Swinging Doors — Los Angeles’s Cider Scene on Johnny Appleseed Day

Today is the birthday of John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed. It is celebrated, in some places, as Johnny Appleseed Day. Other locales celebrated it on 11 March. I’m not sure how the March date was chosen. It’s exactly one week before Johnny Appleseed died — which seems like an odd thing the celebrate except, perhaps, in the cases of tyrants. Johnny Appleseed was no tyrant, though, he was — in the words of author Michael Pollan — “our American Dionysus.”

Screenshot of the map of cider and cideries in Southern California


That Johnny Appleseed had a birth and death will come, I assume, as a surprise to many. For much of my life, I regarded Appleseed as a fictional folk hero along the lines of Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Febold Feboldson, or Captain Alfred Bulltop Stormalong. Appleseed was real, though, even though many of the stories about him are almost certainly apocryphal. I’m sure my impressions of him were mostly formed mostly by fiction. I remember a Read-Along-Record — a children’s book meant to be read simultaneously with a 7″ record — called Walt Disney Presents the Story of Johnny Appleseed. I think, at some point, I saw Walt Disney‘s The Legend of Johnny Appleseed segment in 1948’s Melody Time. There was also an apple-flavored candy, Johnny Apple Treats, which was clearly based on the prevailing image of Johnny Appleseed as a guy in a tin pot hat who loved eating apples and scattered their seeds everywhere he went.

The real Appleseed was born John Chapman on 26 September 1774 in Leominster, Massachusetts. While he was eccentric — a Swedenborgian, vegetarian bachelor who rarely wore shoes — he was also a real estate developer who planted apple trees as an amenity for his properties. Because he was morally opposed to grafting, he planted apples from seeds — which means that they were crap apples — which means that they were used to brew cider, which was a very popular alcoholic beverage in the US until tastes began to move toward beer as the country urbanized and immigrants from beer-loving Central and Eastern Europe overtook immigrants from cider-loving Western Europe.


Prohibition pretty much finished off cider in the US and, from the end of Prohibition until the 1980s craft brewing revival, “cider,” for the most part, referred to a spiced and heated version of non-alcoholic apple juice — the preferred juice of toddlers across the nation. What pretty much every other country referred to as cider, in the US — when referred to at all — was differentiated as “hard cider.” I’ve never heard anyone actually utter the words “soft cider,” but if they do, they’re talking about the non-alcoholic drink drunk in some American households almost exclusively around the autumn and winter holidays of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas — sort of the 20th century version of the pumpkin spiced latte.


As a child, I was allowed to sip a bit of my parents’ beer, wine, and — on rare occasions — nips of liquor (mainly, Disaronno or Peach Schnapps). For whatever reason, we were allowed — from a fairly young age — to drink sake on New Year’s Eve. I didn’t have my first whole can of beer until high school, when I drank a can of Old Milwaukee found stashed inside my aunt and uncle’s Chevy Blazer that no one dared to claim. They weren’t complete teetotalers — but their preferred poison was Mountain Dew and Pepsi — although one of their Thanksgiving customs was drinking margaritas. Like many, I started drinking a lot more in college. In my first year, that meant doing the homework of an older kid in exchange for him buying kegs of macrobrew, cases of wine cooler, boxed wine, fortified wines, or 40-ounce (and occasionally 64-ounce) bottles of Olde English 800. Once the novelty of drunkenness began to wear off, I began to explore other avenues, finding that I generally preferred mead, perry, porter, retsina, shiraz, stout, and cider to light lagers and plonk — and that reaching and maintaining a pleasant buzz was preferable to merely getting trashed.


This transition into slightly more moderated and mindful drinking occurred for me around the end of 1993/beginning of 1994. The ciders I picked up from “Dirty” John’s were usually either Ace or Woodchuck. Cider seemed both ancient and very 1990s (just watch the ad above). I had no idea, though, until researching this piece who knew both of the ciders I was drinking were brand new brands. Woodchuck had only launched in 1991. Ace was only introduced in 1993. Now common brands like Angry Orchard didn’t exist and I don’t remember imported staples like Blackthorn and Strongbow ever appearing on shelves until many years after. Cider, although still not ubiquitous, is at least common in Southern California and elsewhere (although for some reason, perry is not).


