Apple soda is difficult to find in the United States. Why?
The question is troubling. Apples are a very American fruit. They have a place in our myths and legends, best embodied in the character of Johnny Appleseed. Apples also have a central place in our most patriotic dishes; what could be more American than apple pie?
Furthermore, apples are big business in the U.S. According to industry group USApple, apples are the #1 consumed fruit in the country, they're grown in all 50 states, and the industry is estimated to be worth $23 billion a year.
Are the great soda makers of the United States simply unpatriotic? Sprecher Brewery certainly isn't. During the fall season, Sprecher makes a delicious honeycrisp apple soda that is lightly carbonated, pleasantly crisp, and infused with a pleasant apple-y sweetness. If you want to give it a try, click here to buy it.
Still, it's a real mystery as to why Sprecher is one of the few producers of Apple Soda in the country. Americans guzzle down apple juice, apple cider, and hard cider with no problem. So why is apple soda such a niche product?
The answer is a long story that ties together ancient Kazakhstan, drunken pioneers, a Catalan cork-maker, the PR campaign that invented the phrase "an apple a day keeps the doctor away," and the real Johnny Appleseed. Intrigued? Then strap in for a weird read.
Kazakhstan: The Garden of Eden (for Apples)
In The Botany of Desire, food writer Michael Pollan explains that the first apples grew up in the highland forests of Kazakhstan. In this region lies what is today the largest city in Kazakhstan, a bustling metropolis called Almaty. In ancient times, Almaty was called Alma-ata, which means "father of the apple."
In the hills around Almaty, there are old-growth forests where every conceivable type of apple grows. There are apples the size of ping-pong balls and softballs, and apples that are are every shade from green to yellow to red to nearly blue. In Almaty itself, Pollan says that apple trees will grow out of cracks in the sidewalk.
This extreme variety is the product of an important feature of apples: they do not grow "true to seed." If you took five apple seeds from the same apple and planted them in the ground, you would get five completely different apple trees. Each tree would bear fruits that, in all likelihood, would not resemble the original apple at all.
Almaty was an important stop on the silk road, and travelers passing through would take apples to eat along the way or plant far afield. Apple eaters were usually pleased, and for a time, apple planters were usually unpleasantly surprised.
Apples being sold at a market in Almaty. via Wikimedia Commons
Sometime in the second millennium B.C., the Chinese discovered a technique called grafting that allowed farmers to "copy" apple varieties that they liked.
Grafting is a labor-intensive process that involves cutting a branch from the original tree and carefully fusing it to a sapling, but many farmers found it worth the effort to grow sweet apples in a world before cheap refined sugar.
As the practice of grafting spread, the apple tree spread across Eurasia, where it became valued by a multitude of cultures and people-groups as a source of hardy, sweet fruit.
Hard Cider and Applejack: The Pioneer's Delight
When Europeans settled the Americas, they brought apple seeds with them. Pollan notes that to European eyes, apple trees were a marker of a cultivated, civilized landscape. In many places, settlers' land claims were only recognized if the land was "improved" in some way, and planting apple trees was a relatively easy way for pioneers and speculators to do this.
It was uncommon for settlers to take the time and effort to graft apple trees, and what they got was an infinite variety of "spitters," i.e., practically inedible sour apples. Still, settlers planted orchard upon orchard. Why?
Booze, specifically hard cider and applejack. To early settlers (and today's Brits) hard cider was a redundancy--all cider was alcoholic. Most orchards were planted to churn out drinking apples, apples which homesteaders would press into juice that they would ferment into literal thousands of gallons of hard cider.
An old fashioned cider press being used to press fermentable juice out of sour apples. via Wikimedia Commons
Hard cider was fairly nutritious, decently caloric, and often safer than water. Men, women, and even children would drink the stuff with an alarming frequency.
When these hardened drinkers wanted to get a real buzz on, they would turn to a harsh liquor called applejack. Applejack was made by freezing hard cider. Since water freezes faster than alcohol, a high-proof liquid would sit on top of the frozen cider. That liquid was called applejack, and it was nearly as strong as whisky, but much safer and easier to make.
Johnny Appleseed, Bringer of Booze
Applejack and hard cider are the reasons that Johnny Appleseed became the stuff of American legend. Johnny Appleseed was the nickname of a very real man named John Chapman.
In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan is quick to point out that Chapman was a man with many challenging quirks. He wore a sack in lieu of regular clothes, and he reportedly wore a tin pot on his head. Under the tin pot, Chapman kept a copy of the Swedenborgian tracts, a collection of bizarre religious pamphlets written by an eccentric named Emanuel Swedenborg.
Chapman didn't have a home of his own--he would crash on other people's floors, but not before sharing the good word of Swedenborg with them. He wouldn't take his shoes off while staying over, because he didn't have any. Chapman had such thick callouses on the bottom of his bare feet that he would entertain and terrify local children by sticking pins into them.
