Virtue Farms is located in rural Fennville, Michigan. It’s about 40 miles southeast of Grand Rapids and a 2 1/2 hour drive from Chicago. Fennville is part of Michigan’s fruit belt, a strip of land following the coast of Lake Michigan all the way up the western side of the state that has been blessed with the perfect climate for growing fruit.
Virtue’s founder Greg Hall has a vision — to see Michigan’s fruit belt become the Napa Valley of the cider world. And with the recent opening to the public of their beautiful cider house, the area is on its way. And though cider might not yet be as popular as wine or beer, there is evidence that it is going to be the next big thing in craft beverages. (See also: 10 Hard Ciders You Should Be Drinking All Summer Long.) Last fall the demand for Virtue’s flagship cider, Red Streak, was so high that they ran out. Luckily, a couple of their seasonal varieties became available to tide Chicago fans over until the new batch of Red Streak was released this spring.
Staffed with some of the most welcoming people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, the cider house is an impressive, open-sided wooden structure housing 22 2,000-gallon steel tanks as well as all of the production equipment and a small shop with a tap. At the moment, it’s the only place where the public can buy bottles or growlers to take home, though bottles will be ready for distribution come this fall.
Casual tours are available to anyone who wants them. And, of course, tastes of ciders, pints and half-pints can all be enjoyed on the picnic tables outside. The 40-acre property also includes a gorgeous farmhouse and a small barrelhouse. Recently, ground was broken for a second cider house that will be the home to several massive 6,000-gallon tanks. This will be the Red Streak facility and it’s safe to say they won’t be running dry again!
Virtue’s ciders are all made in the traditional European way, with a dedication to creating a product that is local to the core (pun sort of intended). The apples are carefully sourced from nearby farms and pressed into apple juice, with 100 percent of the apple pomace used for animal feed or fertilizer. The juice is pumped into the steel tanks, various strains of yeast are added and it ferments. The cider is then aged in wood barrels before release.
One cider they’re working on now, Percheron, went straight into barrels, allowing it to spontaneously ferment. I was lucky enough to try a bit of this, straight from a barrel, with Cider-maker Ryan Burk. He explained to me that these oak barrels are all infected with brettanomyces (or Brett), a wild yeast that is terrible for wine but gives cider a wonderful, funky flavor. This French-style cider will be available in September.
From Chicago, Virtue Farms makes for a worthy stop on the way to Grand Rapids or any of the popular vacation towns along the lakeshore.
2170 62nd Street
More cider stories on Food Republic: