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.”
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.
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.
Mitch 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.
https://i1.wp.com/mittenbrew.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/SpeciationAles-9.jpg?fit=1500%2C998&ssl=19981500Jack Raymondhttps://mittenbrew.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/MittenBrewLogo.pngJack Raymond2018-10-25 11:36:592018-10-25 11:36:59The Evolution of Speciation Artisan Ales
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.
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.
https://i2.wp.com/mittenbrew.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/MushroomHead-1-3.jpg?fit=1500%2C954&ssl=19541500Jack Raymondhttps://mittenbrew.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/MittenBrewLogo.pngJack Raymond2018-07-19 11:35:502018-08-24 11:18:32Mushroom Head: The Makings of a Michigan Maltster
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.
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.
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.
https://i0.wp.com/mittenbrew.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/beerfridge.jpg?fit=1500%2C998&ssl=19981500Jack Raymondhttps://mittenbrew.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/MittenBrewLogo.pngJack Raymond2018-06-06 20:00:152018-08-17 12:33:19A Beer Fridge Fit for George Jetson
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
https://i1.wp.com/mittenbrew.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/SteveSiciliano-1.jpg?fit=1500%2C998&ssl=19981500Jason Leyhttps://mittenbrew.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/MittenBrewLogo.pngJason Ley2018-05-17 10:30:582018-08-19 20:39:01Steve Siciliano: Behind the Persona
“Networking” is a cliché excuse to get a paid “vacation” and drink a bunch of beer with your industry buddies, but it’s clear that there’s sincere value in being able to look a peer in the eye over a cold one. We may be in the business of beer, but it’s the beer that makes the business worth the work.
The night before 10 Michigan brewerieswon medals at the 2018 World Beer Cup, the Michigan Brewers Guild hosted an at-capacity meetup at Nashville’sHopsmith Tavern. With what seemed like even tighter camaraderie thanlast year’s party in D.C., we hung with a diverse crowd of industry contributors to get their perspective on what makes attending the Brewers Association’s annual Craft Brewers Conference (CBC) so special.
MittenBrew: On behalf of the Guild, how important is it to be at CBC?
We love to participate in some capacity every year. There’s so much content whether you’re a brewery or you represent a complementary business. For me personally, it’s a wonderful opportunity to network with my counterparts from guilds around the country, as well as connect with the Brewers Association. It’s nice to be in an environment that’s so supportive and recognizes the value of state guilds.
What’s your recommendation for breweries on the fence about attending?
This conference is an invaluable opportunity—one you should be budgeting for. I can tell you that one of the real benefits of CBC that’s not printed in any literature is that it gives you perspective. You get to step away from the hard work you do every day to learn how other people approach what we do. So often your nose is right in there that it’s good to take a break, come up for air, and put a renewed set of eyes on your business. It’s refreshing and invigorating.
When they return home from CBC, what can Michigan breweries expect from our Guild?
In a nutshell, we exist to protect and promote the craft beer industry in Michigan. Obviously, our beer festivals are the biggest promotions we do, but we want to be a resource, too. We work in a heavily regulated industry, and it’s the reality of our business that breweries are going to bump into regulation or have to deal with other parties who want to affect them. So, if we’re not paying attention to that aspect of the industry, it could cause grave problems. You don’t know when or where these things are going to pop up, but because of the growth of the industry we’re naturally going to be exposed to issues that have to be addressed. Certainly, there are nuances involved in making legislative change, so it’s critical to have a voice for the industry in that environment, and we take it very seriously in being a unified voice for our state’s breweries.
Advice for Michigan breweries that are either seasoned vets or fresh out of the gate?
Regardless of how long you’ve been in the game, from a legislative perspective, you have to make sure you know the people who are representing you. Whether those decision-makers drink beer or drink at all, they are very interested in your business. You’re employing people, you’re part of the community. If you haven’t met your representatives or senators, invite them down to the brewery to see how you work. They’re dealing with so many issues that I’m sure they’d be very interested to see what you do, and they’d be flattered that you took the time to invite them over for a beer. And when an issue does come up where you might need their help, it’s going to be a lot easier when you’ve already established a rapport with them.
