Greg Hall is hoping to catch lightning in a bottle for the second time. The former Goose Island brewmaster is now looking to invigorate interest in cider the way he helped spark a revolution in craft beer nearly 25 years ago.
We know, cider. WTF? It’s like Picasso drawing caricatures at Navy Pier, Meryl Streep acting in a commercial for Victory Auto Wreckers or Jason Wu designing for Target.
“There are enough people making good beer,” says Hall. Kicking around ideas for a new business venture after handing over the Goose Island reins to Anheuser-Busch, he recalled a trip to England some dozen years ago, when he ended up at a pub in the middle of a cider festival. (To clarify, Hall is referring to what Americans often call “hard cider,” which typically contains about 5 percent alcohol by volume, though Quebec ice cider can reach 13 percent a.b.v. or higher.)
“It got me thinking there was an opportunity to make really good cider,” Hall says. And lo, Virtue Cider was born.
OK, but you’re talking about American drinkers who’ve consistently rejected cider for more than a century. Though once the dominant beverage of choice in the U.S.–back when men wore goofy powdered wigs and water wasn’t particularly safe to drink–cider currently makes up less than half of one percent of the country’s alcohol consumption.
Hall, who now goes by the title “ciderist,” remains undeterred, convinced that he can woo consumers with a superior product. “Twenty-five years ago, people thought there were two kinds of beer: beer and light beer,” he says. “I think a lot has changed since 1988. You have a base of drinkers who are much more inquisitive than they were 10 years ago, or certainly 20 years ago.”
His intention isn’t to compete with the big fish in the small cider pond, brands like Woodchuck and Magners. Rather Hall is modeling his operation, currently headquartered in Roscoe Village, after small cider producers in Vermont and New Hampshire, the hotbed of cider activity in the U.S.
“The bigger guys, they don’t even have apples. They just buy juice and ferment it,” says Hall. “A lot of the ciders that are out there now smell like a juice box.”
Hall is looking for the sweet spot, somewhere below Woodchuck but above the micro level, much in the way that Goose Island once served as a bridge between Budweiser and Half Acre. “I think there’s a spot in the middle to make good cider with apples and interesting varieties and at the same time work to support agriculture.”
Virtue is sourcing heirloom apples from local growers like Nichols Farm and Seedling, familiar names to frequenters of Chicago’s farmers markets. Hall points to additional “green” aspects of cider production versus beer, which he plans to emphasize to consumers. “An apple orchard, compared to barley, you plant it once and you’ve got fruit for 30 years. Barley you plant every year,” he says, not to mention the fertilizers and water used to grow grains. “Apples are a much cleaner type of crop.”
Though cider’s fermentation process is very similar to that of beer, Hall has faced a learning curve when it comes to understanding fruit. To create the formula for its first cider, dubbed Red Streak, the Virtue team pressed 180 batches of apples, using 24 different varieties. Hall also tested 18 strains of yeast before settling on three. He fermented batches of fruit with each yeast, then blended the three together.
The result is a complex flavor that Hall compares to wine and Belgian ales, with a touch of sweetness giving way to drier notes and hints of vanilla and oak from the barrel.
From pressing to fermentation to aging, cider production takes roughly three months. Hall anticipates he’ll have about 1,000 kegs worth of Red Streak, available solely on draft, in 2012. Though test batches were concocted at Virtue’s offices at Roscoe and Seeley, large-scale production has been handed off to St. Julian Winery in Paw Paw, Mich., with Hall and his business associate Ryan Burk visiting weekly to oversee the operation. He’s since purchased 48 acres in Michigan, where he’ll build his cidery and plant a small orchard, kind of like how Hall used to grow hops in his yard.
To date, Hall has quietly partnered with restaurants like Floriole to introduce folks to his cider at intimate tasting sessions. Red Streak will have its grand coming out party April 12 at The Hideout, and intrigued consumers should soon find the cider on draft at local joints like the Village Tap, Riverview Tavern and, naturally, the Bad Apple.
The question is whether Hall has another Honker’s Ale on his hands or the next Zima. (What, you don’t remember Zima? MillerCoors does.) Hall again looks to the past to predict the future. Back when he first started brewing beer, the average bar carried about five brands. “Heineken was the best choice,” he says. “Cider’s kind of in that same place now. We have an opportunity to make cider taste delicious.”