MittenBrew recently sat down with Jeff Levine, Brewery Operations Manager for Atwater Brewery, to discuss his journey from home brewing to managing operations for the largest brewery in south east Michigan.
Tell me about yourself and how you came to be involved with Atwater.
Jeff Levine: “I started, like a lot of people did, home brewing in the ‘90s. I was actually living in Ohio at the time and moved back to Michigan and stumbled upon Dragonmead. They weren’t even open yet but they were putting all of the equipment in. They didn’t have a lot of employees, so they counted on whoever they knew to get things done around there. So I helped out for a while. I started working there in 1999 and was there for four years. Then I was in and out of brewing for a while working in education. Then I spent two years at Great Baraboo out in Clinton Township. After that I started working here at Atwater in January of 2010. I started working in the cellar doing yeast harvest, managing fermentation, doing the filtering and essentially learning what was running back there. I still have my hands in everyday production in addition to the general operations stuff going on. I’ve watched this place grow to three times what it was when I started.”
What has it been like to see it grow?
JL: “Fast. There’s been a lot of growing pains. You grow fast and all of a sudden you have to catch up to yourself. It’s been a lot of fun, but it’s been a lot of hard work. We’re all in it because we love it. There’s that really thin line when it really isn’t work anymore, when it’s your passion and something you want to do. It’s work but at the same time you look forward to doing it.”
Was it overwhelming coming from Dragonmead and brewing smaller batches to larger batches at Atwater?
JL: “It was weird. The first time I ran the filter here on my own, the loss was almost three barrels on a 40 barrel batch. I almost spilled as much as I used to make! It kind of put it in perspective. It really makes it look like home brewing. It was different. When you think about the size of a place like AB or Miller, those tanks are probably as big as this building. It was intimidating at first.”
Do you have input on the recipes and what’s being brewed?
JL: “We’re really only rolling out one or two [new recipes] over a 12 or 16 month period. We’re not looking into developing a whole new list of new products because we have an extensive list of existing products. But we’re working on a few new seasonal products. We’re looking at a pumpkin spice and a Christmas ale. If we do those this year, they’ll probably be draft only releases.”
Do you have a favorite style to drink versus a favorite style to brew?
JL: “I don’t know if I can point to one specifically as a favorite but the ones I like the most to brew in addition to drink here are the seasonals. The seasonal lagers, the Bloktoberfest, the Winter Bock and the Maibock. Those are my three favorite beers we make. Everyone likes making them because we don’t do it very often so it’s one of those things we look forward to.”
I heard there are a lot of big plans coming up for Atwater, especially for expansion.
JL: “There’s a lot of big stuff on the horizon. Atwater is only going to get bigger. I’m glad I came on board when I did. Right now, I can’t see wanting to be anywhere else. It’s everything I think I always wanted before I knew I wanted it, if that makes sense. I have no desire to do anything except to grow with Atwater.”
What’s the best part of being at a place like Atwater?
JL: “The people here are great. We’ve really assembled a good team of people. Everybody who runs packaging, the guys in the cellar, the brewers who are here now. We’ve got a good group and everyone works together well. You can’t be in this business and not have fun with it. Everyone gets along.”
Did you have a person or brewery that you looked up to in terms of brewing?
JL: “I always go back to working at Dragonmead. Back then, they had a three barrel system and I thought that was big. I knew it wasn’t, but it seemed big to me. I always look at that as inspiration, I guess. I loved beer before and I had been to Belgium and to England and around the U.S. but going in and actually being able to make a variety like that on a regular basis, that’s where I really got the bug and got inspired. The difficult part was making the next one the same as the last one or even improving it.”
Has there ever been a beer that blew your mind?
JL: “It was probably when I traveled to Belgium. It wasn’t eye-opening because I hadn’t seen that many beers before, but actually going there and to the different bars and knowing at that time you could only get a handful of those beers in the states. So I’m drinking all of these beers thinking, ‘I have no idea when I’m going to have another one.’ The trip put me on the path of wanting to homebrew.”
What advice would you give to home brewers that want to take it to the next level?
JL: “There are a lot of opportunities to take it to that next level. Everybody starts small and a lot of people like to stay small. There are a lot of products available. There’s tons of equipment designed specifically for home brewing. I know people who have designed all kinds of their own, like welding racks together, burners. People get pretty hardcore. There are so many resources now whether it be equipment or clone recipes for any beer on the market. It’s time consuming but not difficult. It’s not rocket science.”