Dave, this isn’t your first CBC rodeo. How many times have you attended, and what keeps you coming back?
This is my fifth year. I’m varsity letterman status. There are two reasons. One: To extract nuggets of information from the seminars, which I’ve found to be a success rate of about 50% of those I attend. Two: Networking here is big time. For most of us, we only see each other at the major festivals and conferences.
How do you approach the seminars?
I bring a notebook where I keep all of those nuggets, and I save them year after year. Three weeks ago, I actually went back to my notebook from the first time I attended because I remembered attending a seminar that addressed a problem we’ve been having, and those notes helped me navigate through the issue. So now, even if I attend a seminar that might not be completely relevant to where we’re at right now, I make it a point to still pay attention and document it because it’s likely going to be something that we’ll have to deal with at some point.
How many people did you bring?
We brought a bigger crew this time—five people. In the past, it started out with just me when we were in that startup phase. But as we’ve evolved we’re able to divide and conquer. I’m tackling distribution, marketing, and sales aspects. Our GM is working on brewpub management, and of course our brewers hone in on the technical side—yeast, safety, etc.
Advice for first-time attendees?
Talk to as many people as possible, and listen. The first time is always going to be a little overwhelming, but if you stay focused—and organized!—you’ll always get something out of it. And, remember, the World Beer Cup is every two years so you’ll get a lot more international exposure as well.
You’re in a pretty unique space. I image attending CBC is particularly relevant for you.
Absolutely. It’s essentially the entire industry concentrated in one city for an entire week. It’s super efficient for me because I’m able to get facetime in one location with my suppliers from across the country as well as my international buyers. In some cases, aside from Skype, we’ve never met so it’s really valuable to get to know them, their beers, and their goals all a little better.
Aside from the in-person meetings, what other value does attending CBC provide for you?
They have an education track for export-relevant issues, including seminars on the TTB [The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] and, particularly important to BrewExport, the intricacies in partnering with China, the UK, Latin American, Canada, all of which are great markets for me. There’s always new little tidbits of information I’m able to take away from the education track.
Anything in particular that’s been of notable success for you this year?
I was able to meet with the TTB and get a ruling on some of the legal interpretations that apply to me. They were great to talk to. They just made my life a little easier, so I’m a really happy girl right now.
For a brewery that’s distributed in over 20 states, what are you hoping to get out of repeat attendance at CBC?
Being my fourth visit to CBC, I’m focusing solely on the expo floor this year. Generally, you’ll see a lot of product repetition, but I try to look between the lines for something new—any detail that may spark a light bulb idea.
Have you found any needles in this giant haystack this year?
Yeah, what Crowler Nation is doing with their resealable twist-top lids, although I’m still a fan of Oktober’s small footprint designs. Personally, I’m over growlers—they’re heavy, awkward, and glass breaks. We’re trying to transition into being more sustainability-minded, so the ‘can route’ makes sense for us right now.
If you’re not attending any of the seminars this year, is there anything else that adds to your experience?
The expo floor here is just so massive, and it requires your attention. I do really enjoy the Michigan Brewers Guild’s annual conference—it’s definitely more manageable. But, when you walk the floor here, everyone you talk to is a networking opportunity. I try to learn from the practical applications of what other brewers across the country are doing. It’s honest feedback in real-time.
You’re here as an exhibitor promoting your custom jockey boxes. Tell the people how Coldbreak came to be.
We’ve technically been around since 2005 when we were just an eBay store. In 2012, we started producing a line of homebrewing equipment, but it wasn’t until 2014 when we turned out our first jockey box at the request of Matt, the owner of Gravel Bottom. Then it just took off from there.
What’s your experience been like at CBC? I haven’t seen many other jockey box vendors, if any, on the floor.
This is our fourth year here, and probably the most successful conference we’ve had to date. There’s not a ton of competition out there, so if we’re going to be one of few it’s important that we deliver a premium product.
What makes your boxes different?
