Small-batch American producers are using Old World traditions to give cider new life.
Photographs by Michael Pirrocco

The 5 Best Craft Ciders in America

In 2000, Gregory Hall was on a beer-tasting trip in England, searching for ideas to bring back to his family's award-winning Chicago brewery, Goose Island. What he found instead was inspiration for a future business. At a pub in York, Hall and his team stumbled on a cider festival featuring 40 farmhouse varieties.

"We were blown away," Hall says. "Some were pale and crisp, some were dark and muddy, rich and unctuous – just a huge range."

Hall returned to Chicago and continued brewing – his father felt strongly they should focus on beer, not begin a new project – but his curiosity about cider never waned. Just weeks after Goose Island sold to Anheuser-Busch in 2011, Hall announced his next venture: Virtue Cider.

Hard cider, which has an alcohol level similar to that of beer, has a long history in the United States – in Colonial times, it was the go-to drink. But by the mid-19th century, tastes had shifted toward beer. The ciders most Americans know today (Woodchuck, for example) are made in factories, some from concentrate. The European tradition of small-batch cider making, however, delivers a much more complex drink. It's this style that's catching on, buoyed by the popularity of artisanal goods and a burgeoning market for gluten-free products. Cider houses are sprouting up wherever apples are plentiful – particularly the Pacific Northwest, New England, and the Midwest – and commercial cider production nearly doubled from 2010 to 2011. With a celebrated brewer like Hall leading the charge, cider is fast becoming the drink of choice for craft-beer fans looking for a new frontier.

"Greg Hall knows what people want," says James Kohn of Oregon's Wandering Aengus cider house. "He's the bridge between farmer-made cider and mass-­produced drinks."

Virtue's first releases (available at bars in Chicago, and soon New York and Portland, Oregon) are RedStreak, a tart, English-inspired cider, and Lapinette, aged in wine barrels and unfiltered, according to French tradition. In his new Fenn­ville, Michigan, cider house – a barn that's the first structure on what will become a 48-acre campus – Hall details the legwork he put into Virtue, including apprenticeships with acclaimed cider makers in England and France, where Calvados cider brandy even has its own appellation system.

One of the fundamental differences between old-world and American ciders is what they're made of: The most readily available apples here are "dessert" apples, sweet and best for eating raw; the best cider apples, however, are tart cultivars. It takes four to five years for a new orchard to produce a good crop, but the momentum of the cider movement is convincing growers that planting cider apples is worth the time and investment. Hall notes that RedStreak was on tap in 125 bars in its first year of production – the best first year a Goose Island brew ever had was 60.

"People's palates are so open now," he says. "They want to try new things. With the whole farm-to-table movement, I don't think that's going to go away."

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