speciation artisan ales

Imagine life’s first strands, the RNA in volcanic pools wriggling like an eel in attempt to express itself. As it reacts to cyanide and sugar, nucleotides are formed—RNA’s baby food. From these humble beginnings we have a miracle that science is still trying to understand. Information unfurls, cells are born. Earth settles. Not too hot, not too cold, the stage is set for life to really go bananas. Multi-celled organisms split and explode in unnamed oceans. Fish grow legs and walk on land. Things are changing. Flash-forward a few billion years and we have humans drinking beer in cities. They share the planet with termites, giraffes, and more. After all this time, life has done a lot of differentiating.

When drinking Speciation Artisan Ales I end up thinking about these large spans of time, certainly in regards to the patience required for the beers to mature, but more so in how the flavors feel so outside of time, prehistoric, like those first eukaryotes struggling and succeeding to become life. How when you have a sip time narrows, the palate a petri dish for yeast to slow dance on. They say there’s beer to drink about and beer to think about. These beers demand attention. “That’s the goal with the beers that we make,” owner Mitch Ermatinger said. “They’re not meant to be shotgunned, we want you to sit and enjoy.”

speciation artisan ales

Mitch Ermatinger

While rewarding in their complexity, brewing with the wild yeast can feel like leading blind sheep to the pasture. “We try to guide the beer in the direction we want it to go through, but we leave a lot of fermentation up to nature,” Ermatinger said. “Here’s some food, munch on it and make something magical.” There does seem to be something mysterious at play beneath the cage and cork. How did he learn to coax magic out of microbes?

By now, many are familiar with the Speciation origin story. As a brewer at Colorado’s Former Future, Ermatinger helped spearhead Black Project, a spontaneous fermentation side project so popular it eclipsed its forebearer and became the main gig. In spite of acclaim and a handful of medals won at GABF, Mitch always had the dream of someday opening his own place. There would need to be a homecoming. That came in 2015 when he and Whitney Ermatinger, his co-owner and wife, returned to West Michigan with experience and a business plan. His reputation snowballed as he helped Harmony Brewing Company launch their sour program and distributed personal test batches to community bottle shares. “I was hoping that the quality of the beer would show that we were worth their time and money, and that we were serious about making world class beer,” Ermatinger said. Call it guerilla marketing-lite.

All the hard work culminated on January 14, 2017 when Speciation released its inaugural beer Genetic Drift, a funky Saison with wild yeast harvested from a crab apple flower found on family property in Holland, MI. Traces of this original culture are sprinkled throughout much of Speciation’s lineup, cultivating a unique identity to the brand. If not the sexiest beer in the Speciation portfolio, Genetic Drift at least serves as a powerful mission statement. As Charles Darwin put it, “Species undergo modification, and existing forms of life descended by true generation from preexisting forms.” Meaning? As the culture evolves over time, it’s important to respect its ancestry. It’s pretty romantic. The dust off a petal helped launch a brewery.

Now, just shy of two years later, Speciation has grown into a different sort of beast. Previously opening the garage only once a month for bottle releases, they’ve finally unveiled regular hours to the public: Thursday through Saturday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Fans have been chomping at the bit. It’s been a long time coming, unfortunately marred by unanticipated frustrations. “My biggest regret is not finding a landlord who was on board with what we’re doing, even basic things like opening a tasting room,” Ermatinger said. “It’s caused a lot of stress dealing with someone who impedes our vision for the company.” Thankfully, after plenty hard fought battles, the team has assembled a space that fits the beer they make.

speciation artisan ales

Mitch & Whitney Ermatinger

Hidden in a warehouse on the outskirts of Comstock Park, the building looks more like a place you’d get a root canal than a Berliner Weisse, but once inside the facade seems like an intentional fakeout. The air is thick with a dungeon musk. Low light and picnic tables accentuate the farmhouse cozy. There’s this pervading feeling that you’ve stepped into another era—Jurassic chic. Looking around though, the obvious set piece is the number of barrels stacked high against the walls. It’s a confident decoration choice, confessional in a way: here you are surrounded by what you’ll eventually drink. Spotting a Gray Skies Distillery logo on a barrel teases possibilities; what kind of collaborative experiment could be aging in there?

From snagging Gray Skies barrels to joint recipes with HOMES, Speciation’s collaborative spirit has proven a testament to their success from day one. “We can all make beer better,” Ermatinger said. “Every time we collab with another brewery we learn something about their process, and it goes the other way around too.”

Their relationship with City Built Brewing Company reflects that symbiosis. Brewing roughly ninety percent of Speciation’s wort, City Built provides them the liquid foundation for yeast to create alcohol. They do make a buck as the host brewery, but more importantly, it conveys a mutual respect. Ed Collazzo, City Built’s co-founder, clued me in to a dynamic shift in their partnership. “Beyond our friendship, he needs a brewery because he doesn’t have one. For our new sour program, we’ll need a space to avoid getting bugs in our brewhouse.” City Built has been kicking out awesome kettle sours for a while, but the decision to up the ante with wild fermentation could have to do with friendly competition. “We’re encouraged to do better because he’s in town. There’s a lot of thought behind his plan, both in quality and how he’s changing the sour game in Michigan.” It’ll be a bit before we taste the fruition of this endeavor, but we can sense the Speciation influence in City Built’s November can release, #happyfriendsgiving, a Cranberry Berliner Weisse with lactose.

