There's a unique quality to cider makers that sets them apart from brewers, and you can see it in their eyes — it's the connection to the land. The many cider makers I've met over the years have a relationship with their ingredients akin to farmers and wine makers. They have a hawkish stare that sort of goes right through you, fashioned over years of looking at a horizon, towards the edges of their crops, praying for them to bear fruit.
Anyone that knows the midwest's agricultural plight this past year undertands the delicate position of apple farmers. There was a yield of only 5-10% for many in the state of Michigan, and next year's not looking good with such a dry winter already underway. But for people with a vision, you don't build for the now, you build for the future — and for those tied to the land, hope is everlasting. So it was, that this past fall, late in the season, Greg Hall, Ryan Burk and the team from Virtue Ciders raised a roof beam in Fennville, Michigan, and started their rapid ascent toward one of the largest cider makers in the state.
Along with a curious crew from Goose Island, Haymarket, Solemn Oath and friends, we charted a course north from Chicago to Virtue Farms where a brand new barn and a busy apple press were staking a new claim over a fresh plot.
We rented a home for the weekend for our staging grounds, a short walk from the shore of Lake Michigan. After the season for water-going has long past, the trees have lost their leaves, and all color has seeped out of the ground, the surf and sand tell a different story about the rugged beauty of Michigan's landscape — a story that few tourists are exposed to. The hopeful among us see nature as a system of renewal, but in our hearts, we know that Spring is never a guarantee. And so we look to the horizon with a certain apprehension.
On to the farm. The a-frame barn punches into the grey sky like a steeple, surrounded by upturned-soil, mud and patches of recently returning grass hinting at the rows of an orchard just underneath the surface. Apple crates as big as a Datsun stack in front of the patio where the apple press sits covered in apple mash, the stick of juice seeping onto the concrete. The smell of natural fermentation lightens the air.
The Virtue Cider company began in Chicago with Greg Hall's vision for bringing cider making to Goose Island where he was brewmaster at the time. Ryan Burk, Virtue's head cider maker, describes the genesis:
In 2000 Greg traveled to the UK to visit breweries and ended up in a pub that was having a cider festival. He had never tasted such diversity in cider before. He tried to bring the idea of cider back to Goose Island, but it didn't work out. After the sale to Ab-Inbev, Greg immediately jumped on to cider, traveling the world, and took on a French internship Domaine Dupot. I got involved on a chance meeting with Greg at West Lakeview Liquors at the Sour Bitch Release. We immediately connected — he was once on the board of Slow Food Chicago and I currently am. He took me on as an understudy, helping him press, ferment and blend what would eventually become RedStreak. After I went to Siebel, he hired me to make cider for Virtue.
Now late in the season and pressing their first apples for next year, Ryan is essentially homsteading at the farm. As the barn continues to be finished around him, he presses hundred of tons of apples long into the night, and fills fermenters to the brim. Dozens of tanks are already in place, and every week more are put into place. When they're finished this winter, Virtue will be one of the largest cider makers in the state.
The barn itself is a concept from the ground up, utilizing lighting techniques and forgoing many luxuries to maintain maximum sustainability for the farm. Some time next year they plan to open a tasting room in the back, and finish renovating the farmhouse next door to host events and gatherings for Virtue. Part of the year during the pressing season, the team will live at the farm full-time.
On this breezy, chilly day, Ryan was working alongside his dog Reuben — a city pup who now has the run of the farm. He poured Virtue's second release, Lapinette — a Norman-style cidre brut, aged in French oak barrels. The European style is one that Virtue plans to model their craft after, while developing the flavors of Michigan's own ingredients. Ryan explains:
We want to create a product that works in symbiosis with the fruit baring land that is Michigan. Our ciders are farm-based products that will change with every apple season. We are making ciders in the European tradition that show off the terroir of SW Michigan. People should think about our cider like they think about wine vintages, or like Jolly Pumpkin's beers. Cider, for us is about locality & terroir. Part of the fun, like with grapes or wild yeast, is exploring the regional component parts. Cider from MI made with MI apples is going to taste totally different that NY cider made from NY apples.
The concept of terroir is common to wine and cider makers who develop flavors through the land and seasonal differences that challenged them to adapt. It's the special characteristics that geography, geology and climate create when interacting with the plant's genetics. Only recently have brewers of beer started investigating their own point of view on terroir, growing their own hops and raising their own wheat. But for cider makers, the tradition is deep and complex. In the coming year, Virtue Farms will be planting well over 300 apple trees of their own.
Before they headed north to build the farm in Fennville, the Virtue team was busy in Chicago sharing their flagship cider, Red Streak, with craft beer geeks and new converts. The day after Halloween, they set up for apple bobbing and pumpkin carving at Longman & Eagle in Logan Square, and served hot cider cocktails to warm our hearts and minds.
Many formal challenges were settled that day as cider lovers dove head-first into a vat of Red Streak cider and Red Delicious apples so large you had to bite the stem to get them out. A few brave souls, myself included, took the more agressive route, submerging up to my ears in the stuff, pressing the apple against the side to pin it down, and biting firmly into the apple to claim my prize.
The Virtue Cider story is a beautiful one, beginning with a holistic vision for the farm, backed with a passion for the traditions of the art, and matched with unending respect and care for the land. There's no hint of compromise in the plan. There's no lack of ambition either.