We design them from the ground up, having gone through several revisions over the years constantly working to make the best version of what we do. What the brewers like is that we keep the inputs for all the taps and lines up front in one location. It’s a clean look from the guest’s perspective when they walk up to a booth, and the breweries really like that. We use only stainless steel—there’s no chrome. And, all of our coils are hand bent. They’re designed so that they won’t pop out of their shank. From the moment the beer enters the coils until it comes out of the fauces, its profile never changes. It chills the beer down to the proper serving temperature, and each coil holds 17 oz of beer so you’ll have a full pint everytime you pour a beer. All that being said, we also customize boxes with a brewery’s logo or branding. We partner with Premier Graphics in Grand Rapids, who wrap our jockey boxes with printed vinyl. They’re incredibly durable, and will hold up well during the rigors of festival season.
If there’s not a lot of competition, and breweries need jockey boxes, what assurances do you give them that they should choose Coldbreak?
We back up all of our boxes with a one-year manufacturer’s warranty. But it’s truly more about the relationships we want to have with our clients, who we have all over the world. We stand behind every one of our products, but if you do have an issue, all you have to do is let us know. We’re approachable, we care, and we’ll make it right. We’re not just trying to sell them a jockey box, we want to sell them better experiences for their beer and ultimately everyone who consumes it. The product we make is something that’s critical in helping drive traffic from a festival back to a brewery’s taproom, and it’s a huge honor that we get to play a role in that.
We manufacture chemical application and distribution equipment.
Unpack that. How does what you do apply to CBC?
Creating sanitary processes around beer production increases quality control and creates better beer. The reality is that every brewery has to be using chemistry, and we’re here to help facilitate those relationships with the people who are supplying chemistry to those breweries.
Do you have exhibitor booth?
No booth, but we value attending because 15 of our customers are exhibiting here. We’ve created strategic partnerships with them to get our equipment in their booths so it’s really important for us to get facetime with those who are advocating our products to the industry. The ultimate end-users are the breweries; our immediate customer is the chemical supplier that’s supplying chemistry to the breweries. The better we can be as a supplier to them, the better they can be in providing solutions to the brewer.
What message do you hope your suppliers are able to communicate to breweries?
The understanding that [a brewery’s] sanitation products don’t do any good just sitting in a bucket, and that chemical application is critical to the sanitation of their operations. Founders has been a customer for about 15 years, and they’re about as good of a testimony as anyone.
Yes. This is our second year here at CBC. We were here last year after our first crop year.
What’s been the reception like to your hops?
Increasingly positive! Breweries are being very intentional about sourcing and diversifying their ingredients geographically. Michigan’s been gaining a great reputation for sourcing and supplying hops.
Has anything helped your presence in the market?
Yes, resources like The Lupulin Exchange. It was originally established for brewers who had overages on their contracts and needed to unload their surplus. Then the Exchange opened it up to brokers and hop farms, so we’ve been selling on it for over a year, and have been able to reach breweries all over the world.
With only one previous year at CBC under your belt, have you had any standout successes?
Absolutely! Last year we met People’s Pint Brewing Collective from Toronto while they were still a brewery-in-planning. We’ve had the opportunity to work with them on recipes, and have been building a really great relationship. Since they opened, they’ve been awesome at promoting our hops to their network, and are proud to say they’re using Michigan-grown hops. That’s led to us earning the business from many other breweries in the Toronto area.
What’s been the most popular hop for you?
Definitely Michigan Chinook. We won the Hop Growers of Michigan’s Michigan Chinook Cup, recognized for the best Chinook hops grown in the state. It was judged by the Hop Quality Group, comprised of some heavy hitters like John Mallet, Jeremy Kosmicki, and Alec Mull. And, we’ve got two other brands, Copper and Mackinac, coming out soon that are becoming conversation starters because attendees here at CBC are looking for the next new thing.
Josh, this isn’t the first time we’ve talked over a beer, but this is your first time at CBC. What are you and Odd Side up to?
My targets for the last year or two have been on packaging, quality, and safety. We’re kind of at a tipping point where we’ve recently expanded and are likely hitting three new markets by the end of this year, so we’re scoping out what possible next steps are going to look like for us. We’re considering investments in software, process equipment, new packaging lines.
