How the Government Almost Killed the Apple

March 23, 2024   |   Tags: , ,
An apple in the foreground, against a background of headlines announcing the end of Prohibition. | Illustration: Lex Villena

Prohibition's 14-year span in the early 20th century caused a boozy brain drain as droves of American bartenders shuttered their watering holes and moved abroad. With them went America's Golden Age of Cocktails. Reason's Peter Suderman in 2017 brilliantly laid out the backstory behind how the federal government almost killed the cocktail. But the government's anti-alcohol tantrum also nearly killed off another product further up the alcohol supply chain—the humble apple.

America's Apple Exceptionalism

Today, the produce section of your average American grocery store is dominated by a small handful of commercial apples. A mere 5–10 varietals—such as the ubiquitous Red and Golden Delicious, Gala, Granny Smith, and Honeycrisp—rule the country's apple market. In my humble opinion, other than the flavorful Honeycrisp (developed via cross-breeding at the University of Minnesota in the 1960s), these varietals are largely bland, flavorless, and uninspiring.

It wasn't always this way. In the 18th and 19th centuries, America was home to well over 10,000 apple varieties, more than any other nation on earth. The names were as wide-ranging and extraordinary as the species diversity, with monikers like Yarlington Mill, Spitzenburg, Northern Spy, and Winter Banana.

America's apple exceptionalism came long before the Department of Agriculture doled out millions of dollars in annual grants to farmers, and even before land grant colleges were established to advance the nation's agricultural knowledge. Instead, it was almost entirely a bottom-up, grassroots groundswell that solidified the country's apple hegemony, with nearly every farm in early America containing an apple orchard—and nearly every American (nine out of 10) living on a farm.

To understand the story of the apple, one must first understand the story of cider. Nowadays called "hard cider," cider's American bona fides ironically far outstrip that of apple pie—with alcoholic cider's roots tracing back to the very birth of our nation. Heralded by some as the "fuel of the revolution," cider was not only allegedly passed out to both colonial and British troops during lulls in the action at the Battle of Concord, but it helped propel George Washington's first election to the Virginia House of Burgesses by ensuring his voters were well-lubricated. John Adams drank a gill of cider for breakfast before his daily five-mile walks, Thomas Jefferson made cider at his Monticello orchards, and Ben Franklin famously quipped: "He that drinks his cyder alone, let him catch his horse alone."

Given its role as cider's irreplaceable ingredient, the apple rose hand in hand with cider as a sine qua non of early American life. Needless to say, cider is only as good as the apples that go into it, which is why the nearly endless variety of apples found in 18th and 19th century America produced some of the most unique and flavorful ciders the world has ever known. In the words of cicerone Michael Agnew, these early apples were "cultivated for their tannins and acidity, [and] produced complex quaffs with flavors that rivaled fine wine, quite unlike the sweetened, alco-pop or non-alcoholic juice-in-a-jug that passes for cider today."

Early Americans consumed an average of 35 gallons of cider per year, in part because it was much safer to imbibe than water.  "Up until Prohibition, an apple grown in America was far less likely to be eaten than to wind up in a barrel of cider," as author Michael Pollan noted. "In rural areas cider took the place of not only wine and beer but of coffee and tea, juice, and even water."

Proverbs 27 intones: "If you care for your orchard, you'll enjoy its fruit." But America didn't care for its orchards. At the very moment cider, and the apple, were becoming hard-wired pieces of Americana, everything began to change. First, the European revolutions of 1848 spurred a wave of German immigration to the United States. Unsurprisingly, more Germans meant more beer, which provided a ready challenger to contest cider's heavyweight title as America's alcoholic beverage of choice. Around the same time, the Industrial Revolution led to America's first great urbanization push—and German immigrants themselves were part of this trend, choosing to settle in Upper Midwest cities like Milwaukee.

This provided a natural competitive advantage for beer over cider, as grains like barley and wheat were cheaper to grow, easier to haul into urban environs, and less perishable than the apple. "Beer was made in breweries, which are like factories—they're modern," as William Kerrigan, author of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard: A Cultural History, pointed out. "Beer seemed cleaner and a more efficient, modern drink."

Prohibition Enters the Picture

As cider declined in prominence, the bucolic rural apple orchard became less important to the American lifestyle. But while the apple was already declining across the nation's cultural landscape, it was the U.S. government that delivered the coup de grâce to this noble fruit.

