We learn much by studying our origins.  This is often difficult as many traditions are lost due to "modernization."  As scientists, we believe that it is essential to uncover and analyze traditions that are at risk.  Our analysis tools often let us uncover information even if it lies deeply buried in modern society.  As might be expected, we have a certain urgency in our search as we fear that we, and human posterity, can lose traditional knowledge as modernization forces traditions to evolve.

The focus of our research is on cider. This is a very ancient art.  It is so old that its antiquity is documented in one of the earliest known written records, The Epic of Gilgamesh.

We now believe that the spread of traditional cider technology is deeply entwined with the climatological history of Europe and Asia.  Cider production, along with other ancient technologies, crops and languages, moved back and forth in a narrow latitudinal band as the Pleistocene glaciers advanced and retreated across the continents.  Eventually, these early cultural elements were pushed into the marginal or edge areas of civilization as new technologies, crop and languages were developed in association with the major cities and agricultural area.  Cider production and apple growing are examples of the early technologies as they predate the arrival of field agriculture and grains into Western Europe.

The result of the technology displacement can be seen in the distribution of ancient cider production systems.  In Western Europe these relics are now most likely found only in smaller communities at the edges of mainstream agricultural society. Examples include areas include the Basque area of Spain, Normandy in France, and Wales and England in the United Kingdom.  There are also some places where the cider production tradition was carried during colonial times, such as North America, Australia and New Zealand. These colonial locations also have some relic areas where ancient production methods continue to be practiced today.

Traditional cider production is both simple and complex. The simple aspect is that apples will ferment without much assistance. The complexity is found in the difficulty in controlling the fermentation process with the limitations of ancient equipment.  Technology has developed, in part, with new production apparatus.  More important, however, have been the advances in chemical processes, such a blending apple varieties to control the pH, tannin levels, and sugar levels, as well as to produce subtle flavor differences.  Modern techniques, such as pasteurization, have allowed cider makers to simplify and use fewer apple varieties. However, the followers of the more ancient traditions persist in creating blends using many apple varieties to achieve a wide spectrum of flavors.

Researchers have largely neglected the apple varieties used to make cider. Since cider cultivars are not popular for eating or other uses.  As a result, there is considerable knowledge about the genetic relationships of many modern apples to their wild ancestors, but, there is little if any knowledge about the affinities of the ancient apple varieties used only in cider production.

Research Study

Finding the sites which have maintained historically authentic elements of ancient cider production is a key element of the current phase of the research. This discovery process includes locating cider apple varieties that are used in the production process.

As a scientific study, this research will contrast the processes and apple varieties associated with the ancient relics to those used in modern processes. The goal is to determine the types of changes that have occurred and where these developments have taken place.

The modern tools of genetic analysis will be combined with extensive interviews with people who are associated with all facets of the cider production process.  We are also interested in developing comparative information on the cider products.  This includes visual, taste, smell and other standard organoleptic measurements.

Importance of this Research

The loss of biodiversity on the planet is not limited to the "conservation hotspots."  We consider the preservation of traditional agricultural methods and materials to be equally important.  Just as traditional conservation is creating eco-tourism as a new industry, the revival of traditional agricultural practices is expected to enrich the food marketplace.  Cider is part of this revival.  We feel that our research will contribute to all cider producers by capturing and disseminating basic information about the traditional practices.

Although a large number of questions are being addressed, the following are core questions that are fundamental hypotheses of this research.

Research Questions

  • Does the distribution pattern of cider cultivars reflect any genetic relationships of the trees or ancient human migration pathway?
  • Are cider cultivars used today derived from ancient lineages or are they genetically reticulated with much more recently developed apple varieties?
  • Do any cider cultivars OR technologies result in a product that is unique from all others?
  • Are any cider production processes that are being used different from published processes or those generally being used by other producers? If so, is the resulting product different?

Expected Outcomes

  • Maps showing locations of ancient cider apple varieties

  • Genetic affinity maps

  • Photos of ancient cider apple varieties and production technologies

  • Interesting stories that help reveal the history of cider production

All of the results and conclusions will be compiled and made available on a non-commercial website for anyone to access.