Courtesy of Destination Gettysburg
The history of hard cider in America dates to Colonial times, when the Pilgrims brought apples for cidermaking with them aboard ships bound for the New World and soon began planting orchards in the nascent colonies. Cider was a staple in the Colonial diet—after all, it was often safer than drinking the water—and was enjoyed by many of our Founding Fathers; in fact, John Adams is said to have drunk cider daily with breakfast, and Thomas Jefferson grew apples in his orchards for cider production at Monticello. And remember the story of Johnny Appleseed (actually, nurseryman and missionary John Chapman), who established orchards to grow apples—suitable not for eating but, rather, for cidermaking—throughout the Midwestern frontier in the early 1800s?
Over the years, however, American cider—widely considered the oldest craft beverage in the country—fell out of favor, with later-arriving libations such as Italian wines and German lagers winning over the American palate. Prohibition leveled the final blow to cidermakers in the early 1900s, and the popularity of cider never rebounded—that is, until now.
Thanks in large part to renewed interest in craft beers and local wines, cider is making a comeback—big time. Cider is now the fastest-growing segment of the craft-beverage industry, according to the United States Association of Cider Makers. And with that growth comes a crop of tourism opportunities, from festivals and tasting rooms to behind-the-scenes cidery and orchard tours and even cidermaking classes.
“Cider’s popularity can be attributed to both consumer affinity to purchase local products with a story, distinction and sense of place and to its broad appeal to consumers who would self-describe as both wine and beer drinkers alike,” says Carla Snyder, extension educator and creator of the Penn State Extension’s Hard Cider Program at The Pennsylvania State University.
Distillery Lane Ciderworks, Photo by Emily Ramsay, Wildling Photography.
The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far
With hundreds of cideries and thousands of apple varieties coast to coast, there’s no shortage of quality American cider and places to sample it. And those of us who live in the Mid-Atlantic are especially fortunate to be within a short drive of a trove of cideries, many with acres of apple-producing orchards on-site. Indeed, when it comes to the burgeoning cider scene, Pennsylvania is ripe for the picking. The state is the fourth-largest producer of apples in the U.S., and nearly two-thirds of those apples are grown in Adams County, where Gettysburg is the county seat.
“We [in Adams County] have unique microclimates and soil structures that lead to a distinctive terroir that can be experienced through tasting our ciders,” says Snyder. “Microclimates can be as large as a rolling hillside or as small as a single plot of trees. Variations in the growing season contribute directly to the flavor of the cider just as different vintages of wine exhibit distinct characteristics.”
Adams County is also home to the National Apple Museum in Biglerville, owned and operated by the local historical and preservation society. Housed in a converted pre-Civil War bank barn and open weekends May through October, the museum features exhibits dedicated to the county’s apple and fruit industry, including displays on everything from early fruit-processing equipment and historic orchard photographs to a re-created 1880s farm kitchen and an old-timey general store. And each fall, Biglerville hosts the National Apple Harvest Festival (this year’s 55th annual event is October 5–6 and 12–13) celebrating all things apples, including cider tastings, cider press displays and orchard tours—plus food stands, craft booths, music performances, an antique car show and more.
Cider tourism abounds throughout Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic, says Snyder. “[From the apple varieties to the cidermaking processes, cider’s unique] nature makes the treasure hunt for this golden nectar even more alluring.”
Melick’s Town Farm, Courtesy of Melick’s Town Farm
Bushels of Fun
Like exploring wineries and craft breweries, visiting cideries is not only the perfect pastime for craft-beverage lovers but also a relaxing way to spend a day with family and friends in some the region’s prettiest pastoral settings. Many wineries and breweries also produce ciders, and a handful of tourism trails link stops at wineries, breweries, distilleries and cideries, such as the Delaware Beer, Wine & Spirits Trail with 20-plus stops throughout the state. Also, a group of passionate cidermakers based out of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains has assembled the North East Cider Trail, spotlighting cideries in 12 states from Maine to Virginia and Washington, D.C.
“[The recent success of the cider industry] is piggybacking on the wine trails and craft beer renaissance. People are looking for craft beverages, and cider is a great gluten-free alternative,” says John Melick, a tenth-generation farmer and owner of Melick’s Town Farm in Oldwick, New Jersey, which is home to the state’s largest—and perhaps oldest—apple orchard with some 25,000 apple trees. “Discovering good cider is a wonderful experience, and fall festivals are a wonderful time for cider connoisseurs to try new varietals and for families to go apple-picking, take hayrides and just spend time together,” he adds.
Melick’s Town Farm also hosts visits to its cider mill, where you can see how fresh-picked apples are turned into apple cider on a working cider press—and take home a jug of the delicious juice to enjoy with friends.
Distillery Lane Ciderworks, Photo by Emily Ramsay, Wildling Photography.
Comparing Apples to Apples
Cidermaker Tim Rose of Distillery Lane Ciderworks (DLC) in Jefferson, Maryland, began studying the science of cidermaking and experimenting with fermentations nearly 20 years ago, about the same time DLC owner and orchardist Rob Miller began planting his first 1,000 trees to grow cider apples. Today, the family-owned and -run 95-acre farm, which is the first licensed cidery in Maryland, is home to a 9-acre orchard with some 3,500 trees producing more than 45 apple varieties.
“I like to tell folks who are new to craft cider like ours to ‘think dry white wine.’ A lot of what we do is educate folks…,” says Rose. “Of course, there are many styles of cider, but when it comes down to it, another thing we like to say is ‘it’s all about the apples.’ And what I mean by that is…you need to have real cider apples, rich in tannins and acidity, to make great cider.
“From August to January, we have apples for eating and cooking and fresh-pressed cider—the sweet unfermented stuff—that is to die for,” adds Rose. “On top of that—oh, yeah—the portfolio of a dozen or so different hard ciders we have, including our Bourbon barrel-aged Kingston Black and Champagne-style Celebration Cider. Folks come out to pick specific apples they have come to love that you don’t find in the grocery store. … Wwe are happy to have visitors come with their picnics and spend the day enjoying the orchard out in the country in the shadow of South Mountain.”
DLC hosts group tours of the farm and cidery, extended cider tastings and fall festivals, too. You can also delve deeper into the science and art of cidermaking through classes and workshops that cover topics such as the basics of cidermaking and orchard care.
If you can’t make it to a cidery, you may discover your soon-to-be-favorite cider on the shelf at your local store. But do try to visit. There’s nothing quite like spending an autumn day outdoors amid a postcard-perfect orchard; sampling a glass of fresh-pressed cider that, perhaps just days before, was a handpicked apple from that orchard; and pondering this craft beverage’s long, storied history that’s as American as…well, apple cider.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of AAA World.