As a CBC virgin, what’s been your biggest takeaway so far?
Hands down, the camaraderie forged with people who might be randomly standing next to me when I’m looking at products, and the productive dialogue that’s come from it. It’s given me a lot of ammo in terms of ideas I can go back to the brewery with—what we can do to constantly refine and improve, and the things we can explore that might not have otherwise been on our radar.
Knowledge about the market overall. There’s so much room and so many beer drinkers for breweries to execute well, but there’s also finite real estate on shelf space—we all know that. So, if you get to the point where you’re considering distribution outside of your taproom, you better be prepared to not stop. If you do, you can easily become irrelevant.
How difficult is it to not stop and keep the quality and innovation on point—because it’s not as easy as just brewing more beer?
First of all, there has to be a place for that beer to go. Is there a market for your product? Do bars want your stuff? And more importantly, does the consumer demand your product? And if you’re ready to meet that demand, do you have quality assurances in place? In my opinion, there are two things that are really hard to catch up on—quality and safety. With rapid growth, there’s a lot of shortcuts you may want to take, but they will ultimately circumnavigate quality and safety, and can put your brewery and more importantly—your people—at risk that you could’ve avoided.
You’re a first-timer here. What’s captured your interest?
I came for the education track, particularly the technical side, of course. But, one thing that’s been a little frustrating is having to choose between two equally enticing seminar topics that are happening at the same time. It makes for a tough decision.
Did you have any expectations before you arrived?
I didn’t totally know what to expect. Everyone who says the networking is great is right. I’ve been able to draw on the wealth of knowledge not only from Michigan, but breweries that I’m a fan of. There’s something about being able to connect to and learn from people over a beer.
Any parting words for CBC?
Nashville is awesome. I think it’s cool that we’re all fortunate to get to experience an amazing conference in a new city every year.
Welcome back! Good to see you. Tell everyone why I’m talking to you.
Before I moved to Las Vegas last year, I covered the West Michigan beer industry for the Grand Rapids Business Journal and Grand Rapids Magazine, among others. When I left and told people where I was going, the general consensus from a lot of my beer peers was that the Vegas beer scene sucked. So, since I’ve been at CBC this week, it’s been a good opportunity for me to be able to spread the opposite message about beer from Nevada.
Why’d you come back “to Michigan” for CBC?
I missed it. Michigan beer is special. Covering it has allowed me to make a living. So, when I have an opportunity like this to dip back into the Michigan scene and reconnect with everyone I’ve spent the last few years writing about—and getting to know—I can’t not show up to continue to support our industry.
Okay, defend Nevada beer. If CBC ever lands in Vegas, where should we drink?
Tourists are easily swayed by the beers they’re exposed on the strip. Some casinos brew their own beer on site, and most of that isn’t a fair representation of the state’s beer. When you come visit, go support Big Dogs Brewing Company, Great Basin Brewing Co., Revision Brewing Company, Tenaya Creek Brewery, and Craft Haus Brewery.
Pauline Knighton, Sonia Buonodono, Steph Harding, Annette May – via Fermenta
I’ve been four or five times. Our industry is constantly evolving, and people’s roles change on a regular basis, so I think it’s important to continue attending so you can grow with the evolution. Originally, Short’s sent me because they cared about me learning as much as I could about what I was responsible for on a day-to-day basis, but they also wanted me to learn about the industry that fell outside of my scope.
What’s the conference done for you in that aspect?
It’s allows you to make multiple concurrent deep dives into every facet of the industry. In my current role, I’ve been excited to learn more about leadership development and distributors.
Short’s is a pretty iconic brand, with a very special identity. Does Short’s reputation impact your perspective when you attend?
There are a lot of breweries who are nailing it from a branding and sales standpoint, so it’s great to expand your perspective in terms of breweries of different sizes executing effectively.
Goals for attending?
I hope to help continue to grow Short’s, so if I can listen to breweries who are bigger than us and learn from their mistakes, I can better position Short’s to be successful while hopefully bypassing some of those unforeseen pitfalls.
