Anheuser-Busch InBev, via its Goose Island Beer Company outfit, today announced it will acquire a majority stake in Michigan’s Virtue Cider.
Greg Hall, the former Brewmaster at Chicago’s Goose Island and son of brewery founder John Hall, launched Virtue Cider with partner Stephen Schmakel in 2011, following A-B’s $38.8 million purchase of the Chicago brewery.
Virtue, which specializes in European-style farmhouse ciders, was well-received when product first hit the market in 2012. In recent months, however, the company fell behind on payments to growers, owing more than $100,000 to at least one New Hampshire-based supplier. In May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture stepped in and imposed a sanction that restricted the company from “operating in the produce industry.”
“This is a very deliberate move on our part,” said Goose Island general manager Ken Stout. “We have had our eye on the cider category for a while.”
Virtue is currently distributed in 20 states with a mix of wholesalers. Stout said A-B would address any transitions on a “case by case basis.”
“We haven’t scripted everything,” he said. “We want to keep growing Virtue and satisfying the demand in our existing markets now.”
I bought a bottle of Virtue’s Lapinette last week and realized I was holding one of the last pre-Acquisition bottles in existence. Then I drank it, wondering if it would ever be the same. These acquisitions have a way of changing things, although they say in the article that “Production will remain at Virtue’s 48 acre farm in Fennville, Mich.” I guess the thing to consider is if production has to ramp up, will that affect the recipe? We’re in the middle of a cider apple shortage, if you weren’t aware. An April 2014 article from Modern Farmer explains:
cider apples haven’t kept pace with cider. Many of these fruits are heirloom varieties—distinctively flavored, colorfully named cultivars such as Kingston Black, Yarlington Mill, and Porter’s Perfection — that went nearly extinct on American soil during Prohibition and haven’t been cultivated on a large scale since.
“The hard-cider industry is essentially developing without a true raw material,” says [Bull Run Cider co-owner Galen Williams]. “Cidermakers are using everything they can to make interesting, good-tasting ciders without actual cider fruit.”
Given the economics of the apple market, it’s unlikely that major growers will provide a solution anytime soon, says Jim Allen, the New York Apple Association’s executive director.
“You’ve got to remember: the lowest-valued apple is the apple that’s crushed up and made into juice; the highest-valued apple is the apple that ends up at Trader Joe’s,” he says. “Nobody’s planting apples to do anything but try to put them into that high-value category.”
I hold out hope that a cider like Virtue can go mass-market while maintaining the quality. But people like the great Andy Brennan from Aaron Burr Cider, who’s written about the problems with “scaling” cider on his blog, would probably disagree. Still, I can’t blame small producers like Blue Point Brewery for taking a payday from a big company after all the work they’ve put in. Some people truly believe in staying small and sustainable, but it appears in Virtue’s case they needed someone to step in to keep them afloat. So without this buyout, Virtue wouldn’t remain in business.
I guess this is like when a small indie band you like gets a major label deal. You’re happy for their success, you want other people to get exposed to them and become fans, but you also lament the brief period when they were yours.