Photograph: Brian Kelly
The Craft Master
Name: Greg Hall
Founder: Virtue Cider
This party-loving brewer was a legend in craft beer circles before he walked away from his longtime employer, Goose Island Beer Company, in 2011. The decision wasn’t easy—his father had founded the business—but with a sale to Anheuser-Busch looming, Hall knew it was time.
He went on a tour of the renowned cider presses of England and France, then returned to Chicago ready to stage a comeback based on heirloom apples. “You have some of the best fruit in the world in southwest Michigan,” says Hall, who vacationed there as a boy. “I thought, there’s this great opportunity not just to make cider but to turn the area into the Cider Coast—the Napa Valley of cider.”
Hall named his company Virtue because his process is local, sustainable, and practically waste-free. He pays farmers in Michigan and Illinois up to three times more than what they get at markets for heirloom apples, which he presses at a small mill he built last fall in Fennville.
Unlike beer brewing, which uses gallons of water and hops brought in from hundreds of miles away, making hard cider requires only apple juice and yeast. The spent fruit goes into animal feed. The cider ferments in reusable barrels. Even the crates that carry the crop are recycled with every harvest.
“Virtue is one of the most thrilling developments around here in a long time,” says Rachel Driver Speckan, the beverage director at City Winery, who describes Hall’s debut ciders, Red Streak and Lapinette, as “bitter, tannic, and funky” (that’s a compliment).
These days, Hall says, his greatest challenge is building a fan base in Chicago so that he can go national. (Sales of hard cider in the United States are small but growing: from 1.1 million cases in 2011 to 1.8 million in 2012, according to the market research firm Nielsen Company.) “I’m given a unique opportunity because of my legacy in brewing to tell a story about cider and have more people listen,” he says. “It’s exciting—but a responsibility, too.”
Greg Hall is one of five winners of Chicago magazine's 2013 Green Awards. Each year, we honor unsung locals whose innovations are putting Chicago on the national map and doing something good for the earth.