By Christopher Borrelli, Chicago Tribune reporter
May 24, 2012
Greg Hall wants you to drink more cider. He's already persuaded you to drink more beer — or rather, as brewmaster/marketing genius/foodie gadfly of Goose Island Beer Co. for more than a decade, he's persuaded you to drink smarter beer, craftier beer, paired with smart food. But a year ago he left Goose Island, and now it's cider.
And frankly cider doesn't sell itself the way beer sells itself. So he's starting small. His new cider company, the month-old Chicago-based Virtue Brands, is headquartered in a small studio loft in Roscoe Village. It doesn't need to be bigger right now. Virtue has just five employees: Hall; Steve Schmakel, his business partner and old friend; assistant Emilia Juocys; junior "cider boy" Ryan Burk; and, to handle the company's burgeoning accounts, a former Goose compatriot, Michelle Foik.
And for the time being, until Virtue obtains the federal permits needed to produce large batches of cider itself, Hall's cider is being pressed and distributed through St. Julian Winery in Paw Paw, Mich. St. Julian filled 950 barrels with RedStreak, the first cider bearing the Virtue name. These barrels, however, have to last Virtue into the autumn.
On a recent spring day, Hall is sitting at a farm table in his loft, looking over the plans for the cider mill he wants to build in Michigan soon. He's also talking cider. And this guy can talk cider. Doug Sohn, of Hot Doug's, with whom Hall once discussed opening a chain of the hot dog restaurants, said he ran into Hall at the Miami airport recently, and they talked cider: "Fortunately I had to catch my plane, or I'd still be there with Greg, talking cider."
Indeed, we're talking cider for so long, Burk has to interject: Hall is due at Whole Foods in Lincoln Park. Their cider tasting started two minutes ago. When we arrive at the store, Hall walks straight to the cafe/bar. It just started serving RedStreak. The bartender, who recognizes Hall, hands him and Burk long glasses of cider.
Hall and Burk survey the room.
Two customers are drinking RedStreak. Hall looks satisfied, happily surprised. Which, for him, means the corners of his mouth raise slightly. In fact, the place looks like a microcosm of Virtue's target audience for Virtue: Upscale hipsters pecking away on laptops, upscale couples with double-wide strollers, the culinarily curious, the environmentally sensitive.
"I'm not looking to sell cider to everyone," he says. "I'm looking for people who like it, who like an alcoholic beverage with food, who like art and music, and shop at Green City Market and know food costs more there but are OK with that." Burk pours cider into plastic cups and turns to a young couple.
"Watch," Hall says, deadpan. "Ryan'll throw out the hook. That's when I'll step in and beat them over the head."
Greg Hall looks much more at ease than a man should be whose daunting task is convincing Americans to pick cider over beer. For instance, at a promotional party recently for Virtue, amid a mingling of important bartenders, chefs, beer distributors, restaurateurs and bar owners, Hall could be found leaning against a counter, looking either serene or steely eyed, indifferent or bored. It's so hard to tell. Confident is probably closer to the truth.
"One of Virtue's largest resources," said Schmakel, working the cider taps, "is Greg's confidence in Greg and his ability to sell that."
And things are going well.
RedStreak — very dry, British and unlike the sweeter commercial American ciders (think Woodchuck) found in six-packs — launched in April. By the end of the year, Virtue expects to have two more brands, a cider aged in oak barrels and a cider aged in whiskey barrels. In the fall, Hall plans to open that cider mill in Fennville, Mich., near Saugatuck, inside a French-style farmhouse on the 48 acres he bought.
Also, Hall said he hasn't had to beg anyone to carry his cider: Every restaurant and bar pouring RedStreak has approached him, more than three dozen of them, including Lula, Hopleaf, GT Fish & Oyster and the Hideout.
At Hopleaf, for weeks, RedStreak was the Andersonville pub's No. 2 draft seller.
"One thing I've gotten great at," Hall says, "is creating buzz, influencing influencers." He relays maxims like that with conviction — he does not believe in focus groups ("Innovation comes from innovators"); he does believe a good reason to make cider is it's environmentally clean ("Garbage, boo"). He evangelizes. He embraces, as Hopleaf owner Michael Roper says, "that smart people trust his instincts."