Another key to the success of the tasting room will be Quinn Vollink, Speciation’s taproom manager. A long time face at The Sovengard, his relationship with the Ermatingers and passion for sour beer landed him a full-time spot handling day-to-day operations. “The big thing for me is educating the public on our process and getting people excited about what we do,” Vollink said. “I’m a Zingerman’s alumni and I put big pride in making sure everyone leaves happier than when they first arrived.” Knowledgeable and friendly, whether you want to talk to him about yeast strains or the Talking Heads, you’ll want a spot at the rail to get to know Quinn.

speciation artisan alesMitch clearly appreciates the help too, “For two years I was working 80-100 hours a week and I was burning out. Then we had a kid. When we had Quincy it made me realize I needed to delegate or I would die. Despite this being so much fun I don’t want to work my life away.” This trust to relinquish control is necessary in both fatherhood and beer. Volatile and fickle, I imagine brewing a sour isn’t altogether different from raising a toddler. “I can’t control all the microbes, there’s too many variables. But I also don’t want control, I want the beer to go in different ways, come together and make something unique.” Spoken like a true dad.

With a little extra time on his hands, Ermatinger has started plotting a next move. “We applied for our winery license, so soon enough we’ll be making wild fermented wine and cider too,” he said. “They’re a funky wine. Similar to lambic.” Essentially wine that’s alive, natural wine is a middle finger to the bore and snobbery put on by sommeliers. “Because we’re not selling to wine people we’re going to be doing things that are unorthodox like a tequila barrel-aged white wine.” Maybe on paper that sounds like dorm room hooch, but the staff promises they would never release a product they wouldn’t drink. Regarding quality control, “Our beers take time, the production staff is constantly tasting them, making sure to see how they taste and if they’re ready or not,” Volink said. “We use the highest quality ingredients and we have fun getting them. I like that we don’t take shortcuts.”

Speciation also takes a page from the wine world when it comes to terroir—how climate, soil, and aspect affect taste. I like to think about it abstractly, like how it feels returning to a family cabin; how bombarded by stimulus both sensory and spectral, the environmental factors congeal into something, well, home. “The whole point of our beer is to make it taste like the place that you’re in. We’re proud to be part of the Michigan beer scene,” Ermatinger said. With a fully-fledged tasting room and a vision for the future, expect Speciation to only get better with time.

 

 

barrel + beam

Barrel + Beam opened its doors in Marquette in January 2018 with a clear vision. Seeming to come out of the gates sprinting, the brewery emerged with a well defined brand, a suite of farmhouse and barrel aged ales and an ambitious self distribution plan.

None of that happened overnight.

“It took a decade for that to become a clear vision,” said Nick VanCourt, brewer/owner at Barrel + Beam.

That vision started roughly the same way most breweries do. VanCourt’s homebrew recipes were receiving a warm reception from friends and family. He told his wife, Marina, that he’d like to start a brewery. She told him that he ought to get an education and some experience first.

He did. He graduated from the World Brewing Academy and garnered professional experience working at Wisconsin’s The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company, Tyranena Brewing Company and Milwaukee Brewing Company. Most recently, he was the head brewer at Marquette’s Ore Dock Brewing Company.

During those 10 years, the vision for Barrel + Beam gradually became more specific. VanCourt decided he wanted to focus solely on bottle and cask conditioned farmhouse and barrel aged ales, which set Barrel + Beam apart from every other brewery in the Upper Peninsula. VanCourt was drawn to the styles’ rich, complex flavors and dry finish.

“I just personally think it’s where the pinnacle of the best beer experience can be,” VanCourt said. “You have this beer that is rich and really strikes a note in your mouth. But then when you swallow, it goes away.”

 

Barrel + Beam’s tap list has become a case study in the ways traditional and modern brewing techniques express themselves in beer. The brewery’s old-world line uses ingredients imported from Belgium and France, and its new-world line uses all Michigan produced ingredients. The tap list also features ales soured over months in barrels, a traditional technique, and kettle soured beers, a modern way. Tasting Barrel + Beam’s brews offers an opportunity to study exactly how these techniques impact flavor.

One example comes in the two saisons on the tap list: the French-sourced “Terre a Terre” and the Michigan-sourced “Terroir.”

“Side by side, they’re very different beers, even though they’re not different in formulation at all. It’s just the ingredients,” VanCourt said.

It’s a study in the effect of terroir—the environment in which the ingredients are produced—on a beer’s flavor.

“People know it in wine, but in beer nobody seems to talk about it. That’s the point to us with these ingredients,” VanCourt said.

Choosing to become a niche brewery in the Upper Peninsula came with its risks. One that VanCourt anticipated was the need to distribute to be successful.

“It wasn’t just going to happen here in Marquette,” VanCourt said. “We were going to have to get out there and bring our beer to our market.”

The brewery’s first full-size batches were produced for distribution. VanCourt started self distributing to bottle shops in Marquette, then throughout the U.P. and Northeast Wisconsin. The footprint has since expanded to include Northern Michigan, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor.

VanCourt said self distribution is a challenge and ultimately unsustainable. With his van, he’s only able to get 30-40 cases to his locations at a given time. It’s inefficient and costly.

“We can’t do this forever,” he said.

