How a beer shortage on the Mayflower led to a hard cider Thanksgiving
This Thanksgiving, let’s party like the Pilgrims.
OK, OK, the number of people who have heard that suggested probably equals the number of people who can’t wait for the 2020 presidential campaign to begin. Yet, wouldn’t one think that a group of people responsible for a 395-year-old get-together still being replicated today must have known something about throwing a party? It’s hardly incidental that their soirée also went on for three days. Obviously, someone was having fun.
Part of the problem may be that over time, Pilgrims somehow got the reputation for being a pious, somber lot who would certainly frown on fun, frivolity and anything to do with alcoholic beverages.
Well, history has sinned. Thou should not lie.
For starters, consider documented accounts that indicate the Mayflower didn’t randomly land when it did because everyone wanted to get off. It dropped anchor because the boat was out of beer.
After two months at sea, what water on board was brackish and drinking it was potentially fatal. For that very reason, most ships of the day were well stocked with beer, but the Mayflower captain realized there was only about enough left to get the ship and his crew back to England.
Another slight problem was he was completely lost and far north of his intended destination, where earlier colonists could help him restock. So, at the first safe harbor, he anchored and sent his passengers ashore to drink — gasp — fresh water.
The depleted taps were only the beginning of their problems, unfortunately. From their landing in late 1620 until the spring of 1621, this group of religious colonials spent the time looting graves of sacrificial food, terrorizing the natives and then dying a lot. More than half of the original Pilgrims and none of the English beer saw the first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621.
A lot has been written about what the 53 remaining Pilgrims and 90 or so natives had to eat that first Thanksgiving, but not much of anything about what they were drinking. The tables were loaded with eel, fish, fowl, deer, squash, beans and corn, but something had to have been available to wash it all down, and considering the Pilgrims were still a little cautious about this water-drinking thing, it wasn’t well drinks.
All swizzle sticks point to something that was both familiar to the colonists and plentiful in valleys and meadows where they had come to settle — the apple. Hard cider has been around all the way back through ancient history, and by the 16th and 17th centuries, it was a very familiar drink in England. With at least four species of apples ripe for the picking around the colony, there’s no question the Plymouth Pilgrims went to work putting them to use. The apples were peeled, mashed and left to ferment so the juice would keep through the year. In winter, the juice was sometimes left outside overnight, after which the ice on top was removed, leaving an even more potent apple jack behind.
In less than 100 years after the first Thanksgiving, it was estimated that one in 10 New England farms operated an apple press. By 1767, cider consumption averaged about 35 gallons a year per person. This remained much the case for almost another 100 years, but, ironically, just before the time Thanksgiving became a federal holiday in 1863, something from cider’s past had come back to haunt it. That was beer, specifically German lager. The country was in love with the new beers showing up across the country. By the time Prohibition hit, hard cider hit hard times — until now.
In just the past five years, the hard cider market has grown 65 percent across the country. Even here in Texas, cider makers have opened their doors in Dallas, Austin and Houston.
“With the rise of interest in craft beer, people started taking more and more interest in quality,” said Jake Schiffer, founder and president of the 5-year-old Leprechaun Cider Company in Houston. “They wanted to know just what they were drinking.
Leprechaun ciders are now available in bars, and in wine and beer sections in grocery stores and liquor stores, including in Galveston, League City, Friendswood, Kemah, South Shore Harbour and Seabrook.
Even closer to the coast is the DUO Winery & Cider Co. in Dickinson. Owned by husband and wife team Craig and Raquel Jarmosco, DUO is an extension of their family’s winery and vineyards in Michigan where they began making hard cider in 2005. The Dickinson location, 2150-A Dickinson Ave., opened in September and offers two hard ciders sold in cans along with its wines.
So just what is hard apple cider as opposed to apple cider and apple juice?
“In Europe, if you ask for cider, they know without asking that you mean alcoholic apple juice,” Schiffer said. “That’s still not the case here. You have to specify hard apple cider.”
Cider is unfiltered or partially filtered and non-pasteurized but has not fermented. Cider that has been allowed to ferment, thus acquiring an alcohol content, becomes hard cider and gets moved to the adult aisle.
Hard cider can be bubbly or still. Makers of premium hard cider use a natural fermentation process with various yeast strains without adding sugars.
While any apple can make cider, there are many varieties of apples considered “cider” apples. Leprechaun, for example, uses apples from the western border of Vermont.
“Even when it first started showing up more on the market, it was considered a cheap drink for women who wanted to drink something with a sugar rush,” Schiffer said. “Now, with premium ciders readily available, it’s considered a quality drink and a versatile one. But with packaging and all, there’s still confusion. I face it every day. I explain to everyone, you’re drinking apple Champagne out of a beer bottle.”
The popularity hasn’t gone unnoticed by folks behind the bar, who have quickly discovered a new and fun ingredient for cocktails. With the variety of ciders on the market — some sweet, some tart, some smooth and some with a bite — one can be found to go well with any favorite alcohol, including vodka, tequila, bourbon and rum.
“Cider brings to a cocktail what Champagne does, plus some,” Schiffer said. “Champagne adds effervescence and a hint of flavor, but cider brings that, plus it really enhances the drink overall.”
On the subject of settling far from home and religious movements, for example, one cocktail on the site is the Rasta O’Connor, a rich rum drink using Leprechaun Dry Cider. Its name pays reference to a famous singer and a Jamaican-born religion called Rastafari, which holds that African people living in exile will one day be reunited in Africa, a dream with which the Pilgrims could sympathize.
So, as this Thanksgiving approaches and the planning begins, it may be time to stock up the bar and really toast the holiday’s hardy founders in a way they would understand. Call it a salute to Pilgrims’ progress.
Cider recipe provided by Leprechaun Cider Company in Houston
¾ ounces Bacardi Superior Rum
1 teaspoon Cointreau
1½ ounces pear nectar
1½ ounces cranberry juice
4½ ounces Leprechaun Dry Cider
Sprig of fresh mint
Pour both pear nectar and cranberry juice in glass with Leprechaun Cider. Stir until mixed. Pour the Bacardi Superior Rum and Cointreau into shaker with ice. Shake until chilled. Strain liquor into glass with Leprechaun Cider. Add ice cubes and garnish with fresh mint sprig.