When Greg Hall finished being a craft beer pioneer for one of the first major craft breweries, he decided why not do the same thing for hard cider.
This time, Hall has set a mission to also bring up the region around him, hoping to turn a stretch of area near Holland, Mich., into the “Napa Valley of Cider.”The former head brewer of Goose Island Brewing in Chicago has the resources, and now he’ll find out if he can execute.
So far so good, as the cider maker has pushed out nearly 100,000 gallons of hard cider and plans to more than double that in the near future. Ground will break later this summer on a second cider house on the 48-acre farm which eventually will hold 5,000 apple trees as well as two additional cider houses and caves for aging cider, cheese and meats.
Cider was the next step after AB-InBev bought out Goose Island. Of course, first Hall had to travel across Europe to taste the best ciders in the world. Then he came back to see Virtue get started.
“I don’t wanna say I did all I could do with beer, there’s certainly more I could have done,” he said. “But there’s almost 3,000 breweries doing it, so I feel like anything I was gonna do, someone else was gonna do it anyway.”
Cider still is in its early stages, where craft beer was 20 or so years ago. It just didn’t catch on quite as fast and people still only think there’s one type of cider, much like people thought that light American lagers were the only beers. Or how people don’t know the difference between porters and stouts.
But instead of shoving cider aside and hoping it slides to the side and goes away as it did with craft beer, the macro beer companies are embracing the movement and buying up major cider makers left and right.
“The big breweries did all they could to surpress craft brewing for the first 20 years and ignore it and hope it will go away,” he said. “Eventually they understood there’s a new drinker, one who drinks craft beer, not some of the time or most of the time, but all the time and we’re gonna lose them if we don’t get into the game. So everybody kind of got on board late with craft beer but with cider they’re getting on very early.
“We think that’s great, because we don’t have to play the role of the educator, because that is hard work, and I did that. It’s nice the big guys are coming in and doing that. It’s going to be a really interesting next five years.”
But just because the big breweries are jumping on the bandwagon before it even starts rolling doesn’t mean it will snuff out the movement by the little guys. Hall said cider makers are up and running across the nation and make some great cider, including Michigan’s Vander Mill and Tandem ciders.
“There are a lot of great cider makers in the country, but they tend to be really small, and because they’re really small they don’t have great distribution, so it’s hard to know about them unless you’re close,” he said.
Michigan already has a few of the nation’s best cider makers, combined with Virtue who will grow rapidly to fill a void of an independent national cider distributor, along with the perfect apple producing climate to provide Hall with his thought of the “Napa Valley of Cider.”
Lake Michigan provides the coastal, rainy climate that promotes the same sort of apple growth in Europe where the world’s top ciders are made. The ground is complete with sandy soil, like those European regions, that allow for proper water drainage around apple roots.
Aside from excellent conditions for cider making, Hall sees an opportunity to transform and support the area farmers to encourage the same sort of agriculture that the Napa and Hudson valleys see.
Although the plans for the orchard and cider farm to include up to 5,000 apple trees, he wants to buy fruit from farmers.
“We want guys to get better price for their apples,” he said. “We’ll pay considerably more for apples If people put them in the gorund, they’re very valuable to us. It’s not good just for us, but it will attract more cider makers, because they come where the apples are. Just like the Pacific Northwest was the first place for the boom of craft beer because that’s where the hops grew. And hops are a whole heck of a lot easier to transport and store than apples are.
“What I would love to see happen in Michigan in the next 10 years is, there’s 1100 apple growers, if a quarter of them put in 10 percent of their orchards as cider fruit, it’s not a huge risk for them, but that would give us so much cider fruit in Michigan.”
And with his caves for cheeses and meats, and his hope for regional restaurants, pig and dairy farms will follow and take their animals out of factories where they never see the light of day.
If Hall can figure that out, he’ll be able to make his vision come true.