Colonial Beverages: a fully ‘American’ experience

America, Culture

Hard cider is making a comeback. But why do we need to be literally hit over the head with an apple (okay, maybe figuratively, but the commercials are convincing) to be told its good when cider was historically one of the beverages of choice during the founding of the United States?

Back when heading west meant traveling past the Appalachian Mountains, water had the potential to be dangerous for human consumption. Dysentery, typhoid, and cholera were waterborne diseases. The bigger cities, like Boston, had begun engineering clean water, but the adventurous who left city living to travel west couldn’t take that water with them.∗

Milk had a similar problem. It couldn’t be transported or stored for a long period of time because it would spoil. For families with a cow of their own, they could have fresh milk, but tended to make butter and cheese because it had a longer shelf-life.°

If water and milk were complicated beverages for those headed west, what did they drink to stay hydrated? Coffee, tea, or chocolate. Well, kind of. The famous Boston Tea Party happened because colonists didn’t want to pay the tax on tea. That also led more and more colonists to abandon tea in favor of coffee, making it a rebellious beverage.ˆ

As for drinking chocolate (yes, liquid chocolate), in Europe, it was a drink for the wealthy. However, in the Colonies, everyone could drink it. Since chocolate originated in the Americas, it cost much less, allowing the commoner to be able to afford it. It also traveled well.†

For those headed west, in order to put a claim on a parcel of land, a person had to plant apple and peach trees, proving they were planning to stay. John Chapman, known now as Johnny Appleseed, knew this and traveled ahead of the westward movement to plant orchards. Apples, however, are a tricky plant. Originating in Asia, they were brought to the Colonies early on. But planting an apple seed from one apple won’t produce a tree of similar apples. Producing eatable apples requires a shoot from an existing apple tree to be grafted. These plants require careful cultivation, so settlers found it easier to just plant seeds, which resulted in less-than desirable fruit.‡

What to do with all these apples, then? Ferment them. Alcohol allowed the beverages to keep as well as removed impurities, making alcoholic beverages such as cider and whisky safer to drink than water and milk. According to Swindell, “A typical middling family of six drank about 90 gallons of cider each year—that’s 15 gallons per person.”º  However, the Prohibition changed all that, which is why it isn’t until recently that hard cider is returning to the beverage scene.º

Our second president John Adams, enjoyed cider, but other Founding Fathers enjoyed other beverages. In the spirit of the Revolution, the colonies gave up rum in favor of Kentucky Bourbon, but that was too difficult to transport over the Appalachians, so they turned to whiskey seeing that the ingredients could be locally grown.◊

To sum up today’s history lesson and for a Colonial experience, begin the day with a stiff cup of coffee, be reinvigorated by a cup of chocolate, quench your thirst with a hard cider, and finish the day with a shot of whiskey. Then again, the Virginia Company of London believed drinking caused harm at Jamestown,◊ so if you do indulge, please do so responsibly.


Kempe, New England Water Supplies
° Swindell, What was in colonial cups besides tea? Cider, water, milk, and whiskey!
ˆ Wees, Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate in Early Colonial America
Calmes, Why Chocolate might be more American than Apple Pie
Geiling, The Real Johnny Appleseed Brought Apples—and Booze—to the American Frontier
Crews, Drinking in Colonial America

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