Greg Hall’s cider venture
Former Goose Island brewmaster Greg Hall hopes to popularize hard cider.
First things first: You might want to take off your shoes. Pressing cider by hand involves no small amount of exertion, and things are going to get a little messy. Especially when you’re in a room the size of a generous walk-in closet, and there is nowhere for discarded bits of apple and splatters of juice to land except on the floor or the walls or, apparently, your feet. The room is painted the kind of in-your-face bright orange usually reserved for insane people’s art studios, and in it stands a barefoot Greg Hall, the former brewmaster of Goose Island. He’s tossing bushels of Cox orange pippin apples through a six-foot-long wooden press, cranking 180 degrees at a time until he’s red in the face, then collecting the juices and fermenting them with yeast in carboys (small-necked plastic vessels) labeled with strips of tape. This is home base for Hall’s new company, Virtue Brands, and this is the testing ground for its first in a line of hard ciders: RedStreak.
Now it’s time for a test. “Okay,” Hall says to me, “what do you think the ingredient list should be on a bottle of cider?” Hall, seated at a wooden farmhouse–style table at Virtue headquarters in Roscoe Village, picks up a bottle of Crispin (a popular U.S.-produced brand of cider that bills itself as “ultra-premium”) and begins reading from the ingredient list: “hard cider, apple juice concentrate, natural flavors, malic acid, sulfites.”
“Brewers—even the biggest brewers in the world—are still using water, malt, hops and yeast,” he says. “Even the biggest wineries are using grapes. The biggest cider makers are using apple-juice concentrate and sugar. Nobody would do that in brewing or wine making.”
Surveying the widely available ciders, Hall sees a landscape not unlike that of craft beer two decades ago. “I remember in, like, 1988, ’89, people would come into Goose Island and say, ‘Hey, do you have any domestic beers?’ And we’re like, ‘This is Chicago, America, it’s all domestic. It’s made right here.’ [They’d say:] ‘No, you only make imports.’ It’s like: You don’t even know what that means. People just didn’t know what beer was supposed to taste like. And it’s exactly like that with cider today.”
Hall’s father, John, founded Goose Island Brewery in 1988, expanding to a Fulton Street brewing facility in 1995. By that time, Greg had ascended from a brewer to brewmaster, and he spent much of the next decade-and-a-half developing Goose’s “reserve” line, pioneering barrel-aging with Bourbon County Stout and nailing Belgian styles with Matilda and Sofie. In March, Anheuser-Busch InBev bought Goose Island for $38.8 million, and Hall stepped down as brewmaster. In July, he announced his new venture, Virtue.
“The timing’s just so right,” Hall says of launching Virtue. “It’s been something that’s been on my back burner for ten years, that I’ve wanted to do and just haven’t done, because I’ve been too busy at Goose.” Hall had his cider epiphany in 2000 at a pub called the Maltings in York, England, where he traveled with fellow brewers from Goose Island. The Maltings was wrapping up a cider festival and had dozens on tap. “I had never had cider like that before,” Hall recalls. “None of us had.… We were just blown away by the amount of flavor and character and complexity.”
But cider is more than a personal passion: It’s an endeavor Hall sees as “virtuous,” hence the company’s name, which was inspired by the principles of the Slow Food Chicago organization, where he was a board member. “If I can source many apples [100,000 pounds this year, 1 million soon] and plant more trees, that’s a good thing,” Hall says. “And if I can support farmers and pay a premium for specific apples, there may be more families who can stay in farming.”