The United Kingdom drinks more cider than any other country in the world. In fact, it drinks more cider than all the other countries combined. You could say we like our cider. Perhaps almost as much as we like our tea.
We got to thinking: what is the history of cider in the UK? Turns out, it’s quite a long story, with far too many details to cram into a humble blog post. But we have condensed it into a brief and palatable history that pairs well with a tall, cold glass of cider.
The Invasion of Cider
Much of our cider culture came to the UK alongside invading armies. The Roman Empire took power around 50 CE, bringing with them a plethora of apple varieties, orcharding techniques, and cider-making knowledge. When Christianity became the dominant religion around 600 CE, monasteries started planting orchards and producing cider, both for the monks to drink and for sale to the public. The Normans invaded in 1066, and brought tannic apple varieties well-suited to cider-making. They planted more orchards, and brought state-of-the-art pressing technology to make the process more efficient than ever. Cheers to that.
The Little Ice Age and Wine Wars
Between the 16th and 19th Century, the world experienced a period of cooling that is now referred to (quite adorably) as the Little Ice Age. This drop in temperature killed off grapes throughout the UK as the climate became too hostile for the heat-loving vines. Apples, however, were able to survive these cooler temperatures, and so cider became even more firmly cemented as the leading beverage in the UK.
During this time, political unrest made it difficult to acquire wine, as wars with France, Spain, and the Netherlands halted wine imports. Rather than whining about their lot in life, people in the UK turned to their old faithful drink: cider. In 1664 John Evelyn presented his paper ‘Pomona’ to The Royal Society, and suggested filling the wine gaps with cider. One of the best cider apples of the day was called a Redstreak or ‘Scudamore crab,’ named for Herefordshire grower Sir John Scudamore. With a hard texture and high tannins, it was virtually inedible, but ideal for cider. People started to refer to Sir John’s cider as ‘Vin de Scudamore,’ essentially ‘Apple Wine.’ The UK saw cider go from being a working-man’s drink to one fit for the upper classes; even King Charles I was said to prefer it over wine.
A Glass of Bubbly
Speaking of wine, there is evidence to suggest that the methode champenoise, which produces fizzy alcohol by fermenting in a sealed bottle, actually came from England. Sir Kenelem Digby designed the modern wine bottle in England in 1633, using stronger glass which could withstand the pressure from bottle fermentation. In his book, he outlined how to make sparkling cider using these stronger bottles. Dom Perignon, the French monk widely credited with inventing champagne, was not born until 1638 – five years after Sir Digby’s reinforced bottles were invented! English cider-drinking glasses at the time also resembled modern champagne flutes, with long, tall sides designed to hold precious bubbles. There is one on display in the Museum of London featuring the Scudamore coat of arms and apple tree designs.
Pay Me In Cider!
The first written record of cider being used as a form of payment dates back to 1204 CE, from a manor house in Runham, Norfolk. This practice continued for many centuries, mostly as a means for wealthy landowners to pay their farm labourers. Some sources suggest that top labourers could expect 8 pints per day in payment (how anyone got any work done is beyond us). The Truck Act of 1887 prohibited the practice of paying wages in cider, but the practice was slow to dry up, and continued well into the 20th Century.
Commercial cider production increased in the 20th Century, and the National Association of Cider Makers formed in 1920. To match increasing consumer demand, growers started intensively managing their orchards and planting monocultures. The aim was to increase yields and produce a consistent product. For a drink to be called ‘cider,’ it needed only 35% juice per volume, or even apple juice from concentrate, supplemented by water, sulphites, and preservatives. The UK palate forgot the taste of natural cider.
However, small-batch, 100% juice, naturally fermented cider has been enjoying a comeback in recent years, a phenomenon that Susanna Forbes from Imbibe Magazine refers to as a cider revolution: ‘Craft cider is throwing off the shackles of mediocrity.’ Forbes points out that cider appeals to today’s young drinkers in many ways: ‘Being gluten-free, low in ABV compared with wine, and relatively local are aspects which all chime with today’s consumer.’
At The Orchard Project, we couldn’t be happier that cider is growing in popularity. With over 2,500 indigenous apple varieties in the UK, there is so much to taste and explore. Small growers are able to experiment with rare breeds, and brewers are creating unique ciders to enjoy. We are proud to be part of this cider heritage, and hope to continue making delicious cider and supporting community orchards while we’re at it!
You can learn more about how to make your own home-brew cider here.
Please drink responsibly.