History's First Fine Ciders
The first thing to know is that cider hasn't always been what it is today! In times past, both in Britain and other parts of the world, it showed itself to be a far finer thing! The main peak of this, in Britain at least, we refer to as the 'heyday of cider & perry'. So let's travel back to the 1600s and 1700s, when fine ciders and perries were commonly made by the aristocracy, who drunk the stuff from beautiful flutes (such as the ones in the picture above), which were often crafted from crystal lead glass, and diamond etched or engraved. One of the most famous cider flutes belonged to the Scudamore family of Holme Lacy in Herefordshire (a member of which was the
ambassador to France). Known as the 'Scudamore flute', you can see it today in the Museum of London. The aristocracy's fascination with fine cider didn't stop at drinking it: they searched for, selected and bred apple varieties solely for cider making, prizing single varieties for their properties and the ciders such apples could create. No wonder this was the era in which fine cider was titled the 'Native Wine of England' by famous diarist & botanist John Evelyn.
Many say that when the Royal Society was founded in 1660, the era of modern science was born. Indeed, many members of the Royal Society were avid cider makers, with old literature recounting how they would meet to share cider knowledge! And a few of these characters were involved with the invention of something called 'Verre Anglais' glass, unique for how it was made & annealed. Bottles made from this glass were the first that were strong enough to contain sparkling drinks, like the ones we know today. They could take the huge amounts of pressure drinks like Champagne create, so before these bottles, sparkling drinks effectively did not exist! Of course, the invention of these bottles and love of cider making among Royal Society members and others crossed over, so some of the first purposely sparkling drinks ever made would certainly have been cider and perry.
This heyday also saw a lot of effort devoted to the improvement of cider, with a search for greater understanding, and even an approach we know today from wine as 'terroir'. For example, the most legendary cider apple of the time was called the Redstreak (there are accounts of it being the kings favourite, and winning blind tastings against the best wines a London vintner could put forward, as well as being compared to the best wines of the day). The redstreak no longer exists in its original form, but back in this heyday, two villages in Herefordshire were identified - Kings Caple & Holme Lacey - where this apple was said to grow the best (owing to the terroir; so the soil type, the climate and conditions, etc.).
But if you go further back than this, cider in many ways is not as old as some might assume. The reason is a practical one. Apples are actually quite strong; think how soft a grape is, it can even be pressed for winemaking by someone's feet. So apples need to be ground up before they can be pressed for their juice, and that takes a lot of effort and pressure. The earliest cider making would likely have been done with something a bit like a pestle and mortar, such as a big branch and a hollow tree trunk. And in Britain, it was when the Romans invaded that technology really moved up a gear, as the Romans bought big wooden wine presses with them. Big circular stone mill wheels were also a common way of grinding the apples up before new technologies replaced them over the last century; but you can often still see these mill wheels and circular troughs, throughout places like Herefordshire & Somerset, in gardens and by farms.
Farm labourers were often paid in cider too (until laws were passed in the late 1800s saying people had to be paid with money...) and even children would get their allowance of cider to take with them to the fields. But one important distinction to make is that most cider back then would not have been the kind of fine cider that was drunk from a cider flute (which could apparently cost 60 or 70 times as much as the common stuff), common cider would have mostly been a thing called 'Ciderkin' (also known as 'small cider'), which is basically a second pressing of the apples, with water added. So the first pressing, which gave the best, richest juice, would have been used for fine cider making, then a second pressing was done after the pressed apples had been rehydrated with water, to get a much weaker, lower sugar (so lower alcohol) juice, for Ciderkin making. In some ways, there's a similarity between Ciderkin and the mass market ciders of today, given the role water plays in their making. And if such different kinds of cider co-existed in the past, surely mass market cider and the fascinating world of fine cider can today!
After the British heyday of cider making died down, France was for a century or so the flag bearer for good cider making in the world (at one point, when vines were plagued by disease, over a million people in France worked in cider, and for a brief period France actually made more cider than wine!). Even wine was once a very different thing to the kind of wines we drink today, and actually the same is true for many drinks; alcohol tends to be there throughout history, just in ever-changing forms and identities! In the past, for example, wines were often made from dried, raisined grapes, many were were sour, and sweet wines were the most prized; it's hard to say exactly what people thought good wine tasted like back then, but it's likely rather different from the most common flavours we know as wine today! So Julius Cesar certainly was not drinking red wine, as we know it now, with his spaghetti bolognese (not only because of the way winemaking has evolved over time, but more pertinently because tomatoes were not brought over to Europe from the Americas until the early 1500s!).