But he’s grateful for the opportunity to get to know his stockists, and he knows that when the time comes to hire a distributor, the relationships he’s built in these first months will only make things easier.

Barrel + Beam’s home base is set in the building that once held the famed Northwoods Supper Club, a popular dining destination in Marquette that opened in 1933 and operated for 75 years. The supper club closed in the midst of the 2008 recession and sat untouched on the market for years. Getting it up to standard to host the brewery took a $2 million renovation, which VanCourt said was worth it for its size, location and unique history.

“The family that started it, you know, they were as crazy as we are—to show up here when it was the middle of nowhere and build a supperclub. And it worked, wonderfully,” VanCourt said.

VanCourt and his wife, Marina, worked hard to maintain the wooden beams that gave the building its original character. They’ve turned it into a cozy space to enjoy Barrel + Beam brews, either after a day of shopping in Marquette or hiking, biking or snowmobiling the nearby Iron Ore Heritage Trail.

Word of mouth is spreading about the brewery, and VanCourt is optimistic about what the future holds.

“There’s two things that you can’t screw up: one is the quality of your product, two is the customer service you provide,” VanCourt said. “We just know that if we make the product the best we can and we get it to where our market is, then we have a chance.”

great american beer festival

LANSING, Mich.—Seven Michigan Brewers Guild member breweries were awarded a collective nine medals this past weekend at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) Competition, in Denver, Colorado—the largest commercial beer competition in the world and a symbol of brewing excellence, presented by the Brewers Association.

The Brewers Association (BA) awarded 306 medals to 280 breweries across the United States with award-winning breweries receiving prestigious gold, silver and bronze medals in 102 beer categories covering 167 different beer styles (including all subcategories), establishing the best examples of each style in the country and earning a symbol of brewing excellence. Read more about the competition below.

Michigan Brewers Guild member received the following awards:

GOLD

  • West Coast Swing Amber – American Style Amber/Red Ale: The Mitten Brewing Co., Grand Rapids

SILVER

  • NZ Pilz (American Style Pilsener): Wolverine State Brewing Company, Ann Arbor
  • Kung Fu Smurf (Belgian Style Dubbel or Quadruple): Bastone Brewery, Royal Oak
  • Breakfast Stout (Coffee Stout or Porter): Founders Brewing Co., Grand Rapids
  • Roundhouse (Double Hoppy Red Ale): Bell’s Eccentric Café, Kalamazoo
  • My Brown Eyed Girl (English Style Brown Ale): Thornapple Brewing Co., Grand Rapids
  • Porter (Robust Porter): Founders Brewing Co., Grand Rapids

BRONZE

  • Cerveza Delray (International Style Pilsener): Brew Detroit, Detroit
  • Raucher (Smoke Beer): Wolverine State Brewing Company, Ann Arbor

The Great American Beer Festival is the granddaddy of all U.S. beer festivals, offering the largest collection of U.S. beer ever assembled. The judging panel awards gold, silver or bronze medals that are recognized around the world as symbols of brewing excellence. These awards are among the most coveted in the industry and heralded by the winning brewers in their national advertising. Medal distinctions are as follows:

  • GOLD: A world-class beer that accurately exemplifies the specified style, displaying the proper balance of taste, aroma and appearance.
  • SILVER: An excellent beer that may vary slightly from style parameters while maintaining close adherence to the style and displaying excellent taste, aroma and appearance.
  • BRONZE: A fine example of the style that may vary slightly from style parameters and/or have minor deviations in taste, aroma or appearance.

GABF Competition Statistics:

  • 32nd edition of the GABF competition
  • 8,496 entries plus 101 Pro-Am and 49 Collaboration entries
  • 2,404 breweries in the competition from 49 states plus Washington, D.C. (no Mississippi)
  • 293 judges from 13 countries
  • Average number of competition beers entered in each category: 83
  • Category with the highest number of entries: Juicy or Hazy India Pale Ale (391 entries)
  • 280 medal-winning breweries (including Pro-Am and Collaboration)
  • 306 total medals awarded plus three (3) each for Pro-Am and Collaboration
  • 537 first-time GABF entrants
  • 31 first-time GABF winners

The Michigan Brewers Guild is the network of innovative and passionate brewers that serves as the recognized advocate for the Michigan craft beer industry. The mission of the Michigan Brewers Guild is to promote and protect the Michigan craft beer industry with an overarching goal to help craft beer acquire 20% of the market by 2025.

Michigan’s thriving brewing industry conservatively contributes more than $144 million in wages with a total economic contribution of more than $600 million. In terms of overall number of breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs, Michigan ranks #6 in the nation – thus supporting its claim as “The Great Beer State.”

 

Photo © Brewers Association

great american beer festival

 DENVER, CO — The Brewers Association (BA) awarded 306 medals to 280 breweries across the United States at the 2018 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) competition. In a ceremony at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, award-winning breweries received prestigious gold, silver and bronze medals in 102 beer categories covering 167 different beer styles (including all subcategories), establishing the best examples of each style in the country and earning a symbol of brewing excellence.

 

View the 2018 winners or download a PDF list of the winners.

