Aspall Cyder - Cider and Vinegar

Dispatches from a Mid West Cider Revolution – Minneapolis Cider Week

11th June 2014

Henry's Travels

I’ve just spent a week drinking cider in Minnesota. My life is tough. Target destination was the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul, which have always held a place in my heart after I spent a summer here 2 decades ago working for the food giant Pillsbury.

Nestled as they are on the opposite banks of the Mississippi, the younger Minneapolis has the downtown skyline one expects of a large US city, and the bustle to go with it; whilst St Paul, the state capital, is a little less showy – more akin to a European city with its quaint neighbourhoods and Victorian architecture. They both have different yet complimentary styles and characters.

And whilst Saint Paul is the older of the two, it’s all pretty young from the settlers’ perspective. Minnesota was actually part of the “Louisiana Purchase” of 1803 when the fledgling United States bought France’s controlling interests in North America. The original French settlement was soon overrun, particularly by Germans and Scandinavians – Catholics settling on the East Bank followed shortly by Lutherans on the West. They’ve grown up pretty happy bedfellows.

And whilst the apple would have arrived with the early settlers it still felt like an unlikely place for a cider week. That was the wrong assumption to make; as I found, the Twin Cities have a vibrant and exciting cider market enjoying a massive surge in interest and popularity.

Local ciders 

That’s partly due to Minneapolis having had a local brand called Crispin. Well, I say local, but whilst the brand was based here it has always been made in Colefax California. Despite this anomaly, it was around as a Minnesota brand long enough to have at least made the locals aware of the category, if not wildly interested in it. This interest perhaps could have waned after the brand was bought by brewing giant Miller Coors a couple of years ago, but this happily coincided with a revival of smaller producers, who with a combination of locally sourced apples, a keen interest in craft brewing and a desire to take back their cider heritage are firmly putting Minnesota – and American cider in general – back on the map.

Minneapolis Cider Week ( @MPLSCiderWeek)  is now in its fourth year and growing nicely. As the “Old World” producer in town I spoke at a number of events as part of the programme, and even had a slot on local radio station 1500ESPN’s “The Beer Show” (22 May). A very common theme that kept recurring from the audiences was the fact that my family have been making cider since before America became a country, and that I was therefore some sort of cider guru and a fount of all knowledge. Whilst I obviously did as little as possible to dispel this absurd notion, I did consistently point out that America has a proud history of cider production and consumption dating back to the Pilgrim Fathers. The first record of cider in the US was on the "Bill of Fare" for the Plimoth Plantation 1627 Harvest Dinner with the Pilgrims, 100 years before Aspall was founded.

US cider making heritage

And there are other indicators that the US has a proud tradition of cider making all of its own. The second President John Adams, drank a glass of cider with his breakfast every day. In the 1800’s it was the staple alcoholic drink of most Americans.

One of the main reasons for the spread of cider through the West was down to Johnny Appleseed aka John Chapman. Chapman had a knack of understanding where the next settlements were likely to spring up. Throughout the early 1800’s he planted orchards across Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and West Virginia. Wherever there were apples, so too could there be alcohol, and by the end of the 19th century, most settlements and towns had cider making operations.

When Prohibition came into force in 1929 nearly all of the cider houses closed down. With no use for the apples many of the orchards were grubbed up. By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933 the raw material was no longer available and cider was consigned to the annals of US history and largely forgotten.

Chapman for his part became a folk hero, re-branded by the history writers as a champion environmentalist (which was likely true), who took healthy Vitamin C to the good frontiers people who made America. All very wholesome stuff.

Part of the resurgence of the US Cider Market in recent years is thanks to the uncovering of this forgotten history, and whilst many of the original orchards have disappeared, they have left enough of their offspring to give a glimpse as to what style of cider Great, Great, Great Grandpa and Grandma may have been drinking.

The next craft beer?

The bigger producers such as Angry Orchard, Woodchuck, Hornsby’s have gone for the mainstream ‘make it sweet’ approach. There is now even a “Johnny Appleseed” brand produced by Anheuser Busch, the brewer of Budweiser and I had the grave misfortune of tasting it whilst on this trip. John Chapman must be spinning in his grave.

Happily, the emerging artisan producer has a greater respect for history as well as taste, and so is looking for dryness and complexity; the ciders I find most intriguing are those that manage to do this with local heirloom varieties and skilful cider making techniques. It’s understandable to see many producers looking back to England, France and Spain for inspiration for the new wave of American ciders; if it were me though, I’d be asking the question “why have an English, or French style when you can have your own?”

Whichever style is being opted for, there are some fabulous American Ciders coming through and if the trail blazing US craft beer sector is anything to go by, get ready for a similar trajectory for US Cider. I for one, am enjoying the ride.