With Prohibition's advent in 1920, not only alcohol but also the ingredients that made alcohol became public enemy No. 1. As Smithsonian Magazine recounts, FBI agents took to chopping down acres and acres of backwoods apple orchards, "effectively erasing cider…from American life."

Even if they escaped the G-men's axes, orchard owners had little incentive to maintain their orchards in the absence of cider. "[Prohibition] caused orchards to stop growing cider apples altogether, dealing our cider tradition—and the apples themselves—a death blow," writes Jonathan Frochtzwajg of Modern Farmer.

Whether at the foot of an ax, or via the headwinds of the temperance-induced gutting of the apple's highest and best economic use as a progenitor of cider, the American apple would never be the same. "Among the causes that contributed to the demise of cider in the United States, without question the Temperance Movement belongs near the top of the list," according to David R. Williams of George Mason University.

By the time Prohibition ended nearly 14 years later, America's cider and apple culture had been decimated. Part of this is attributable to the fact that mechanized urban breweries were better positioned to weather Prohibition, given that the factory setting allowed for a more ready transition to other product lines like soft drinks or selling ice during the country's dry spell.

An additional factor is inherent to the apple itself. Barley and wheat grow as annual crops, which allows their production to be curtailed or ramped up on relatively short notice, thereby allowing breweries to spring back into action quickly once Prohibition ended. In contrast, planting a new orchard means committing to a 25-year investment—one which, quite literally, takes at least three to six years to bear fruit. "When prohibition ended in the 1930s, there was neither the desire nor the means to resuscitate the cider industry," notes Williams.

To the extent the apple maintains its titular banner today as America's most popular fruit, it is only in the form of those aforementioned, depressingly bland grocery store varietals. These homogeneously boring modern apples are a poor substitute for their pre-Prohibition ancestors. By the 1990s, commercial orchards were growing fewer than 100 types of apples, with a mere 11 varietals constituting 90 percent of grocery sales. Over 10,000 apple varieties are believed to have gone extinct since Prohibition.

Apples Bounce Back

Were the story to end there, we would likely be forever condemned to a never-ending conveyor belt of Galas and Granny Smiths in the produce aisle. But just as the apple's fall came at the very moment it reached its apex, its resurrection began only once it hit its nadir. For while the government nearly killed the apple, the free market is saving it.

As America's modern craft cider boom took hold in recent decades, cidermakers began scouring the countryside for those unique, flavorful, spectacularly named apple varietals of yesteryear. Often called "spitter apples" since they are less sweet than the standard grocery store offerings, thousands of heirloom apple varietals thought to be lost are being rediscovered, and saved, by American cidermakers.

Stories abound of Appalachian apple enthusiasts who have saved thousands of "lost" apple varieties and now work closely with craft cidermakers. Famed cidermaker Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge Cider, whom many consider the founder of today's craft cider movement, has credited cider's modern rise as being built "on the backs of these old fashioned apples…. If I didn't have these apples, my cider wouldn't taste very good."

Flynt, who won a James Beard Award in 2018, recently took things even further by shuttering Foggy Ridge to concentrate solely on apple growing. Other Virginia cideries, like Blue Bee Cider and Albemarle Ciderworks have helped save the Hewes Crab apple—a favorite of both Washington and Jefferson. The Hewes Crab was presumed to be extinct before a solitary tree was discovered near Williamsburg in the 1990s. Other heirlooms are similarly enjoying a renaissance, such as the Arkansas Black, another beloved cider-making apple.

Slowly but surely, the epic names are reentering the American lexicon: Bitter Buckingham, White Winter Jon, Royal Lemon, Candy Stripe, and Black Winesap. For that, we can thank Adam Smith's invisible hand—which, a hundred years later, has finally stayed the hand of the government's apple ax.

American '76 Recipe 

A patriotic spin on the French 75, this libation celebrates cider's irreplaceable role in the American story. 

3 ounces of craft cider

2 ounces of bourbon

½  an ounce of lemon juice

½  an ounce of maple syrup

Heirloom apple slice

Shake bourbon, lemon juice, and maple syrup in a shaker filled with ice. Double-strain into a rocks glass containing fresh ice; top with cider and give a quick stir. Garnish with a slice of your favorite heirloom apple varietal—and save the Red Delicious for the fruit salad.

Recipe adapted from Give Me Liberty and Give Me a Drink! by Jarrett Dieterle.

The post How the Government Almost Killed the Apple appeared first on Reason.com.


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