 

GABF COMPETITION STATISTICS

  • 32nd edition of the GABF competition
  • 8,496 entries plus 101 Pro-Am and 49 Collaboration entries
  • 2,404 breweries in the competition from 49 states plus Washington, D.C. (no Mississippi)
  • 293 judges from 13 countries
  • Average number of competition beers entered in each category: 83
  • Category with the highest number of entries: Juicy or Hazy India Pale Ale (391 entries)
  • 280 medal-winning breweries (including Pro-Am and Collaboration)
  • 306 total medals awarded plus three (3) each for Pro-Am and Collaboration
  • 537 first-time GABF entrants
  • 31 first-time GABF winners

 

MOST-ENTERED STYLE CATEGORIES

In its GABF competition debut, the Juicy or Hazy India Pale Ale style category was the most-entered with 391 entries. Since 2002, the most-entered category was American-Style India Pale Ale (IPA), which saw 311 entries in 2018.

The winners of the top five most-entered categories were:

 

Category 63: Juicy or Hazy India Pale Ale (391 entries)

GOLD: Alarmist Brewing – Le Jus, Chicago, IL

SILVER: Kros Strain Brewing Co., Fairy Nectar London Double Dry Hopped – La Vista, NE

BRONZE: Eris Brewery and Cider House, Foiken Haze – Chicago, IL

 

Category 62: American-Style India Pale Ale (311 entries)

GOLD: Root Down Brewing Co. – Bine, Phoenixville, PA

SILVER: Appalachian Mountain Brewery, Portsmouth, Not an IPA (P.S. it’s an IPA) – Portsmouth, NH

BRONZE: Green Cheek Beer Co. – West Coast IPA is Dead! – Orange, CA

 

Category 29: Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Stout (177 entries)

GOLD: Against the Grain Brewery, 70K Amburana – Louisville, KY

SILVER: Kane Brewing, A Night to End All Dawns – Ocean, NJ

BRONZE: FiftyFifty Brewing Co., Eclipse – Truckee, CA

 

Category 59: American-Style Pale Ale (170 entries)

GOLD: Ocean Beach Brewery – B.Right On Pale Ale – San Diego, CA

SILVER: Ventura Coast Brewing Co. – Neighborhood – Ventura, CA

BRONZE: Maplewood Brewing Co. – Charlatan – Chicago, IL

 

Category: 28 Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Beer (162 entries)

GOLD: Drake’s Brewing Co. – Santa’s Brass – San Leandro, CA

SILVER: The Wrecking Bar Brewpub, Willett Barrel-Aged Ye Old Sprinklerhead Barleywine – Atlanta, GA

BRONZE: Revolution Brewing, Straight Jacket – Chicago, IL

 

NEW COMPETITION CATEGORIES

 

In addition to Juicy or Hazy IPA, the following categories were also new to the competition this year:

Category 60: Juicy or Hazy Pale Ale (132 entries)

GOLD: Tin Roof Brewing Co., Voodoo – Baton Rouge, LA

SILVER: Kings Brewing Co., Sippin on Dank – Rancho Cucamonga, CA

BRONZE: Fiction Beer Co., Madame Psychosis – Denver, CO

 

Category 65: Juicy or Hazy Imperial or Double India Pale Ale (150 entries)

GOLD: Black Market Brewing Co., New England Style Double IPA – Temecula, CA

SILVER: Corridor Brewery & Provisions, DDH Double IPA – Chicago, IL

BRONZE: Alvarado Street Brewery, Contains No Juice – Salinas, CA

 

Category 35: American-Style Pilsener: (91 entries)

GOLD: The Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co., Rocket 100 – Austin, TX

SILVER: Wolverine State Brewing Co., NZ Pils – Ann Arbor, MI

BRONZE: The Post Brewing Co., Howdy Beer – Lafayette, CO

 

Category 57: Australian-Style Pale Ale (46 entries)

GOLD: Butcherknife Brewing Co., Sunshine Express – Steamboat Springs, CO

SILVER: Worthy Brewing Co., Strata IPA – Bend, OR

BRONZE: Austin Beerworks, Flavor Country – Austin, TX

 

MOST MEDALED BREWERIES

  • Most medals won by a single brewery: 3

10 Barrel Brewing Co., Bend, OR – 3 medals

  • GOLD – Baywindow, category 77: Berliner-Style Weisse
  • GOLD – Passionate Envy, category 4: Fruit Wheat Beer
  • SILVER – P2P, category 96: American-Style Stout

 

Alesong Brewing and Blending, Eugene, OR – 3 medals

  • SILVER – Terroir Pinot Noir, category 19: Experimental Beer
  • SILVER – Terroir Pinot Gris, category 25: Brett Beer
  • BRONZE – Touch of Brett Mandarina, category 25: Brett Beer

 

Lewis & Clark Brewing Co., Helena, MT – 3 medals

  • GOLD – Miner’s Gold, category 2 American-Style Wheat Beer with Yeast
  • SILVER – Pompey’s Pilsner, category 42 Bohemian-Style Pilsener
  • BRONZE – Prickly Pear, category 55 Classic English-Style Pale Ale

 

BREWERY AND BREWER OF THE YEAR AWARDS

(See criteria here)

 

PACKAGING BREWERIES

Very Small Brewing Company of the Year – Sponsored by Brewers Supply Group

<1,000 barrels produced in 2017

Brink Brewing Co. – Cincinnati, OH; Brewmaster: Kelly Montgomery

 

Small Brewing Company of the Year – Sponsored by ABS Commercial

1,000 – 14,999 barrels produced in 2017

Lewis & Clark Brewing Co. – Helena, MT; Brewmaster: Lewis & Clark Brewing and Packaging Crew

