Give me cider, give me cider,

When I’m thirsty, give me cider.

You may have all other drinks,

Give me cider, give me cider.

— A 19th century campaign chant, reported by the Indianapolis Leader in 1880

Wickson apples are grown at Ricker Orchards in Turner to make hard cider. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

TURNER – When Andy Ricker was just another “poor college kid” at the University of Maine at Farmington, he realized that he had a way to avoid the high cost of booze.

Since his family owned an apple farm in Turner, he had no trouble walking off with five gallons of sweet cider that he could use to create a hard cider at almost no cost.

So he made some. And he liked it.

When Ricker graduated in 2008, he began agitating within his family to take a crack at selling hard cider commercially, one more way to turn apples into cash and keep the Ricker Hill farm humming into the future.

As the ninth generation of his family to work on the farm first settled in 1803, Ricker managed, after five years of building a case and perfecting the product, to convince his elders to obtain the necessary license and take a crack at what seemed to be a fast-growing market.

“We jumped in head first,” Ricker said recently. They shipped Ricker Hill’s first hard cider in 2014, hoping to ride a wave of interest in the drink to earn new profits. Ricker said he figured that he’d ultimately master the business side of the proposition “because failure isn’t really an option.”

Ricker had come up with a cider, Mainiac Gold, that was drier and not as sweet as the market leaders. Other varieties followed, mostly with more sugars since Americans always snap up the sweet stuff.

By the time the pandemic hit, Ricker said, the farm’s hard cider sales had begun to make a profit. Things were looking bright.

Then COVID-19 hit, shutting down the bars that bought kegs containing a third of the hard cider Ricker produced.

Things have gotten better, but pandemic-related problems persist, from government restrictions on gatherings to a worldwide shortage of cans, making it tough to get Ricker’s cider into stores.

Still, Ricker said, within a year or so he hopes “to get clear of this mess” and perhaps return to annual growth in cider sales of 10% or more.

Even at that rate, though, it would take many decades for hard cider consumption to reach the level that early settlers in Maine enjoyed.

An 1866 Currier & Ives print of a painting by G.B. Durrie called “Autumn in New England cider making” Library of Congress

DRUNK ON THE FRONTIER

It is almost impossible to overstate how much hard cider early New Englanders guzzled almost daily.

In Maine’s York County town of Limerick in 1833, temperance advocates reported there were about 1,400 residents who consumed among themselves some 1,500 barrels of the stuff annually.

That averages out to more than 34 gallons apiece in a single year, an enormous quantity in an era when half the town’s residents were children.

Until the mid-19th century, hard cider served as “the common drink” of New Englanders “rich and poor alike,” with well-off homeowners keeping a barrel on tap so that “pitchers of it” could be “brought up at every meal and in the morning and evening,” according to Alice Morse Earle’s “Home Life in Colonial Days.”

Even little children were commonly given diluted cider, sometimes fed bread soaked in hard cider.

So ubiquitous was the drink that when William Henry Harrison successfully ran for president in 1840 alongside his running-mate John Tyler, he campaigned under a banner proclaiming him the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider Candidate.”

An illustration from “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” presidential candidate William Henry Harrison’s 1840 campaign. Library of Congress

The simple truth of it is that for early Americans, apples were far more likely to wind up in hard cider than on a teacher’s desk or a child’s lunch. Cider was simply everywhere, with barrels of it shipped into the cities and tapped on almost every farm.

Cider’s fans likely included Native Americans as well.

Benjamin Franklin quoted one telling a minister that “it is indeed bad to eat apples. It is better to make them all into cider.”

Yet by 1853, cider’s era was already fading.

Maine’s annual agricultural report that year noted that “the days of cider making for cider drinking are happily gone by, and the ‘sober second thought’ has taught the best method of using without abusing a good thing” by turning apples into animal feed or for sprucing up sauces and pies.

Drinking hard cider almost completely vanished within a generation and didn’t really begin again in the region until a few decades ago, a strange and mostly unexplained phenomenon.

Why a drink that flowed constantly and caused orchards to dot the rural landscape suddenly became a rarity has been attributed to everything from the temperance movement to the rise of beer brewing.

A temperance advocate named L. Gage, who declared in 1836 that he’d watched people drinking cider in Oxford County for 20 years, told the Bangor Daily Whig and Courier that the resulting drunkenness “materially injured” his community.

He said drinkers begin as children with a little cider before it ferments and before long become lovers of it “fully ripe, and more and more of it,” constantly searching for an ever more potent drink, “as natural as that from milk in infancy to meat in riper years.”

A temperance convention in Rutland, Vermont, offered the story of a family that would put up to 60 barrels of cider into their cellar every autumn.

“It was their custom every night, when the fireside circle was formed, to send (one of eight sons) to draw a pail of cider” that was “placed in the corner, and ever and anon, the pewter tankard, filled from the pail, was passed around the circle,” said an account in the Rutland Weekly Herald. “In this way, the whole pail-full would be drank during the evening.”

Maine became famous worldwide for its crackdown on alcohol in the latter half of the 19th century so it’s likely the movement led by former Portland Mayor Neal Dow played some role in the demise of cider drinking in the Pine Tree State.

But aside from a couple of brief periods, the government never stopped people from making hard cider. Even at the height of Prohibition in the 1920s, they could produce 200 gallons for non-commercial use.

Whatever the reason, though, hard cider – and many of the orchards that once provided the necessary apples – slipped from use and became a curiosity at best until recent decades.

