TROY – The most interesting thing about Granite City Food & Brewery may not be the beer itself so much as the way in which this chain brewery makes it. Other chain breweries, such as Rock Bottom or Gordon Biersch, brew from corporate recipes at each of their locations, but they do actually brew their beers on site.
At Granite City, that’s not exactly the case. The company has developed a system they call “Fermentus Interruptus,” whereby all the wort and yeast used to make their beers are trucked in to every location from one central brewery and only fermented at each site.
“It’s all about maintaining consistency from location to location,” said R.J. Nab, Granite City’s field brewer. “We want our guests to be able to taste the same great beers at every one of our restaurants, whether in Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, or here in Michigan. This way, we’re using the same water, the same ingredients, the same yeast, the same process.”
Nab is responsible for riding the circuit of all 27 sites in the 12 states Granite City operates in, performing various quality audits, conducting training, and helping to maintain the fermentation tanks, serving vessels, and other equipment. But it’s Brewmaster Cory O’Neel who runs the 25-barrel corporate brewhouse in Ellsworth, Iowa (about an hour north of Des Moines), where he brews five days a week to keep all the sites supplied with wort and the yeast to ferment it.
“Obviously what we do as far as trucking the wort around opens us up to a lot more possibilities for infections, so we are really, really diligent about quality control,” he said.
O’Neel’s resume is as atypical as Granite City’s brewing process. Born and raised in Iowa, he moved to Colorado in the early 1990s to pursue a degree in microbiology – “I was doing the right thing in the right place at the right time,” he notes – when he became involved in the burgeoning beer scene there. Following stints as a brewer and brewing consultant, he moved to Hong Kong to run a brewpub during the handover of the British colony to China.
“It went really well,” he said. “The place was full of British expatriates, but it was started by Americans, we used American equipment, and we brewed popular American styles.”
As for Granite City’s styles, they offer five mainstays: Northern Light Lager, Wag’s Wheat, Brother Benedict’s Bock, Duke of Wellington IPA and Broad Axe Stout. A sixth regular tap is called Two Pull, which consists of a blend of the lager and the bock. A customer came up with the idea and it stuck because the mix seemed to pair well with a lot of different menu items.
Seasonal beers include a blueberry lager (coming this spring), a summer white ale, a nut brown ale, an Irish red, a Scottish ale, an Oktoberfest, and soon a “Batch 1000” double IPA. A barrel-aged version of the Scottish ale will be available at some point as well.
The Mug Club is ridiculously cheap at $10 for a lifetime membership (which even includes your first pint!), though oddly most of its benefits revolve around discounts on food, which is not bad considering the more-upscale-than-pub-grub menu.
“When, for example, the Irish Red comes out, we’ll tell all our members we’re going to tap it and throw a party for them,” he said. “We can’t give away alcohol in Michigan, but we’ll serve free appetizers, flatbreads, pizzas, basically take care of all the food and just have fun for a few hours.”
Granite City’s regular lineup of brews (I can’t speak to any of the seasonals) may impress noobs but are not likely to have much appeal to experienced drinkers of craft beer, a point I raised with O’Neel when I asked if he thought coming to Michigan, a state with so many amazing breweries, presented more of a challenge.
“No, I think it’ll be even easier,” he said. “The more breweries there are, the better educated the market is. The harder locations are the ones where there aren’t any breweries and we have to teach people what beer’s supposed to taste like and why we do what we do.”
Granite City Food & Brewery is located at 699 W. Big Beaver Rd. in Troy. Visit gcfb.net for more information.