#8

History's First Fine Ciders

Welcome to Cider History Class 101. The first thing to know is that cider hasn't always been what it is today, we can't stress this enough, but the sweet & bubbly thing most people know 'cider' to be is really only the creation of the last few decades. It's the output of a modern industrial-scale process. Before then, for hundreds if not thousands of years, cider was created in smaller batches that reached legendary levels of quality! The main height of which, in Britain, 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 ambassador to France, Lord Scudamore of Holme Lacy in Herefordshire. 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 English Wine' 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! Out of these discussions came an important invention of the time which was the making & annealing of glass. That is glass so strong that it would not burst under pressure and an invention from which comes all the sparkling drinks we have today; be it Champagne (which wasn't properly invented until a few hundred years later) & other sparkling wines, to anything carbonated in cans derives today. Of course, this invention and love of cider making 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, and being compared to the best wines of the day), the variety no longer exists as it once did, but back in this heyday two villages in Herefordshire were identified - Kings Caple & Holme Lacey - where this apple was said to grow their 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 not as old as some might assume. The reason being 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 lovely 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 apples up before new technologies replaced them over the last century; but you can often see these mill wheels and circular troughs, throughout places like Herefordshire & Somerset. 

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 (and could apparently cost 60 or 70 times as much as the common stuff), common cider would have mostly been a thing called 'Ciderkin', 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 finer cider making, then a second pressing done with water added 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. 

After the British heyday of cider making died down, Franch 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!). So just like cider, wine hasn't always been what it is known for 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 made from dried, raisin-ed 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 was 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 today 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!)

First things first, are you of legal drinking age?

No, but I'm working on it