THE GOLDEN DAYS OF HOMEMADE CIDER (December 18/18)

“It wasn’t just a case of a jug of apple cider in every pantry,” George Hanson said. “It was more like barrels or puncheons of hard cider in every cellar and barn in the county. That’s what it was like in prohibition days. It may have been illegal, the cider, but we couldn’t stop people from making and selling it; bootlegging was everywhere.”

When he made these statements, the late George Hanson was talking with me about the last few years of prohibition in Nova Scotia (which ended in 1931). Hanson was a member of the Nova Scotia Police when he was a young man, joining a few years before they were replaced by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He recalled that one of his jobs was attempting to stop the smuggling and bootlegging of rum and whiskey. Kings County, with its multitude of inlets and hidden coves around the Bay of Fundy and Minas Basin, was nearly impossible to patrol, the entire shoreline offering many safe places for rumrunners to come ashore.

Cider, Hanson said, came second in importance when looking for lawbreakers. “It was probably as popular as rum and whisky and a lot easier to get since so many people made it.” From 1921 to 1930, the period of total prohibition in Nova Scotia, cider presses sprung up everywhere in Kings County and elsewhere in the Annapolis Valley. The Valley was the prime apple-producing area in the province during prohibition, and one of the natural by-products of the apple industry was cider. Or to be specific, hard cider, as opposed to freshly pressed apple juice which was and still is popular as a refreshment. Hard cider was so readily available here in the prohibition period and people had code names for it. George Hansen said he always knew someone was talking about cider, for example, when “liquid gold” was mentioned.

Basically, cider is simply fermented apple juice and apparently there were many ways to spruce it up to give it more flavour and more kick. In an unpublished autobiography, the late Alex Middleton of Steam Mill wrote about how people in various farm areas around Kings County were obsessed with making cider. “This part of the Valley was called the cider belt and with good reason,” Middleton observed. “Almost every community had a cider mill and with apples so plentiful, it cost very little to have a couple of hundred gallons made.”

As I recall, my father and grandfather were cider drinkers; according to them, most of the time, during and after prohibition, they brewed their own. Making cider, or “working off” apple juice was a simple process that required little more than a tight container, a barrel or cask of some sort.

In his autobiography, Alex Middleton writes that people made a “big thing” about making cider but it wasn’t all that difficult. “Most (people) just filled the barrel to capacity and had another small container or two of juice (since) twice a day the barrel had to be refilled. This was all there was to it. When it stopped working …. you just waited several weeks before you tapped the barrel. The longer you waited, the better the cider.”

After prohibition you weren’t breaking the law by making cider for your own use. Selling it was another story since cider was classified as an alcoholic drink. However, cider makers were as prevalent after prohibition as they were during it, and it all came down to freshly pressed apple juice being readily available to everyone during the harvest period.

Getting back to the actual process, I remember that the brewers in my neighbourhood spruced up their cider in various ways. Some added beets – “to give the cider some color” they used to say – and some added raisins or any other fruits that were available.

Chipman Wines, which opened in Kentville in the 1940s, made cider commercially. Their fermented apple products, especially the cider, was a grade or two above the homemade stuff made out in the country. Their most popular cider was Golden Glow, which usually was sold by the jug. The word around at one time was that a lot of home cider brewing ceased when Chipmans got rolling. Why gamble on producing what could turn out to be second rate cider when Chippies was available at the government store.

As I said, this was what cider drinkers were rumoring shortly after Chipmans opened. However, homemade cider could still be found if you knew somebody who knew somebody; or if you had the desire you could always make our own. Cidermaking was too much of a country tradition to die out easily.

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