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Area Cider House Eyes Napa Valley Status Using Local Apples

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Virtue Farms

We are happy to share this blog by Anna Tomlonson, a designer/point of sale production staffer at Imperial Beverage. This article on Virtue Ciders offers her perspective on the cider market segment and Virtue brand. A Kalamazoo native, Anna owns and operates Ginger Tree Press in downtown Kalamazoo's Park Trades building.

A short drive from Kalamazoo, in the middle of Michigan's "fruit belt" and the heart of apple farm country sits Virtue Farms, a cider house in Fennville that is leading the way in craft ciders, drawing on authentic European-farmhouse cider traditions to create a beverage far different from the sweet hard cider you may expect.

It may come as no surprise that hard cider has grown in popularity enormously in the last several years and continues to grow as the demand for gluten-free beverages and local products escalates. The craft of cider making, however, is far from new.

As recently as 150 years ago, cider was America's favored alcoholic beverage and it has been a tradition in Europe since long before that. For generations, the cider maker grew his own fruit or bought from his neighbors and aged his ciders in oak on his farm.

Virtue continues those traditions, sourcing their apples from Michigan's Cider Coast and aging their ciders in more than 500 barrels on their own farm. The result is their authentic collection of European-style farmhouse ciders.

Virtue Cider founder Greg Hall, who was previously the Brewmaster of Goose Island Beer Company in Chicago, likens the cider market in 2011 when he launched Virtue to where craft beer was in the 80s. Growing from a handful of styles like "light," "dark," or "import" to the myriad of styles craft beer drinkers have to choose from today, craft beer has grown enormously in variety in the last 20 years.

In the same way, the conversation about hard cider has often focused on cider as one entity, but Virtue's ciders stand out as expanding the conversation to the many possible styles of craft cider. Focus is placed on the traditional cider making in Spain, France, and England and their respective styles as well as the creation of some more experimental styles including The Mitten, Virtue's bourbon barrel aged cider.

Virtue Farms Taps

To create such diverse cider styles Virtue places an understandable amount of importance on the apples they use. Southwest Michigan has a climate very similar to the traditional cider producing regions in the coastal areas of southwest England making it ideal for the growth of apples. Partnering with local family-run farms to find the highest quality heirloom apples for their cider, Virtue chooses apple varieties based on their tannin, acidity, aroma, and sugar content, much in the same way that wine makers choose grape varieties for the same reasons.

This in turn promotes crop diversity, by providing a market for cider specific apples, in addition to the 9-10 varieties of apples typically found in grocery stores. Each Virtue cider only contains apples, yeast, and sulfites, relying on a blend of apple varieties to create a balanced cider rather than the addition of any sugar, color, or flavoring.

These fresh, ripe, heirloom apples are hand-pressed at Virtue Farms into fragrant juice and fermented using wild and native yeasts, adding layers of complexity usually found only in Belgian Ales and the finest wines. They are then aged and matured in used French oak or bourbon barrels, which provides an environment for developing rich flavor and complexity without added ingredients.

The cider house at Virtue where all of production takes place is modeled after traditional European cider houses down to the exposed timber construction. Here, proven old-world production methods are met with modern technology to create exceptional ciders in an environmentally friendly space. The cider house is unheated and the natural evolution of the seasons keeps the cider cold in the winter, just as it was hundreds of years ago.

The result is a traditional European style cider, dry and complex, and far from the sweet ciders that have recently dominated the conversation in American craft cider. A cider with a focus on apple variety, style, and terroir that appeals to the craft beer drinker and the wine drinker and creates a new standard in the craft cider category while supporting the local apple farming community and establishing our region as the location of craft cider, as Greg Hall says turning "the fruit belt of Southwest Michigan into the Napa Valley of the cider world."

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