washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Weekly Sections > Food

The Sweet, Sad State of Cider

Why an Old American Favorite Has Fallen on Hard Times

By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2004; Page F01

During fall foliage season, the town of Sperryville, Va., was once the place where travelers stopped at roadside stands for jugs of locally made apple cider. The sweet drink was as important as the fall colors as they headed west on Lee Highway to the Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive.

Sizable orchards are still up in the hollows, where this time of year trees weep under the weight of ripe, red fruit. But today, such fresh cider is harder to come by.


A fresh batch of apple cider is hauled to the store at the Williams Orchard in Flint Hill, Va. (Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post)

_____Apple Cider_____
The Sweet, Sad State of Cider
Apple Cider Doughnuts
Apple Cider FAQs

What is difference between apple juice and apple cider?

For the most part, in the Washington area, apple juice refers to the clear, amber- colored, filtered and pasteurized product on the supermarket shelf. It does not need to be refrigerated before opening.

Apple cider refers to the cloudy, caramel-colored, unfiltered, pressed juice of apples. Most often, fresh- pressed apple cider is refrigerated when displayed in the produce section of grocery stores or sold at roadside stands.

On the West Coast, the term cider is rare. Clear or cloudy, on the shelf or refrigerated, it's all called apple juice. In Europe and Australia, all fermented and further sweetened apple juice is called, simply, cider.

Is all apple cider pasteurized?

All cider sold in supermarkets, such as the widely available Zeigler's brand, is pasteurized. At roadside stands, apple cider may or may not be pasteurized. Consumers who are concerned about the possible bacteria in unpasteurized apple cider should check the label before purchase.

My store sells apple cider that is not refrigerated. Is it safe to drink?

It may be highly pasteurized apple cider that has been heated beyond the minimum standards. It's shelf-stable and does not need to be refrigerated before opening.

Is fizzy cider safe to drink?

After several weeks, depending on storage conditions, cider develops a slight fizz that is the result of natural fermentation. According to cider makers, many older folks like fizzy cider while younger consumers do not. Regardless, it's safe to drink, but may contain traces of alcohol.

What is hard cider?

A popular drink in Europe, hard cider is fermented apple cider that has developed a measurable amount of alcohol.

-- Walter Nicholls

The town's two apple-processing warehouses have become huge antiques stores. Twelve years ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rappahannock County had nearly 1,000 acres in apple production . Now that number is closer to 300 acres.

This season, only five area families are selling cider by the roadside. Not only has the number of apple trees in the countryside dwindled, but farmers say that inexpensive, imported apple juice concentrate is the seed of the problem.

"On the road, these days, pretty much what you see is clear, bottled cider that will keep till doomsday," says Roger Jenkins, a lieutenant in the Rappahannock County Sheriff's office. His family has sold apple beverages at a roadside stand on the eastern edge of town since the early 1960s.

The juice that Jenkins is talking about is not "cider" but rather filtered apple juice that is made from concentrate and bottled elsewhere. On the road or in the supermarket, apple drink terms can be confusing and vary from coast to coast (see cider FAQs, above) and there are no national standards to distinguish cider from juice.

For the most part, in the Washington area, apple juice refers to the clear, amber-colored, filtered and pasteurized product on the supermarket shelf. It does not need to be refrigerated before opening.

Cider refers to the cloudy, caramel-colored, unfiltered, pressed juice of apples. Most often, fresh-pressed apple cider is refrigerated when displayed in the produce section of grocery stores or sold at roadside stands.

Cider, as we know it on the East Coast, has seen sunny days. Early English settlers brought apple seeds to America and established the first orchards for juice production. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), cider consumption reached its peak in this country in the mid-19th century. But in 2003 and 2004, only 1.5 percent of U.S. consumers drank apple cider, according to the NPD Group Inc., a market research firm that tracks American food trends.

Clear apple juice production in the United States has been in decline for five consecutive years, a U.S. Department of Commerce survey shows. At the same time, the USDA estimates for 2003 and 2004 a record import of 320,000 tons of low-priced apple juice concentrate, principally from China. But certainly not all from China. Tropicana's 100% Apple Juice, for example, lists Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungry, Argentina, Chile, Turkey, Brazil, China and the United States as the combined source for the reconstituted juice in the bottle. Apple juice concentrate is also the base of many blended juice drinks, such as Nestle's Juicy Juice brand.

Locally, the impact can be seen in both Virginia and Maryland. In Frederick, in the warehouse/sales shop at McCutcheon Apple Products, a musky apple scent hits the nose, as well it should. Through a window, visitors can watch as trucks dump bins of red, yellow and green apples into a wide trough of water called the receiving pit. Many of the regular customers know that during the pressing season, every fall, they can bring their own jug and fill it with fresh, tangy apple cider.

"[Apple juice] comes in cheaper from China and Chile than I can buy the apples for," says company president Robert McCutcheon III whose family buys apples from local farms rather than maintain their own orchards. In the early 1990s, McCutchen says his company processed 15 million pounds of apples per year. This year, it will press approximately 3 million pounds.

The imports have not gone unnoticed nationally. In 2000, U. S. apple industry complaints led the U.S. government to impose anti-dumping duties on all imports of apple juice concentrate from China. Much of this protection for American farmers was removed when China appealed the decision in December 2003. Now, according to the U.S. Apple Association, a national trade group based in Vienna for growers, packers, shippers and processors, the extended result is that more and more American apple farmers are going out of business and bulldozing their orchards because they can't compete with the imports.

Apple cider has its own problem. In the 1990s, there were several reported cases of food-borne illness and death from tainted apple cider linked to E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria. The FDA responded by issuing new safety regulations for juice producers. The rules have been phased in over the past several years and went into full effect in January of this year.


CONTINUED    1 2    Next >

© 2004 The Washington Post Company