Women hold up clusters of grapes at a vineyard in Burbank, circa 1928. (Security Pacific National Bank Collection/Los Angeles Public Library)

Cider disciple John Chapman died in 1845. Although he’d established cider apples in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Ontario, Pennsylvania, and what’s now West Virginia; he never made it to California, which would remain part of Mexico until 1848. Although cider (“sidra”) is popular in Spain, the Franciscan friars focused their alcoholic beverage skills on the Mission Grape, which they used to make wine for communion that, when drunk, magically transforms in the mouth into the blood of the Messiah. The first wine grapes planted in the Los Angeles vicinity were established at Misión San Juan Capistrano in 1779. They first produced wine in 1783. In 1826, Joseph John “Jose Juan” Chapman (no relation to John) planted 4,000 vines and by the 1860s, Metro Los Angeles was the main wine-growing region in the US. When Angelenos weren’t drinking wine, they were often drinking brandies distilled from grapes… or whiskey, made from cereal grains.


In an inversion of what was typical in most of the country, cider was primarily available in California’s cities, which in post-Gold Rush 1850s meant San Francisco. An 1854 advertisement for C A. McNulty, Importer and Dealer in Hardware, Miners’ Tools, Agricultural Implements, &c. mentions cider as one of its goods. An 1855 advertisement for 1855 for J. H. Coghill & Co., also in San Francisco, marketed Champagne Cider. That same year, the Los Angeles Sons of Temperance took out an ad in which they boasted that they’d “any spiritous or malt liquors, wine, or cider” and that, furthermore, they would “discountenance their use throughout the community,” suggesting that scourge of cider had by then spread to Los Angeles. In 1857, Johnson & Allanson were selling “whiskey, brandy, sherry, cider, cordials and syrups, &c &c.” An 1866 article in the Wilmington Journal complained that “a poor article of cider” was then misleadingly being passed off as “California Champagne.” In 1868, Stephano Martinelli emigrated from Switzerland to his brother Luigi’s farm in Watsonville. There, they established a cider brewery, S. Martinelli & Company. An 1879 article in the Los Angeles Herald claimed that “It [cider] is a bad liquor to get drunk on. Beer stupefies, cider sours a man. Either is bad; the cider drunkard is the ugliest man to meet.”


The California Prohibition of Liquor proposition is put on the state ballot in 1914. It, and subsequent attempts were defeated but the 18th Amendment passed, banning the sale, manufacture, and transportation of liquor, made Prohibition the law of the entire country. By then, the center of wine production had moved north and what few wine-makers still operated in Los Angeles turned to still legal communion wine and “grape bricks.” Liquor manufacturing, with considerable cooperation from Los Angeles City Hall, went underground. When Prohibition ended in 1933, Angelenos carried on drinking — like most of the county — wine, liquor, and beer — although there were numerous short-lived sake breweries that struggled to gain a foothold — especially after the end of the internment of Japanese in concentration camps during World War II. Martinelli’s switched over to sparkling apple juice. Cider, like mead, receded into the mists of vague historical memory. People might sing about wassailing around Christmas but its meaning was almost completely forgotten. Angelenos, in other words, weren’t gathering in apple orchards to drink cider, tying mulled cider-dipped pieces of toast onto trees, and making noise to scare off evil spirits — all in the hope of ensuring a good batch of cider at brewing time.


In California, cider’s popularity was boosted, in large part, by the widespread adoption of gluten-free diets in the 2010s. Cider’s popularity had never waned nearly as much in places like Australia, Asturias, Canada, Galicia, India, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Normandy, and the West County (the UK maintains the highest per capita cider consumption). With increased demand, imported ciders from those countries and elsewhere became common sites at markets. Around the same time, local bars began to more often stock bottles of cider and, less frequently, have it on tap. in the last few years, bars and breweries specializing in cider have begun to sprout.

The rebirth of American cider first appeared in New England in the 1980s and spread to the Hudson Valley. In California, it first took root in San Joaquin Valley and the Napa Valley. Ace Cider was established in Sebastopol, California in 1993. There are a growing number of cideries in Southern California now, including Balcom Canyon Cider (Ventura), Ficklewood Ciderworks (Long Beach), Guthrie CiderWorks (San Diego). the Honest Abe Cider House & Meadery (Carson), Ironbark Ciderworks (Claremont), Newtopia Cyder (San Diego), 101 Cider House (Dogtown). Pier City Cider (Ventura), Poochie’s Hooch Urban Cidery (San Diego), Serpentine Cider (San Diego), and SLO Cider (San Luis Obispo).

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery.
Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesVICEHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture.
Brightwell has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson Collegeand the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles.

You can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsiNaturalistInstagramMastodonMediumMubithe StoryGraph, and Twitter.

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