The name Greg Hall is well known in the world of craft beer—Hall was an early advocate of beer pairings and the man behind the world class beers at Goose Island Beer Co. Greg's newest obsession is cider, and the first pints from his Virtue Cider venture are now on tap in Chicago. We caught up with Greg to talk all things cider.
These are clearly busy times over at Virtue! Can you tell us a little about the brand and how you got interested in cider?
I first got interested in cider while working at the Goose Island Brewpub in the early 90s. We had Woodchuck on tap, it was our only guest draft at the time. Then in 2000, six of us from Goose went to England to visit breweries: Young's, Fuller's, Marston's, Sam Smith, Black Sheep and a few more. Whilst we were up in York, we happened upon a pub called the Maltings. They were having a bit of a cider fest with many casks from around the country tapped. I loved the wide range—fruity, sweet, tart, sour, heavy tannin—every cider was different. I fell in love with cider on that trip.
We're familiar with you through Goose Island and the award winning beer that you produced while there. Has the transition from the beer word to the cider one been difficult? What are some of the differences you see between the cider community and the beer one?
It reminds me of the early days of craft beer, back in the late 80s when craft just started out. Many drinkers thought there were only four kinds of beer back then, light beer, dark beer, import beer, and beer. That's where we are with cider today, there's sweet cider or hard cider. But there is so much more variety to explore—different apples, yeast, barrels, blending. Today, most beer drinkers could easily name 20 to 50 styles; we have a lot of catching up to do.
What kind of research went into making your first cider?
I spent about seven weeks in the UK and France over the summer, starting with the Royal Bath and West Show in Somerset (I'm on my way back to Bath and West right now) and finishing up with two weeks in Normandy working at Dupont. I must have visited 40 to 50 cider makers. In the fall, we bought a small press and did about 180 test batches, trying two dozen apples and almost as many yeast strains. We blended our favorites to make the base for RedStreak.
Your first cider, Redstreak, just hit the market in Chicago. Can you tell us a bit about it? What exactly is an "English style draft cider" and how does it differ from the other American ciders that our readers may be used to drinking such as those from Farnum Hill or Tieton Ciders?
Traditional English ciders tend to be more dry than others, with more tannin and complexity from native yeast. We made three different ciders, each with a unique set of apples and yeast, and blended them together to make RedStreak. We aged a bit in barrels too, for a little more tannin. I would definitely say that Steve Wood from Farnum Hill is the king of English style cider in the USA. He has been at it for 30 years or so and grows most of his own apples. He is super authentic and a great leader in the industry. We hope we can make cider that good someday.
While working at Goose Island, your barrel aging and Belgian-inspired beer programs introduced the American palate to some of the more nuanced flavors of craft beer and, more importantly, craft beer and food pairings. Are you planning anything similar with Virtue cider?
Yes, absolutely. Almost all small cider producers in the UK and France have ciders that spend time in wood and most ferment with wild yeast. It's an area I've had a good amount of experience with, although most Americans haven't been exposed to those traditional ciders. Both the barrel and the fermentation can add so much complexity to cider. We plan to make a range of cider that can carry you though all courses in a meal from tart to tannic, farmy to boozy and sweet. I had a 12 course meal with Etienne Dupont in Normandy, with a different local cider paired with each course. Cider really complements food, never overpowering the dish. There is a very bright future in pairing cider with food.
Michigan (where Virtue cider is produced) has a well established cider history. Was that something you took into consideration with Virtue? Also, Can you fill us in on the cider landscape in Chicago right now?
The state flower of Michigan is the apple blossom—there are over 30 cider producers and 1000 apple growers. It has a chance to be the Portland or the Napa of cider. Many great Michigan ciders, like Vander Mill and JK Scrumpy, find their way to Chicago, but most bars don't have a cider on tap yet, there is a lot of opportunity.
Crispin used Chicago as an early test market, and of course now MillerCoors is in Chicago so we are seeing cider pop up more places, even in the Cell where the White Sox play. Prima is making nice German style cider in the suburbs, they are starting to show up around town. We've had a great reception so far with RedStreak, about 50 accounts in our first month. Everyone is excited about cider in Chicago.
With Sam Adam releasing Angry Orchard, Tenth and Blake (MillerCoors) purchasing Crispin Cider, and InBev introducing their Michelob Ultra Light Cider, it seems that everyone wants to get into the cider game this year. Is cider the next big thing, or is it the next Zima?
How long did the big guys take to figure out craft beer wasn't going away, 20 years? That they see the growth opportunity in cider speaks volumes. Zima was a made up drink, with no history. Cider has a long and glorious history, people understand it, I'm not sure anyone understood Zima. Drinking fresh pressed "sweet cider" in the autumn is a well-established tradition. Craft cider is at the intersection of craft beer and the local farm to table food movement, it's just getting started, but cider is here to stay.
You have some new varieties in the works, Lapinette and The Mitten. Can you tell us a bit about these ciders and how they differ from Redstreak?
Lapinette is aging right now in French oak, it will be more tart and funky than RedStreak, more like a brut from Normandy. As for The Mitten, it's going to be a blend of 2011 cider aged in bourbon barrels with fresh 2012 cider and fresh pressed apple juice. It's an American Craft brewer's take on a Pommeau from Normandy, it will be our winter cider.
What other American ciders are you excited about right now? What should we be drinking?
There are so many great ciders around the country, but most are quite small and local. West Country, Eden and Farnum Hill in the NE; Tandem from Michigan, Wandering Aengus and EZ Orchards from the NW; Foggy Ridge from Virginia- those are some of my favorites. But there are many more local ones, try a cider from your own region. Soon there will be a cider maker in every market, just like craft beer. The biggest difference is your cider maker will source the apples locally too—most craft brewers can't find local malt and hops.
The first thing you'll notice about Redstreak is, well, just how unassuming it is. When served at refrigeration temperature, you almost miss everything that is going on. It's dry, but not bone-dry, with a tartness upfront and lingering tannins. The flavor drop-off is quick, which leaves you wanting more. Letting the cider warm up solves this by rounding out the palate with complex apple notes and hints of citrus. The nose hits of caramel but not in a sticky-sweet way.
While Redstreak is not as complex as some of the farmhouse ciders we've tried, it is incredibly approachable, filling a void in the American cider landscape between the sweeter six-pack ciders and the complex farmhouse varieties. If I lived in Chicago, this could easily become my new everyday cider and one I would use often to introduce the possibilities cider offers.