Leave that jug of fresh cider around too long, and nature will take its course. Soon you'll have an adult beverage no longer suitable for the children's snack time.
Your neglected jug of homemade hard cider won't necessarily be all that satisfying for happy hour, either. But let vintners and brewers practice their art on apple juice, and you can get a drink that gives you both the taste of apples and the sipping pleasure of wine or ale.
Hard cider was introduced to America by English settlers who planted apple seeds in their new land. Most apples were used to make cider, which in many Colonial homes was a family drink. In some places, the cider was safer than water, because the alcohol prevented bacterial contamination.
Hard cider remained a highly popular American drink well into the 19th century. But around the Civil War, beer began to overtake cider. More German immigrants were arriving in this country with a strong attachment to good beer. Moreover, beer could be made from grain, a cheaper crop that could be planted and harvested in one season, rather than the several years it takes for apple seedlings to grow into mature trees and bear fruit.
With Prohibition, hard cider became virtually unknown in the United States, although it remained popular in the British Isles, France and other areas where apples were abundant.
In recent years, home brewers have rediscovered the delights of this drink. Meanwhile, apple growers have looked for new markets, and consumers have embraced new foods and beverages. All of this has helped hard cider make something of a comeback in the past decade.
This year, wine and liquor stores are offering everything from six-packs of pear, raspberry and Granny Smith apple-flavored ciders to wine-style ciders that resemble champagne. Even some local restaurants are offering cider by the glass.
Hard-cider drinks arrive in the fall and stay on the shelves as long as supplies last. But don't buy these beverages and put them away. They are designed to be consumed within a few months.
If you're a cider fan, or if you'd like to widen your taste horizons, this is the time of year to introduce yourself to a long-neglected American tradition. You can stage your own taste test at relatively little cost. I recently found a couple of good wine-style French ciders at around $7 each. Six-packs of hard cider sell in the same price range as a good-quality beer.
You'll find a lot of variety. Some ciders are highly carbonated; others may sparkle in a more subtle way. Some have spicy overtones; in others there is a full apple flavor with earthier overtones. Some are filtered; in others you can see the sediment.
It's hard to imagine that the juice of the apple could ever inspire quite the passion that surrounds the fermentation of grape juice. But the apple is a glorious fruit, and its fermented juice can produce a fine sip, as evidenced by its many new American fans.