When your friend offers you their VIP tickets for Pitchfork, you say “yes, please” and head straight to the VIP section and see what it’s all about. You hope the lines a super short and the people watching is extra entertaining. Immediately upon entering I saw a sign for cider and naturally gravitated towards that tent as there was no line and I was eager for a drink. As I went to hand the cider maid cash for my beverage, she said, “oh no, sweetie. It’s free back here in VIP.” I smiled, took my cold cider and placed the cash in the tip jar. Now, free cider is one thing. Free cider that tastes deliciously crisp to perfection, well, that’s an entirely other thing. It was then that I had my very first Virtue Cider…my first, which then very quickly turned into the first of four that day. It actually tasted like a cider and not a sweet apple soda so it had my name written all over it as I have been getting into cider more and more these days. The folks over at Virtue caught on to my newfound love for their cider via my social media posts and invited us to the cider house in Fennville, Michigan for a visit and a tasting. Okay, I have to admit, as a blogger who does this as a hobby but also wishes this was my full-time gig, it felt really amazing to finally get some communication between a product we genuinely love and our blog so, needless to say, we were pretty freaking excited. We happily accepted the invite and planned to make a day of it. We were told that someone would be available to answer any questions we might have during our visit. Going up to Michigan to drink cider right from the source was already cool, but having the opportunity to learn about this mysterious juice from someone who knows what they’re talking about? Well, that sounded like an incredible idea to me. Let’s begin right there: someone who knows what they’re talking about…
See that fella in blue, sandwiched between the sisters? That there is Greg Hall, founder and creator of Virtue Cider. That’s the “someone” we had to answer some of our questions and teach us about cider. How f*cking cool is that? Did I expect that it would be him who was going to chat with us? Nope, not in a million years. This guy doesn’t just know about cider, he lives it. His passion, combined with his knowledge for his craft, made for an exceptional Saturday at his cider farm. We spent the afternoon touring the bulk of the land and the cider houses while having to the opportunity to ask our cider master all the questions our little hearts desired. I first met Greg while hovering over a fence adoring the farm’s Gloucestershire old spot pigs. It was here where our discussion on Virtue began.
Oh, that there is Luís. He tends to the entire farm. As physically demanding as his job is, he is in love with it. He filled us in on his polka-dotted buddies. Their huge ears don’t help them much in the seeing department, but when it comes to hearing, they win huge. They also win at having friendships with one another. Luís described them as being extraordinarily “tender” with each other. When asked if these would make good pets, Luís laughed. They can grow to an excess of 600 pounds. These cute fellas and ladies will be raised, will work hard and roam about and, when it’s time, they will go from farm to table. Or, perhaps another term we can throw in, slow food. The concept and movement of slow food encourages the use of land and it’s livestock to help create cuisine natural to the environment and it’s ecosystem, a healthier and more sustainable alternative to fast food. This movement is the epicenter of Greg’s mission for Virtue and what he strives to share in his work. As we toured the land, it was apparent that his dream was indeed coming to fruition all around us. Cider itself is created on what the earth is willing to offer each harvest season. And, with that notion, Greg has created a big-ass, beautiful farm that makes some seriously kick-ass cider, using and reusing natural tools and ingredients from the land. And, of course, apples. Apples of all varieties, flavors and styles. It is the apple tree, which originally traces all the way back to Kazakhstan (yes Borat’s country!), that is the force behind Virtue.
Note the date on the Mammoth crate below. Consider that a newbie too, I saw a couple from the 70’s. Talk about reuse, reduce and recycle.
Below is Cider House 2. It’s big, it’s beautiful and it’s mostly underground, allowing it to self-sustain the temperature without air conditioning to keep things cool for fermentation. Oh, and also keep us humans cool on a beautiful 95-degree fall afternoon in mid-September.
