “cider” was to the fermented beverage since that was the only choice for preserving it for an extended period.

Cider in America

The tale of cider in America is a different story. Early English settlers introduced cider to America by bringing with them seeds for cultivating cider apples. In 1629, 22 years after the first permanent English colony was set up at Jamestown VA., William Blackstone (also spelled Blaxton) planted the first apple orchard in America in the Massachusetts Bay colony. While there were natural pollinators here in North America, early colonists struggled to expand their apple orchards, needing more pollinators to increase the yield. Those early colonists found a solution to the issue by bringing over swarms of bees to supply the level of pollination needed for thriving orchards.

In Massachusetts, colonists tried to grow wheat from the beginning, but in the early settlements, marginal soils and growing conditions thwarted their efforts. By 1660, outbreaks of black stem rust, a destructive fungal disease, added yet another barrier to successful wheat production. As a result, in much of New England through the late-eighteenth century, people who were prosperous enough to eat wheat bread often relied on wheat and flour shipped up the coast from the mid-Atlantic colonies, where the crop was better adapted and more profitably grown. However, most people outside of wheat-producing areas could not afford it. This situation made, at least in New England, brewing ale difficult due to shortages of local grains and the expense of grains imported from other colonies. On the other hand, apple orchards were plentiful and yielded bumper crops, thus making apples cheap and easily obtainable.

Apple Harvesting in Early America
Apple Harvesting in Early America

As we demonstrated in our post on Wines in Early-19th Century America, because of this situation, cider was less expensive than ale, wine, or liquors. This gave cider a huge boost in popularity over ale in the early colonies. Although grains like wheat and oats fared better in the middle colonies and Virginia, the excess over what was needed locally was more valuable as a “cash crop” for export to Europe and the Caribbean than for making ale.

The secret about Johnny Appleseed we’re not told in school is that he wasn’t planting apple trees to have apples to eat, but for cider to drink. This planting for cider had as much to do with practicality as inebriation. You couldn’t reliably keep an apple crop through the winter. Combine that with the copious quantities of apples being produced, which you could not consume before they went bad, and you needed to do something with them. Since they tended not to do well being transported long distances over the rough early American roads, turning them into cider, whose alcohol content preserved it was an obvious solution. You could keep a barrel of cider and those barrels could be transported long distances and sold, so it was a source of revenue as well.

Since the only reasonable way to preserve them for the long-term was cider, and because copious quantities were available, it quickly became a less expensive drink and quickly surpassed ale in popularity. Consumption of cider increased steadily throughout the eighteenth century, due in part to the efforts of those settling in areas like the Shenandoah Valley, Western Pennsylvania, and the areas that made up the old Northwest Territory who planted many orchards and produced cider for market. This continued into the early 19th century as well.

Evidence of the spread of cider, and its popularity can be found in traveler’s accounts, such as this one, from David Schoepf, a German soldier and physician who was touring the United States following the end of the Revolutionary War:

“The common drink among the people of the middle and northern regions is cyder”

Partial List of Cider Apple Varieties
Partial List of Cider Apple Varieties

Which Apples Did They Use?

So, what makes a good cider apple? According to William Coke, Esq in his 1817 book “A View of the Cultivation of Fruit Trees. . .”:

“ The properties of a cider and table apple are very different, although sometimes combined in the same apple: toughness, dryness, a fibrous flesh, and astringency, are all good properties in a cider apple – yellow flesh indicates richness and strength – the heavier the must, the stronger the cider – in the Vandervere apple, the must is eleven penny weight in the pint heavier than rain water – in the Coopers russeting, the heaviest must we know of, it is twenty four penny weight in the pint heavier. All cider apples should ripen as late as the first of November, but not later, to prevent the expense of housing [storage]. . . The merit of cider, depends much on the proper separation of the fruits – those whose rinds and pulp are tinged with green, are inferior to those tinged with yellow and should not be mixed together.”

“apples not ripe at the same time, should never be mixed: but three kinds, one of which possesses flavor, another richness, and a third astringency, may possibly be found to improve each other: the finest liquor I ever have seen, was made from the crab, with a small portion of Harrison apple of Newark, and the Winesap of West Jersey. The practice of mixing different varieties may often be found eligible, for it will be more easy to find the requisite quantity of richness and flavor in two kinds of fruit than in one; it is a fact generally understood, that ciders from mixed fruits, are found to succeed with greater certainty, than those made form one kind"

According to James Thacher, M.D. in his 1825 book “The American Orchardist,” the varieties of apple most used for cider making in the area around Philadelphia were:

"The sweet russet, called the pair apple, is unquestionably the richest fruit we have: the house apple stands second: they both yield very sweet must, and consequently, specifically heavier than that of any other apple. The Newton pippin yields its must free from the finer pomace, and although not so rich, from that circumstance, ferments more moderately, and is soonest fine in the cask. The Spitzenburgh and pearmain I do not rank among the cider apples, because they seldom afford a must that will bear fermentation, except the season be uncommonly dry, or the trees very old. . . The vandever is little better than good water cider. The red streak, the cockagee and the royal wilding, so famous in England and Ireland, are not known here, but the Virginia crab well enough supplies the place of them all. This apple deserves every possible attention, and its must is less disposed, from its great acidity, to rise too high in fermentation than that of any apple known here. . . if the time and occasion would admit, I should indulge myself in speaking largely on it”

What was the Process for Making Cider?

