I’m sitting in Carriage House, a fairly new Southern restaurant in Chicago’s Wicker Park, and sipping Virtue’s Lapinette cider. The man who makes this cider, Virtue founder Gregory Hall, is about to join me for dinner. But he’s late. No matter: his cider practically speaks for itself.
The Lapinette is a Norman-style brut, and it’s a bit murky-looking, yet smoother than most hard ciders I’ve experienced — including some I’ve had from Normandy — and probably less crisp and tart from Virtue’s flagship English-style Redstreak. But clearly, the Lapinette is no tossed-off brew, and it’s a much more sophisticated and refreshing drink than I expected from an American-made hard cider. I didn’t know what to expect from Hall, really, though his reputation around Chicago is becoming a bit of a legend, given that as brewmaster, he helped his father John grow Goose Island into a mega microbrewery that sold to Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2011 for a reported $39 million. In commerce-friendly Chicago, this makes Gregory Hall less a sellout than a hometown hero.
But why, I wondered, is he now focusing all of his time and attention on hard cider, a cultish quaff favored by fishermen just back from a jaunt in the North Sea and hardscrabble workers in English pubs (at least in my mind). Fortunately, Hall shows up, sits down, apologizes for his tardiness, and starts spilling on his remarkable career as a craft brewer and his newfound profession as one of America’s leading hard cider producers, and perhaps its biggest proponent.
I start with the million-dollar question: why hard cider?
He doesn’t have a quick and easy answer. In fact, he has several answers — from its ability to pair with food to it allowing him more time in the countryside — but the most intriguing is that Hall sees hard cider as a beverage that’s more in tune with current attitudes about food and drink than craft beer is.
“With food, you wanna know your farmer, know your food,” he says. “It’s great that there’s a local brewer in every market, but those local brewers don’t use local malt and hops. That’s kind of like saying, there’s a local restaurant in my neighborhood, and they get all their food from Mexico. Well they’re not really a local restaurant in today’s world. Just because their real estate is local doesn’t make them local.” He pauses. “As a cider maker, it’s so much more of an agricultural product, and it makes me so excited to hang out with farmers who are growing apples.”
Ah yes, apples. Hall hangs out with farmers several days a week, when he drives the 2 ½ hours from Chicago to Fennville, Michigan, home to Virtue Farms’ Cider House. The building is part of a compound that Hall hopes to build and turn into a tourist destination. This talk of apples is perhaps the most fascinating thing that comes out of our dinner conversation (although I’ll note here that Carriage House’s grits, shrimp and other Southern staples are all highly recommendable).
“Apples are to cider what grapes are to wine,” Hall says, proselytizing some more. The process varies depending on the maker, but in Virtue’s case, apples are sourced, milled, pressed, mixed with yeast, then fermented, matured and barrel aged. It’s a demanding process, and it’s fairly easy to see the connection to winemaking. Especially when it comes to the types of apple used. In other words, apples from Washington, New York, Virginia and Michigan — where Hall’s farmer friends produce many of the apples used in Virtue ciders — will all lead to different ciders, a cider terroir, if you will.
This is what thrills him, clearly. But will his fellow Americans get it?
Hall’s conversion came during a 2000 trip to the UK with his Goose Island team of brewers. He recounts how they ended up in York getting lost in hard cider for two days, and he’s been wanting to make his own hard cider ever since. A chance encounter at his daughter’s Chicago school led to him befriending him a part-time apple farmer, who eventually helped him find land in neighboring Michigan. After the Goose Island sale, Hall started Virtue, which currently has the Redstreak and Lapinette brands on the market in Chicago — with expansion plans for Illinois, New York and Oregon. The Mitten, a cider aged in whiskey barrels, debuts today in the Chicago market. (Carriage House chef Mark Steuer visits the table during our dinner and tells an excited Hall that he tried and loved The Mitten at a recent tasting.)
Hall counts Virtue as one of about 80 hard cider brands operating in the U.S. at the moment, and he recounts how a few hours before our dinner, many of these cider makers came together in a Chicago hotel and formed the first nationwide association for their industry. “I was the one who said, ‘I move that we accept these bylaws,’” he recounts with a cider-nerd flourish.
Clearly these cider makers, Hall especially, are betting that cider will be the next big thing. Will Americans take to hard cider in the next few years the way they did to wines last century and craft beers over the past decade-plus? “There will be a time in the near future,” Hall predicts. To wit, he points out the paucity of cider bars in the country; by his count, there are four, in Queens, Seattle, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. “In five years, they’ll be everywhere,” Hall says. “And just like you go into a wine bar and say I want a Bordeaux or I want a Chianti, people will go in and say I want a Virginia cider. I grew up in Virginia eating Harrison apples, or I grew up in California eating Gravensteins.”
Besides, he says, sophisticated drinkers are always looking to expand their palettes, which helps explain why wine, craft beer and cocktail cultures have continued to evolve and grow. As people get more into the intricacies of food and drink, they’ll keep searching for products that will fit into their lifestyle. Hall says this is where he sees the opportunity, When it comes to regionally sourced, locally produced beverages, he insists, “Cider is the last frontier.”
More hard cider on Food Republic:
- A Report From The Cider Summit
- Drinking Tandem Ciders In Northern Michigan
- Infographic: Why You Should Be Drinking Hard Cider