The History of Cider

The History of Cider

Have you ever cracked open a bottle of Sandford Orchards cider and wondered about the history of this wonderful drink? You’re not alone – we are often asked about the origins of cider. Who made it first? How was it made? Who looked at an apple and decided that it should be fermented before being enjoyed?

Well, it’s a question that we’re more than happy to answer. Cider has a very interesting backstory that covers approximately 5,000 years, so whilst you carry on sipping on your bottle, we’ll explain all you need to know about the origins of cider.

Like most food and beverages that went from ancient wonder to a global industry worth billions of pounds, the Silk Road is involved. The ancient trade-route introduced regions to fruits, vegetables, grains and spices, and apples are no different. Wild apple forests were discovered in the Tien Shan mountain range in what is modern-day Kazakhstan, apple seeds dating to around 4,000 BCE have been found in Italy. As for cider, we know that it was a favoured drink during ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. We also have evidence that shows that the Celts drunk a cruder form of cider, sourced from crab apples, as far back as 3,000 BCE.

Do as the Romans Do

The first recorded reference to cider dates back to the Roman Empire. The story goes that the first Romans arriving in Britain in 55 B.C found the locals drinking a cider-like drink and swiftly gained a liking for it, bringing it back across the empire. Following the discovery, cider soon spread across wider parts of Europe – historians have uncovered evidence of Germanic tribes enjoying the drink, as well as a number of monasteries across Europe, who would produce the drink not just for their personal pleasure but also to sell to the public.

Normans, who would go on to conquer England in 1066, also developed a fondness for cider and would go on to establish more apple orchards across the land, as well as cementing the word ‘cider’ into the English language.

By the 14th century, cider had made its way north to Yorkshire and had spread out to counties such as Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Somerset – regions of the UK that have come to be closely associated with apples. Despite that, wine was still arguably the more popular beverage heading into the Tudor age.

So how did cider end up becoming an iconic British beverage?

In short, climate and conflict. A period of global cooling, starting from the 16th century, created an environment that made vine growing and grape harvesting an unviable process. Enter apples. A hardier fruit that can withstand cooler temperatures, the apple slowly came to be the go-to choice for making alcoholic drinks. Added to that, wars with Spain and France during this period hampered imports into England, particularly sherry, brandy and wine, providing apples with a clear run to stake a claim as the country’s go-to drink alongside ale. It’s a dominance that extends to this day; not only does England possess the highest per-capita consumption of cider than any other country in the world, but it is also home to the world’s largest cider producers.

Introducing Cider To The New World

The History of Cider

As the Age of Discovery dawned, it didn’t take long for early settlers in North America to take their knowledge of cider-making to the New World. Historians suggest it took less than a decade for the earliest colonists to plant apple trees on the east coast of the modern-day United States, starting in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Cider gradually became the most popular alcoholic drink in Colonial America. Most homesteads maintained apple orchards, whilst cider was even used as substitute for money in some communities when paying wages and taxes!

Cider’s status as the USA’s most favoured beverage didn’t last long however, as a number of external factors, from the industrial revolution to mass-immigration and cheap grain prices during the 19th and 20th centuries pushed the drink onto the side-lines in favour of beer. Likely prohibition was the biggest negative impact on US cider. US cider consumption of LAB was 25% before prohibition – but with it cider orchards of inedible fruit were felled, and when it was rescinded grain that could be diverted into beer production in days, superseded apples which take a decade to reach fruiting maturity) Now US cider consumption is 1%.

Today, cider-making is a global industry, with the UK producing around 750 million litres per year, putting to use just over half of all apples cultivated across the land. We are very proud to account for a small portion of that sum in the oldest-working cider mill in the UK, carrying on a process that has been an English tradition for millennia.

So next time you sit down with a Sandford Orchards cider, you’ll do so with the knowledge of approximately five thousand years of cider-making.

8 comments on “The History of Cider

  1. Louise West on

    Is there much history to the ‘Cider Houses’ and when do they date from? How many pubs started out as a cider house? Ours’ did – The Northmore Arms in Wonson, Throwleigh. Some people now still refer to it as ‘The Wonson’. Is this name from when it was a cider house? The cider was made at the next-door farm.

    • Jess on

      Hi Louise, I asked Barny about this as there’s very little he doesn’t know about all things cider, here’s what he said:

      Cider houses were definitely a big thing – right up to the later part of the 20C – with a couple still hanging on today. Cider was a little cheaper than beer, as it was historically duty-free until the 1970s (when do you think the cider houses finally died out?!?) I believe that the licenced houses were granted permission to sell only what was made on premise as part of the 1830 pubs act. Many pubs in Devon therefore became ‘cider houses’ because we had lots of apples and people wanted cider! Brewhouses made beer, and cider houses made cider. It was a cheap license, but they couldn’t sell beers wines and spirits.

      I’m very interested in this topic – so will try and throw a little more light on the matter!

      • Jess on

        The 1880 map of Wonson shows the (then New Inn) with a healthy acre of orchards behind, plus best part of another acre around the old manor. Which connects to the cider being made on the farm very neatly. I suspect the farm may have even owned the pub at some point.

        Given their proximity to Providence Place, and Chapple they were some brave cider makers! There was much moralising about drinking in those days, you’d have found me in Wonson…

        The 1946 aerial photo shows good orchards left around the manor house, and a few trees left at the farm – most likely after the Great war, few men left to farm the land, and not much to laugh about meant orchards got left behind.

        All this stuff is available online on the Devon County Council environment viewer. A brilliant time waster! I can’t post the maps in here but if you’re interested in seeing them drop cider@sandford an email and ask them to forward it to Jess.



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