Few people understand the challenge of changing the public’s drinking preferences better than Greg Hall. Back in 1988, Hall’s father launched a little Chicago brewpub called Goose Island. Hall joined the company, rising through the ranks to brewmaster. The late ’80s and early ’90s were still an embryonic time for craft beer—there were no rules, only potential.
The brewhouse became Hall’s private lab. He fiddled with wild yeasts and barrel aging, devising such beers as Bourbon County Stout and Belgian ales that rivaled wines for dinner-table dominance. Under Hall’s stewardship Goose grew into one of America’s most influential breweries. So when his family sold the company in 2011, Hall sought a new challenge: cider. “There are so many similarities between cider [in 2011] and where craft beer was in the ’80s,” Hall says.
Hall knew cider desperately needed a facelift, much as craft beer had back then. At the time, sweetened alcoholic beverages such as wine coolers were wildly popular. In response, many companies rolled out candysweet hard ciders as complex as Pixie Stix. Yet as recently as 150 years ago, cider was America’s favored alcohol. It was easily produced, and farmers could transform extra fruit into a financial windfall. As America industrialized, however, breweries began populating burgeoning city centers; ciders remained on the farm, far from customers. The deathblow was Prohibition. By the time it ended, cider was synonymous with apple juice. Hard cider? It was a seasonal specialty, only enjoyed in the fall. Hall wondered, Why not summer? Why not every day?
To restore cider’s standing and year-round worth, Hall looked to the coastal regions of France, Spain, and England, which have cultivated deep traditions of cider and cheese. “The two things that grow great with 40 inches of rain are apple trees and grass,” he says, laughing. He decided to launch the cidery Virtue Brands in 2011 in Fennville, Mich. As with cheesemakers seeking fresh, high-quality milk, Hall sourced heirloom apples from Illinois as well as Michigan, which has more than 1,000 apple farmers, many small and family owned.
At Virtue, Hall applies the same techniques of fermentation, blending, and aging that he perfected at Goose Island. He doesn’t just press apples and call it a day, the way some cideries do. For example, the English-style RedStreak is fermented with three yeast strains, resulting in a dry, elegant elixir. Farm-made Norman ciders inspire Percheron, which is inoculated with wild yeast and fermented in used wine barrels, resulting in a rustic and lightly funky cider. And the terroir-focused Estate Series highlights apples from a single farmer. “There are so many paths that craft cider can take,” Hall says.
Thanks to cider’s palate-cleansing acidity, one path leads directly to the cheese plate. With pairing, Hall recommends paying attention to contrasting and complementary flavors. For contrast, try pairing a zippy, high-acid cider such as a Spanish-style sidra with a sheep’s milk cheese such as El Trigal Aged Manchego, or perhaps a high-tannin English cider with Montgomery’s Cheddar (fittingly, the cows are fed apples). As for complementary flavors, think of mingling a stinky Livarot or barnyard-y Camembert such as Le Châtelain with equally rustic Norman or Basque ciders. These types of ciders also excel with washed-rind cheeses. And if you favor a pungent blue such as Cashel Blue or Jasper Hill Farm’s Bayley Hazen Blue, seek out a sweeter cider to create a rich and funky pairing.
Given cider’s easy fit with foods, it makes sense that Hall has found a home for Virtue at farm-to-table restaurants and craft-beer bars and shops around the United States. “The whole cider phenomenon is going nuts,” says Hall, thankful for his chance to again reshape an industry. “You don’t get to do this twice.”
FIVE TO TRY
The warm-weather seasonal from New Hampshire’s highly regarded Farnum Hill is golden and gorgeously effervescent, with just enough sweetness to balance out the acidity.
FOGGY RIDGE CIDER
Blue cheese would be an ideal pairing for the Virginia cidery’s unique hybrid. It unites Newtown Pippin hard cider with apple brandy, resulting in an intensely rich and fruity elixir that’s best slowly sipped.
Northern Spain’s town of Astigarraga is legendary for its Basque ciders, and among the best is the sour-sweet Sarasola, which partners a tannic charge with tropical fruit and complex funk.
Sidra de Nava
The invigoratingly tart, intensely citrusy Spanish-style cider is, like fresh-squeezed lemonade, an ideal summertime thirst quencher.
WANDERING AENGUS CIDERWORKS
The Oregon release is made solely with Wickson apples, which lend a decidedly citrusy profile to the tart and bone-dry cider. It’d go great with goat cheese.Photo Credit: Image by Christopher Elwell/Shutterstock.com