For two days, GBH founder, Michael Kiser joins the Virtue Cider crew on-site, pitching in as they clean kegs, filter cider, and press wild apples with cider maker, Ryan Burk. Follow along here for updates as the experience unfolds. You should start at the bottom and work your way back up, but that's just me.
At the end of the day, Ryan gathers his team to show his appreciation for their hard work by pouring out one of his favorite ciders — Flag Hill Farm's sparkling dry.
Thanks for following along with the GBH in Residence the past couple days. It's been an inspiration to be here and work with Ryan Burk and the team. We'll be back soon.
The team funnels bucket after bucket of fresh juice from the wild apple blend into a large plastic barrel to start fermentation. When they're finished, they'll have about 50 gallons of wild, naturally fermented cider to celebrate the year with. To help it ferment best, they add a pectic enzyme to break up the pectins that guard the fermentable sugars from yeast, and they'll likely leave the barrel outside where the nights will drop to about 40-45 degrees, an ideal temperature.
Virtue's Michigan sales rep, Rick Muschiana (formerly of Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids) stops by to pick up a self-distribution run for Arcadia Ales in Battle Creek, MI — they've had Virtue on draft for awhile now in the new taproom. "They're one of our best accounts in the state," says Rick. "So we never let them run dry."
Ryan measures the fresh juice for sugar content, called "brix," which is an indication of how much alcohol you can get out of it, similar to degrees Plato in beer brewing.
Today's pressing came in at 13.5 Brix, which is pretty average for sugar content. Crab apples, despite being quite bitter and tannic to taste, pack a lot of sugar.
'Sup Pointer Brand.
Some travelers with impeccable timing stop in and get a taste of the freshest cider possible — literally pouring off the press. Ryan is happy to give them a taste.
Intrigued by the small hand press, they inquire further.
"Oh, this won't become a label for us," he explains. "we just do this as a team to celebrate the start of apple pressing season. "
The small crowd smiles and marvels at the flavors in their glass.
The first full press crushes the pumice blend with an easy turn of the crank. An orange-pink, silty cider runs off the wooden tray and collects in a ceramic vessel. The crew lets out a whoo-girl-style "whoo!" They've been waiting all year for this moment.
Ryan pumps the pumice over to the screw press. Turning the handle cranks the wooden lid down and the bag filters most of the particulates. One bucket at a time means they'll be at this for a couple days, which is fine, becuase it gives the ground pumice time to release more sugars, develop tannins, and oxidize now rather than later during fermentation.
Ryan dumps a bucket of crab apple varieties (who knows which) into the hopper. He picks these off the back acreage of the property where they grow wild. Biting in to one of these little monsters will give you a sense of their power in a blend like this — huge, mouth-puckering sour notes and a load of tannins that add complexity out of the gate.
Greg Johnson starts washing over 800lbs of hand-picked apples, including Northern Spy, Golden Delicious, Rome, a few varieties of crab, and some unknown wild varieties from along the side of the road.
Any minute now the grinder will fire up for the first time this year, and you can feel the excitement from the whole crew.
Down the road from Virtue is an abandoned Northern Spy orchard with trees older than you and me put together. The canopy has sewn itself together like a blanket, blocking the sun and enabling the apples to ripen and nearly ferment on the trees.
Ryan comes here to harvest a few buckets at a time for the antique press, taking a few bites along the way just to marvel at the flavors packed inside.
This ain't no campfire coffee. Ryan wakes me up to a Chemex of MadCap's Gaturiri Kenyan coffee and the whole farmhouse smells of it. "I love this coffee," he says standing in the kitchen in his socks. "It's roasty with a good amount of tannins. You can taste that last sip forever."
Today we're going to visit some abandoned orchards and grab some more apples for the screw-press later this afternoon.
Ending the day at Salt of the Earth, an amazing restaurant in Fennville, Michigan, and the life-blood of the Virtue Cider crew run by chef Matthew Pietch. Pressed chicken in the wood-fired grill, salt and vinegar potatoes, Founders Harvest Ales, Rieslings and Gruners. It's a warm hearth in a quiet landscape out here. And oh, the bread.
Back at the barn, each bottle of Sidra de Nava is hand-labelled by Dave and Greg. In the end, they will have labelled over 2,000 bottles, ready for shipping across the US. Sidra is their real stand-out so far. It's not often you find someone in the US, let alone Michigan, making a Basque style cider full of funk and tartness.
Extending the afternoon break with a stop at CopperCraft Distillery in Holland, Michigan, one of the largest distilleries in the state with over 17,000 cases-worth of brown in the barrel aging right now. These guys are producing an apple brandy distilled from Virtue's Red Streak and Sidra de Nava ciders, called Apple Jack.
An afternoon break with Trevor Doublestein of Our Brewing Company in Holland, MI. For the first time ever they have all 20 handles pouring beer!
Special projects often define the details that a place becomes known for. Dave at Virtue has been building a bottle cabinet out of old barrel staves and the original door of the farmhouse. When he's done, the crew who now live in the house will have a rad piece of reclaimed furniture for their bottle collection.
A surprise pick-up comes looking for cider for Indiana, and Ryan has to track down the order. Working with distributors in multiple states adds a layer of complexity that few small operations predict when thinking about serving nearby markets, let alone coast-to-coast. The crew at Virtue has learned a ton in the last couple years about how to handle it, and how to stay flexible with the surprises that inevitably slip through the cracks. "You want cider? I'd love to give you some cider!"
Already a pleasant surprise upon arriving at the farm — Chad Yakobson of Denver's Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project is passing through, and stopping for a taste of Ledbury, Sidra, and the new estate series going to package soon. The aging process for Chad's barrel-aged and wild fermented beers shares a lot in common with Ryan's natural fermentation ciders. Long-term conditioning in beers and ciders of this kind tend to create a unique mouthfeel and nuanced layers of flavor that are rarely achieved in younger products that are pitched with yeast, highly filtered, or in the case of ciders, adding sulfites to increase shelf-life.