A cider press.
A cider press. (Stephanie Zollshan / Berkshire Eagle Staff / photos.berkshireeagle.com)

SHEFFIELD -- Before pasteurized milk, bottled water and sports drinks, cider was the daily beverage of choice in New England more than 200 years ago.

They did not drink the sweet apple cider soon available from local orchards -- they sipped so-called "hard" cider, a 21st-century term for what needed no explanation during the heydey of the alcoholic libation's consumption.

"Cider, by definition, is fermented," said historian Dennis Picard. "Hard cider is redundant, just like saying alcoholic wine."

Families would drink dozens of gallons of cider a year in the 18th and early 19th century, Picard said, because the process of making the alcoholic beverage killed the microbes and bacteria, while other available thirst quencehers were untreated at the time.

"People didn't drink milk or drink water for fear of getting sick," he said. "People needed something safe to drink."

At 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 5, Picard will delve into "Traditional New England Cider Making, History and Techniques," in a talk on cider production and use in the region from the 1700s to the mid-1800s. He will speak at Dewey Hall, Sheffield Friendly Union on Main Street, sponsored by the Sheffield Historical Society. The talk is free and coincides with the historical society's latest exhibit, "Drinking, Distilleries and Prohibition," which opens on Saturday at its Old Stone Store on Main Street.

"Drinking, Distilleries and Prohibition" will display antique distilling and brewing equipment -- including cider presses, according to the society's administrator, Jennifer Owens.


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"Hard cider was a much more popular drink in early America than it is now, and the abundance of apples grown in Sheffield and surrounding areas meant that it was produced perhaps more readily than other alcoholic beverages," Owens said. "The ledger books of some of the hard cider producers will be on display, revealing a surprisingly large-scale production and just how far Sheffield cider was shipped for sale."

Picard, a museum professional in the "living history" field for nearly 30 years, will also explore cider making as a crucial part of the economy and every day life in New England.

His fascination with the topic began in 1985 at Old Sturbridge Village, a replica of a typical New England village in the early 1800s in Sturbridge, he said. He began his career there, where he researched and designed many public programs still in use, and he later led the Sheffield Historical Society for a year, becoming its first director in 1998.

During his 12 years at Old Sturbridge Village, Picard wrote an interpretive report on cider making and consumption in early New England, to coincide with the museum's reconstructing a cider mill it had purchased in Maine.

That initial research fuels Friday's talk, and he has spoken many times on cider making, he said. The basic process involved apples being crushed, wrapped in bundles of straw and pressed to make a cider that would have roughly between 4 and 8 percent alcohol content. A weaker version called "water cider" was made for children.

Cider mills were roughly 30-by-40-foot barns that produced cider from September into early December, Picard said. Communities, on average, had four or five cider mills, ensuring plenty of the liquid staple to last until the next apple growing season.

"These weren't ‘mom and pop' operations," he said.

Hard cider as a staple at the family dinner table began to fade as the temperance movement took hold in the 19th century, leading to the federal prohibition of all alcohlic beverages from 1920 to 1933.

Proponents of an alcoholic-free American society attacked what they saw as the root of the problem -- as far as cider making was concerned -- by having entire apple orchards chopped down in Massachusetts and other parts of New England, Owens said.

"The shift away from an agricultural society -- with its attendant waves of urban Italian, German, and Irish immigrants, who preferred their alcohol made from grapes, or barley and hops -- took the commercial cider market down with it," she said. "Prohibition shut off what little production remained of cider."

Since Western Massachusetts was one of the epicenters of the movement for years, Owens said, the exhibit will show the conflicting views that various Sheffield residents had on banning booze.

Before the temperance movement, Picard said, New England had 3,500 varieties of hearty apples, mostly for cider making. Today a mere 140 varities grow in the six-state region, according to the New England Apple Association, and they are more for eating off the tree or baking in pies.

Picard ponders what today's apple crop would be had many of the cider-making types survived the temperance axe.

"We should be learning from our mistakes in history," he said. "Who's to say one of these [cider] apples wouldn't be better suited for our climate?"

If you go ...

What: ‘The History of Hard Cider' Making with Dennis Picard

When: Friday, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Dewey Hall
Sheffield Friendly Union,
91 Main St., Sheffield

Admission: Free