 

Mid-Size Brewing Company of the Year – Sponsored by MicroStar Logistics

15,000 – 6,000,000 barrels produced in 2017

pFriem Family Brewers – Hood River, OR; Brewmaster: pFriem Family Brewers

 

BREWPUBS

Small Brewpub of the Year – Sponsored by Briess Malt & Ingredients

<750 barrels produced in 2017

Ocean Beach Brewery – San Diego, CA; Brewmaster: Jim Millea & Scott Watkins

 

Mid-Size Brewpub of the Year – Sponsored by Brewers Supply Group

750 – 1,500 barrels produced in 2017

Root Down Brewing Co. – Phoenixville, PA; Brewmaster: Root Down Brew Team

 

Large Brewpub of the Year – Sponsored by The Country Malt Group

Over 1,500 barrels produced in 2017

The Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co. – Austin, TX; Brewmaster: Amos Swifty Kim

 

LARGE BREWERIES OR MULTIPLE LOCATION BREWERIES

Brewery Group of the Year – Sponsored by Live Oak Bank

Over 6,000,000 barrels produced in 2017 or multi-location breweries wishing to compete as a group

FiftyFifty Brewing Co. – Truckee, CA; Brewmaster: FiftyFifty BrewCrew

 

PRO-AM COMPETITION

Sponsored by Briess Malt & Ingredients Co., The Country Malt Group and White Labs

Gold, silver and bronze medals were also awarded in the GABF Pro-Am competition, which pairs homebrewers with professional brewers, who scale up their award-winning homebrew recipes. The medal winners, including the winning professional brewers and American Homebrewers Association (AHA) member homebrewers are:

 

GOLD:             Little Harpeth Brewing Co. – Nashville, TN

Deer Crossing, Munich-Style Helles Lager

Brewmaster: Jesse Brown and Mike Onofray

Homebrewer: Chris Allen

 

SILVER:            Rock Bottom Brewery – Warrenville, IL

Gone for a Burton, English-Style Brown Ale

Brewmaster: Erik Pizer

Homebrewer: Jim Todd

 

BRONZE:         Cheluna Brewing Co. – Aurora, CO

La Bomba; Belgian-Style Pale Strong Ale

Brewmaster: Jennifer Perez

Homebrewer: Chris Cardillo

 

COLLABORATION COMPETITION

Medals were also awarded in the first-ever GABF Collaboration Competition, which recognizes the collaborative spirit of the professional craft brewing community.

 

GOLD:             New Belgium Brewing Co. – Ft. Collins, CO

TransAtlantique Kriek

Collaboration Brewery: Oud Beersel – Beersel, Belgium

 

SILVER:            Firestone Walker Barrelworks – Buellton, CA

Pixie Dusted

Collaboration Brewery: Firestone Walker Brewing Co. – Paso Robles, CA

 

BRONZE:         Quarter Celtic Brewpub – Albuquerque, NM

Mocha Hipster Bomb

Collaboration Brewery: Palmer Brewery and Cider House – Albuquerque, NM

 

GABF STATISTICS

  • 37th anniversary of the festival
  • Over 800 breweries in expanded festival hall
  • 4,000+ beers served at the festival
  • 62,000 attendees
  • 4,086 volunteers (festival and competition combined)
  • 584,000 square feet of festival hall

 

Photo © Brewers Association

With literally thousands of beers to try from hundreds of breweries, time is a precious commodity at the Michigan Brewers Guild Summer Beer Fest. One gulp of Brewery Becker’s 15% Braggot and you might need a 15 minute breather by the riverside to sober up. Tick tock. Follow up with a healthy pour or two of KBS and that’s a wrap. Needless to say, the four hour window can hardly feel like enough to scratch the surface of Michigan’s amazing beer scene. I found a winning formula in seeking out unfamiliar brews, mingling, and simply taking in the sights.

summer beer fest

Hayley & Beer-tern Jack

One key observation: what a good looking group of drinkers. It’s clear the craft beer community has upgraded its sartorial sensibilities beyond those hosed hardhats you suck beer out of. I saw patterns galore, sick kicks, fanny packs too. The range of personal style reflects a culture as diverse as its beer selection. Still, in spite of our differences we can all unite behind a pretzel necklace, the greatest tongue-in-cheek alternative to a choker. Sense of humor should always precede fashion sense, and judging from all the smiles I saw Friday, craft beer still has its priorities straight. Here are a few of the friendly faces we met while patrolling the grounds.

 

 

 

Photography: Katie Raymond

mushroom head

I’ll admit, sometimes I rest on my laurels when describing any brown beer I’m drinking: “I don’t know, I guess it’s malty?” Malty. Like calling something “interesting,” it’s a cop-out that implies flavor while hardly saying anything at all. Maybe notes of toffee? A rye spiciness and a clean mouthfeel? The breadth of characteristics malt can impart is as wide as it is complex. Still, I can see why drinkers struggle to place what makes malt so special. Suffering from a case of middle child syndrome, malt lacks the panache of palate blasting hops and fails to rile the zeitgeist like wild yeast does—but that doesn’t mean you should ignore it. At the foundation of every good beer is its grain, and while malt remains an unsung ingredient in the public eye, there are some passionate maltsters out there looking to change its reputation.