Virtue is a breathtaking piece of land and operation. It’s colorful, bright and hosts some of the finest cider on this side of the pond. In fact, when Greg decided to leave the world of brewing beer at Goose Island, he headed over to Europe, specifically France and England, to learn and taste cider from some of the best cider makers in the world. Well-equipped and packed with knowledge, he brought what he learned back to Chicago and began to hone in. Greg compared making cider more similar to making wine rather than beer. He put it in terms of music, explaining that making a good beer is like an orchestra playing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, where all the elements should be replicated precisely so that it sounds (tastes) the same every time. Whereas making cider is more akin to playing jazz. The land is going to provide what it has in it’s purest form and, depending on the seasonal weather and other factors, the earth will ultimately give the cider maker something different each time. So, much like a jazz musician who may play the same song a hundred times, it’s never going to sound exactly the same as the first, or even the last time, as they will play off the environment around them and what is happening in the moment. It’s actually fascinating if you think about it. I would also think a bit nerve-wracking as well, but Greg is as cool as a cucumber about it. You put your love and trust in the land and what it’s willing to give you back and you just go with it. And go with it, Greg does.
Below is The Shade Garden. It’s a peaceful spot, perfect for sipping cider. Keep your eyes and ears open, some very cool changes are coming to this little spot in the next couple years. Clue: it may involve caves and prosciutto. You heard me.
Here, Greg shows us some of his tattoos. Like I mentioned, he lives his passion, he doesn’t just make cider. His body art depicts his respect and love for his craft and the land. After admiring his tats, I asked if he’d like to see my tattoo. He seemed a bit hesitant, not knowing whether I was going to show him a dolphin tramp-stamp or something else. I held up my wrist to show him my centimeter-long tattoo, jokingly having a tattoo challenge with him. I may have been the only one laughing, but I did so hard I almost cried. Greg stood there stoic and motionless —“oooookayyyy” he said. Greg, I promised you there was a meaning behind mine as well, if you dare to dig deeper into the link above!
As we covered the grounds, we all took advantage of our time with Greg and got to know him. I loved when he told us about his youth and eventually we got to talking family. You learn and experience most of your younger years with your family, or your tribe. A younger Greg would go shopping for beer with his dad. We’re not talking Bud Light, we’re talking funky beer back when funky beer wasn’t a thing yet. Beer that most people weren’t picking up at the store back in the 90’s. This was before the craft beer revolution took place and really made a home here in Chicago. His father’s love for beer is what started Goose Island Brewing Co., and what would bring Greg, the Iowa English major, into the world of brewing and eventually cider-making. He told us a really freaking funny story about other dads and beers, but it will be one of those stories that I get to keep and tell at parties over a good beer…. or a great cider. So, next time you see me, hit me up and I’ll give you the goods. Greg spent nearly three hours with us discussing every aspect of cider making, his thoughts on food and drink, and his passion for creating something really spectacular for people to experience tasting the cider and visiting the farm. When it came time to the tasting…wow. As I mentioned, cider is my jam these days. It’s gluten-free and no sugar is added to a properly made cider such as this. It’s crisp and refreshing and, just like wine, I find it exciting to drink. It doesn’t make me feel full and, to be honest, two will give you the perfect little buzz.
This was some some damn good cider. We brought home three bottles and I cannot wait to open one up this weekend. When it comes to pairing, Greg suggested something equally as intense. “Cheddar cheese?” I asked. “Exactly,” he replied. How good does that sound?
The Michigan Brut and Wyncroft were my favorite of the bunch. Shit. I loved the Seedling Orchard too, which was most like a wine of the selection. And, trust me, no one would need to force me to drink that Lapinette, either. I mean, you really can’t go wrong here because they are all very different.
Listen people, just get to Fennville and go to Virtue. It makes for a perfect fall day: drinking some top-notch cider, playing bags and enjoying the view and ambiance. This isn’t some factory of machines making hard apple cider, this is a working farm that looks like a winery but, instead, has cider-makers creating something equally special, something you need to go and experience for yourself.
In the meantime, get your sexy ass over to a Whole Foods, Binny’s Beverage or Jewel-Osco and get yourself some Virtue cider. It is the perfect way to experience this beautiful fall weather we have rolling in this week. Finally.
For more on the slow food movement and Ark of Taste, check this out.
Thank you Greg and Virtue for hosting The Sister Project. Can’t wait to get back for more.
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