The Brewer Behind Bourbon County Stout Is Releasing His First Beer in a Decade
"When I come back like Jordan, wearin' the 4-5, it ain't to play games with you, it's to aim at you," Jay-Z rapped on his retirement-announcing record, The Black Album.
The line references NBA great Michael Jordan's own return from an 18-month retirement. Who wouldn't want to be like Mike, stepping down as one of the best and returning still at the top of their game? Jordan won three more championships. Jay-Z has released five number one albums since his own supposed retirement. These feats only add to their legacies.
Gregory Hall isn't a household name like Jordan or Jay-Z—but in the context of the beer world, his goal isn't much different. Hall secured his spot in beer history when, during his 20 years as brewmaster of Chicago's Goose Island, he created Bourbon County Stout—considered the first bourbon barrel-aged stout and ranked third on my industry-voted list of The 25 Most Important American Craft Beers Ever Brewed. His work also helped steer Goose Island to enough success that, in 2011, it became Anheuser-Busch's first prominent craft brewery buyout.
However, when Anheuser-Busch took over, not only did Greg Hall leave Goose Island, he left brewing entirely, embarking on a new venture: cidermaking. Later that year, Hall launched Virtue Cider, now based in Fennville, Michigan. As a man with a clearly accomplished palate, unsurprisingly, Hall was quickly making top-flight traditional ciders. And probably equally as foreseeable, by 2017, Virtue Cider was acquired by Anheuser-Busch—though this time, Hall retained his post as founder.
But even in his newly adopted field, many of Hall's defining personality traits were still there: a passion for beer, an obsession with discovery, and—it would seem—a desire to prove he could be one of the best no matter which lane he chooses. And so after a ten-year detour into cider, Hall is turning the ship back toward his first love: Virtue has started making beer—Hall's first new commercial brew in a decade.
Launching this month, Vestland—which officially arrives from "Virtue Farm" in an effort to tease out Virtue's beers from their ciders—is billed as a Nordic-style lager. And just as a trip to England inspired Hall's switch to cidermaking, a trip to Sweden inspired this latest brew.
"The first time I went to Stockholm, I had all these beers that I hadn't had before," Hall told me. His next stop in Scandinavia was a beer festival in Copenhagen. And that's where he began honing his vision. "I found the most interesting beers were actually from Norway."
A trip to that Nordic country followed. "I get into something and then I like to dive deep and go to the source. I'm a go to the source kind of guy," Hall explained. "I'd read about kveik beer—the Norwegian farmhouse ales—but I hadn't really had them. And having them, I was completely blown away. And beers like raw beer… and then also having all sorts of spices and stuff in there."
The liquid culmination isn't quite as far out as the brews Hall encountered during his trips abroad. Vestland—which is named after a county in Norway—is actually a classic German lager at its core, but with a number of Nordic twists: rye and caraway in the grain bill—which introduce additional spiciness and nuttiness, respectively—and juniper berries for a touch of forest flavor. The results are intentionally subtle: "Simple, elegant, natural," which Hall sees as a sort of Nordic philosophy.
With craft beer, Hall believes many people find themselves chasing a dragon of increased intensity. "In retrospect, I went down that path myself a little bit. We were making pretty good beers [at Goose Island] back in '88—but then to go on to something like Bourbon County Stout—that was a swing of the pendulum to the far side." Cider helped him recalibrate his palate and get away from the intensity chase. "When I drink beer now, I don't really drink a whole lot of IPAs or double IPAs or quadruple hazy, fruity IPAs. To each their own, but my own is not that: My own is more about complexity but without going over the top."
But will people really want to drink a self-described "beer-flavored beer" from the man credited with creating one of the boldest beer styles around, the barrel-aged stout? Despite his current rhetoric surrounding the release of Vestland, Hall may have more tricks up his sleeve. Though Vestland is being brewed at an Anheuser-Busch-owned site in New Hampshire, Virtue has been waiting on approval to start brewing smaller batch beers in their home state of Michigan. Hall says those small-scale beers will be things like Belgium- and Norway-inspired farmhouse ales using different types of fermentation and fruit. No, they won't be imperial stouts, but intensity already seems to be creeping back in. Those Virtue Farm beers—actually brewed on Virtue Farm—should be coming soon.
"As you can imagine, I've had ten years to think about this," Hall told me. "There's a whole lot of things rolling around in my head."
And what about his legacy: Will returning to brewing—and with a lager, no less—undermine what he's best known for? "I'm extraordinarily proud of Bourbon County, and especially what it's become in the last ten years at Goose. But it's funny: Goose kind of became the Bourbon County Stout brewery after I left," Hall —who exited the brewery just one year after their first "Black Friday," the since annual Bourbon County Brand Stout release celebration—told me. "When I run into people now who know of me, they're like, 'Oh yeah, you're the Bourbon County Stout guy.' But I feel like for 20 years at Goose Island, I wasn't the Bourbon County Stout guy. Now I'm the Bourbon County Stout guy."
"If you ask anyone at Goose Island what Greg's favorite beer, they'll be like, 'Honkers,'" Hall said, referencing the brewery's longstanding 4.3 percent ABV English Bitter. "So I've always been that kind of brewer. Now I'm just kind of pivoting from the English stuff to some new flavors from the North."
Vestland will initially be available in Virtue's two home markets of Michigan and Chicago. From there, Hall says "we'll see if people want it in other places."
Or as Jay-Z put it in his song, "Now, can I get an encore? Do you want more?"