On my first attempt at finding Virtue Farms, I end up driving past the place. In part, I’m distracted by the country scenery: a dusty dirt road, light woods casting shade over the road, a gorgeous old farmhouse, a small vineyard (perhaps a start-up winery?). But in part, I miss the turn because Virtue Farms is itself a start-up, and so they have start-up signage: a weathered wooden pallet set on the side of the road, with white stenciling announcing the name.
No matter. I double back and follow the unpaved drive to a gravel parking lot next to a Bavarian-style cider house set among acres of young apple trees.
I’m here to check out one of Fennville, Michigan’s new farm-to-table (or rather, farm-to-bottle) businesses: a cidery with its own (young) orchards. Virtue is in good company in Fennville, where several other like-minded businesses have flourished: upscale restaurant Salt of the Earth relies on producers within a 50-mile radius for its meat and produce; Evergreen Lane Farm and Creamery sells Camembert made with milk from the resident goats; Crane’s Pie Pantry dishes decadent pies made with Michigan cherries or their own apples. The unpolished, honest, connected-to-the-Earth ethos runs strong through Fennville and at Virtue.
And while Virtue has strong ties to the family that started Chicago’s Goose Island Brewery, the ciders are an intensely local product. Brewmasters live in a renovated farmhouse on the acreage, where they use the cellar to ferment small-batch ciders that need especially cool temps. The orchard isn’t mature enough to provide crops (yet), but apples from orchards around Michigan make their way into Virtue’s brews. In fact, The Mitten, a mellow bourbon-barrel-aged cider, boasts all-Michigan-grown apples.
Inside the cider house, guests sip hard ciders in a spare-but-bright tasting room. On a slow day, farm manager Jimmy Farrell might take interested visitors on a tour of the long, narrow brewery, filled with shiny silver fermenting tanks, giant apple presses and stacks of wooden barrels. Some of the barrels used to contain whiskey; others used to contain red wine. Now all of them are filled with cider. Everything smells of fresh-cut wood, tart apples and the faint tang of tannins.
If you’re used to drinking sweet-as-juice hard ciders, Virtue’s offerings might come as a surprise. Their ciders taste more like wine: crisp, sometimes biting, dry and complex. It’s even sold (at the cidery, at least) in 750-ml wine bottles. I buy a bottle of The Mitten to take back to Iowa knowing that once I’m home, it’s a part of my trip I’m going to really miss.
(Photos by John Noltner.)