Greg Hall happens to be the only person in the world who has sold two different craft alcohol companies to Anheuser-Busch InBev. For this, he's not the most popular with craft beer purists, who see him as the ultimate sell-out, sitting in an ivory tower counting his blood money. But if you’ve had a 10-minute conversation with Hall, it’s evident that he is someone who cares about what he brews and lives solely for that purpose.
Hall of course is that Greg Hall, whose dad John founded Goose Island Brewery. Who was the brewmaster at said brewery for 20 years. Who pioneered bourbon barrel-aged stouts. Who then left Goose Island in 2011, shortly after his family sold it to Anheuser-Busch, for a jaunt in Europe for a few months. Who then founded Virtue Cider (which is the second alcohol company he sold to ABI). And who is now brewing a Nordic-style lager at Virtue after brewing strictly cider for the past 10 years.
“Well, you know, I never really got away from thinking about beer,” Hall tells me over the phone. “Ironically today is actually the tenth anniversary of my last day at Goose Island.”
I first met Hall a couple of years back during a press tasting of that year’s Goose Island Bourbon County Stout lineup. It was a brisk fall evening in New York City and Hall, in tow from rural Michigan, was donning overalls, a flannel shirt jacket and the standard craft beer beard.
After leaving Goose Island, Hall traveled to France and England to visit with some of the premier cider makers of Europe. And he was immediately struck by the similarities of cider to one of his favorite beer styles.
“One of the things that really intrigued me [was] local fruit,” Hall says. “They're all using fruit they grow or buy from the neighbors that everybody's making cider on a farm. And it just reminded me so much like the farmhouse ales of Belgium and Northern France. And I think that those have always been some of my favorite beers.”
This of course coming from a man who loves Saisons so much that he named one after his daughter at Goose Island (Sofie). This compelled Hall to really dive into the world of cider, which he has arguably broken a lot of ground in during the past 10 years. He’s aging in oak (including spent bourbon barrels) and focusing on the acidity and tannins of the apples he’s sourcing from farmers. But it’s also about the apples he’s putting into those barrels, as well as other fruits to get the delicate and complex ciders he’s after. That’s where Vestland, Virtue’s new Nordic-style Lager, comes in — which Hall feels is a perfect first beer for Virtue that coincides with the complexity of cider.
Vestland starts with a lager base very similar to a Helles-style lager with a solid malt profile. Some rye malt also was added to produce that nice spiciness and creamy mouthfeel.
As Hall continues, “And then instead of hopping it we kind of go with some of these botanicals. Caraway adds a little bit of nuttiness and complexity into the beer. And then we put juniper in very much like we would with a hop at the end of the boil but then we hit it again post-fermentation. So it's like dry-hopping but like dry-berrying.”
As for the taste? Hall describes it as “A beer-flavored beer with juniper notes. It's kind of floral — you get spicy and fruity all in one. I think if you're not looking too hard, it just kind of tastes like a new hop variety, but as you dig deeper into the palate it really, to me, what it tastes like more than anything else is the outside.”
Which makes sense, because Virtue has a very similar climate to the Nordic countries and Hall’s whole reason for starting Virtue was to be more in touch with his ingredients.
Vestland releases today, May 12, in Chicago and Michigan and will be available for some time after that. Whether it gets distributed to Virtue’s wider distribution remains to be seen. But Hall’s triumphant return to beer making is not fleeting, as he intends to continue brewing farmhouse style beers that he feels are perfect complements to the complex ciders he’s making.
As Hall says, “We're trying to make beer that is just like with our cider both refreshing at the end of the day but also serves its place at the table. With cider that's the same thing we've wanted to do, make ciders that were really suitable for the table, and take the place of something like a white wine.”