Food Service & Agriculture, Retail, and Travel & Tourism

The Napa Valley of craft cider?

Virtue Cider sees a global opportunity in Southwest Michigan.

July 5, 2013
| By Pat Evans |
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Napa Valley of Cider
Head cider maker Ryan Burk checks the product at Virtue Cider in Fennville. Photo by Johnny Quirin

As brewmaster for Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co., founded by his father, John, in 1988, Greg Hall’s first love was beer. But in 2000, he had a brief fling with a new drink.

On his second-to-last night on a brewery tour of England, he and his fellow Goose Island brewers ended up at a bar in the city of York called The Maltings. In this small pub a cider festival was going on, with more than 40 types of ciders on hand. Each brewer sampled a different cider. Some were dry and crisp, some tart, some sweet and others funky — but they all were great, Hall said.

“We had one last brewery tour the next day,” Hall said. “But we canceled so we could go back and try the other 20 ciders we didn’t try the night before. We had a blast, and I came back very excited about ciders.”

It took 11 years — and the eventual $38.8 million sale of Goose Island to Anheuser-Busch — to realize Hall’s next project. He was 45, the same age his father was when he founded Goose Island.

“I told him I was inspired by him to go off and do my own thing,” Hall said. “That was to try to bring cider to America the way craft beer has exploded.”

Hall found there were quite a few cider makers in the United States, but unless a consumer was in the immediate vicinity of one of them, the cider makers were mostly unknown, including Vander Mill in Spring Lake and Tandem Cider in Suttons Bay.

Most of the large cider makers such as Crispin in California and Woodchuck in Vermont have been bought up by large beverage companies. Unlike with the craft beer movement, the big breweries are attempting to stay in front of the wave instead of trying to stifle it.

Although the cider market grew more than 80 percent in 2012, it is still fairly small, so Hall decided to use his production background and market contacts to get into cider making. He went to Europe to immerse himself in the cider culture there. He learned the cider-making processes of England, France and Spain, and came back with ideas.

He and business partner Stephen Schmakel bought a 48-acre farm in Fennville, renovated the 1880’s farmhouse and built a new cider house — the beginning of Virtue Cider. Unlike all the cider makers he knows of, Virtue Cider takes a different approach, using different yeasts and barrels.

“We treat it more like craft beer than other cider makers — this is the case (in Europe), just not in America,” Hall said. “They worry about the apples. They press the apples and they don’t worry about it until they blend it. They don’t have a tradition of having an influence of fermentation; typically, they’re fermenting with whatever native yeast is in their orchard or with dry champagne yeast, and those are the only two ways I’ve seen it made abroad.”

Virtue Cider takes styles from across the globe and replicates them, just as many craft brewers, including Hall, have done. Styles range from the apple-forward English style to the farm-forward French and the acidic Spanish.

Virtue’s first product, RedStreak, is a dry, tart and sour cider like a white wine. Other early offerings include its French-style Lapinette and The Mitten, which is barrel-aged in Heaven Hill whiskey barrels. Hall also teamed with English cider maker Tom Oliver on the transatlantic collaboration Gold Rush.

Although the big beverage companies have taken charge of a majority of cider educating, Hall still finds himself trying to explain cider differences to consumers.

“People still have a perception of cider being cider,” Hall said. “Bars that have 20 taps will have one cider, and we’ll go in and try to sell it, and they say, ‘We already have a cider.’ That’s like saying, ‘We already have a beer.’”

With the perception of cider now in the midst of change, an opportunity arises for Virtue Cider: to become the major craft cider maker in the country and allow Southwest Michigan to become the “cider coast.”

Or, as Hall calls it, “the Napa Valley of cider.” He believes with the culture in West Michigan and Chicago, the opportunity to foster an agriculture community like the Napa and Hudson valleys is ripe for the picking. And hinging that opportunity on apples makes sense because of the climate.

Like the great cider-making regions of the world, such as southwest England, the Brittany and Normandy coasts and northern Spain, Southwest Michigan has a coastal area with lots of rain, sun and sandy soil.

“Not only is it easy to grow apples, it’s easy to grow the right kind of apples,” Hall said.

So with a second cider house already underway that will more than triple capacity — and more planned — Virtue Cider is on its way. The land already has 400 apple trees with another 5,000 planned. Eventually, three caves will be incorporated into the property for aging ciders, cheeses and meats.

Hall said Virtue’s trees will not come close to filling his needs for cider. Last year, Virtue Cider used 90 percent Michigan apples, with the ultimate goal being 100 percent.

With solid cider makers up the Lake Michigan coast, that part of the “valley” is taken care of, Hall said. What’s next for Hall is to help convert portions of local apple orchards to cider crop, which he said is more valuable, even at 10 percent of an orchard’s crop. He likened the situation to the Pacific Northwest, where the first North American hops were grown and the craft beer boom began.

“If people put them in the ground, it’s not just good for us, but it will attract more cider makers,” he said. “What I would love to see happen in Michigan in the next 10 years is: There’s 1,100 apple growers. If a quarter of them put in 10 percent of their orchards as cider fruit, it’s not a huge risk for them, but that would give us so much cider fruit in Michigan.”

Hall comes from a craft beer background and many cider drinkers also will have the diverse palates created by the craft beer movement, said Southwest Michigan First CEO Ron Kitchens.

“As West Michigan’s global influence in craft beer continues to grow, we are absolutely seeing additional opportunities rise, and cider will no doubt be one of those opportunities,” Kitchens said. “Much the way cabernet lovers travel to Napa only to discover great pinot noir, so will beer lovers come to West Michigan for a Bell's or Arcadia beer to then discover great ciders like Virtue Cider.”

Fennville already has a longtime winemaker in Fenn Valley Vineyards, opened in 1973. Fenn Valley Marketing Director Brian Lesperance said Hall’s team has proven it can handle brand awareness, and Virtue Cider’s mission falls right in line with Fenn Valley’s goals.

“We’re excited about cider in general,” Lesperance said. “It raises awareness in what can be produced and grown in Michigan, just in the farm-to-bottle sense.”

Virtue has seen fairly immediate success with its early batches of cider, and Hall is optimistic about the future.

“I felt like there was an opportunity to do something bigger with craft cider,” he said. “Then everything started to explode — our timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous.”

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