Following the sale earlier this year of Goose Island, Chicago's largest brewery that was started by his father, John Hall, in 1988, Greg Hall already knew what he'd turn to to follow up a successful career as the company's brewmaster: cider.
During a brewery research visit to England in 2000, Hall and the other Goose Island brewers hit a pub called The Maltings during a cider festival. It was the first time Hall had tasted real cider versus the more commercially found, industrial cider made from apple juice concentrate. "A light went off inside my head," Hall said. "I told my dad we should make cider, but he wanted to stick to beer. Cider is something that has been of great interest to me for 10 years now. It allows me to [take] my experience in the beer business and help the farmers I hang out with. It's a perfect next step for me." Enter Virtue Cider.
Virtue will start harvesting top heirloom apples from local farms, like Seedling and Nichols, this fall to create "farm-to-bottle" cider. The company will likely deliver its first product to market in early 2012, initially focusing on the Chicago and Michigan markets.
Hall, who recently spent two weeks visiting cider makers in the U.K. and France, plans to first make a couple of English-style ciders to be served on draft at local bars. Eventually he plans to build a bottling line, at which point he'll expand the offerings to include bottle-conditioned French-style ciders.
"There's a lot of room for innovation [and] a lot of room in cider making to adjust the final product," Hall said. "The apples are a big deal, of course, but there's things in the process you can do by changing the color through maceration time, you can add yeast to it, barrel aging. Over the last 20 years we've made a whole bunch of beers, and the next 20 years we'll make a whole bunch of ciders, too."
While Hall has set up his office in Roscoe Village, he plans to contract brew the cider at a soon-to-be-selected Michigan winery until he builds out his own facility in southwest Michigan, where real estate is more affordable than in Chicago. The business needs between $3 million and $5 million to get off the ground, some of which Hall is self funding. He is currently in talks with investors who are interested in getting involved in the business.
Cider, like craft beer, tends to be regionally focused and Hall's goal is to expand Virtue nationally. He wants to spend the first few years developing Virtue's ciders locally, but then hopes to branch out to other areas of the country where apples are grown, like Upstate New York, western Massachusetts, Virginia, the Pacific Northwest and California. "Cider will taste a lot better when picked by local farmers picked in season and milled and pressed near the farm and turned into cider," Hall said.
Hall is planning to host a number of cider-focused dinners this fall, likely with other people's cider, in order to start getting the word out and familiarize people with the taste of local cider. He also plans to take some of the company's profits and give back to organizations, like Green City Market and Slow Food, that support local farmers. Hence, Virtue.
Currently, the U.S. cider market is small in comparison to that of Western Europe, but Hall believes in the potential. "I don't know that it'll ever catch up in terms of share in the market, but it's growing rapidly," he said. "There's good apples here so there's no reason there shouldn't be great cider."
· Greg Hall Discussed for Goose Island and Himself [~EChi~]
· Virtue Cider [Facebook]