Enter Mushroom Head Malt Company. The brainchild of husband and wife duo Richard and Danni Vierzen, Mushroom Head represents a merging of its founders talents—Danni’s scientific mind and Richard’s ability to harvest just about any crop on Earth in full. A hand on his father’s dairy farm since he could swing a rake, Richard has grown into a man who understands and loves land. He affectionately refers to his own with feminine pronouns, “A heavy rain and her soil will spill into the pond,” and “She’s gonna put out a great harvest this year.” From the looks of it, she most certainly will.

mushroom head

Richard and Danni’s malting journey began a few years back after a bad farm deal. We’ll spare the nitty gritty. Essentially they were forced to shift from their normal farming practices and turn lemons to lemonade—or barley to malt if you will. “We first attended the Great lakes Hops and Barley convention in 2016 thinking that hops would be a good idea,” Danni said. “We quickly saw a need for Michigan barley and we had already been growing top grade cereal grains for the last 10 years.”

So they erected a barn to germinate and kiln grain and then, bingo, a malt farm was born.

Recently, I paid a visit to the Vierzen’s farm in Saranac, MI and spent the day learning more about the process from seed to grain sack. Mostly though, I moseyed about the grounds marveling at their field of barley that stretched into infinity. The Calypso Winter barley with its waist-high stalks swaying in the breeze looked like hairs wisping off an impressionist’s paintbrush. We took a hay ride to the edge of the plot and Richard let me pluck a couple kernels for taste. Plump and healthy, they burst with a sweetness like a grass jellybean. The symmetry and size of the plant suggested a yield that might exceed even Richard’s expectations. Last year the Vierzens harvested about 100,000 pounds of barley. This year the bounty could double, a win-win for Michigan’s agriculture and its craft breweries alike.

The way Danni sees it, there’s a sense of pride to incorporating locally sourced crop. “When I go drink a beer made with Mushroom Head malt, I know I am drinking something one-of-a-kind,” she said. “It has a flavor unlike anything you can buy online. The freshness that comes from buying local cannot be matched!”

Early adopters of Mushroom Head agree. The boys at Thornapple Brewing used some of their cracker malt for a SMASH (single malt and single hop) saison and were impressed by a level of quality not usually seen in our state. In another case, Gravel Bottom tinkered with their Hoppy Bliss wheat IPA recipe to include 2-row pilsner malt from Mushroom Head. Onsite expert Ben Darcie found that the malt gave the beer a bigger body and a better platform for the Michigan grown hops to shine too. “It’s an exciting reflection of where we are,” Darcie said. “It’s our soil and sun encapsulated. We’ve put Michigan in a glass.”

For now, you can find Mushroom Head malt popping up for wholesale at homebrew shops like Siciliano’s and in Michigan beers made by some of our best breweries. That said, it’s well worth the field trip to meet the Vierzens and hear their story firsthand. They’re a tight-knit family, charming and hospitable, and I’m sure they’d welcome you with open arms and beer in hand. While they continue to make a name for themselves with their exceptional product, watch as they grow like their namesake fungus.

 

beer fridge

If NewAir AB-1200B sounds like the name of a fridge from the future, that’s because it is. With its pristine black matte finish and inaudible whirr, the NewAir looks like an appliance you’d find on a starship, voice-powered by the HAL-9000 perhaps. But instead of filling it with the freeze-dried goo astronauts have to eat, you can stock it up with a more earthly beverage: beer, and lots of it. If you configure the shelves correctly, the storage space maxes out at an impressive 126 cans. That’s five and a quarter 24-packs of Solid Gold, or just your one three-liter bottle of Samiclaus if you’re trying to be a real grinch.

beer fridge

Another feature worth noting is its security that comes by lock and key. Anyone who’s returned home from vacation to find their vertical of Black Note missing knows that some treasures are best left kept from prying hands.

But even you can be your beer’s own worst enemy. The other night, mid heated game of ping-pong, I whipped my paddle across the room and shattered my last bottle of Bourbon County. Mopping up the remains, I decided then and there that letting my prized beers rest on a wobbly credenza wasn’t going to cut it as “cellaring” any more.

With total temperature control, maximum energy efficiency, and a design so intuitive any buzzed up college kid could get it up and running, there’s no excuse to forgo the upgrade. Embrace the future of the beer fridge, it’s here now.

And bonus! If you use the promo code MITTENBREW at checkout you’ll get an extra 20% off the price tag. Hop over here to get your hands on one.

 

beer fridge

FAQs

How cold does this fridge get?
You can adjust the temperature as low as 34 degrees, making this one of the coldest beverage coolers on the market.

Is this beer cooler loud?
No. The motor chilling this fridge is very quiet, measuring on 35 decibels at its loudest in our testing.

Can you install this as a built-in underneath kitchen cabinets?
No. This unit has a rear vent and is designed to be spaced at least 2 inches from the wall at its back.

Will wine bottles fit in this fridge?
Yes. Adjustable racks offer lots of freedom in how you set up the interior of the cooler. Just be sure to adjust the thermostat to the ideal temperature for your wine, which is typically around 55 degrees for most varieties.

 

Sponsored by NewAir

steve siciliano

For Steve Siciliano, proprietor of Siciliano’s Market (perhaps West Michigan’s most well-respected bottle shop and homebrewing supply store), admitting failure acknowledges how seriously close he was to giving up—and how thankful he is that he didn’t. Siciliano, who many would consider partly responsible for laying the foundation of what would become known as Beer City USA, endured five years of dark days before craft beer saved his store, and maybe his life.

