The Virtuousness of Nature: A Conversation with Greg Hall, Founder of Virtue Cider
INTERVIEWED OCTOBER 19, 2016
AT VIRTUE FARMS - FENNVILLE, MICHIGAN
The concept of making an alcoholic drink from fermented apples is as old as recorded human history. Cider has long been an essential part of drinking culture in many parts of the world, particularly in Europe where each region has developed a distinct style, reflective of the unique climate and geography of the region.
Despite an abundance of pristine apple growing climates, this hasn't long been the case in the United States. While makers around the country have been producing cider of all styles for decades, it's only now the general public is taking notice. People are finally realizing what the rest of the world has known for centuries—cider doesn't need to be that jarringly sweet mess you once maybe drank once back in college. Nor is cider just the caramel-colored spiced drink you enjoyed alongside orchard donuts as a child.
Capitalizing on this increased consumer interest is Greg Hall, former Brewmaster at Goose Island and founder of Virtue Cider. Since day one, the western Michigan farm and orchard has been making cider influenced by the most famous cider producing regions in the world, all with hyper-locally sourced ingredients. During a recent trip to the farm, we caught up with Greg to hear more about the early days at Goose Island, his transition from beer to cider following their 2011 buyout, and his impressions on what "craft" means to him.
Before we get to Virtue, let's start back in Chicago where most first knew you. What can you tell us about your early days, getting into craft beer?
Some of my earliest memories as a little kid are Saturdays shopping at the grocery store and market with my mom and the beer store with my dad [Goose Island founder John Hall]. We'd go to this Safeway on York Road in Hinsdale, which is where I grew up. They had beers from all over the world. I just thought that was so cool. We'd get this beer from Germany, this beer from England, and another from Czechoslovakia. As I grew older and started drinking a little bit of beer, I found that I'd go over to my buddy's house, and his dad would just drink one kind of beer. It didn't have a whole lot of flavor to it.
And you were looking for something more.
Beer is this thing that's meant to be from somewhere, number one, and it's meant to be distinct. My father wanted to do two things with Goose Island—first, bring the English public house to Chicago where families and beer drinkers are welcome. Secondly, he wanted to bring all the different styles of beer that he was drinking from the beer store, but also from his previous life working in corporate finance in the packaging industry.
How did that expose him to beer?
He'd go around the world and audit plants. Wherever he went, he'd drink the local beer. He'd come back to Chicago, and there was no local beer. He thought that was crazy. It's a huge, international city, and everyone drinks beer. Old Style was the local beer and it's from Wisconsin. There were like four breweries between here and Old Style in the 80s. Now there are what? 400?
How was it growing up and seeing the explosion of the 'craft' culture?
Sometimes I joke around with some of my buddies who've been around for a while—these kids, they've got it so easy now. They just think you open up a brewery and you're gonna be on TV, be in the paper, and everyone's going to line up for your beer. It wasn't like that in the early days, that's for sure. We'd have people come in all the time and ask for "domestic beers." That other side of the glass window in the brewery might as well have been Canada. Everything is domestic, we make it all right here. They associated beers with more flavor, color, and character as being imported.
During our tour around the Virtue farm here, you've talked a lot about making cider with a sense of place. Did that stem from your time at Goose Island?
Absolutely. At Goose, all us brewers would go out to events like GABF [Great American Beer Festival] or the CBC [Craft Brewers Conference] and try a bunch of beers. The highlight, in my view anyway, was when we'd go to England every year. I'd get my "good pub guide," drive around, visit different breweries, and look for the best pubs in those towns. It's always better to drink the beer at the pub, rather than the brewery.
Wait, what? Explian.
That's really more of a true representation. They just go through more beer. When I went to Fuller's for the first time, I thought I was getting the freshest Fuller's I'd ever taste. They said, "Oh no, this is from last week." If you go down to the pub down the road, they'd go through a cask or two a day. That's the freshest Fuller's you're going to have. I was very enchanted by that. England is not that big of a country, but they've got very independent styles based on parts of the country. Most of the hoppy beers are from the south because that's where the hops grew. It's not that hard to take hops to the south, but the tradition was the hoppy beers are in the south and the mild, maltier beers are in the north.
So you'd spent more than 20 years of your life at Goose Island before the sale to AB. Why cider?
I had brought a bunch of brewers in 2000 over to England to visit breweries. We walked into a cider festival at a pub. We didn't plan on attending, it was an accident. They had 40 ciders on cask and we're like, "Sure, cider is cider. We'll get a few ciders." We tried them and, whoa! It was crazy. One guy said, "Mine's crisp and bright." And the next guy's like, "Mine's like apple pie!" and the guy after him, "Mine's funkier than a Lambic." Another said, "Mine tastes like it came out of a barrel!" We were tasting these back and forth and we just had no idea cider could be wonderful like this. The next night, we were supposed to go over to Timothy Taylor for a tour. We cancelled it so we could go back and drink more cider. We came back to Chicago saying, "No one in America knows about this. We could do a cider or three and be so far ahead of everybody else." But it was just one of those things we just never got to at the time.
And that idea just stuck? Even more than a decade later.
Yea, I even tried to put it in the budget [at Goose Island] a couple times but it just got cut and we didn't make it.
Then what made you take the jump into cider?
