FENNVILLE, Mich. – Greg Hall spent two decades at a craft brewery before changing his focus to Michigan ciders.
Hall was a brewmaster at Goose Island. He switched from beer to hard cider and founded Virtue Cider in Fennville in 2011. It was a perfect location for Hall, who grew up in Chicago but spent family vacations in Michigan.
While his family was spending time at the lake, he was riding his bike through farms and and getting to know the farmers in what he would later refer to as “the cider coast of Michigan.”
Everything used to make Virtue ciders -- apples, honey, maple syrup, cherries -- is from Michigan. And those ciders are made in a more traditional manner, something Hall picked up on a trip abroad.
Hall visited England and France after leaving Goose Island to check out how hard cider was being crafted there. He noted that many cider makers in those countries have very little control. Temperatures aren’t controlled, measurements aren’t exact and recipes aren’t always recorded.
“Yet their ciders are fantastic. They’re better than anything that’s being made in the U.S.,” Hall said.
He decided to take some of these practices back home to Virtue. Hall said he was drawn to cider because it is so natural. Virtue takes “natural” a step further by also being sustainable.
About 200 solar panels were installed at the farm last year. These panels power most of the operations, and are part of the reason Virtue recently won the Good Food award.
Additionally, following a more traditional way of making cider, Virtue’s cider is not temperature controlled -- there is no refrigerator keeping it cold. Instead, the tanks are kept cool by being stored below ground in the cider house.
The cider maker has about 11 or 12 ciders in cans at any given time, with more on tap at the Fennville cider house. This year, Virtue will be able to craft even more ciders.
Hall said Virtue is getting a new barrel house in 2020.
That expansion will allow the room for about 4,000 barrels, up from the 500-700 Virtue currently keeps. More barrels equal more experimenting and new varieties of ciders. The cider makers are already testing out some different barrels, Hall said.
In the meantime, Virtue’s Ice Cider is coming soon.
“Many people release ice ciders; ours was kind of a happy accident," Hall said.
Hall said while pressing apples one year, the juice was put in a tank outside. That juice froze, and as it began to thaw, it was a sweet, sugary juice. This year’s Ice Cider will be a combination of the 2017 and 2018 crop.
While Virtue is Michigan-based, its distribution network has a far reach thanks to a partnership with Anheuser-Busch established in 2015, a move Hall said helped the cider maker expand its reach and provided opportunities that would have otherwise not bee there.
“There’s no, like, ‘you need to do this differently’ or ‘you need to make a light beer,’” he said. “It was just the opposite – ‘Do whatever you want to do, we’ll fully support it.’”