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Apples to Cider

“As American as Apple Cider” – until the early 20th century, that phrase could have been used readily in place of our familiar platitude regarding pies. From before the American Revolution until Prohibition, cider was the drink of choice in the States – particularly amongst rural and frontier populations. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans drank, on average, 10.5 ounces of cider each per day; John Adams famously started every day with a tankard of cider, crediting it for his good health; George Washington himself may have never been elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses without the help of 144 gallons of cider and other drink – voters are often thirsty, after all.

But a number of factors contributed to a general decline in American cider drinking. Beer-drinking immigrants from Germany and Eastern Europe began arriving in ever larger numbers, finding the States an excellent place to grow the grains and hops needed for their brew – crops that could be raised in a single season, much faster than apple trees need to mature. Beer was also easier to industrialize, and large-scale brewing spread beer into regions that had traditionally drunk mostly cider. Finally, the Volstead act and Prohibition in 1920 caused most apple farmers to switch completely to growing culinary apples. Even after repeal, it was far easier for breweries (which had never closed, switching to root beer and other “soft” beverages) to ramp up production from barley than it was for cider makers to grow new apple trees – meaning beer truly became the dominant American drink of the 20th century, while cider almost disappeared.

The 21st century, however, has seen a tremendous resurgence of cider. Much as the craft brewing movement made an environment where small-batch and experimental beers could be successful, small cider producers have stepped in to create a market for interesting and elegant alcohols produced from apples. Here in Upstate New York – the second largest apple-producing state in the nation – cider production has grown exponentially in the past 10 years, with dozens of cideries operating just in the Finger Lakes region alone. Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Hard Cider Program Work Team has been working at the forefront of cider’s re-emergence, helping growers and cider producers through education and research.

This exhibit celebrates the return of cider to the forefront of our palate, and explores some of the science being performed to ensure its success.

Bottoms up!