Any advice for other breweries who might need help defining their brand?
We purposely embody the culture of Northern Michigan, and although we may grow operationally, which attending CBC can help us do, it’s important to Joe [Short] to maintain the power of smallness.
Are there any unintended benefits or consequences of growing while wanting to maintain your brand identity?
You’re marrying your partners in these professional relationships, so you need to make sure that when you meet them in person for the first time it’s a cultural fit. You’re going to go through good and bad times together, so you better make sure you can kiss and make up for the greater good of your company.
You’ve been multiple times. How does a brewery determine who on their roster to send?
I think it depends on what phase your brewery is in. You want to make sure that whoever you pay to fly, or drive, to whatever amazing city CBC is held in that they’re going with a purpose to bring something valuable back to your brewery. We’re all professional drinkers, and we can network with a beer in our hand any day of the week, but for the sake of respecting your brewery and the conference, be intentional about it, and it will be worth your time and your brewery’s money.
“There’s got to be more to life than this,” said Jen Hain, owner of Fetch Brewing Company alongside her husband, Dan.
They didn’t plan on opening a brewery. They had both come from different careers, but they realized after meeting, marrying, and starting a family that they did not want those jobs forever.
So, the Hains took a risk. Dan, a local from the neighboring town of Montague, knew Whitehall very well. Jen married into the community (and laughingly says after 12 years she’s still not considered a local). They both wanted to bring something that would not only support their family and dreams, but also extend that reach to their fellow neighbors and friends.
In 2013, they found and bought an old bank on the corner, right in the middle of Whitehall’s downtown, that had been empty for over 20 years.
“Ignorance is bliss, and we fell in love with the building right away,” said Hain. “We had no idea what we were doing and this building needed everything, and I mean everything.”
Nothing was up to code, the interior was in shambles, and odd collections of old furniture and wood were in heaps everywhere. But Jen and Dan tackled all of this with excitement—they had a vision and it was all coming true.
Luckily, they were already great at the beer-making thing.
“Dan has been a homebrewer for 20 plus years!” “Before it was cool,” she adds. With a huge laboratory, chemistry, and natural resources background, Dan Hain had a great foundation for the Fetch beer portfolio.
Jen & Dan Hain
On a fun side note, according to Dan Hain, the term “fetch” refers to “the distance that wind travels across open water to create a wave.”
This is an image that reflects the Michigan craft industry’s growth and enthusiastic followers to be sure, but it also reflects the Hain’s family, hometown on the water, and business mission statement.
Their mission from the start wasn’t to conquer the world. The belief was that Michigan caters to the craft industry big and small, no matter the growth plan or distribution reach. The Hains aimed to make small waves in their community by offering quality product and a quality destination for all.
“We’ve always been on the slow plan,” said Hain.
They mark their milestones by improving in their education, quality, promotion, and production; and sometimes that means just making enough beer to keep the taps flowing.
After putting in a lot of hours and elbow grease, they opened back in 2014 to great success and great support from their community. Since then, Fetch Brewing Company has become a community meeting spot for the towns of Whitehall & Montague, as was their goal.
Their beer portfolio has favorites in their Distracted Pale Ale, Riptide Rye, and Tree Stump Stout, and they always have a running variety of other recipes to make sure every customer is happy. Dan Hain runs everything on a Michigan-made, five barrel Psycho Brew system.
“If I had my way, there would be IPAs all day every day,” said Dan.
Alongside the beer game, Fetch plays host to a local running group, a cycling group, and local music. A City Council member and brewery regular even comes in on certain nights to spin vinyl!
Whitehall and the surrounding area have very small town, quaint vibes to those people who just pass through occasionally—“Very Norman Rockwell on the surface, but we have an artistic underbelly. Opening a brewery gave the community a platform for exposing the artistic personalities of town,” said Hain.
“Some people don’t even drink, but that’s ok, too,” said Jen. “We like being the go-to place.”
They refer to their community as their “Fetch Family,” and it very much is. When they premiered their Mug Club, the first 100 sold out in the first week, the second batch of 100 sold out in a day, and the third in less than a month; and these were all taken by locals. Since they’ve fulfilled their community mug club demands, they have expanded the club here and there for special occasions.