 

MittenBrew: Your blog tells a brief story about your store’s history, but why pivot into the realm of convenience stores in the first place?

Steve Siciliano: I was the regional manager for a marketing company in the late ‘70s. I hated the work, the travel, and had young sons at home, so I took on franchise ownership of a 7-Eleven. It ended up not being an easy business to run, but it taught me about the business of retail and, more significantly, the importance of being a part of a community.

 

MB: How so?

SS: Back then, 7-Eleven was different than the way we think about them today. They operated more like a mom and pop store. They really stressed the value of community, and backed it up with charitable giving. Everything started by making customer service the priority. I found that I really liked the interaction with the customers, but I was kind of a quiet fella, believe it or not. I’m really quite reticent for the most part.

 

MB: That doesn’t sound like someone who’d end up having an affinity for providing exemplary customer service.

SS: It sounds weird, but I developed somewhat of a stage persona, so to speak.

 

MB: Something you turned on and off?

SS: I’m not a loquacious type of guy, so it was a way for me to connect with the customers and have some fun with them at the same time. [With a quick, soft chuckle under his breath seemingly surprised by the popularity of his accidental alter ego…] And, they liked it! If they came in and I didn’t throw an innocent, verbal jab at them or literally throw a donut at them playfully on their way out of the store, they thought something was wrong with me.

 

MB: After you got good at throwing donuts, you left 7-Eleven to buy a different store in Creston Heights. What were you hoping to achieve differently?

SS: In the eight years I owned the second store, I felt like I was able to really engage with and impact the community in a positive way, especially with the Scholar Dollars program. Unfortunately, the neighborhood’s socioeconomic status at that time didn’t lend itself well to the direction I was interested in going. We did okay with the working crowd in the morning and around lunchtime, but business would go quiet after dark. I was getting into wine around then, and knew that I’d have to consider a different location if I was going to be able to give that a shot on the shelves. Then I bought this store.

 

MB: What was this place like when you bought it?

SS: As soon as you walked in, you were hit with porn magazines. I mean, the guy had a shit ton of pornography. And that’s pretty much all he was selling—porn and cheap booze…and maybe a bag of stale chips. It was bad. But when I walked in, I’m thinking, “I know how to run a store, I know what I’m doing. I’ll come in here, remodel it, stock it up, and have plenty of space for wine, too.” I envisioned a really nice convenience store—and guest experience. So, I put in soda fountains, coffee, everything I thought I needed. But nothing—I was up against the reputation of the previous management. It was crickets for five years. It was tough, really tough. People just did not come in here. Nothing worked.

 

MB: I read in another interview that you said you “pretty much died here” during that time. Is that true? Did you ever want to throw in the towel?

SS: It was probably the worst time of my life, really. Just five years of me sitting around an empty store. It was tough. I mean, I slipped into a depression. I never failed at anything in my life, and I was failing. To be honest with you, there were times when I’d go in the back room and cry. I was exhausted—mentally, physically.

 

MB: Did it stress family life at home?

SS: Yes, yeah… There’d be nights where I’d just go home, sit in the dark, and stare at the wall.

 

MB: What turned it around?

SS: Around the time I bought this building in ‘93, craft beer was just starting to gain interest. I started hearing whispers about it from random customers in the late ‘90s, and I listened to them. I remember this very distinctly: I brought in a case of Bell’s, was working out the price for a six-pack, and thinking to myself, “There is no way this is ever going to sell.” I mean, I couldn’t see people buying it—paying that much for a six-pack?! So, I thought, “What if I just price them out and sold the bottles as singles?”

 

MB: So, wait. You’ve been pricing beer as singles since the late ‘90s?

SS: Yep. Everything that came in, I priced out as singles. And it worked.

steve siciliano

 

MB: Simple, but genius.

SS: It just snowballed from there. As customers would recommend that I try to get this beer, that beer, those imports, I did. If anyone ever asked if I could get my hands on a certain beer for them, I would. At that time, I would do anything to earn a customer.

 

MB: Is that what led you to expand into to homebrewing supplies?

SS: Tom Buchanan, head brewer at Ludington Bay Brewery, used to live in the neighborhood. He was a customer, and really good homebrewer. He said I should consider selling homebrewing supplies, but I knew nothing about it. I did a little research, found a local distributor, GW Kent, asked for a catalog, and ordered a bunch of stuff I didn’t know anything about. I was scared shitless because I didn’t have the money to spend on it, but it drew people in. It probably took another three to four years before we started making money, but I was getting new and returning faces through the door, and it was fun again.

 

MB: How much lighter was the weight on your shoulders?

SS: Making money is a great antidepressant. For so long, the store was this big, heavy airplane slowly… taking… off… It took a long time to gain altitude, but we finally did.

 

MB: How close were you to running out of runway? Why didn’t you quit?

SS: [Lights his pipe, takes an intentional, steady drag, exhales calmly, and introduces us to his wife, Barb, who has just joined us to listen in…] It’s interesting that you ask that. Barb and I met in ‘98, at the tail end of those dark first five years here at the store. From the very beginning of our relationship, she’s been very supportive, very involved, and with me every step of the way. But before we met, I actually tried to sell the store.