Hall, who is 46, grew up in Hinsdale. He studied English at the University of Iowa, with aims of moving on to the school's celebrated creative writing graduate program. But when his father, John Hall, a former paper and packaging company executive, started Goose Island in 1988, Greg Hall left college, surprised at how much he enjoyed brewing and learning about beer.
He went on to pioneer the use of bourbon-barrel aging and popularized locally produced Belgian-style beers, and though his father started Goose Island, Greg is credited with turning the Chicago brewer into a serious producer of respected beer. Around 1990, however, Greg says he believed he might run Goose someday: "I wanted to sit in the captain's chair and not have to send ideas up the tree. Which I did." On the other hand, he adds, "a lot of people made the assumption (Goose Island) would be passed down. My father never made me that promise or said that to investors." So a year ago, after Goose sold to Anheuser-Busch for $38.8 million, Greg Hall announced he would leave to make cider.
"My initial reaction?" asks John Hall. "It was ' Cider? What are you talking about?'" He said that his son had come to him about a decade earlier with the idea of starting a Goose Island cider brand: "The thing is, there wasn't hardly anything that Greg didn't bring up, and I think I told him that we had enough on our plate at that time."
His turning point at Goose, Greg Hall says, was the birth of 312 Urban Wheat Ale, a beer he created for Goose in 2005 that became a fast hit. The name, he says, was provocative internally: Having spent more than a decade growing Goose, his father didn't like the idea of not using Goose Island in the name. Distributors worried suburbanites would feel shunned by the Chicago area code. Salespeople, Greg Hall says, "would say to me, 'You know 'urban' means ' black', right? I would say, uh, no it doesn't. So I went around taking pictures of everything I could find that used the word 'urban,' like Urban Outfitters."
He also insisted that 312 stay on tap initially, that it become associated with hip events like the Pitchfork Music Festival. It all worked, and Hall, with higher-end brews like Matilda, then became known for "pushing his relationships with chefs and making beer more than a drink for sporting events," said chef Chris Pandel of The Bristol and Balena. "Even the bottle labels — he gave it all a bit more respect."
And Goose grew larger. To an extent, that's Hall's new plan.
As he had two decades earlier with beer, he went to Europe and spent weeks studying cider, learning a lot in a short amount of time. But last year about this time, though Hall still knew relatively little about cider production, he insisted Virtue be ready by April 30, 2012, a year to the day he left Goose Island.
"Everyone told me there was no way, there were not good enough apples in this country to do it, there was a reason people don't make cider here (in European styles). But two of the things I believed would make me successful," he said, "was name and reputation. For Virtue cider to work, the Greg Hall brand needed to be out there. Name and reputation fades with time."
Two weeks after Goose sold, just before he announced his second act, Hall was drinking at Bangers & Lace in Wicker Park. He had a lot to drink and, while standing at the bar, he urinated into two glasses. Then he left them and walked out. The story spread overnight. For a guy who, in craft food tradition, believes in putting a face to a drink — for a guy whose next business would be named Virtue — it was potentially disastrous: "Of course, I regretted doing it," Hall says now. "This is not an excuse, but, look, I have been out to bars 5,000 nights; one time I do something that stupid — it's not so terrible an average."
The next morning he began calling friends and associates to explain they were going to hear something awful and that it was true and he wanted to apologize. One person he called was Roper, who said: "He didn't do anything to me. He was just embarrassed. He started calling people, trying to get in front of it. But it cost him. It cost him money. It dented his reputation. The thing is, he recovered well. I don't know if I could have." In fact, even Bangers & Lace now carries RedStreak.
At Whole Foods, Hall approaches the couple Burk reeled in. "Are you regular cider drinkers?" Hall asks the couple.
They sip and smile and shrug.
"Difference between our cider and bad, sweet ciders out there is the apples we use, the blend we use," Hall says.
"Do you sell it in bottles?" the man asks.
