American Hard Cider and the Idea of Nostalgia

a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.

Nost2Nostalgia is a powerful sentiment, particularly in our current age when moments tend to move quickly past us, the new thing is ever present and the future hovers over us always. That desire to trap oneself in a nostalgic moment is a strong one, grounding and comfortable as it can be. The nature of nostalgia pegs this sentimental yearning  as a particularly powerful marketing concept.

Perhaps no other product is better suited to advance and expand its grasp on consumers via nostalgia marketing than hard cider. Hard cider is literally a thing of the past and an important thing at that. As we know, there was a time when cider was “America’s Drink”, when every homestead possessed a few cider trees capable for producing the family’s need for a reliable intoxicant and source of safe drinking material. In the 17th and 18th centuries hundreds of apple cider varieties dotted the landscape of the early American colonies and then the expanding nation.

Then…slowly, Cider died as America’s drink. Numerous circumstances did cider in with Prohibition delivering the final blow. After Repeal, America turned to grapes, hops, grains and other fermentable sugars, and left apples as a source of alcohol lost and forgotten.

It should not be surprising then that the current cider revival in the U.S. has been driven largely nost3by, and marketed as, a nostalgic turn.

There is a distinctive “back-to-the-land” character found in many of the small, craft cider efforts across the country that are decidedly authentic. But more emblematic is the history and nostalgia-driven marketing campaigns by the large, commercial cider producers be they played out on labels or commercials. Always the authentic and the commercial is a harkening back; a pointer to what once was; proof that the past can be mined for present pleasure and profit.

A recent article in Modern Farmer described the efforts of Dave Dolginow and Collin Davis, two Vermonters who spent a good deal of time scouring the Vermont hills and dales for ancient apple trees that once provided families with cider apples but that had been forgotten, overgrown and lost. The article describes Dolginow and Davis’ as “determined to reincarnate the cider industry by repopulating the Northeast with these apple orchards of yore.”

“Reincarnate”. “Yore”.

Every effort steeped in nostalgia is built on the idea of “revival”. Dolginow and Davis, who have now founded Shacksbury Cider based on their excavation of lost apples understands this. Theirs is an effort to “excavate the ‘lost apples’ from the now-feral trees, and plant thousands of heirloom cider trees in Vermont’s Champlain Valley.”

Nost1Craft cider’s revival in America is interesting and notable for the fact that it must be based entirely on a nostalgic turn in order to get off the ground and thrive: great craft cider is produced almost exclusively from apple varieties that have largely been forgotten and lost, but once thrived. These old “heirloom” ( a word you’ll see blanketing craft cider marketing) apple varieties collectively possess the characters alien to today’s supermarket apples, but which are required for the production of fine craft cider.

A small group of dedicated orchardists across the country who look as much like archivists as they do farmers have preserved, sought out, rediscovered and now plant these once lost cider apples to support their own as well as others efforts to craft fine cider. There is a burgeoning market for nostalgic apples.

I don’t know how far nostalgia can take a small, growing industry. It’s a question of how desperate modernity makes a people. But it certainly is an idea that can form a base for growth and we are watching nostalgia not only motivate individuals and an industry, but also motivate the consumers of cider.

If the current cider revival continues, if the cider market continues to grow, if more and more people supplement their wine and beer consumption with hard cider, then there will come a time when experimentation, desire for quality, a search for what is local and the fine art of possessing and coveting will rival nostalgia as a driver of the cider market. We are not there yet. But if the American cider revival does mark that phase, it will only be after nostalgia and a sentimental yearning built the base.

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