Greg Hall Sees a Higher Calling For Cider
But Hall didn’t stay. He left Goose Island and surprised everyone by becoming a serious cidermaker. Hall founded Virtue Cider during 2011, but his goal with the fledgling cider company is not what you might expect.
Why did you leave Goose Island? Everything was going great.
Back in 2000, I took six Goose Island brewers on a trip to England to visit English brewers. On our second to last night there we were in the city of York and we went into a pub that was listed as one of the best pubs in England. They had about forty ciders on cask. And I had always liked the idea of cider. But I never found a cider I liked.
I felt like you just couldn’t make good cider. There was something with the apples that didn’t create enough flavor. Well, we had the first twenty ciders the first night, and we canceled our last brewery visit so we could go back and drink the last twenty ciders the second night. We came back from that trip almost more excited about cider than the beer.
But so you never made cider at Goose Island?
We never did it. When we reached an agreement to sell the company, I had the opportunity to do my own thing, and it just felt right. My father started Goose Island when he was forty-five years old and he left a big company that was bought out by a bigger company. He had two kids at the time.
When I left Goose Island, I was forty-five and I had two kids, and I was leaving a big company that had just been bought by a bigger company.
My father wanted me to stay at Goose Island and the guys in St. Louis wanted me to stay. I told my father, “hey you’re my inspiration for leaving.” He took a big risk. Craft beers was a brand new industry when my father started Goose Island.
You did an internship abroad to learn more about cidermaking, what was that like?
Summer 2011, after I left Goose I spent about six weeks in England and France. I visited a bunch of cidermakers that I already knew and, I went to a big cider festival: The Royal Bath and West Show. It’s kind of like a state fair, which is super cool. But they also have a cider tent and it happens to be the biggest cider judging in England and in the world. I also went to another cider festival in Wales, and went over to Normandy, where I visited thirty-two cidermakers on the cider route.
The other thing I wanted to do was set up an internship. In the fall of 2011, I worked at Domaine Dupont, which is probably the French cider maker that sells the most cider outside of France.
But your first cider, Red Streak, is not much like a French cider?
Red Streak is more English style. I thought it would be better to launch with an English style because more people understand that.
The French styles are very farmy up front. I didn’t want to do a first cider and have people be like, “Ewww, what’s that?” So we went dry and fruity. Overall, English cider tends to have some fruit forwardness and then is fermented dry; that [method] shows the tannin more.
What do you mean ‘farmy”?
One taste and you’ll know. Barnyard, very, very barnyard. A lot of wine drinkers, beer drinkers, even Belgian ale drinkers are like, “whoa, this tastes like horses behind.” Some of that flavor is because both in England and France they let the apples drop, so you’re picking them up off the ground. That’s the tradition. In the US we’re not allowed to do that. FDA.
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Is it important to keep everything local?
Absolutely. We’re cidermakers by trade, but our interest is in adding value to local agriculture, so that the local farmers in their fourth generation coming up on the fifth generation don’t say, “I’m not going to make any money, I don’t want to do this.”
70% of the apple market goes to juice and juicers don’t care what they get. With them, a grower is getting five to ten cents a pound for apples, versus a dollar a pound at a farmer’s market, or more this year because there’s fewer apples.
Our budget is to spend a quarter per pound for the equivalent of juice apples. We’ve built our model around pricing product high enough that we can still pay a premium for fruit, which helps the farmers.
If things go our way, in the fifth generation apple growing family the brother and sister will be fighting over who gets to take over the farm, because they actually make money and they can say they sell fruit to Virtue Cider. We’re really going to treat the apple growers as the real stars.
The idea is to add value to other people’s agricultural products. We’re starting off with cider. We hope to get into cheese and protein in the future.
For more information on Hall’s long term goals regarding cheese and proteins see: Greg Hall Talks About Mateo Kehler and Jasper Hill
But how can this strategy be competitive? How can “local” products compete with larger companies like Whole Foods?
