Quartz Obsession


November 09, 2017

An apple a day

Americans tend to think of apple cider as a cloudy, full-flavored juice, best served warm to children on a brisk autumn day. But to the rest of the world, cider conjures up the bubbly alcoholic stuff.

Cider is vulnerable, completely dependent on what Mother Nature feels like handing out in a given year. Apples don’t store well (which is a major reason cider exists in the first place), and an off winter can take out a whole variety. If you’re drinking a cider that tastes the same, month after month, year after year, you should be a little suspicious.

Cider is now a Western European favorite, with the UK far and away the biggest producer and consumer. But that masks a fascinating diversity of interesting trends in the cider world. New regions like Asia are developing a taste for cider, and old ones like North America—where prohibition all but killed off the industry—are rediscovering their roots.


$13.8 billion: Industry projection for the global market for cider by 2024

4–6%: The amount of alcohol by volume in the average hard cider

36: Apples in one gallon of hard cider

37: Percentage of American adults aged 25-49 who can’t name a cider brand

34: Average number of gallons of beer and cider consumed in 1790 by every Massachusetts citizen over the age of 15

17,000: Number of apple varieties that appeared in 19th-century American publications

18: Varieties of apple Thomas Jefferson grew at Monticello

91: Lifespan in years of US president John Adams, who routinely started his day with a small glass of cider


What's hard about cider?

Soft cider, the kind kids drink, is just raw apple juice that hasn’t been filtered or processed. It’s opaque and sometimes unpasteurized, which is why natural yeasts cause it to start fermenting over time. “Hard” cider is a term that only became known in North America after the advent of refrigeration.

Cider resembles beer in its yeasty flavor and effervescence, but the process for making it actually has more in common with wine. There’s some crossover, though, as a new wave of ciderists experiment with adding hops, honey, spices and even other fruits (pears blend particularly well), to a variety of cider apple breeds that history forgot—for a while, at least.



The core of the story

Apples originated in Kazakhstan and grew on the banks of the Nile as early as 1300 BCE. We don’t know if Egyptians made cider (they did love beer, though). But when Romans arrived on the British Isles in 55 BCE, they brought with them a cider-like drink—and the love spread.

According to Amy Stewart’s The Drunken Botanist, the hallmark of natural apple reproduction is diversity: Apple trees produce seeds that are genetic grab-bags, moving further and further away from their parent plant with each generation. By the 1500s, there were at least 65 varieties apples in Normandy alone. That region’s apples were particularly well-suited for cider, with the right balance of tannin, acidity, sweetness, and aroma.

In 1555, the French improved on cider (if that’s possible) by distilling fermented apples into the apple brandy we now know as Calvados, named after the Norman region where Gilles de Gouberville first began experimenting. Like cider, apple brandy (also known as applejack) spread quickly to apple-rich North America.


Why don't Americans drink more cider?

In the early days, they did. “The colonial farmhouse cider barrel held fermented cider—the hard stuff—and people guzzled it like modern Americans slurp soda,” Rebecca Rupp writes at The Plate. Cider was safer to drink than untreated water, and was touted as a health and longevity tonic and a cheap way to keep warm in the winter. It was even thought to be drinkable by children because of its relatively low alcohol content.

But several factors went into the transformation of cider from delicious alcoholic beverage to merely fancy juice in the American psyche:

  1. German immigrants brought their lagers with them to America, and their finickier (but much lighter and tastier) beer jumped in popularity.
  2. The religious Temperance movement preached the evils of the drink (some of the more righteous even burned down orchards).
  3. Prohibition outlawed alcohol entirely, and orchard growers had to find something to do with all these apples, so they started pushing the juice form of cider, which became ubiquitous due to improvements in pasteurization and refrigeration.

When alcohol was again legally allowed into American livers, many of the tart apples perfect for cider hadn’t survived the purge. When life gives you Red Delicious, you make Red Delicious-ade—but unfortunately, cider made from that ubiquitous baking apple got a big thumbs down from American drinkers, and cider’s popularity plummeted even further.


“If you want to make an allegory of the Red Delicious, you might see in it the story of America: confident intrusion on inhabited soil, opportunity won in a contest of merit, success achieved through hard work, integrity pulverized in the machinery of industrial capitalism.” — Sarah Yager, “The Awful Reign of the Red Delicious”


Basque in the glory

Find cider too sweet? You should really try it Basque style: bone-dry and tart. The region straddling Spain and France makes cider that is funky, unfiltered, and often uncarbonated. (Here’s a video that will tell you more.)

A barrel filled with cider is called a txotx (“Cho-ch,” rhymes with “broach”), and that’s what people shout when one is unplugged in a cider house (sagardotegi), as the crowd rushes to catch the frothy cider that streams out.

If there isn’t a Basque cider bar where you live, you can try to find a bottle. Bon Appetit recommends Isastegi Sidra Natural.

Correct. This is a nail polish color by OPI, but we'd be willing to try the apple too.
Incorrect. It's a real apple.
If your inbox doesn’t support this quiz, find the solution at bottom of email.

Down a couple of pints, turn the Tempura Kidz up to 11, and you’ll get it.


Appleseed truthers

Johnny Appleseed, aka John Chapman, was a real guy. A missionary, in fact, for an 18th-century religion called Swedenborgianism. He’s famous for spreading apples across the North American frontier, selling apple seedlings to settlers. As Michael Pollan writes in The Botany of Desire, “He understood he was working for the apples as much as they were working for him.”

Despite the myth, he wasn’t just bestowing lovely apples across America. Here’s a quick lesson on apple sex: The fruits of a seedling tree (also called a “pippin”) are rarely edible. Henry David Thoreau claimed to like them, though they were sour enough “to set a squirrel’s teeth on edge and make a jay scream.” To keep a desirable variety of apple tree going, you have to clone it by grafting a shoot from one tree onto a growing rootstock.

So, Appleseed’s apple seeds were only good for one thing, and by now you can probably guess: Making booze. “Up until Prohibition, an apple grown in America was far less likely to be eaten than to wind up in a barrel of cider,” Pollan writes.


Apple snacks

Soft cider has its own place in the booze world, as it makes for a flavor-packed fall cocktail. Here’s a festive recipe from our cool older newsletter sister Quartzy. The Apple Crush combines crisp, fresh cider (2 oz.) and bourbon (1 oz.) with a hint of orange in the form of Cointreau (1/4 oz. or a few drops), and a couple dashes of bitters. Pour it over ice in a highball glass, and top the rest up with soda.

Pair it with one of these tasty snack suggestions provided by Obsession readers.

🍎“Take sliced apples, cover one side in sugar and place in a hot pan til caramelized.”—Raihan

🍎 “Manzanas asadas. It’s a typical Spanish recipe which has been passed down generation to generation in my family.”—Idoia

🍎“Cut them up, put them in a ziplock bag, squeeze lemon juice and sprinkle with cinnamon, toss.”—Erica

🍎“Top a round of brie cheese with chopped apples, cranberries, and walnuts, drizzle it all with honey and bake.”—Jessi

🍎“Slice thin and sauté with some butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon, then pour over pan-fried pork chops.”—Jason

🕶 calling all superfans

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Today’s email was written by Susan Howson.

Images: Unsplash/Joanna Nix (apples), Reuters/Eddie Keogh (apple)