Sometimes you have to reach back in time in order to move ahead.
In a world of beverage choices that seem to be dominated by “double-hopped this” or “triple-hopped that,” Greg Hall, former longtime Brewmaster for Goose Island, decided to turn in his mash tun and brew kettle for one of America’s oldest alcoholic beverages: cider. Founding Virtue Cider six years ago on a farm in Fennville, Michigan, he began producing ciders the way Colonialists did -- and their European forbearers continue to do to this day.
The idea came to him on a trip to Europe, where he specifically went to learn about the art of cider-making. The cider makers were, according to Hall, different in a few marked ways from the brewers he’d met and worked with in his twenty-plus years at Goose Island.
To begin with, location mattered. Whereas most breweries are located within major city limits, cideries tend to be found on farms out in the country. Hall’s decision to set up shop in Fennville mirrors this ideal.
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He also found that the ciders were fermented naturally, with wild yeast. Aside from introducing an element of surprise (not controlling the yeast allows for the microorganisms to work at their own pace), the wild yeast component “gives a little more complexity to the cider,” Hall says.
Additionally, most of the ciders were aged in barrels, something which Virtue does today, and was always a speciality of Hall’s at Goose Island.
Finally -- and perhaps most importantly -- he noted that the cider makers were using local fruit.
All of this, together, makes for a drink decidedly different in construction than beer. “Beer is all about science and control of the process,” Hall explains. “And cider, especially traditional European cider, is not so much about science as it is about the ingredients and the craft.”
That’s not to say cideries that go about the process in other ways -- using apple juice concentrate, for example, or aging in stainless steel -- are doing it wrong. “It’s just a different way to do it,” concedes Hall. “I think you end up with a less complex cider. It’s certainly easier to [make cider] with apple juice concentrate, because you can get the same product over and over again, and if that’s what you’re trying to do it makes sense. For us, we’re trying to make a proper farmhouse cider.”
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This idea of pursuing cider perfection through craft -- of mastering the process of blending liquid from different barrels for a final product -- specifically appealed to Hall, who began working on producing farmhouse-style ciders in 2011, which were next-to unheard of in the United States at the time. Since then, cider’s rise has been nothing short of meteoric.
Sales of cider in the United States were up approximately 15% in 2015 (amounting to about $436 million, up from $378 million in 2014), while case sales for cider grew approximately 12% in the same timeframe. These numbers are expected to grow again in 2016 and beyond.
But why cider? Why now?
The answer, in a way, is fairly simple, according to Hall: “We’re living in an age of provenance. Where stuff comes from matters. It used to be only wine worked that way. A wine from Burgundy or Bordeaux was valued over wine made elsewhere.”
align:right width:500 credits:"Virtue Cider"
This idea of provenance isn’t new. Cheese has been viewed in such a way for centuries, and we can now add products like coffee to the mix. Instead of merely ordering a “small” or “venti,” one can walk into a specialty roaster in just about any major city and select a brew by its origin.
Cider, too, is rapidly being seen as a regional drink, with location of production making a difference. Much like wine, a cider maker in California or Oregon is going to end up with a product different from that of one in Michigan or New Hampshire -- not only because of the apples used, but the terroir of the region. “I look forward to going into a cider bar -- like you can go in some major cities -- and ordering ciders based on the states they’re from,” Hall says.
These factors will become even more important in the cider industry in the coming years, Hall claims, because -- at the very least -- they provide the ciders with stories that are unavailable to beers. “Our backstory can be richer than craft beer in many ways,” Hall determines. “If you ask craft brewers where they get their hops, most are buying them from brokers. I can tell you a story about the guy who grows some of our fruit, whose family has been growing fruit since 1852. We think today’s consumer is going to love that,” Hall said.
For those who have yet to dive into the world of cider, the potential for innovation is a great bridge for those already interested in craft beer. “[Cider] can be produced like local beer, but even more locally, because the fruit is local,” Hall points out. “Anywhere in America, you’ve got a local brewery. Here’s an opportunity for local cider to be made similarly.”
Because of cider’s versatility, Hall also claims that it’s positioned perfectly for the future. Not only can cideries produce traditional farmhouse-styles as Virtue does, but they can branch out, as Paul Vander Heide of Vander Mill in Michigan and Nat West of Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider in Oregon are doing. “They’re getting really creative with different cider flavors. I think that’s going to continue to grow,” Hall says.
Additionally, cider’s natural, gluten-free constitution will help cider grow. For those with celiac disease -- or those practicing a gluten-free diet for any other reason -- cider offers an alcoholic alternative to beer and other grain-based alcohols. “Gluten-free is not a trend, it’s a shift,” Hall maintains. “The category has been growing year after year, for twenty years. That’s not a trend, just as cider isn’t a trend. It’s a shifting in the marketplace.”
With consumers paying more attention to cleaner eating and drinking, and the provenance of the beverages they consume, how big might cider get?
“I think it can get to 10 percent of the craft beer business,” Hall claims.
Only time will tell. But at least there will be plenty of delicious cider to drink while we wait to find out.
Note: Virtue is a member of The High End, owned by Anheuser-Busch.