John Adams, America’s second president, started each day by drinking a “gill” of hard cider before breakfast.
This sounds like a devilish way to start the day. It’s consolation, however, that a “gill” is only a quarter of a pint – ½ cup or 4 ounces – of liquid. And he most likely wasn’t the only one to start the day with a boozy swig.
Hard cider was the most common beverage in the United States from the first settlers at Plymouth Rock through the late 1800s, supplanting wine and beer in popularity and often replacing juice, coffee, tea and water. Ciderkin – a weak alcoholic cider – was reportedly served to children.
As America expanded westward, they brought the cider with them, providing a safe and stable source of drink when water could be contaminated. John Chapman – commonly known as Johnny Appleseed – was a prolific nurseryman who, throughout the early 1800s, planted countless acres of orchards across the western frontier. Chapman would travel ahead of settlers, doing the difficult work of planting the orchards and then selling the land to the advancing populations when they arrived.
Early colonists brought apple trees in the form of graftings – budded stems they hoped to plant. However, New World soil turned out to be less hospitable and the trees grew poorly. Not to mention grafting is a difficult and delicate technique. So instead settlers turned to growing apples from seed. Apples grown from seed – like the ones Chapman spread across the frontier – were hardly the same kind of common apples that populate today’s grocery store.
“These cider apples are actually called “spitters” because you spit them out due to their bitterness. They have more tannins and more acids,” said Jennifer DeSmul, co-owner of Big Mountain Ciderworks, with her husband Bud DeSmul. Big Mountain is a family owned and operated orchard in Kalispell.
These “spitters” may ruin a good pie, but they are exactly the kind of apples that produce great cider.
“When we planted our orchard, I think we bought almost the entire inventory of cider trees that were available that year. And that was 10 years ago, before the cider craze started,” said Bud.
Cider faded into the background as America’s favorite drink in the late 19th century for a couple of reasons. As German and Eastern European settlers found their way to the U.S., they brought their thirst for beer. As they moved further into the Midwest, they found land was more suitable for growing barley and grains needed for beer production. But the biggest blow came with prohibition when nearly all cider apple trees in the country were given the ax or torched.
Over the past few years, however, there has been a resurgence in cider appreciation. Some due to the rise in gluten free diets as well as a shift in taste, including a shift to more traditional English-style ciders made from cider apples.
“There’s this evolution of taste,” Bud said. “We’re hoping to ride that second wave of cider popularity. As people’s taste profiles mature, we’ll actually have the orchard and type of apples that will cater to that.”
Today, Big Mountain Ciderworks has 11 assorted ciders on tap – although this number can fluctuate depending on specialties, times of year and availability. This summer, for the first time, a selection of their ciders will be sold in cans, perfect for summer boating, hiking and camping.
Although it’s not recommended to drink alcohol before breakfast, it’s worth noting that John Adams lived to be 90 years old. As Jennifer said about that fact, “There’s something in that cider.”
Where to get it: Just in time for summer, Big Mountain Ciderworks can be found in cans around the valley, in restaurants and at their tasting room at 1051 Old Reserve Dr, Kalispell, MT 59901. Visit www.bigmountaincider.com for more information and availability.
Two of Jennifer DeSmul’s Favorite Ciders
Aromatic with a hint of cinnamon and subtle oak finish. The Snow Devil is easy drinking and semi sweet. This cider won the Governor’s Choice Cider Award during the 2021 Montana Beverage Show. ABV 6.9 percent.
MoonGlow pears direct from the Big Mountain Ciderworks orchard are blended with Golden Russet apples to highlight the mellow sweetness of ripe pear with crisp apple and floral notes with hints of vanilla. ABV 6.9 percent.
• It takes about 36 apples to produce one gallon of hard cider.
• The geographic origin of apples is in modern-day Kazakhstan.
• No apple seed grows the same apple as every apple seed has its own unique fingerprint.
• On November 18, 1307, the legendary William Tell shot an apple from his son’s head. November 18th is now National Apple Cider Day in the UK.
• In the 14th century children were baptized in cider; it was cleaner than the water.
• There are more than 7,500 different varieties of apples in the world, so if you had the recommended “apple a day”, it would take 20 years to try them all.