Cider Musings

Talk given to the 3rd NZ Cider Festival 2018

It was great to be invited to talk at the 3rd NZ Cider festival on the history of cider in its “Golden Era” in England. A time when cider matched and some say even surpassed wine. This is an expanded version.


This was a fascinating time when cider rivalled wine as a sumptuous drink and laid the foundations for Champagne. This talk starts in the Medieval times before the Golden age 1600-1700 and explains how secondary fermentation was harnessed to made sparkling cider 80 years before bubbles were encouraged in the traditional still champagne wines. It was a time of a perfect storm of events.

Prior to this cider was the agricultural worker's drink in the fields in an era when water was risky to drink. Chlorination and filtration of water we take granted today but was not available then. The whole concept of germs had not been developed. The miasma theory of the time held that diseases such as cholera or the Black Death were caused by a Miasma ( ancient Greek for pollution)  or a noxious form of bad air emanating from rotting organic matter , and there was a lot given the lack of sewerage system especially in towns. Miasma was considered to be a poisonous vapour or mist filled with particles from decomposing matter or miasmata that was identified by its foul smell. As such there was no human to human transmission rather a disease spread through people in a locale The understanding of germs  relied on the work of Louis Pasteur and Robert  Koch and  then shown practically by the work of Dr Snow . He demonstrated a clear understanding of germ theory in his writings  and published his theory in 1849  "on the mode of Communication of Cholera" in which he correctly suggested the faecal-oral route . This was based on his work at the the Broad Street water pump.

                         Map of cases ( marked in black) 

Fermentation in beer, cider and wine killed the unknown germs effectively creating a safe drink. Cider ferments out at about 6% so to prevent drunkenness in the fields with scythes etc this cider  or ciderkin would be made from the second pressing with less fermentable sugar. 

The first part of the perfect storm  was the end of the Medieval warm period or mini Ice age as it has been called.


Prior to 1400AD grapes grew as far north as York.  We know this from monastery records as wine is needed for the sacraments. By the time of Henry the VIIIth there were 139 vineyards recorded in Britain.  However the temperatures dropped and even large rivers iced over at times. Between 1400 and 1835 the Thames froze over 24 times. 

The Thames froze and the ice was thick enough to hold fairs on the ice. The first faie was in 1608 and the last in 1814. 

However apple trees are more hardy than grapes. They originated in Central Asia in the mountainous Hindu Kush and require frosts to set next years crop.

Apples were not a natural for fermented drinks as unlike grapes that require a little treading, apples need to be crushed and that needs energy. . More than a person can easily achieve. That needs investment in a crushing device and then a press to extract the juice. This limited the process to gentry and wealthy farmers. 
Secondly England had intermittent quarrels with France ever  since  Norman vassals of France conquered England and the complex dynastic claims to land both sides of the Channel thereafter. From 1340-1800 many English and later British monarchs claimed the throne of France. The origin of the claims come from Edward III's territorial claims of France which he claimed gave him the right to be king.
And so even though whilst liking wine it was not patriotic nor available to drink at times. 1600-1700 was one of those periods. There is a marvellous quote from treaty negotiations from 1549. "Item, for your wine we have good ale beer cider and perry, being more wholesome beverages for us than your wines which makes you people drunk , also prone and apt to all filthy pleasures and lusts". The English aristocracy needed a drink for social occasions and cider fitted the bill nicely, the wine of England.
Thirdly this new interest in improving cider stemmed from the intellectual revolution started by Frances Bacon. Bacon has been called the father of empiricism. His works argued for the possibility of scientific knowledge based only upon inductive reasoning and careful observation of events in nature. He also encouraged libraries and cataloging to document this. This makes Bacon the father of scientific method. 

With regards to apple trees orchards and cider his approach was taken up by Samuel Hartlib, an intelligencer. A man with many contacts including Robert Boyle, Samuel Pepys, John Milton, Kenelm Digby, Ralph Austen, John Beale and John Evelyn, all important in this story of refinement of cider into a nation prestigious drink. 
My favourite of these in Ralph Austen, born a yeoman ( medieval middle class), of Leek. He was a Protestant and a Parliamentarian.  
Britain was convulsed with religious feuds which resulted in the Civil War and the country lurching from Catholicism to Protestant several times. Although Protestantism won the Parliamentarians lost and Ralph was written out of history. Not a picture remains, However he wrote an important book "A Treatise of fruit trees" in 1653 and was a well respected orchardist in Oxford. Issac Newton bought cider apple trees from him, but not the the one which dropped and apple and gave Issac the idea of gravity. That was an eater.) 

