Hard Cider: America's First Alcoholic Beverage

By Paul Vigna

America’s first alcoholic drink was Cider, made from 100% fermented apple juice. During the 19th century, Cider was one of the most popular alcoholic beverages. In fact, you would expect an offer of Cider when entering someone’s home in Pennsylvania or New York, states that have an abundance of apple orchards.

Then came the US Prohibition in 1920, and Cider production dropped significantly, seemingly

disappearing even after the law was repealed. The orchards that were growing bittersharp and bittersweet suddenly had no market to sell them and the farmers had to cut down the trees to continue to make a living. Ten years post prohibition, brewers (for beer) could produce a product that could be made in a few months from readily available ingredients. Cider makers were regrowing full size apple trees that would take 10+ years.  Cider makers were not interested in reviving a drink that would have taken that long to bring to market. 

Cider production arose back to prominence (paralleled the growth of the craft beer industry), with some brands finding a national audience. Per tastingtable.com in a story that cited figures from NielsenIQ, cider produced $553.6 million in revenue in 2021, a slight decline from $566 million in 2020 but an increase over $517.8 million in 2019. In fact, hard cider has surpassed beer, wine and hard liquors as the beverage with the biggest increase in sales annually — going back to 2009.

There are several producers across Pennsylvania that exclusively make Cider. A large focus in the state focuses on wine production, but has also expanded into cider production during the past decade. With that in mind, here are some basics about what is commonly called hard Cider, an alcoholic drink made by fermenting the juice of fruit, usually apples. The use of “hard” in its name distinguishes this drink from its non-alcoholic counterpart, apple cider, which is made by pressing apples to produce juice. Much like wine, which is produced from grapes, hard Cider can be made out of a variety of apples. 

Philip Keating, Reid’s Orchard and Winery in Orrtanna, Adams County, explains that there are four different profiles for apples: sweet, bittersweet, sharp and bittersharp. “With each category comes different levels of sugar, acid, and tannin. Just one of many balancing acts I have to juggle as a Cider Maker,” he says.

Evan Gruber, of Old Stone Cider in Lewisville, Chester County, says he equates the question about which apples are better to a similar comparison to wine. “While you CAN make wine from table grapes, no one does since it makes terrible wine. The same is true for cider. Certain apple varieties produce a superior product.” Gruber uses apples that were bred specifically for hard cider production, many of them are from England and Europe. Most are several hundred years old and provide the acidity and tannins needed for a flavorful cider. Among the apples that are commonly used for hard cider are Galas, Gravensteins, Newtown Pippins, Rome Beauties and Winesaps.

Much like grapes crushed during the initial process of making wine, the same is true for hard cider. Once the apples are harvested and washed, the fruit is crushed and pressed. The remaining juice is fermented, which is the act of yeast converting the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The yeast will keep consuming the sugar until there is none left in the juice, and that is when you have what is referred to as a completely “dry” beverage.

Fermentation takes one to three weeks, with any additional time used to refine the cider. “I like to make cider that is as clear as possible, so I will age it for about one to two years, by constantly racking it,” Keating said. “Sight and taste helps me determine where it is in its process. Same goes if I’m aging cider in oak barrels. When it comes to different apple varieties, we do everything from European dry to Americanized sweet with a whole lot of great options in between.”

On average, most hard Ciders range from 4.5% to 7% alcohol by volume (ABV), while some have an ABV as high as 12%. Drier Ciders usually have a higher ABV because the yeast consume a majority of the natural sugars in the juice.

Similar to wine, hard cider can range from dry to sweet. Categories can be broken down this way:

  • Dry Cider: Dry hard ciders have less than 0.5% residual sugar and are often more acidic than the other types. The yeast consumes most of the natural sugars and also contains a higher alcohol content than other ciders. Many dry ciders are aged in oak barrels to complement their mineral qualities. 
  • Off-dry Cider: An off-dry cider has slightly more body than its dry counterpart and typically contains 1% to 2% residual sugar. These ciders are often smoother and have a richer flavor. 
  • Semi-dry and semi-sweet Cider: Semi-dry ciders contain above 2% residual sugar, while semi-sweet ciders can carry as much as 4%. These two cider types are similar in taste and are full bodied and more pronounced apple flavors.

Many ciders across the state are found in cans, bottles or kegged. Ciders can be still, carbonated or barrel aged. Gruber says that certain apple varieties can be aged for longer periods of time, particularly the more tannic ones. “I start to notice a decline in quality around the one-year mark, although barrel aging seems to extend that some,” he says. At Reid’s, all of their hard ciders are carbonated and sold by bottle or poured on tap. With the carbonation, Cider will not get better with age and it is usually something you will want to drink within a year of purchase.

With the ground covered in leaves and Thanksgiving and the other end-of-the-year holidays on the horizon, there’s no better time to try a few examples of Hard Cider in Pennsylvania. 

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