History of Cider Part V: The Decline of Cider in North America

March 29, 2010

In my last couple of posts, I outlined domestic apples coming to North America and their increase in popularity and propagation along with cider becoming the preferred beverage. However, as in England, America began to experience a rural to urban migration that hurt cider’s production and popularity.

  • Ben Watson explains the decline, “Until around 1850, apple-growing and cidermaking remained closely linked to the small, self-reliant homestead farm, but the migration of workers to cities and to the fertile lands of the West after the Civil War meant that many old orchards were abandoned. Also, homemade farm cider, which was unfiltered and unpasteurized, didn’t travel well to the new centers of population. Coupled with this growing urbanization and resettlement during the late nineteenth century, a steady stream of immigrants from Germany and northern Europe led to the establishment of more breweries in America and increased the consumption of beer” (page 27).
  • Hiram F. “Okanogan” Smith planted apple trees in central Washington State in 1848. Unlike Johnny Appleseed, these apple trees were planted for shipping and eating, not cider. Today, Washington produces half of the Unities States’ apples, and about 5% of the world’s apples.
  • Around 1850s, damage done to apples by insects such as the codling moth and diseases like apple scab discouraged apple growers. This led the cutting down of orchards in the 1880s and increased use of arsenical insecticides and fungicides.
  • In 1860, around 84% of Americans lived on farms.
  • A short blurb on cider in The New York Times in 1901.
  • The Temperance movement began to rise, and cider was no exception to them. Natural apple cider is about 6% alcohol, but American ciders had slowly been creeping up in alcohol content to allow for better storage and therefore shipping. Ben Watson explains, “Producers increased the final strength of the cider much as they do today, by adding a sweetener (honey, sugar, raisins, and so on) to the juice before or during fermentation. By the late eighteenth century, the alcohol content of the standard cider sold in taverns ran 7.5% – still not producting that much of a kick. Some producers, however, added rum to their rough cider, making it a less than “temperate” beverage. Also, the impurities found in traditional applejack (a strong, concentrated liquor that was made by freezing hard cider outside in the winter) gave drinkers awe-inspiring hangovers and, over time, led to the unfortunate condition known as apple palsy. Finally, just as had happened in earlier England, the good name of cider was besmirched by unscrupulous manufactures, who made it out of just about anything…” (pages 27-28)
  • Many farmers who sympathized with the temperance movement cut down apple trees. Others started pasteurizing unfermented sweet apple juice and selling it inoffensive “sweet cider,” which is the beginning of the word confusion of cider by Americans today.
  • By 1910, only 30% of Americans lived on farms.
  • The winter of 1917-1918 was unusually cold, killing many apple orchards, including cider trees, especially the breed Baldwin.
  • Cider production in 1919 was only at 13 million gallons verses 55 million gallons in 1899.
  • In 1919, the temperance movement was successful in its push to have the federal government  declare that the making and sale of alcohol was illegal, marking the beginning of Prohibition, which was not repealed until 1933. Brian Palmer explains the impact, “The temperance movement encouraged the remaining orchardists to pasteurize and bottle their unfermented juice. Prohibition forced the holdouts to either chop down their trees or to convert their operations to grafted eating apples. Once Prohibition ended, cider never came back. Part of the reason lies in the nature of the product. Unlike barley farmers, who could adjust annual plantings fairly quickly to meet surging post-Prohibition demand, orchardists would have had to graft cider apples painstakingly onto an entire field of eating-apple trees or spend years starting a new orchard from seed. Beer manufacturers also lobbied hard for Prohibition’s repeal, which gave them an incentive to get brewing again when the laws changed. Cider makers, who typically worked independently and produced their wares in small batches, didn’t have the same drive once the ban was lifted. Urbanization also worked against cider, which was grown, fermented, and consumed on farms.” Thus, cider making traditions were only practiced by limited local farmers and enthusiasts.
  • Another devastating winter occurred in 1933-1934, killing the remaining Baldwin trees. Farmers replaced them with the hardier McIntosh.

Conclusion on April 5, 2010

My sources include:

  • Palmer, Brian. “Slate: What Would John Adams Drink?” http://www.slate.com/id/2231001/ September 30, 2009
  • Watson, Ben. Cider, Hard and Sweet, 2nd Edition. 2009. Pages 27-28

For further reading on Prohibition in general, see:

Also see:

  • Morgan, Joan and Richards, Alison. The New Book of Apples: The Definitive Guide to Apples, Including Over 2,000 Varieties. 2002
  • Juniper, Barrie B and Mabberley, David J. The Story of the Apple. 2006
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2 Responses to “History of Cider Part V: The Decline of Cider in North America”


  1. […] History of Cider Part V – Decline of Cider in America […]


  2. […] alcoholic version, and “sweet cider” as the juice.  This is mostly to do with Prohibition, as farmers who sympathized with the movement started selling unfermented juice as inoffensive “sweet … The problem is, people today don’t call it sweet or hard cider, they just call it […]


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