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.
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.
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.
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.
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.