Johnny Appleseed and the Golden Days of Hard Cider

Up until Prohibition, Michael Pollan wrote in The Botany of Desire, in rural areas “cider took the place not only of wine and beer but of coffee and tea, juice, and even water.” It’s easy to see why: Until the 1900s, most water was contaminated with bacteria. Beyond issues of sanitation, cider was America’s homegrown answer to wine — our native grapes weren’t sweet enough to ferment. And just like European wines, American ciders could be incredibly complex, even nuanced — that’s why Thomas Jefferson grew cider apples at Monticello, where Hewes Crabs are kept to this day.

Cider, not snacking, was the real reason John Chapman — better known as Johnny Appleseed — was flinging seeds and setting up nurseries through the Ohio Valley and the Midwest in the early 1800s. Growing apples is easy, but cultivating a tree that bears palatable fruit is rare. Most of the chance seedlings that germinated in Chapman’s wake weren’t fit for his tin-pot hat — but they were plenty suited for a decent quaff, or even a nip of applejack. In fact, Chapman couldn’t possibly have known what he was growing. Apples are extremely heterozygous, meaning each seed contains the genetic makeup for a completely new and different type of apple tree. If you were to plant a seed from a McIntosh apple, the one thing you could be sure of is that the sapling it produced wouldn’t be a McIntosh tree.

Christopher Hughes writing for Boston Magazine about America’s early history of hard cider, and the search for the next great apple.