Greg Hall’s cider venture
Former Goose Island brewmaster Greg Hall hopes to popularize hard cider.
Obviously, it’s also a business venture. Hall believes there is an untapped market for cider in Chicago. That opportunity exists not because there isn’t good cider out there (there’s lots of it), but because the good stuff is hard to find. Quality ciders are produced on such small scales they’re near-impossible to get in any significant quantity outside of the region where they’re made. Take Etienne Dupont, one of the world’s best-known cider makers, which is based in the Normandy region of France: “He’s got, like, 200 acres, and that’s all he’s got, and he doesn’t buy anyone else’s fruit, so he’s just never gonna make more cider,” Hall says. “I think Publican probably has, like, five kegs a year they put on, and they just can’t get any more.” Even a relatively local brand, Michigan-based Tandem Ciders, is hard to find outside of Traverse City.
The limited accessibility of good cider—and the poor quality of ciders that are readily available—presents both a challenge and an opportunity for Hall. On the one hand, there’s going to be a learning curve. “Most people have not had a traditional English or French or Spanish hard cider,” Hall says, “and they don’t know what to expect.” And just as damaging, the public might assume that since any cider they’ve tried has been sweet, strong and tasted pretty much alike, that’s simply the nature of the beverage. “I don’t think people are just going to wake up and say, ‘Hey, I’ll go down to the store and see if there’s any good cider there,’ ” Hall says.
On the other hand, Hall—who has spent the last 20 years trying to elevate the status of a similarly misunderstood beverage—is uniquely suited to remake cider’s image. At Goose, Hall wanted to get the public thinking about beer the same way it did wine. So he created clean, understated labels that looked as though they belonged on the dinner table; he developed a “Brewed for food” ad campaign that showed Goose bottles paired with restaurant dishes; and he oversaw beer-pairing dinners at restaurants around the city that physically put Goose Island beers in front of diners.
Hall has similar plans for cider, and he’s not waiting until early 2012, when RedStreak hits the market, to implement them. For the past three years, Hall has traveled to New York to teach beer-and-cheese classes at the iconic Murray’s Cheese Shop. Now those classes include lessons on cider, too. Last week, Hall coordinated a cider dinner at C-House, in which four courses (e.g., venison tenderloin with hay-roasted parsnips) were paired with a different cider from the French producer Dupont, at whose estate Hall spent a few weeks in October. Is cider ever going to be as big as craft beer? “No,” Hall replies. “No chance. But, I mean, right now, [the cider market] is just so, so tiny” that there’s plenty of room for growth. Just as soon as Hall can find the fruit.
“The varieties he wants, no one grows,” says Nick Nichols, a farmer in Marengo, Illinois, “because they taste horrible.” Nichols is leading the Virtue Cider team (Hall; his business partner, Stephen Schmakel; his assistant, Emilia Juocys; and two members of his design firm, Grip) through his muddy Nichols Farm apple orchards on a cool September morning. These trees will bear some of the fruit for RedStreak, whose name comes from the first apple grown in England specifically for cider—in 1632. “The hard thing with apples is it takes six years to get much of a crop on them,” Nichols adds. Given the commitment it takes on the farmers’ part, Hall is testing out a number of apple varieties to determine which ones he might ask Nichols, or another farm, to grow for him. In the meantime, he’s scouting growers in Michigan (the second-largest apple-growing state after Washington) and Illinois for apples that have high levels of tannins similar to the antique English and French varieties. “That acidity stays in there,” Hall explains, “and the tannins add structure.” Overnight, Hall has become one of Nichols’s biggest buyers: He just bought 20,000 pounds of apples for some of RedStreak’s earliest batches.
In addition to procuring the fruit, Hall has spent much of the last few months studying how cider’s crafted, visiting cider makers in Europe and enrolling in cider-making workshops. For the first year, Hall will press and ferment RedStreak at St. Julian winery in Paw Paw, Michigan; the cider will be on draft only, mostly in Chicago and Michigan, beginning in February or March. Soon after, Hall hopes to begin construction on his own facility in Michigan, where he recently bought a house and where he plans to source most of his apples, to be operational in time for apple-pressing next fall.
Back at Virtue HQ, Hall is attempting to measure the acidity of the juice of the just-pressed Cox orange pippins when Juocys ducks in. She hands him a stack of square promotional cards that Virtue would later distribute at the Apple Cider Century bicycle tour in Three Oaks, Michigan. One side of the card is printed with a Victorian-like painting of apples still on the branch and the words “your next drink.” Hall turns it over and starts reading his quote on the back. It begins, “RedStreak cider is a true English-style draft cider. With a hazy vermilion hue, the scent of ripe apples and a touch of oak, RedStreak has a crisp, tart finish….” Hall pauses after vermilion, picking up one of the tumblers of juice and studying its color for a moment. He puts it down and smiles. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”