Against the grain
Former Goose Island brewmaster Greg Hall wants you to try his new cider. Yes, cider.
Hot streak: Greg Hall's new cider company, Virtue Brands, is headquartered in Roscoe Village. the brand's first cider, RedStreak, debuted last month and is made in PawPaw, Mich. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune)
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.