John Evelyn a Royalist and early member of the Royal Society which formed in 1660 under the patronage  of Charles II wrote the first book commissioned by the Royal Society. The Royal Society is the oldest continuous scientific society in the world.  Evelyn's book was an investigation into the state of trees in England. A subject of national importance given that warships were built of oak. The book Sylva was published in 1664 and contains an appendix on Cider -Pomona. Evelyn was asked by the Royal Society to collate all the papers and knowledge on cider making. He did not mention Beale but relied on John Beale who collated the known works on the subject. 

However it was Austin who first described quality  cider in bottles ( presumably the newly invented English Glass. Airtight bottles made all the difference 

This leads to the third factor in the perfect storm. We take glass bottles for granted today, but prior to this period, glass was rare and expensive and the manufacture was closely guarded by the Venetians. However the knowledge slowly percolated to England and the English who improved on it. One of the earliest Englishmen to be involved was the mercurial character Sir Kenelm Digby, son of a gun powder plot member and was a buccaneer amongst many colourful occupations and habits. But also socialite ( he was called the Ornament of this Nation" scientist, inventor, businessman, courtesan, diplomat and Catholic. This latter attribute had him imprisoned in Winchester House in London where a glassworks was. He experimented further and is partly if nor wholly responsible for developing a practical strong glass made with coal not charcoal furnace. And this glass was cheaper! The exact nature of his invention is not clear. In his copious writings he does not mention glass making! It was not the use of coal per see, nor the use of flues to increase the heat. The  first recorded instance of a coal fired wind furnace is in 1587. He may be responsible for changing the ingredients in glass making with a higher ratio of sand to potash and lime. 

He was considered the father of the modern wine bottle. During the 1630s, Digby owned a glassworks at Newnham on Severn and manufactured glass bottles which were onion in shape. Globular base and a long neck, and a dimple in the base or punt which helped with pressure. And a string rim to tie the cork down with thread. 

Samuel Pepys diaries include references of him buying several and filling them with wine from the wholesaler.  These bottles soon had the owners crests on them to ensure they were returned to the rightful owner. 

During his exile another manufacturer claimed the patent and Kenelym's rebuttal in 1662 remains so this period of glass development is well reference. This glass was called verre anglais or English Glass by the French who did not have this technology for another 50 years. 
Step back a little in time.The need to use coal for the glass furnaces was another factor in the perfect storm. Glass makers being encouraged in England soon resulted in large swathes of the countryside being denuded of trees as charcoal was used to fire the kilns. Particularly the Weald. 

Enter Admiral Lord Robert Mansell. He persuaded Charles I in1615 to issue a "Proclamation touching Glasses" which banned the use of wood for charcoal making the first to ban trees from being cut for charcoal to protect the supply f wood for the Navy. It might be cynical to note he also had extensive lands on which coal was available! 
He also obtained a monopoly for glass making but as seen could not capitalise on that. That honour went to Digby. 

With these factors present the final piece of the jigsaw to make perfect cider was the weather. The winter arrived soon after the harvest and slowed fermentation down. It would often restart in the Spring when it was noted to bubble. The cause was not known then but of course now we know the yeast cells do not metabolise under about 10C but hibernate . In wooden barrels the fermentation was not captured but in strong glass bottles this caused the cider to become effervescent. The English developed a taste for this and soon experimented in augmenting this. In latter editions of Austen's book a margin addition was added to to instruct the cider maker to add a nutmeg of sugar  which achieves a safe amount of carbonation. A nutmeg is about 10grams which is the amount we at TeePee Cider add per litre to achieve a pressure of 5 bar. 

This was the cider of gentry. The records of Lord Scudamore a Royalist whose records survived the Commonwealth because of a friendship with the local Roundhead officer Captain Silas Taylor. another keen cider maker. Silas was even asked to present a paper to the Royal Society, a rare honour for a protestant in return. ( Taylors address is recorded in the Pomona) These records show Lord Scudamore had a cider cellar cooled by running spring water and purchases of glass bottles. 
He prized his cider so highly he had special flutes made to serve it in. Oner remains and is now in the London Museum. 
All this occurred decades before champagne became fizzy.  In fact Dom Perignon thought bubbles were a fault. The French did not have the glass to contain the pressure. However the English applied cider technology to barrelled still champagne in London. This is recorded again in the minutes of the Royal Society in a talk given by Dr Christopher Merritt in 1664. 

However all  things must pass and the Treaty of Methuen was a blow. In 1703 this allowed Portuguese wines into England and a second blow was the imposition of a cider tax, in 1763.

France had to wait tiill the 1690s before champagne was fizzy. The first recording of it being by  Madame de Sevigne wrote le vin du diable or the devil's wine for the way it was lively in the glass. 

At TeePee Cider we aim to recreate this golden age with the Earl's Drop.