Here, Hall, for the millionth time since RedStreak launched in early April, explains no, it's draft only, will be draft only for the foreseeable future: "Have you ever seen a dumpster behind a bar?" he asks. "Pressing cider doesn't produce waste." Bottles alone are a lot of waste, he goes on., finishing his mini lecture with: "Garbage? Bad!"
The couple smile politely.
That bottle question is a bump he expected early on. Also, it took him 200 cider blends before deciding on the right blend of apples and yeasts for RedStreak. But that's just research and development. The larger issue is cider itself. The launch of Virtue, which he expected to cost between $3 million and $5 million, was well-funded. He put some of his own money in, and last winter raised $1 million from local investors. The next stage, the cider mill, will involve banks. But outside Chicago — and Hall sees foodie hubs like Chicago, Portland, Ore., and New York as Virtue's market — he's had to do a little more asking, he says. Though industry analysts and brewers insist cider in 2012 is where craft beer was in 1992 — "It does seem there's a huge amount of room to do better with cider," says Gabriel Magliaro, founder of Chicago-based Half Acre Beer Co. — despite every major beer producer from MillerCoors (which just purchased Crispin Cider) to Anheuser-Busch expected to make their own cider soon, the cider market itself (grouped, industrywise, with beer) is minuscule: just .02 percent of the beer market.
Even the Vermont Hard Cider Co., which owns Woodchuck ( itself about 45 percent of all cider sales), has a self-deprecating motto: We used to be invisible; now we're hoping to get small.
But don't mistake small for dimwitted, said Bret Williams, CEO of Vermont Hard Cider. He said Hall called his company frequently about arranging a tour: "Greg was pretty persistent. I had never heard of him, to be honest. But we gave him a tour. And we saw through him too. We knew he'd just eventually bad-mouth what we do. ... I think there's room for everyone, for a lot of styles. But it's also laughable this guy, in six months, is positioning himself as an expert on real cider."
Hall wouldn't disagree with some of that — mainly, that's there's room. He doesn't want to be Woodchuck-large, or Goose Island-huge. Said Brett Porter, Goose's new brewmaster, "Cider will never be as ubiquitous as beer. Never. Going. To. Happen. The culture isn't up for it. But you don't have to be as big as beer if you have a story and reasonable expectations. Greg would never sell a drink he couldn't tell a story about — where the ingredients came from, what went wrong. Every great drink has a great story, and Greg likes his stories."
After a couple of hours at Whole Foods, Burk and Hall were going over the schedule. Burk noticed a conflict. They were being asked to appear at a beverage-and-food pairing the same night as a beer event. Before Burk could explain the rest, Hall broke in: "Ryan, it's easy. We do the dinner. We're going to get the beer geeks anyway. I'm not worried about the beer geeks."
A couple of days later, on a Sunday afternoon, Hall is manning a table at the Dose Market inside the River East Art Center in Streeterville. He is standing alongside an art easel adorned with a red-painted apple. For the umpteenth time he is saying: "Our company is based in Chicago; we press our own apples in Michigan." He will say this many more times before Virtue is solidly established. Another customer approaches.
"Sugar?" she asks.
"Very dry," he says.
The woman sips. Hall watches her.
Her face scrunches. "Oh, like apple beer," she says.
"Cheers," Hall says in his sea-captain demeanor, not seemingly relieved or surprised. She walks away, disappears behind a pillar, passes a trash bin, discreetly lowers her arm and lets the cup fall. Hall sees none of that. He says later the crowd was good, and heavy on women, a key demographic, but "they seemed surprised hard cider exists." He turns to the next woman in line. She waits expectantly, bright, cheerful. Hall smiles a small smile, fills a cup, but before she takes a sip, he asks: "Are you a regular cider drinker?"
"Not really," she replies.
He says nothing.
"I want to be?" she half-asks.
"I can work with that," he says.
Virtue's cider lineup
•RedStreak is dry, tart, sour, brilliantly clear and brightly carbonated; more akin to Champagne or dry white wine than any beer.
•This fall will see Lapinette: cider aged in French oak barrels.
•In winter, The Mitten, a cider aged in Heaven Hill whiskey barrels.
•The latter two will be released annually, while RedStreak will be year-round and draft-only, available in Chicago and Michigan.
— Josh Noel
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