Virtue Cider has its work cut out.
On a nice 48-acre chunk of property in Fennville, the cider maker is trying to lead a change in perception about the fermented apple beverage.
The company’s two big barns fit on the property as if they’d been there for decades. The young sapling trees on the property are the only hint the land was only recently rescued from a potential commercial development.
It’s the cider-making operation of former Goose Island Brewery brewmaster Greg Hall. Following the Anheuser-Busch buyout of Hall’s father, John, it was a perfect opportunity for the son to branch out and pursue a project he had thought about in the years leading up to the deal.
Hall located in Michigan because of the apple growing climate and its proximity to cider-loving Chicago, a market he knows well from his years with Goose Island. Michigan is the nation’s third-largest apple producer, though it could pass New York to become the second this year. Both are well behind Washington.
Hall believes West Michigan has the chance to become the “Napa Valley of cider” because of the agricultural community that has thrived in the state. The Lake Michigan coastal region resembles the great cider regions in England, France and Spain.
Virtue’s head cider maker Ryan Burk grew up in northern New York on an orchard and explained the growing climate.
“We get an extended summer — extended fall really — where a lot of the apples are grown on the coasts,” he said. “It’s on the water, so as it gets cold outside, the warm air on the lake keeps the coastal region a little warmer a little longer so those hearty varieties can stay on the trees a little longer.”
Both in the apple growing and drinking communities, the cider industry has an uphill battle. Michigan is great for apples, however, the growth of cider-specific heirloom varieties is a work in progress. When cider was a drink of choice prior to Prohibition, orchards grew a lot of apples that we meant for cider — high in tannin and a large variety of acidity. Most consumers are familiar with “dessert apples” such as Golden Delicious and Granny Smith, but Burk said cider makers look for apples that don’t look pretty or taste great, but have high tannin, high acidity and lots of sugar.
“Those are the more interesting apples to use, that’s how we layer complexity,” he said.
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Virtue and the state’s other cider makers are working to see orchards plant more cider apples into grown. Many growers in Michigan are third and fourth generation, and some still have cider apples on their property in small quantities. Burk said those apples provide a unique twist to ciders.
“There are apples in the ground in this state that don’t exist anywhere else,” he said. “We’ve had great luck of being connected to those farmers.”
Growers are jumping on board, while drinkers are continuing to discover the complexity of cider.
“People just say cider and that somehow encompasses all of it. Just like there are a million craft beer styles, and there’s just as many cider styles,” Burk said. “There will be the person that says, ‘I don’t like cider,’ but they haven’t explored what that is. There probably is something in cider that they do like, they just haven’t tried a dry cider. Maybe they just don’t like sweet stuff.
“Maybe they really love French saisons. OK, that’s a dry beer. Maybe they should try a dry cider. It’s probably in line with their tastes and what they like.”
The company’s staples of RedStreak, Lapinette, Percheron, The Mitten and The Ledbury have popped up increasingly across the state. Burk, however, is more excited in the new Orchard series — the first of which will soon be released.
The ciders are made from apples sourced from a single Michigan orchard and fermented with wild yeast.
Virtue also is working to grow more trees onsite, eventually having thousands of trees. The Virtue orchard wouldn’t be nearly enough to satisfy the company’s demand, but it would allow for a unique estate cider.
Also in the works this winter is a hopeful project to expand the orchard’s modest tap room. Burk said they hope they’ll be able to have concerts in the near future.
For now, Virtue will continue to focus on getting consumers to taste the product.
“You just have to get it in front of people,” he said. “It’s just like what craft beer had to do and has to do. The experience, people want to come out and taste stuff and try new stuff, and we have to be on the forefront.”