Johnny Appleseed planting Apple Seeds while wearing his signature sack. via Wikimedia Commons
Yet, people were happy to host Chapman. Why? Because he brought booze to the party! Chapman spent his summers traveling around the Ohio and Indiana frontier planting apple orchards. When settlers reached Chapman's orchards, he would sell them on the cheap. Thanks to Chapman, many pioneers were able to become landowners without breaking the bank, and they got an instant supply of alcohol to boot.
The real Johnny Appleseed was an odd bird, a true American nut. He planted untold thousands of apple trees for dozens of pioneer families throughout the Midwest, and each and every apple tree he planted was a different variety. It's hard to say just how many people got drunk off of his apples, but I'd speculate that it was easily in the thousands.
Sidral Mundet: The First Apple Soda
At the beginning of the 20th century, the U.S. apple industry saw trouble brewing on the horizon. The temperance movement was gaining momentum, prohibition was beginning in Canada, and it seemed like the U.S. was due for the same. Seeing this, the great giants of the apple world pooled their money, bought the best public relations team they could afford, and tried to come up with a new, non-alcoholic way to get apples into American mouths.
South of the U.S. border, a Catalan cork-maker named Arturo Mundet stepped off a boat with pesos in his pocket and dreams of a new drink in his head. Mundet came from Girona, a region of Northern Spain with great forest industries: cork, chestnut, oak, pine, and apple orchards.
For generations, those orchards have grown Manzanas de Girona--Gironan apples so good that the European Union protects the name. There's no way of knowing if those apples were Arturo's inspiration, but I'd like to think he had them in mind when he created a drink called Sidral Mundet in 1902. Sidral Mundet, which roughly translates to "Mundet's Cider," was the first apple soda in Mexico, and an instant hit.
Sidral Mundet, via Wikimedia Commons
Sidral Mundet seemed to be at the right place at the right time--it was just accross the border from the U.S. at a time when big apple was spending loads of cash looking for a non-alcoholic apple product to sell. Why didn't it--or one of its competitors--take on?
An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away
When looking at history, it's easy to come up with lots of good reasons why people do the things they do. It's often much harder to say why something wasn't done. As such, I can only speculate why Sidral Mundet didn't go North.
It's possible that Mexicans were quick to adopt Sidral Mundet because it was inspired by Aguas Frescas, a class of non-alcoholic sweetened fruit drinks with possible Aztec roots. This is what the Sidral Mundet website claims, and it is certainly plausible. Mexicans looking at Sidral Mundet might have seen a product that was an improvement on aguas frescas: it was sold in sealed bottles, heavily sweetened, and bubbly.
In the U.S., I speculate that Americans looking at Sidral Mundet would see a product that was an inferior substitute to cider. Like non-alcoholic beer, it might be a nice alternative for some, but to the average cider drinker, apple soda would likely seem like a sweet and sobering disappointment.
Whatever their reasons ultimately were, the P.R. team hired by proponents of the U.S. apple industry worked hard to transition the public from drinking apples to eating them. Pollan credits this P.R. team with inventing the phrase "an apple a day keeps the doctor away." With slogans like these, the apple PR team got the public to associate the fruit with a wholesome healthy diet instead of an unsavory liquid diet.
Leading up to prohibition, apples were rebranded as a wellness food in the U.S. The PR campaign stuck. via Wikimedia Commons
By the time prohibition hit, the orchard owners of the U.S. were hacking down trees bearing John Chapman's spitters and trading them in for sweeter varieties like Red Delicious.
At this point, Sidral Mundet and its competitors had missed their moment and were stuck South of the border, gaining only niche appreciation in the U.S.
Sprecher Apple Soda
In the intervening years, apple soda didn't get much of a foothold in the U.S. Fanta released an apple soda as a part of its line of fruit sodas, but it never achieved the fame of Orange Fanta.
In the 1980s, Randy Sprecher opened Sprecher Brewery and began fire-brewing craft soda using quality ingredients and raw honey. He started out by selling The Best Root Beer in America, but quickly expanded the business.
When Randy came up with a line of seasonal sodas, apple was a natural choice for autumn. Apple trees grow all throughout Wisconsin; there is even an apple tree growing spitters in the Sprecher parking lot today!
Of course, Sprecher Apple Soda tastes nothing like the sour crabapples planted by John Chapman. It tastes like a perfectly crisp, cool, refreshingly sweet apple picked at the peak of the season.
Sprecher Honeycrisp Apple Soda
Sprecher Apple Soda is so good that I think it's time for the United States to finally come around on apple soda. Gone are the days when we have to view apple soda as some inferior alternative to the hard stuff. Sprecher Apple Soda is a delicious drink in its own right, and you deserve to try it. Click here to get yourself some, provided it's in season. If not, I'm sorry to say you'll have to wait until next fall. I promise you it will be well worth the wait.