“We’re our own little island,” laughed Jen. “Our regulars keep us going—they’re our heart and soul.”
Going into their fourth year, the Hains have proved that a brewery can really revitalize small town pride. The brewery has opened up and strengthened collaborations with their watershed council, food pantry, local farms, charities, events, and other small businesses. Jen Hain now even sits on the City Council.
Fetch Brewing Company is a destination for new and repeat visitors and that brings further growth to the economy as well; and it was just announced that the Hains bought a new building downtown to expand their production facility. By mid to late summer, it will be a renewed space enabling the brewery to keep mainstays on tap, increase distribution and give brewer and co-owner Dan Hain more room to experiment. Stay tuned as they renovate the old site from the ground up into a vision of their future.
“We are a family growing up around beer,” said Hain, “and beer is a small part of it—it’s business, it’s socialization, it’s community.”
https://i1.wp.com/mittenbrew.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Fetch_Brewing-11.jpg?fit=1500%2C998&ssl=19981500Emily Hengstebeckhttps://mittenbrew.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/MittenBrewLogo.pngEmily Hengstebeck2018-04-23 09:55:292018-08-17 12:34:58Fetch Brewing Company: Creating Their Own Island
FRANKFORT, Mich –– The beer is flowing at Stormcloud Brewing Company’s new production brewery located on the east side of the city of Frankfort. The 12,759 square-foot facility houses a 20-barrel brewhouse, handcrafted by W.M. Sprinkman Corporation of Waukesha, Wisconsin, with the capacity to brew 4,500 barrels of beer annually. The brewery is also home to a new Craft Canning System, built by Codi Manufacturing, Inc. in Golden, Colorado, with the capacity to fill approximately 40 cans per minute.
In March, Stormcloud began canning its two most popular beers – Rainmaker Ale, a Belgian-style Pale Ale that brought home a bronze medal from Denver’s Great American Beer Festival, and Whiled Away® IPA, a Belgian-style IPA and best seller in Stormcloud’s downtown Frankfort pub.
Six packs of both beers in 12oz cans have been distributed to stores in 11 Michigan counties, including the cities of Traverse City, Manistee and Ludington. As production increases, Stormcloud cans will be distributed north to Petoskey, Cheboygan and Alpena, and south to Muskegon and Grand Rapids.
The increase in beer production capacity at the new brewery has already enabled Stormcloud to expand its keg beer distribution to the greater Grand Rapids area in partnership with West Side Beer Distributing of Grand Rapids. Stormcloud’s current distribution footprint includes 32 counties in Michigan’s lower peninsula.
“I’m proud of our efforts to make great beer that people want to drink,” says co-owner and head brewer Brian Confer. “We’re very excited about the increased capacity at the new facility, both in terms of brewing volume and lab space to continue our push for the best quality beer we can make.”
Designed by Byce & Associates, Inc. of Kalamazoo, the production brewery houses brewing, fermentation, packaging, cold storage, and all shipping and receiving processes. The facility is also home to a brewing laboratory, office space, and public tasting room with merchandise space. The tasting room is scheduled to open to the public Friday, May 25 and will feature an outdoor beer garden similar to Stormcloud’s downtown location.
“We wanted the design of the tasting room and outdoor area to connect visually with our existing pub and restaurant,” says co-owner Rick Schmitt. “So even though we’re across town from the pub, both new guests and long-time customers will feel the connection to Stormcloud’s downtown roots.”
Energy efficiency was also top-of-mind when designing the new brewery, and a number of environmentally friendly systems were put into place at the production facility, including:
6.2 kW Solar System with 10 two-panel ground mounted arrays that automatically orient to the sun’s location in the sky. Installed by Traverse Solar of Traverse City.
Large sections of vertical glass curtain walls and strategically placed skylights in the production area to maximize daylighting.
All interior lighting is controlled by occupancy sensors and shuts off automatically when vacant.
All exterior lighting is controlled by photocell and timeclock. Exterior lighting shuts off at dawn.
