When Gregory Hall, brewmaster and marketing guru at Chicago's Goose Island Beer Co., visited York, England, in 2000, he stumbled upon a cider festival. It made a big impression on him. He recalls seeing 40 hard ciders, all made by small producers. Some were sweet, like the ones most Americans are familiar with, but there were also dry and tart varieties.
The range opened his eyes to the possibility of bringing "advanced" cider to the U.S. Hall spent more than 20 years at Goose Island, which his father founded, before it was sold to Anheuser-Busch for $38.8 million in 2011. Instead of retiring or taking a well-funded vacation, he immediately went to work on his long-simmering plan to do for cider what he had done for craft beer: make it a drink of choice among educated consumers open to expanding their horizons and interested in beverage-food pairings.
His new venture, Virtue, founded with friend Stephen Schmakel, released its first cider, an English-style variety called RedStreak, in April. Served only on tap--part of Hall's mission to keep waste to a minimum--RedStreak is poured at more than 50 Chicago bars and restaurants.
Virtue has two more ciders in the works: Lapinette, a French-style brut that is slated for release this month, and The Mitten, aged in 12-year-old bourbon barrels, for winter. The company is awaiting federal approval to begin construction of a LEED-certified cider mill in Fennville, Mich., in advance of a planned expansion to the New York City and Portland, Ore., markets. Virtue is currently producing its drinks at St. Julian Winery in Paw Paw, Mich.
We sat down with Hall to discuss the fruits of his labors.
How important is your Goose Island reputation to the new venture?
Much of making cider and selling and marketing it is closely related to what I'd been doing with craft beer for the last 20 years. I'm sourcing apples instead of malt and hops, but beyond that, it's very similar. To get people to try the product, you rely on the name, the packaging--but also the story. And the fact that a lot of people in Chicago who like Goose Island beer may be more willing to try a cider by the guy who used to work there is helpful.
How do you ensure product quality?
It's very important for us to get it right. Last fall we did 180 test batches using different apples and yeast strains to find a combination that tasted to me like an English cider. I don't know if we'll be able to match that next year--like wine, vintages of cider can vary based on the year's apple crop. My goal is to make a delicious cider every year, not necessarily to make it exactly the same.
How will you get consumers to try your cider?
During my years at Goose I was able to meet a lot of people in the industry who run bars and restaurants. I'll rely on those relationships to get tap handles and placements, and then work to educate their staffs so they can tell the RedStreak story.
That said, we want to help make cider a better category, make all the boats rise with the tide--not compete for one tap handle. Who is most likely to try our cider? Um, cider drinkers--people who already like it. We don't want to piss them off by taking their choice away from them; we want to add to their choices. My advice is to always trust the customer.
Does being green help attract consumers?
The whole social responsibility thing doesn't appeal to everyone, but some people are drawn to a product because it makes them feel good. RedStreak and, at a minimum, the next two ciders, will be available only on tap--no bottles. Our mission is to help reduce waste, and cider is great for that compared to other beverages. It takes a lot less energy to make cider than beer. Johnny Appleseed had it right--if we planted more apple trees, America would be a better place.