A Very Brief History of Hard Cider in New Jersey (and Some Tips on Local Brands)

Rome apples. Photo by Joy Yagid

Hard cider is enjoying a resurgence very similar to what craft beer enjoyed in the 1990s.

Resurgence you say? How can you have a resurgence if it was never popular in the first place?

Oh, but it was and then some! From 1666 to the 1920s. Over 300 years. The temperance movement which lead to Prohibition is what did the cideries in and almost took the best cider apple with it, the Harrison. More on that later. But first, a very brief history of hard cider in NJ.

Hard cider, along with beer and hard liquor, were what colonists drank. Water and milk couldn’t be trusted due to contamination. Rivers were used as cesspools and milk pasteurization hadn’t been invented yet. Alcoholic drinks didn’t carry the risk of germs. So everyone, even kids, drank. While apples were not native to America, Johnny Appleseed was one of many that brought the fruit to the US, but not to eat. He planted the seeds of cider apples.

Locally, parts of New Jersey are rich in cider history. From Maplewood’s Durand Hedden House and Garden Association’s website:

“The Crowell Cider Mill was built on land first settled by Samuel Crowell before 1728, on property that was part of a 1714 land grant from the English. The first documentation of the property was in 1728, when Parker Avenue was opened adjacent to it. Valley Street at the time was ‘just a crooked path through the fields.’ The mill was passed down through the Crowell family until it was demolished in 1919. The farmhouse stood in the area where the gas station is today opposite Columbia High School. The original mill was northwest of the house, and was moved south of it in 1843, during the ownership of Job Crowell and his wife Catherine Beach. An article in a Newark newspaper in 1919 noted that in the basement was a ‘sweep’ or long pole, to which horses were attached. They went round in a circle, operating an upright shaft which ran to the hopper, furnishing power to grind the apples….In those days when apples were plentiful the mills were frequented by every one in this season. The ‘glass’ was always there and any one could help himself from the tub in front of the press.”

Livingston had Nettie Ochs’ orchard, opening in 1897, which closed in 2005 and is now a housing development. Melicks, in Oldwick NJ, uses a mix of new and heirloom apples in their hard cider.

The Harrison apple. Photo by Joy Yagid

About the Harrison apple, since it was not an eating apple, after Prohibition, it fell out of favor and mostly vanished. Some intrepid folks went in search of the Harrison apple in the 1970s and found it, in Livingston, Roselle and Maplewood. Then they decided to start making hard cider with the Harrison. One maker, Ironbound from Newark NJ, is still using it.

But how do they taste? Larger commercial hard ciders are made with apple concentrate and have been described as apple-flavored beer. Small batch craft cideries use freshly pressed juice which lends itself to a more refined product.

A sampling of local and kinda local hard ciders:

Photo by Joy Yagid

Melicks 1728 Traditional — wonderful, light, barely sweet, a champagne of a cider. Refined and easy at the same time. Like a old pair of jeans you dress up with a funky jacket.

Melicks Jersey Ginger — Cider with a kick of ginger – heat with sweet. Try it. Really.

Ironbound – like taking a bite into a snappy tart apple. Clean with a hint of sweet. Refreshing!

Phonograph Cider Greening — Finger Lakes NY — Made from an heirloom apple variety, Greenings. This cider is light, flavorful and is closer to being an apple champagne than a hard cider. Just sweet enough with a wonderful green apple tang.

Rootstock Ciderworks — Western New York State — Pale yellow color and yeasty scent. Semi sweet and smooth with a slight syrup with a tangy apple-y finish. A very nice cider.

Blackbird Cider Works Premium Draft — Western NYS – a sweeter semi sweet with more of a yeasty scent, not too many bubbles and good apple flavor with a refreshing tart finish.

We didn’t get a chance yet to sample Twisted Limb Cider from Newton, NJ yet, but we look forward to doing so and reporting back!

Most if not all of these ciders can be found at the WIne Barrel in Maplewood, NJ or your local liquor or wine store.