All light fixtures are LED, using less than half of the lighting energy (watts per square foot) allowed by the latest energy code.
Office furnace is 95% efficient (minimum requirement is 80% efficient).
Office condensing unit is 15 SEER (minimum requirement is 13 SEER).
Production area gas heaters are 90% plus efficient (minimum requirement is 80%).
Two electric car charging stations (Tesla and generic). Available summer 2018.
Public tours of Stormcloud’s new production facility will begin this summer. The brewery and tasting room is located at 366 Parkview Lane in Frankfort, Michigan.
https://i2.wp.com/mittenbrew.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Stormcloud_Expansion4.jpg?fit=1500%2C1000&ssl=110001500MittenBrewhttps://mittenbrew.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/MittenBrewLogo.pngMittenBrew2018-04-13 12:25:272018-08-17 12:35:28Stormcloud Brewing Opens New Production Brewery and Begins Canning
The Michigan Brewers Guild’s Winter Beer Fest was (understandably) pushed back one week due to local flooding of the Grand River. With knee-jerk reactions on social media, and many shots taken at the MBG, lucky number 13 for the annual Fest proved that all events are realistically not immune to the guarantee of happening “rain or shine.” The Guild had to be the bearer of bad news when they announced the event’s postponement after accounting for safety concerns and what would’ve been a logistical nightmare hosting over 9,000 ticket-holders knee-deep in water.
With a universal good vibe in the air, sunny skies above, and dry ground below our feet, we polled a cross-section of those in attendance about what they enjoy about drinking beer outside in a parking lot in Febru… um, we mean March. Yeah, March.
Ali Brodhacker, 31, Three Oaks, MI
How many MI beer fests have you attended?
What do you enjoy most about them?
The entire community. It’s cool watching all these people come out and try different beers they might not otherwise be exposed to. I love seeing my brothers and sisters in the brewing community who are actually brewing the beer and pushing it every single day—these fests are a meeting of the minds.
So, you work for a brewery?
Absolutely. I’m the marketing director at Greenbush.
Any comments about how the flood affected you?
I’m actually a huge fan of how everything was handled. I really respect how the Brewers Guild reacted to the flooding. They were on top of it, and seemed pretty transparent to the public by sharing pictures of the flooding and what it could’ve done to the Fest last weekend. It was a crappy situation for everyone involved, but I have more love for them now.
Simion Stewart, 29, Holland, MI
How many MI beer fests have you attended?
This is my very first beer fest, period.
So far, what’s your take?
I love that everyone here—I mean everybody is enjoying themselves. I’m sure that there’s probably some of the best beer in the world here right now, and I get to try it. I know I’ve tasted trash before, but what’s going on here today, I gotta admit, is awesome.
I know you’re only a couple hours in, but is there anything that stands out?
Everything seems cool. I didn’t expect the entertainment or the fires, both are a nice touch. The food options, I think, will come in handy to keep people simmered. And, I like seeing the light security. They’re not in your face, but the environment is a good time and feels safe.
Why did you decide to make this your first beer fest?
It’s simple: To try something new. I’ve never had craft beer before today, but I’m sold. This has made up my mind. I’ll be back.
The Watrous Family, Grand Rapids, MI: Kevin, 51, wife Cathy, 50-something, and their daughter Helen, 22
How many MI beer fests have you attended?
Kevin and Cathy: 13. Seven Winter, five U.P., one Detroit.
Helen: This is my fifth.
What’s been a highlight?
Cathy: Winter Beer Fest is our absolute favorite. There’s just an untouchable jovial atmosphere. People are in costume, but it’s freezing [laughing]! We all know it’s going to be cold, but we prepare for it, and embrace it.
Kevin: The people. We’re all here—9,000 of us—to enjoy the same thing for the same reason.
Helen: Exploring new beer with my family—it’s a pretty special experience.
Helen, you’ve been to five beer fests at a pretty early age. What’s the connection?
My parents. I live in Charlevoix, so they’ve helped me fall in love with craft beer, thanks to Short’s.
Have you seen anything evolve?