On my kid's first day of Kindergarten and North Park Elementary they had a big tub of apples with an old hand written sign that said, "Take one for now and one for later." I thought, what a great school, they actually give you free apples. So I asked where the apples come from. They said one of their parents was a farmer and pointed him out. So I go up to him and asked him, "Where are you a farmer?" He said he had a farm in South Haven. My family had been going to South Haven for 30 years.
An orchard, but no hard cider.
Yeah, every time we'd come up here to Michigan, we'd get our first rainy day and go over to Crane's instead of going to the beach. We'd get a pie—they've got a U-Pick and a corn maze, and all these weird stuffed animals. We knew there was apples around here, but the apple growers were never organized like the craft brewers or wine guys have become. There's been a wine trail in Michigan for 20-30 years, and we think it's time to put a cider route in and let people know about it. There's cider now being made up and down the coast.
We've already met one of the farmers that supplies Virtue cider apples today. Did the close relationships you have to these guys come as a surprise?
It didn't surprise me, it's what I was looking forward to frankly. I had a nice relationship with my hop broker. He'd come by and give me a spreadsheet of hop costs twice a year...
...But he's not the farmer.
No, he's not the farmer. You know, ever since it opened, I've been a big fan of Green City Market in Chicago. Frankly, I got a little jealous of all my chef friends buying their produce directly from the farmer. They'd pick it up and it's on your plate later that night. I wanted to do this. How could I do this as a brewer? I couldn't buy hops and barley from anyone around here.
Not back then anyway.
Well, now you can in Michigan a little bit. It's great that hops are coming back to the Midwest and New York, but it will never be quite the density of apples. There are already apples here and they make great cider. If anybody else had a family business that started back in 1930, we'd be saying, wow, that's so old. But around here, it's like, he's only third generation—the new kid.
What's something about Michigan that you think outsiders may not know?
I think the key thing is the rain. You put an apple tree in the ground and you might have to water it for the first year, but then you never water it again. You're getting fruit for anywhere from 50-150 years.
And that's a similar climate to other cider regions like England and Northern France?
Well it's not really climate, it's rain. The trees need rain. The other thing that likes 40 inches of rain a year is grass. If you look at some of the best cheese in the world, it comes from those same cider regions. Like cheddar comes from Somerset and I believe Asturias has 40 AOC cheeses. So all those regions where there's apple trees, there's grass, and where's grass, there's cows eating it. One of the reasons I think why those two go so well together.
In the US, what's the common thread between a Michigan, New York, and Washington cider?
Well, having fresh local apples is great. It's a lot different than beer. You can buy juice but when you can buy apples from the guy who grows the apples, that's what you want to do.
Virtue recently sold a majority stake to Goose Island, putting you squarely back in the crosshairs of the "craft" argument. Do you feel you face prejudice in the cider market because of that?
Yeah, absolutely. I signed up for that a second time though, so I completely knew what I was doing. Haters are going to hate and that's OK. There's room for enough for us. There are retailers, both on and off-premise, who tell me they're not going to sell my cider. Some of them are my friends who I used to sell a ton of beer to and they just won't sell it because it's coming on a red truck. It's your business and I'm not going to tell you how to run it, just like you're not going to tell me how to run mine. We can still be friends and have a beer at the end of the day. If you only want to sell beer made by left-handed Scandinavians, then its your shop. Do it.
What does "craft" mean to you?
Beer is kind of a blend of refreshment and flavor. When beer tilts a little bit more toward flavor than refreshment, it's craft. If it tilts a lot more toward refreshment than flavor, then it's not craft. It doesn't mean it's a bad beer. I drink a lot of Modelo in the summer. It's hot up here in the summer. I've got a little Mexican grocery store by me and I pick up a 6-pack—it's very refreshing. In the end, if it's a brewery that makes mostly craft beer, then it's a craft brewery. Duh, of course it is. If you talk about ownership, I don't know why being owned or invested by someone else matters. Brewers know about malt and hops. Investment bankers don't know any of that stuff. So if you've got to get somebody's money, why don't you get somebody who knows what they're doing?
What are you drinking when it's not Virtue, and where are you drinking it?
I had probably six Apex Predators watching the Cubs game the other night. I was at The Dawson watching it. I can't really say I've got a regular place anymore because I bounce around so much. But Hopleaf is always going to be at the top of my list and Village Tap has been one of my favorites for a long time. I love to drink beer made by guys I know. I also like to ask the bartender what's new, what are people talking about?
Lastly, what's in the 'Virtue' name?
It goes back to the tree—the "virtue" of the tree. Trees basically clean the air, hold the soil tight, shade the earth, suck carbon out of the air and put it in the ground. Trees are about the most virtuous thing on this planet. Everything we do here is related to trees. You buy your apples, they come off trees, you put it in barrels, they're made from trees. If people drink more cider, whether it be Virtue or someone else, there'll be more trees in the ground, and hey, that's a win for the planet.
Cheers to trees!
Photography by Jack Muldowney.
Interview by Tom White & Jack Muldowney. Cheers to Greg for hosting us on the Virtue farm, a beautiful and truly "farm to table" lunch, and great conversation. The beautiful Virtue tasting room and cider garden is just over two hours drive from downtown Chicago. Take a day to visit the farm, feed the pigs and chickens, and try a few ciders available only at the farm.