If you’re in Michigan and encounter a business name that includes the word “Mitten”, you’ll find several possible descriptions; all referring to the shape of the lower peninsula of our great state. Two of them happen to be based in Grand Rapids and share quite similar names. MittenBrew.com, the online news source you’re currently reading, recently sat down to chat with the crew of Mitten Brewing Company, the Detroit Tigers baseball-themed brewery in the West Side neighborhood. They share our love of the mitten as well as our passion for Michigan’s craft culture. Sometimes this leads to a brief moment of confusion, more on that in a bit.
Spend some time at Mitten Brewing Company and you’ll begin to understand the depth of their commitment to great beer and baseball. MItten, in their case, also refers to a baseball mitt. Brews have monikers that refer to the game, and are fermented in vessels named in honor of Tigers legends Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, and Kirby Puckett.
Brite tank labels refer to another common passion of the Mitten Brewing Team: music. Currently “Son House” is the solo brite and is waiting to be joined by a round of new tanks being brought in. An additional twenty barrel fermenter and an additional twenty barrel brite tank are on order from Craftwerk Brewing Systems. Production is currently done in a portion of an adjacent building and will eventually expand into a space that is currently being leased by Long Road Distillers.
The short term plan includes a canning line made locally by Belmont company Microcanner that will fill twelve ounce cans when the timing is right. “We want to wait and make sure stuff’s getting pulled through distribution and we’re not pushing it through,” said Co-owner Chris Andrus.
“We’ll freely admit that we were not up to snuff when we opened and it took us a learning curve to get there and to make the improvements. Our day to day mindset is to counteract the idea that growth outpaces quality control, and I think we’re living that right now. I think we’re very much in that. Every day we sit down and reanalyze what can we do to be lean and mean here and make our beer better, because we cannot continue to have it be good and grow this fast. We do a lot of volume here, and it all goes back into R&D. It all goes back into better equipment,” he added.
The owners and staff routinely meet for tasting sessions to compare their beers to commercial examples. “We want to be in the same conversation with Founders and New Holland and we want to have earned our place to be there,” said Andrus. The team is looking forward to having New Holland Brewing Company’s newest location as a neighbor. When they’re up and running, Mitten Brewing anticipates sharing a customer base. “People will come, and we damn well better have earned their respect when they come,” said Andrus. “Just because something is local does not mean people should fall over themselves to get it. It has to hold up against the national standard, and that’s what our standard is. We’re getting there. Every day is an ongoing effort.”
That effort is made by the entire crew. Head Brewer Jason Warnes joined Mitten Brewing a few weeks after their grand opening. He became an owning partner in December 2015 in addition to heading up the production facility. Warnes’ brew partner Alexander Atkin was injured in a motorcycle accident recently and isn’t able to physically return to work yet. Taylor Darling has filled in during Atkin’s absence.
“He kind of got thrown in the pits” after Alex’s accident, Warnes said of Taylor. “He was a cook here” adds Andrus. “We get a lot of people that take cook jobs but they really want to be in the brewhouse. He didn’t make any secret about it and then the Alex thing happened and he kind of got thrown into it. Basically he was just kind of washing kegs and was Jason’s assistant, and he had to learn microbiology in a hurry!” Andrus said.
Atkin continues to help the guys whenever there’s a yeast question or anything related to his position in the technical aspects. The team has said they are looking forward to the future when Atkin is able to rejoin them in the brewhouse.
Looking for outside feedback, Mitten Brewing entered and poured several of their beers in the Great American Beer Festival last year. “We were serving a Dark Mild (Triple Crown Brown), which no one was there for but it was a huge geek moment–John Palmer who wrote “How to Homebrew” favors that style,” said Andrus. Warnes interjected “He inspired me to make that beer, and he’s there! So we go up to him and we’re like ‘we’ve got a Dark Mild’ and he said ‘oh, I’ll come by your booth’ and I thought ‘he’s not coming by’ but he comes by with Jamil Zainasheff!” Palmer and Zainasheff are well-respected members of the brewing industry and co-authors of the book “Brewing Classic Styles”. “It was surreal. I still look up old BYO (Brew Your Own) articles that he wrote,” Andrus said.
The celebrity moments are hitting home as well, with the Tigers Winter Caravan making a stop in the taproom recently. Stars of the team, managers, and announcers filled the upstairs bar area, a dream come true for the owners and staff whose respect and love for the Tigers is the stuff of local legends. The feeling was mutual, it seems. On the way out, Alan Trammell, holding up the caravan bus, made sure he stopped in the lobby for a moment to sit in the seats from the former Tiger Stadium on display — sacrificing time to allow a few more photographs before leaving.
The guys on the tour enjoyed the beer there enough to start a conversation about having it on tap at Comerica Park. Tigers Director of Marketing called up the Beverage Purchaser and started the process on the spot. “It’s one of those pie in the sky things for us that ended up happening” Andrus said of having their beer at the stadium, “and the team is planning to come back in forthcoming years for the caravans.”
Another honor, and additional chance for outside feedback, has been bestowed upon the brewery. Co-owner Max Trierweiler revealed Mitten Brewing has been chosen to participate in this year’s edition of Savor, a craft beer and food festival in Washington DC. Three hundred twenty five breweries applied, and only sixty breweries were invited to attend. “That’s why when this kind of thing comes up it matters that this (indicating his beer) is on point, because I would hate to get all dressed up for the prom and have tennis shoes on. GABF was humbling for us but also eye opening and we held our own, frankly. It makes you want to be better,” said Andrus.
Judge their quality for yourself by visiting their taproom or find them at one of the many events they take part in. Ten of their beers were brought to the Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Festival this past weekend in a refurbished old band trailer that Andrus had hauled around the country while he was in bands, most recently as lead singer of Bless You Boys, another Detroit Tiger’s reference.
“Chris, when he was a musician, this is what he would lug around the country on his tours with his equipment in it, and now we’re going to lug beer around in it,” Trierweiler said. “I actually started out with him as a drummer in the band when we were just a three piece,” he added. More evidence of the cohesiveness that is prevalent in their tight-knit family.
MittenBrew.com owner Steph Harding asked Andrus about the confusion that sometimes occurs because of our similarly named beer-centric companies. “Most of the time because your tag is shorter so they click you instead of us,” said Andrus. During the Tigers Caravan visit, a social media representative mistakenly tagged the online news source. “I saw it and was like ‘oh no! fix that!’ and I immediately responded to it and they retweeted it” with the proper tag, said Harding.
The two companies don’t see the confusion as a problem. Both MittenBrew.com and Mitten Brewing Company view it as a happy accident that occasionally links us, and reminds us it’s always good to be part of the Mitten.
Photography: Steph Harding
Detroit Tigers photo courtesy Terry Johnston