Cathy: The one we’ve seen change a lot over the years has been the U.P. Fall Fest. We were there in ‘13, and we just love seeing how much it’s grown. Marquette is just beautiful, the weather usually cooperates, and the town is really starting to embrace it. We were also really surprised about the Detroit Festival. We went a couple years ago, and we hadn’t spent much time in Detroit before that. We drove in a couple days early to explore the city, and it was awesome to see its revival.
Kevin: More water stations, and for the Brewers Guild to distribute the maps and beer lists sooner.
Korey Stubleski, 31, Toledo, OH
How many MI beer fests have you attended?
This is my second.
What’s stood out?
I’ve discovered very quickly that there’s way more variety in Beer City USA than Toledo.
Any Michigan breweries that have caught your attention so far?
Speciation and Transient. I’ve loved everything I’ve tried by them.
Any constructive criticism for how we do things in Beer City?
I thought there’d be more water, more easily accessible. Other than that, I dig the entertainment, and the people here have been very cool and hospitable.
Josh Gordon, 30, Grand Haven, MI
As Plant Production Manager at Odd Side Ales, how many MI beer fests have you attended?
This is my fifth year at Winter Beer Fest, and I’ve been to four Summer, and three in Detroit. Still haven’t been able to make it up to the U.P. Fall Fest in Marquette.
What do you enjoy most about them?
We’re [employees in the industry] in a unique, special position. By far, I love the set-up on Friday—getting here early, knocking it out, and then getting to hang with all my friends. What’s also really cool is when we bring other guys from the production facility out to fests, they get to see the consumer go crazy over what we spend all day brewing and packaging. It’s those people who support our product that give us a means to make a living.
Have you seen the consumer change at fests?
Overall, they’re definitely more experienced and getting more knowledgeable about the beer everyone’s making. Keeps us on our toes.
Anything you’d like to see different?
Oh, man, that’s tough. I really don’t know what you could change, to be honest. It doesn’t have any bearing on those attending, but from an operations standpoint, the end of the night on Saturday is kind of a bummer—just knowing it’s over and we have to tear down and wait until the place clears to load out. But, the Guild takes really good care of us. I’ve seen beer fests in other states ran really poorly. This one’s pretty kick ass.
Lindsey Yax, 31, Grandville, MI
How many MI beer fests have you attended?
This is my third.
Third time’s a charm, right? What are you digging about them?
I obviously love all of our Grand Rapids breweries, but having intimate access to sampling whatever I want from the rest across the state is pretty great.
What have you tried that you’d drive there to have again?
Right now, I’m drinking Mango M-43 by Old Nation. I’ve never had an IPA before that I’ve liked, and I looove this!
Ryan Sheldon, 31, Sylvan Lake, MI
How many MI beer fests have you attended?
Somewhere between five and 10.
What’s the selling point?
It’s a comprehensive selection of all styles and flavor profiles. Regardless of what you’re personally into, there’s something for everyone.
When you attend, do you have an agenda for what you want to drink?
I’m a homebrewer, so I’m always looking for beers that will challenge me to push my own envelope at home.
Is there a particular style you’re looking to explore next, and have you found an example here that’s inspired you?
Historically, the easy answer is anything bourbon barrel-aged. But, lately, I feel like it’s jumped the shark and become the sell-out. There are so many breweries that have become so sophisticated brewing big beers like these, that classic styles like pilsners, Kölsch, etc. are getting overlooked and falling by the wayside. It seems like everyone just runs to the bourbon barrel-aged beers or double IPAs with a high ABV and fancy name.
Despite the unavoidable inconvenience of rescheduling, the event ran like business as usual. It’s clear: the people make this thing tick. From every angle, this community is driven simply by a love for beer. It’s what makes festivals in the dead of winter, or the blistering heat of summer, continue to thrive.
https://i0.wp.com/mittenbrew.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/WBF2018-1.jpg?fit=1500%2C998&ssl=19981500Jason Leyhttps://mittenbrew.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/MittenBrewLogo.pngJason Ley2018-03-05 11:02:372018-08-17 12:35:50Winter Beer Fest '18: Flooded, but Not Washed Up