I called a good friend of mine—the same commercial real estate guy who helped me get the Creston store, who helped me buy this store, and I said to him, “Listen, I can’t do this anymore. It’s killing me. You gotta help me sell this place.” So we listed it. We had some lookers, but it didn’t sell. He couldn’t figure out why. And you know what? It was the fucking universe telling me, “You stick this out.” I really think it was something metaphysical, something bigger than me telling  me, “No. You stick this out.” Now, I say to myself, “Thank God I didn’t sell.”

 

MB: You couldn’t ditch the store. The only thing you had left was the hope that customers would eventually walk through the door. Once they did and continued to return, how did you apply your philosophy of what you learned about community and customer service to keep the store above water?

SS: I had the idea to throw a party for homebrewers. We held it at St. Ladislaus Aid Society, an old Polish hall. They could bring their beer, we’d feed ‘em (Barb and her friend Connie made ribs in Connie’s kitchen) and we were going to play trivia. I found this old silver cup at an antique store, and we called it The Siciliano’s Cup, and we’d award it to the homebrewing team with the highest trivia score—not the best BJCP-judged beer, like it is now. Now, in its 15th year, it’s revered like the Stanley Cup. Since, we’ve parlayed that into throwing our own Big Brew Day at Trailpoint Brewing Company to celebrate National Homebrew Day, which happens annually on the first Saturday in May.

steve siciliano

 

MB: I get the sense that your customers are more important to you than just a cash transaction.

SS: I’ve met SO many wonderful people over the years, especially here. Like-minded people who love good things—good beer, spirits, wine, cigars. I’ve developed a lot of really close friendships. It’s one of the many cool things about running a store like this. We’ve always considered ourselves to be a mom and pop place, and I like that. My wife, Barb, is a face of Siciliano’s, too, and our employees are an extension of us—they’re so appreciated. We’ve just tried to create an atmosphere with a tangible personal touch.

 

MB: Do you consider Siciliano’s a contributing factor to Grand Rapids being known as Beer City USA?

SS: I know so many professional brewers now because they started out being homebrewers. I feel pretty proud of the fact that many of them got their start in our store. We’re like a farm team of local brewers. [He affectionately starts name-dropping…] Jacob Derylo, from Vivant, used to work here. Matt Blodgett from Founders. Gary Evans and Mark Lacopelli from Trail Point. The guys from Mitten Brewing. Seth Rivard from Rockford Brewing. The guys from Pigeon Hill and Unruly in Muskegon. The guys from Odd Side and Grand Armory in Grand Haven. Elk Brewing. Tom Payne, who just opened Two Guys [and was shopping for supplies during this interview]. I mean, I can keep going…

 

MB: The Siciliano’s jumbo jet has been in the air, turbulence-free, for a while. You’ve got a successful annual homebrewing competition, a complementary, impressively-attended National Homebrew Day party, a résumé of helping influence a who’s who in the local brewing scene, and you just recently announced your “semi-retirement”. Why now?

SS: My age. My wife. [Laughing…] I’ve been slowing down for a couple years now. Don’t get me wrong, if they need help behind the counter, I’ll jump behind there. I’ll help carry a customer’s order out to their car, but I’ve been concentrating more on the marketing end of the business. Writing’s always been in my blood—I’ve got a degree in journalism. I’ve self-published a novel. It’s my creative outlet, so I love writing our blog. But Barb’s like, “What are you gonna do, keep working for the rest of your life?! I want to go travel.” So, me being a smart man, I started listening to her.

steve siciliano

 

MB: Are you going out kicking and screaming?

SS: When you’ve spent half your life building something, it’s hard to walk away from it. You know, I got in this morning at nine o’clock, and said, “I like this.” We’ve been traveling a lot more lately. And, you know what, I’ve kinda liked that, too. I’ve been grooming the management team for about a year, and I trust them. So am I going kicking and screaming? Yeah, maybe I was at first, but they’ve got the program dialed in now. So much, in fact, that most of the time they don’t even put me on the schedule. [He shows the schedule as proof.] It’s a coup! [Laughing.]

 

MB: So when you finally clock out for the last time…

SS: [He cuts me off…] I don’t think I’ll clock out. [Barb adds, “I don’t think he will either.”] I’ll clock out when I’m dead.

 

MB: Fair enough. [We all pause in silence…]

 

MB: Do you have a vision for how you’d like to see the store once you are gone? Is there an heir to the throne?

SS: Not yet, but I hope it stays. Once I’m dead and gone, I hope that… I hope they find a way to keep this thing going, and under the same name. That’d mean a lot to me.

 

MB: If this store with your name on it is your legacy, what does your headstone stay?

SS: Let’s put it this way. At my funeral service, which won’t be open casket because I’ll be ashes, I want the book I wrote, the black belt I earned, my fly fishing rod, and a picture of Siciliano’s Market there. And I want Tom Petty’s “Room At The Top” playing on a loop.

 

MB: When you’re looking down from the top of the world, what drink will be in your hand?

SS: Maybe a Manhattan (with a good bourbon, good sweet vermouth, and a Luxardo cherry). Maybe a nice glass of wine, or an authentic Belgian beer. And a good cigar. Or my pipe.

steve siciliano

 

MB: Well, Steve. We hope you don’t see that day for a long time, but when you do we think that sounds like a good way to go out.

 

Photography: Steph Harding