Once again, referring to “The American Orchardist” we find that there were several steps to the process.

Horse Powered Apple Mill
Horse Powered Apple Mill

The first step was to grind the apples to create the “must.” Dr. Thacher tells us:

“The finer the apple is ground, the more it will yield. If the mill is well fitted, it crushes the seed, and gives a peculiar aromatick bitter to the must, which becomes more and more distinguishable as the cider is longer kept.”

The next step was to form a “cheese.” In this process, the ground/crushed apples were placed in the press in layers with straw between the layers. In the case of those with more available finances, they sometimes wrapped the layers in fine cloth (such as cheesecloth) in place of the straw. During this process of forming and stacking the “cheeses” in the press, juice was already coming out and was being caught in a bucket. As the bucket filled, the juice was poured into fermenting barrels.

"Cheeses" Stacked in Press Ready for Extraction
"Cheeses" Stacked in Press Ready for Extraction

Once the stack of “cheeses” was in the press, a wooden or metal plate was placed on top and the press was then used to push down, slowly, to extract all the available juice from the must. As this was done, the juice was caught in the bucket and transferred to the fermenting barrels. Once the pressing was finished, the fermenting barrel was left open for several days to allow natural yeast that has built up to begin fermentation.

19th Century Pottery Cider Bottles
19th Century Pottery Cider Bottles

Once the fermentation has begun, the cider was transferred to closed fermenting barrels, leaving as much of the solids and pulp as possible behind, and was allowed to ferment for 8 to ten days. The bunghole was left open to allow escape of gases. It was then transferred once more to another clean barrel, once again leaving behind as much of the solids as possible, and then fermented for about five weeks still with the bung-hole open or the bung laid lightly on the bunghole. Throughout this period, the barrels had to be kept “topped up” to prevent air from getting into the barrel and oxidizing the cider, thus ruining it. Once the fermentation stopped, one would then drive home the bung to seal the barrel and, in a few weeks, it would have fined (had any remaining pulp or yeast settle to the bottom) spontaneously. If you intended to bottle the cider you could do so after aging it in the barrel for some period. Otherwise, if it is to be kept in casks, it should be transferred, carefully avoiding the fines that have settled, to a clean fresh cask.

Cider Fermenting in Casks
Cider Fermenting in Casks

Casks made of good, seasoned oak, iron bound, and well painted were preferred and could be used for many years; but the casks must be kept perfectly sweet and clean. Once a cask was emptied, it had to be thoroughly rinsed with cold water at once. If this were not done the “lees” (sediment left in the barrel) would sour and create deposits that were difficult to remove. Once it was washed perfectly clean with cold water, one would pour an amount of boiling water necessary to fill the cask halfway and then roll and shake the water to every part of the cask. One would then pour out the water and lay the cask, bunghole downwards. The inside of the cask, being properly heated from the boiling water, would dry from the heat. Once completely dry, the bung was driven in, and it was returned to the cellar to store until next season.

Why Did Cider Lose Popularity?

By the late 1800s, cider began its decline from the most popular beverage in the United States. Several societal forces combined to effectively wipe alcoholic cider from the collective memory of America. A major factor was the Industrial Revolution, bringing people from the farm to the city to live and work. Many orchards were abandoned, resulting in reduced production. Unfermented, unfiltered, and unpasteurized cider did not travel well from farms to the new centers of population. Another factor was the increased consumption of beer, especially in cities. Immigrants arriving from Germany and Ireland, and cheap grain available in the Midwest, led beer to replace cider in the popular market.

Perhaps the most damaging factor for cider was the rise of the Temperance movement. By the time Prohibition was enacted in 1919, the production of cider in the U.S. had slipped to only thirteen million gallons, down from fifty-five million gallons in 1899. Over the next several decades, the once proud American tradition of cider making was kept alive by only a few local farmers and enthusiasts.

In recent years there has been a resurgent interest in cider making, just as there has been a resurgence in craft beer brewing. Over the past ten to fifteen years, there has been an explosion in the number of cideries being set up and cider is one of the fastest-growing segments of the liquor industry. However, most of the ciders produced today are not very reminiscent of the ones produced in the late-18th century and early-19th century.

We hope you found today’s post interesting, informative, and hopefully, if you are not currently a cider drinker, it made you curious to give the various ciders a try. Please join us again in two-weeks as we look at a skill that today is very much a “lost art” but back in the 18th and 19th centuries, used to be “de rigueur” for any gentlemen who attended a dinner, large or small, public or private. The art of Toasting.

While you are here, on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample some of our earlier articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.

Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.


Coke, William. A View of the Cultivation of Fruit Trees, and the Management of Orchards and Cider. Philadelphia: M. Carey and Son, 1817.

Crocker, Abraham. The Art of Making and Managing Cyder. Bath: R. Cruttwell, 1799.

Hall, Harrison. The Distiller. Philadelphia: J. Bioren, 1818.

Stafford, Hugh. Treatise on Cyder-making, Founded on Long Practice and Experience. London: E. Cave, 1753.

Thacher, James. The American Orchardist; or a Practical Treatise on the Culture and Management of Apple and Other Fruit Trees. Plymouth MA: Ezra Collier, 1825.

Williams, D. R. Hard Cider's Mysterious Demise. 1990. George Mason University. 02 January 2021.


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