Ricker Hill’s hard cider process takes place entirely on the Turner Farm. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

THE ASTONISHING REBIRTH OF CIDER

Fortunately for places like Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner, cider has come back strong – though its consumption remains paltry compared to days of yore.

The nation was gulping down tens of millions of gallons of hard cider each year in the mid-19th century; 100 years later, consumers were buying about 20,000 gallons annually, far less than 1% of production at its height in America.

Then along came Woodchuck Cider, which started in a Vermont garage in 1991 and has grown ever since.

The cider business was at times “growing at a stupid pace,” Ricker said, but it really took off when the Samuel Adams Boston Brewery leaped in.

Sensing a business opportunity, the Boston-based brewery launched its Angry Orchard label nationally in 2012.

“All of a sudden, cider just exploded,” Ricker said.

The Angry Orchard label now makes up about two-thirds of the U.S. market, far outpacing Woodchuck or any other competitor.

No cider label, though, sells anywhere near the volume of breweries churning out beer. Cider sales make up less than 2% of what beer brings in.

Pamela Cowles writes the name of the new release behind the bar at the Ricker Hill Tasting Room in Turner. Cowles said their hopped honey oak cider appeals to beer drinkers and cider drinkers alike. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

But it’s become a market big enough to allow niche manufacturers to snag a small but growing share of the business, including at least a half-dozen hard cider makers in Maine.

In an April report, Market Data Forecast said hard cider sales nationally totaled more than $2 billion in 2019 and are expected to grow more than 10% annually through at least 2026. It said the growth “is driven by strong demand for gluten-free beverages and a growing preference for low-alcohol beverages” as well as lifestyle changes.

“Innovative new flavors” and clever marketing have helped, the report said, but there are still a lot of people who confuse apple juice and apple cider.

Keith Tannenbaum, owner of The Vault on Lewiston’s Lisbon Street, said he’s been most impressed with the growth in both the number of hard cider producers and the types of products they make.

Their popularity, he said, “ebbs and flows,” with ciders especially popular as people “start to think of the cooler weather” in the autumn.

That there are “some really great hard ciders coming out” helps boost interest, said Tannenbaum, who is selling brands from as far away as Sweden, but also likes some of the ones from Maine that are “drier and more serious – more adult ciders, if you will.”

He said that among the Maine producers turning out interesting ciders are Norumbega Cidery in New Gloucester, Rocky Ground Cider in Newburgh, the Kennebec Cider Company in Winthrop and Freedom’s Edge Cider in Albion.

Ricker Hill is also “very good,” Tannenbaum said, but a little more on the sweet side.

There are, he said, “all kinds of new and fun flavors” in recent years, including two that arrived in his store recently: toasted pumpkin and apple pie, perfect flavors for autumn in New England.

It doesn’t take much looking around to find an astonishing array of choices.

Northwestern Extract, a manufacturer in Wisconsin, offers cider flavors that include apple, pear, berry, pumpkin, honey, pineapple, ginger, strawberry, cherry, sour cherry, raspberry, cranberry, peach, black currant and grapefruit.

Tannenbaum said the pandemic may have contributed to the diverse offerings.

He said COVID-19 pushed a lot of people to investigate alternative beverages, from hard cider to hard seltzers. That they’re mostly gluten-free, Tannenbaum said, helped spur interest as well.

Some of those people looking for alternative beverages, Tannenbaum said, used their new free time to also explore making their own ciders, with varying degrees of success.

Golden russet apples are grown at Ricker Orchards in Turner to make hard cider. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

TREES ON THE MOUNTAINTOPS

Ricker said growing apples in Maine is tricky — and that only some varieties work well for the hard ciders he produces.

First thing, though, is planting the trees.

They have to go on hilltops, where they get plenty of fresh breezes. They need a good water source, too, and, naturally, good soil.

Those ingredients are not exactly abundant in the rocky hills of Maine, but Ricker has 20 acres devoted to hard cider varieties such as Dabinett, Harry Masters Jersey, golden russet and Wickson, all of them legendary bittersweet apples in the cider-making world.

Though golden russets are considered good for eating in general, the others really are not, Ricker said. Bite into a Dabinett, he said, and you’d likely spit it out because it is “very, very acidic.”

During a recent visit, he pointed to rows of Dabinett and Wickson trees bulging with apples that would be picked in a few weeks.

“These here are things you generally wouldn’t want to eat,” Ricker said.

For cidermakers, who often use specific varieties of American and European apples, it’s a lucky break that some of the old American cider apples survived — a consequence of a scattering of old trees that skittered through decades of neglect — and fortunate that cidermaking in Europe never faded out as it did in North America.

Cidermaking is simple in concept, though mass production offers its own challenges.

Basically, though, the apples are pressed, mixed with yeast, fermented, racked, filtered and blended to “to try to keep as consistent a product as possible,” Ricker said. People have to know what they’re buying, after all.

It takes about eight weeks for a cider “to express itself” and be ready for sale, he said, though some are kept much longer. Bottled, they keep pretty much forever.

“If you treat it like a wine in a cellar, you can drink it in a hundred years,” Ricker said.

But will there be consumer desire for hard cider in 100 years? Things have come a long way from a half-century ago when a market for cider in the U.S. didn’t really exist.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Ricker said, it was “just something your uncle made in the shed.”

For the time being, what was old is new again. And hard cider producers hope it stays that way.

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