Everything that we would make whether it’s cider or pork products, we would want to be the highest possible quality. No matter where the economy is, people with means buy the best stuff. I don’t want to sell to the 1%, but the goal is not so much selling it, as it is creating value for the farmer. So it’s kind of like, at the first step of production we want the farmers to be successful. But it’s at the second step of adding value and being good at managing distribution chains and marketing, where we feel like we can really achieve some success.
We don’t want to get too big. The idea is to build out our farm, once that’s done, that’s it. We’ll be able to make somewhere around 300,000 cases. For 2012, we did a third of that, so we don’t want to be the biggest cider maker. We just want to make really good cider, support local agriculture, and have a destination place [Hall’s production facility is currently under construction near Fennville, Michigan].
Getting back to making cider, How did you come up with your first batch?
I tasted a bunch of different ciders before we made anything commercially. We bought a one bushel press and we got every apple we could from Nichols Farm and pressed one bushel at a time. We tried about thirty apple varieties and about two dozen yeast varieties.
So we first picked one yeast strain that we liked and then we picked an apple varietal that we liked. We used the same yeast for all the different apples, and we used the same apple for all the different yeast. We came up with what we liked, and we said, “We like these ten apples and we like these six yeast strains.” So now let’s ferment each one with each other.
We did about 180 test batches. Red Streak is actually three ciders. It’s three different sets of apples which are pressed independently and fermented independently with three different yeast strains, and then blended back together. And then we take some of that blend, about 12%, and age it in new American oak before blending it back in. So in a way, it’s four ciders that are all blended together.
What varieties of apples did you use?
Our key apple is Northern Spy. Northern Spy is an heirloom apple grown in Michigan. We buy from a broker who buys from six-hundred different farms in Michigan. We use a lot of Macintosh. We use Cider Red, Northern Greening and Cox’s Orange Pippen too.
We use a pretty good amount of Cox, and we can’t get Cox this year because those came from Nichols and they have zero [due to the late 2012 frosts.) So we’re going to have them put in another five to ten acres of Cox in the spring, which we won’t get for three to five years. That’s part of the name, Virtue. Cider takes patience.
Will you still be able to get some Michigan apples despite the 2012 spring frost that killed so much of the Midwest crop?
We’re getting a ton of Michigan apples– two million pounds of Michigan apples.
Out of how many million pounds total?
Two million. Everyone knows about the bad crop Michigan had in 2012. But what they don’t talk about is it’s usually an 800 million pound crop, and the loss is not 90% as being reported. It’s more like 70%. We’re paying more for apples, but I’d rather pay more in our second year than in our tenth year.
Can you walk me through a little bit of the process? What goes into a product with the word “virtue” as a reference to patience in the company’s name.
You start with the apples, but before you press them, they’re milled. After you mill, the period between milling and pressing is the maceration time.
So basically you macerate and then press right away?
Yes. In France the weird thing is that everyone has their maceration time. They might make four ciders but they’re all macerated the same. I’m thinking that it would be easy for us to make our English cider going straight from mill to press, and then make an English scrumpy with a six hour maceration, and do a different style that’s got a two hour maceration. So it’s another variable and it’s just so cool!
How long do you ferment?
It depends. With Red Streak one of the things I learned over there [France] and through all the test batches is that the apple aroma will ferment off if you ferment too quickly or too warm.
Do you add tannins?
We put 12% of the cider in new American Oak.
So how do you stabilize the cider?
We don’t. We let nature stabilize it. We will filter Red Streak moving forward. Our French Lapinette is unfiltered. That’s made with a different mix of apples and is more acidic.
How did you come up with that name?
It’s a little Groundhog Day-ish. I’m sure rabbits are more climate sensitive than we are, but can they really tell if there’s going to be another freeze?
Lapinette will, in future years, be our spring cider. It will come out with the apple blossoms.
And then we have a bourbon barrel aged cider called the Mitten, for the mitten state (Michigan.) So that’s been aging in twelve year old Heaven Hill barrels, and again, like everything else, we’re detail freaks. We taste every barrel.
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