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Despite a reputation for being as American as pie, apples are transplants from far away. Like our forebears, these fruits came from foreign shores and have been nurtured and developed by other cultures for centuries.
Ancestors of Malus domestica, the modern table apple, are thought to have geographic roots in Asia. Near the border of China, in the mountains of present-day Kazakhstan, lies the forest town of Almaty—Kazakh for “full of apples.” Thanks to the city’s location along the Silk Road, the ancient network of trade routes linking Asia to the Middle East to Europe, the apple was spread throughout the known world alongside technology, political ideas, and luxury goods.
Traders would pluck the choicest fruits from wild trees along the Silk Road and their horses would munch on windfall apples, both actions leading to the spreading of the fruit as discarded seeds grew into new trees. Eventually, approximately 4,000 years ago, apples found their way to Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), where they were first domesticated via grafting (see Chapter 4 “Science and Definitions”).
The Romans gave us the first records of cider—in 55 B.C., Julius Caesar invaded Kent, England, and found people drinking an alcoholic, cider-like beverage fermented from native crab apples. The conquerors soon adopted the drink as their own, and by the beginning of the 9th century cider-drinking had spread throughout Europe. The Norman Conquest in 1066 sparked even more widespread consumption and, following the introduction of cider-specific apples to England, cider became the most popular drink after ale.
Fast-forward through many hundreds of years of cider traditions in Europe, to when colonists brought apples and cidermaking knowledge to the New World. While they had a hard time growing the barley needed to brew beer, they found that apples grew easily in New England. Around 1625, it’s said that William Blackstone of Plymouth, Massachusetts, cultivated the first American apple variety: the Yellow Sweeting. Cider quickly became a staple in colonial America—cheap, readily available, and safer to consume than water. It was drunk from breakfast to bedtime by everyone, including children.
We can’t talk about apples in America without mentioning John Chapman, aka the folk hero “Johnny Appleseed.” Chapman was born in Massachusetts in 1774 into a farming family. He later traveled across Pennsylvania and eventually landed in Ohio at the beginning of the 19th century, planting seeds he’d picked up along the way. While children’s books on Appleseed have removed the alcoholic element from his story, in truth the nurseryman’s end goal was not the apples themselves but the cider they were destined to become.
Cider’s popularity in America began to wane during the Industrial Revolution, when many people moved away from farms and into the city, leaving many orchards abandoned. Beer was on the rise as immigrants arrived from Germany and Ireland and cheap grain became more readily available. During Prohibition, many cider orchards were chopped down and burned to the ground by die-hard temperance advocates, further relegating cider to the history books. Even after the passage of the 21st Amendment in 1933, cider-drinking culture in America didn’t begin to regain its footing until the tail end of the 20th century as part of the modern craft beverage movement.