FRANKFORT — When he traded his camera for a set of home brewing equipment, Stormcloud Brewing Company head brewer Brian Confer took a big risk.

Once a photographer for Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine, Confer emptied his dark room of photography equipment and instead filled it with a new home brewing setup. The risk paid off, and it soon led him down the path to opening his own brewery. Understanding that there were a number of good breweries already in the area, Confer spent a great deal of time experimenting and narrowing his focus before opening the brewery.

“I wanted to focus on home brewing Belgian brews and brewed what would become our flagships extensively,” Confer said.

In fact, he started brewing Rainmaker, Stormcloud’s flagship, early on. He believed in its potential, continued to tweak the recipe and eventually ended with a brew that was drinkable in any situation.

“It’s a great food beer. It has just enough hop to drink on its own, but the amber and caramel elements make it great to pair with food,” said Confer.

The experimentation paid off, only one year after opening Stormcloud, Rainmaker won the 2014 Great American Beer Festival Bronze Medal in the Belgian Style-Blonde Ale or Pale Ale category. Confer was not expecting or even looking for an award from the festival. In fact, he had to verify that the Rainmaker that won was his.

“We were out at the Empire Asparagus Festival at the time. When I got the text, I had to double check,” said Confer. “I was just interested in feedback, really. I was proud that it won, but was not expecting it.”

Rainmaker may have won the award, but many other of Confer’s brews are versatile and refined in flavor. It is the continuous refinement of successful recipes and improvement in ingredients that have set Confer — and Stormcloud — apart. With his Belgian inspiration and focus, you won’t often find Confer incorporating off-the-wall ingredients or over the top hoppiness.

Instead, Confer has started to use more local ingredients while brewing. He has found that the quality of hops available from local farms is much better compared to large farms out west.

The Leelanau Pale Ale, for instance, is brewed with one hop: whatever is available from the Empire Hops farm at the time. Today’s Leelanau Pale Ale (currently brewed with Chinook hops) is not the same as previous versions. Each hop variety allows Confer to further explore and experiment.

“It’s a single hop beer brewed with whatever hop variety is available from the farms in Leelanau, which keeps things fun and interesting,” Confer stated.

With that kind of playful mindset, Confer’s passion about the brews that end up on the Stormcloud menu is clear. Which one could be his favorite?

Confer simply stated, “Whatever’s freshest.”