The Concord grape, with its distinctive flavor, is as American as apple pie. It’s the preferred jelly in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which sweetened up soldier rations during World War II, and is the flavor in Nehi grape soda. Concord juice has been served in U.S. churches for sacramental communion for more than 150 years.
Native to North America, the dark-blue, slip-skin grape is a descendant of wild grape Vitis labrusca species that grew uncultivated in New England in the early 1800s. The grape’s origin has been well documented, and according to the Concord Grape Association, it was developed by Ephraim Wales Bull in 1849, and is named for Concord, Massachusetts, where the original Concord parent vine still grows today, near Bull’s farmhouse.
Bull planted and evaluated some 22,000 seedlings before he found his perfect grape—one that survived cold winters and killing frosts and thrived in U.S. soils where European Vitis vinifera grapes did not.
The variety won first prize at Boston Horticultural Society Exhibition in 1853. In 1866, Horace Greeley named it best grape for general cultivation, awarded it a cash prize, and declared it “the grape for millions.”
Welch’s grape juice
Dr. Thomas Welch made the first unfermented grape juice known to be processed in the United States in 1869 from Concord grapes. Welch, a New Jersey dentist and physician, and his son Charles cooked, squeezed, and filtered 40 pounds of their homegrown grapes into juice in their kitchen, sealing the juice bottles with cork and wax and boiling them in water to kill yeast and prevent fermentation.
Welch used the first batch of Concord grape juice for communion in the local Methodist church, and most of his first grape juice orders were from churches.
In recent years, grape juice has been popular with consumers for its health benefits.
Coast to coast
Concord, with its versatility as a fresh-eating table grape and processed grape, was found to be adaptable to a wide range of soil and climate conditions, growing well in most grape production regions. By the mid-1870s, it was more widely planted in the Northeast than all other grape varieties combined. A heavy concentration of Concord vineyards was planted in what’s known as the Lake Erie Concord Grape Belt, a narrow stretch of land along Lake Erie along the border of Pennsylvania and New York.
Concords made their way out West as well. In the book The Wine Project: Washington State’s Winemaking History by Ron Irvine and Dr. Walter Clore, A.P. Shipley of Walla Walla, Washington, is said to have imported 45 American and European grape varieties from the eastern United States during the 1860s and, after growing them a while, discarded all but the Concord.
The Washington State Board of Horticulture’s first report, published in 1893, listed Concord and other grape varieties being grown, according to The Wine Project. In 1904, E.P. Dopps of Outlook planted the first Concord grapes in Washington’s Yakima Valley, according to Clore, and the state’s grape juice industry started around 1914.
Prohibition, while putting an end to legitimate winemaking, had an interesting effect on grape acreage and plantings, writes G.A. Cahoon in A History of Fruit Varieties, edited by David C. Ferree. “Concord grape juice was in demand and sold with specific instruction on how to avoid fermentation, which was certainly the reason for making the statement in the first place,” stated Cahoon.
Washington State leads the nation in Concord production today. Washington growers, on about 25,000 acres, produce almost half of the nationwide 400,000-ton annual production. Other major Concord-producing states include New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio.