Cider for Adults

Americans and cider have had a rocky relationship. We’re not talking about the sweet, murky beverage that most of us call apple cider, which is really just unfiltered apple juice. Real (or “hard”) cider is generally carbonated and certainly alcoholic. And Americans used to guzzle the stuff down: back in the early 1800s it was possibly the most popular alcoholic beverage in the States. But the relationship soured in the 19th century, and it wasn’t a pretty breakup. After Prohibition, America moved on to beer and didn’t look back. The wounds have finally healed, and Americans are getting sweet on cider again.

Bill Barton ’74 is one of the people helping mend the relationship. Founded in 1999, his was among the first of a new wave of cideries in New York State. (There are now more than 50.) But Barton’s ciders bear little resemblance to most national brands of hard cider, such as Angry Orchard and Woodchuck. His ciders don’t come close to soda-like sweetness, instead ranging from dry to semisweet, with subtleties of flavor reminiscent of wine.

Bill Barton
This is no sugary, entry-level alcoholic beverage. Instead, it ranges from dry to semisweet, with subtleties of flavor reminiscent of wine.

Barton runs his cidery, Bellwether, with his wife, Cheryl. In the tasting room, he pours a sample of one of his favorites: King Baldwin. “I would describe this as an off-dry,” he says. It has just a hint of sweetness. He blends diff erent types of apples to balance the three key aspects of cider: acidity, tannins and sugars. In 2011 Bon Appétit selected King Baldwin as one of its favorite American ciders.

Rather than disparaging the sweet national cider brands, Barton is grateful for them. “They’re carrying a lot of the load in terms of building the market,” he says. “They’re the entry point for people drinking ciders.” He’s pinning his hopes for the future on a younger generation of drinkers willing to try new things. Older folks are less likely to branch out in their beverage choices, he says.

Barton was inspired by cider he drank in France in the 1980s. He wondered why there wasn’t a similar industry in the States, unaware then of cider’s convoluted history in America. Cider was a favorite drink of some of America’s founders, including John Adams and Thomas Jeff erson. While many historians finger Prohibition as the cause of cider’s demise, David Williams, a retired professor of history at George Mason University, says it’s not quite so simple. “Wine came back, rum came back, beer came back,” he says.

So why not cider? Even before Prohibition, cider was in decline: it was harder to produce in cities than beer, and the Temperance movement was especially intense in rural WASP communities, where cider was most popular. The rise of sweet soda also helped to displace cider. After Prohibition, “there was neither the desire nor the means to resuscitate the cider industry,” according to a history of cider that Williams posted on his website.

Today, Barton is producing about 14,000 gallons of cider a year, and he plans to put in new apple trees in the spring. Maybe this time around, America and cider will live happily ever after