There are notions as to what the first alcoholic beverage was that our ancestors discovered or concocted. Egyptian hieroglyphics show a beer recipe that is thousands of years old. Other findings show boozy liquids created 9,000 years ago in China and 6,000 years ago in Iran and Iraq. Apple cider appears around 3,000 years ago in Northern Europe. The Romans noted that it was a regular beverage 2,000 years ago in England. To this day, apple cider is a common drink in the southern parts of the UK and the Normandy area of northern France. That has to do with those areas being more conducive agronomically and climatically to growing apples rather than wine grapes. It took years to get apples to those areas as the species originated in faraway Kazakhstan (not the Garden of Eden). Incidentally, apples were not the forbidden fruit and are not specifically mentioned in that bible story.
The original wild apple variety still grows in Kazakhstan. Researchers are using its genetic traits to improve modern apples. Today’s eating (also called dessert) apples were developed for sweet taste, colour and size. But in the genetic selection process, new varieties lost resistance to apple diseases and pests. Wild varieties may not look pretty and may taste quite tart, but they are more resistant to diseases and pests through natural selection. Through hybridization, grafting, or genetic engineering, resistant traits can be inserted into modern varieties to create a better apple that requires less chemical protection. That’s an ongoing research process (pomiculture) as creating new apple varieties can take 25 years or more.
In North America, apple cider was once the most popular alcoholic drink, and millions of gallons were drunk. Much of that had to do with the simplicity of making cider down on the farm. Pioneer settlers in the 1600s brought European apple seeds, cider making technology and a cider drinking tradition with them to the new world. It even pre-dated beer making, which was a more complicated process and required barley and hops, neither of which were grown much back then in eastern North America. However, early apple trees flourished almost everywhere, and small cider mills were standard equipment on most farms. Part of that had to do with cider being safer to drink than water and was a way to preserve the apple crop. Few of today’s consumers who enjoy dozens of sweet apple varieties would be aware that 500 years ago, most apples were bitter and sour. Back then, most apples were used in cider making and cooking. Today many craft cider producers try to use existing heritage cider apple varieties to produce more original cider flavours.
Growing apples for cider came early to Canada; French settlers brought the tradition from Normandy with them in the early 1600s to southern Quebec and Nova Scotia. Those areas are still significant apple growing areas. By the middle 1700s, cider production was extensive but was outlawed after the British conquest. English authorities instituted laws to encourage beer consumption produced by newly established English brewers (hello John Molson breweries). Ironically today, Molson’s is also a large cider producer and marketer. Cider production never really recovered until the last 30 years when craft cider makers sprung up. There are now over 30 such operations in BC alone. But like craft wineries, they are stifled by myriad restrictive provincial government liquor regulations.
Alberta has some start-up cider makers, but they too are constrained by regulations and taxes at times twice as much as inflicted on brewers. The big dog in Alberta cider marketing is Big Rock Brewery, a significant player in the cut-throat beer business. Are Alberta apples being used by cider makers, you may wonder. Some local makers buy or accept donated fruit, including apples from homeowners that have backyard fruit trees. Apples do grow on the prairies, and they are not all the sour small crabapple variety. Hardy sweet varieties were developed by government horticulture research facilities decades ago. Unfortunately, they are not as productive as Okanagan valley varieties. The other problem is that late or early frosts and chinooks play havoc with even the hardiest of varieties in Alberta. That sees cider makers in Alberta import apple and fruit juices from elsewhere to produce their cider products. What we need in Alberta are frost-proof cider apple varieties. Can’t genetic engineering research solve that problem? Maybe we can fertilize apple trees with anti-freeze.
Will Verboven is an ag opinion writer and ag policy advisor.
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