GRAND RAPIDS — If you had to find a brewer at The Mitten Brewing Co., you could do it in under a minute. You can’t miss Rob “Wob” Wanhatalo. Wob has the girth, the swarthiness, and, most importantly, the cascading beard of a brewer.
(He also has hops tattoos on his wrists, if you know what hops look like.)
You might, however, miss Jason Warnes. His beard is more modest, his looks unassuming. If he weren’t wearing the boots, gloves and glasses of someone wrestling a fermenter, he might pass for just another customer.
These two, the newly formed brewing team at the Mitten, might become something of an odd couple.
Warnes studies and fidgets with his recipes. He is fastidious, rarely pleased, and, by his own description, tightly wound. His beers start with reading and research. “I look at it on paper,” he says, “and get a feel for what it tastes like.”
That’s where the recipes start. Where they end, even he doesn’t know. “I do a lot of tweaking on my recipes,” says Warnes. “I’ll tweak them 50 times before I’m satisfied. And even then I’m not satisfied.”
By his count, Warnes’s Triple Crown Brown — which won him a national award as a homebrewer — has been altered at least 50 times.
Wob, on the other hand, studies, tweaks and worries a lot less. “I just kind of go for it,” he says. “I just dive in.” He looks at his materials and intuits what he can make from them. Once it’s made, it’s made.
Wob mentions his stout as an example. He made three minor changes, and now he says simply, “I’m done.”
Their temperaments are as different as their processes. One of the Mitten waitresses told Warnes he always appears on the verge of a heart attack. “I can be tough to work with,” he confesses. “If we had two of me…” Wob finishes his sentence: “No one would be calm.”
But it seems that their differences are creating balance, not conflict. They enjoy working together, and their product is well liked, earning nods city-wide.
And as much as they differ in personality and process, Wob and Warnes share a narrative. Both worked for their fathers before becoming full-time brewers — both had to tell their fathers they wanted a change.
Wob was employed at a plastics manufacturer when he got an offer to work at The Hideout Brewery. He had to call his manager, who happened to be his father, to put in his two weeks’ notice.
Warnes was in line to run the family business, but his father approached him and asked about his plans. “Do you want the honest answer?” Warnes asked his father in return. “I told him I wanted to be a brewer.”
Their stories have the same beginning, and Warnes and Wob have the same end in mind too. Warnes nodded in agreement when Wob said, “The best achievement for the time being will be consistency.” They want to nail down their recipes and stop “tweaking.”
Though they have worked together full time for only a week, Wob and Jason seem well on their way toward that goal. They know the “numbers” on their beers intimately — ABV, IBUs, etc. — and refer to them repeatedly in the course of an hour.
The numbers must already be good, because the beer certainly is. These two probably won’t stop tweaking just yet, but even if they did, their work would prompt many a return trip.