brewdog

Brew Export recently announced it will be shipping over 100 different midwest beer products to be served at BrewDog Bars throughout the United Kingdom.

BrewDog is the United Kingdom’s largest independent craft brewery based in Ellon, Scotland. The brewer also operates an estate of bars with 50 craft beer venues around the world, all of which are dedicated to the exploration of craft beer.

Now, with the help of Brew Export, visitors to some of those bars can get a taste of the midwest.

The breweries represented in the shipment are Dark Horse Brewing Company, Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, Speciation Artisan Ales, Greenbush Brewing Company, Latitude 42 Brewing Company, Gonzo’s BiggDogg Brewing, 18th Street Brewery, Central Waters Brewing Company, and Rochester Mills Brewing Company.

brewdog

Shannon Long

Exporting such a diverse selection of craft beer from an inland location is a challenge. Many craft breweries choose not to do it because of the cost and time-intensive nature of the process. The premise of Brew Export, founded in 2015 by Shannon Long, is to facilitate those complex shipments.

“We manage the international sales for a variety of breweries across the United States so they can focus on making excellent beers; Brew Export handles everything else,” Long said.

In the process, Brew Export is able to provide importers overseas with the variety they’re thirsty for.

“What international buyers like BrewDog are looking for is variety,” Long said. That means many unique products from multiple businesses–in layman’s terms: a lot of paperwork.

“Not many people are willing to put in the effort to give smaller breweries a chance to ship internationally,” Long said. “Brew Export is doing it, and we’re doing it more often.”

“We are excited to have so many fresh midwest products coming to BrewDog bars,” said Dan Muldoon, head of range and planning at BrewDog. “This was only made possible by working with Brew Export.”

Among the breweries included is Dark Horse Brewing Company in Marshall, Michigan, which has been working with Brew Export since its early days as a business. The brewery will be sending four pallets of its beer in the shipment.

“We love working with Brew Export, because Shannon and Brew Export simplify exportation for us,” said Aaron Morse, owner and CEO of Dark Horse Brewing Company.

Brew Export currently works with nearly 40 breweries across the United States to export their beers overseas. The company intends to consolidate shipments of similar complexity with more regularity in 2018.

“This is something we can offer to importers around the world,” Long said.

More than half of the breweries Brew Export currently exports are located in the Midwest, Long said. This isn’t a coincidence.

“The Midwest is often overlooked when it comes to shipping, because it isn’t on a coast,” Long said. That means additional costs and paperwork for inland shipping to get shipments on a boat and then overseas.

“I would say the Midwest has been significantly underrepresented in the international market,” Long said. “One of the goals of Brew Export is to change that, and not only represent it, but represent it as the best beer in the world.”

 

About Brew Export

Brew Export provides expert navigation of compliance, logistics, and international marketing for the export and import of American craft beers. It is their mission to establish the United States as the preeminent source for exceptional craft beer throughout the world.

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Images courtesy Brew Export

speciation

Standing on the shore of Lake Superior at night, lit only by the moon or maybe the northern lights, you get a sense of how big the lake is. Without being able to see it bleed into the horizon and understand its expanse visually, your only metric is the sound of waves crashing around you. On a windy night, it’s loud. The breeze and cacophony thrill—this is not where one goes to be lulled to sleep.

It’s an exhilarating feeling. You might feel inclined to bottle it.

Speciation Artisan Ales has done just that.

The brewery recently announced the release of its first-ever spontaneously brewed beer: “The Laurentian Series: Lake Superior.”

The sour golden ale was brewed using the risky process of spontaneous fermentation, which involves exposing the beer to wild, airborne yeast. It’s the first in a series of beers to be brewed on the shores of each Great Lake.

In early March 2017, Mitch and Whitney Ermatinger, co-founders of Speciation Artisan Ales, drove to Marquette, Michigan, with a mobile coolship in tow. They brewed the beer at Ore Dock Brewing Company, transferred the wort into the coolship’s stainless steel tanks and hauled it to the shores of Lake Superior to cool and collect yeast via lake breeze overnight.

“Then we closed it up and drove it back across the Mackinac Bridge back down to Speciation,” Whitney Ermatinger said.

After nearly a year of aging in oak barrels, the result is now bottled and slated for release.

The beer is intended to capture the unique terroir of Marquette and Lake Superior, deriving its flavor primarily from the unique cocktail of microbes collected from the air on that particular March night.

“We designed the beer to basically be a free, blank slate so that the yeast could express itself,” said Mitch Ermatinger. “But it did sit in oak barrels for a while, so there’s definitely some oak influence as well.”

The result offers aromas of hay, sweet dough and stone fruit, along with the oak character of the barrels.

Individuals from the limited run of 400 corked and caged bottles can be reserved via Eventbrite on Feb. 3 at noon. Bottles will sell for $32 each.

The Laurentian Series is a tribute to the Great Lakes. Everything from the beer to the packaging salutes the lakes’ surrounding culture and efforts for their protection.

The bottles will be adorned with a wood label made from locally sourced maple veneer, designed by Elizabeth VanStee. David McKie created the label artwork inspired by two Ojibwe myths: the Lake Superior Merman and the Lake Superior Water Panther, Misshepezhieu. A portion of the beer’s proceeds will be donated to the National Wildlife Federation in support of the organization’s work protecting the Great Lakes against the threat of the Line 5 oil pipeline.

“The lakes are important to us, and we want to pay homage to them and our heritage and our culture,” Whitney Ermatinger said.

Each beer in The Laurentian Series will be spontaneously brewed, making them unreplicable snapshots of specific moments in specific places on the lakes’ shores. It’s a cost-intensive process that depends on many uncontrollable variables.

“This is the hardest and most labor-intensive and risky way of making beer,” Mitch Ermatinger said.

While the Ermatingers intend to brew on the shores of the remaining four Great Lakes this year, the success of those batches is far from guaranteed.

speciation“There will be many barrels that we’ll have to dump, just because they didn’t collect the right microbes that night,” said Mitch Ermatinger. “It’s just part of the risk, and also part of what makes the beer really unique.”

Nevertheless, the Ermatingers will give each lake a couple of tries, as needed. And they will continue to use the spontaneous brewing method for future releases.

“This is where we see our brand heading,” said Whitney Ermatinger.

“We’ve kind of been capped at extreme beer,” said Mitch Ermatinger, referencing IPAs with high IBUs and imperial stouts with high ABVs.

“This is what we see as being the next big thing in beer,” he said.

 

Photos: courtesy Speciation Artisan Ales

 

cellar

We’ll admit, on occasion, it’s really good to be us. Founders Brewing Co. did something they rarely do, and we had the honor to be a part of it. They broke character, and extended an exclusive invitation to a very short list of trusted writers and photographers in craft media across the U.S. to peek behind the curtain at what makes them and what they do so unique.

Unprecedented, they offered a private tour of the caves where all of their Barrel-aged Series and experimental one-offs hibernate until Jason Heystek, VP Lead Guitar, and Jeremy Kosmicki, Brewmaster, say, “They’re ready.”

cellar

Jason Heystek & Jeremy Kosmicki,

The caves—yes, literal caves—are naturally held between 40°-55° F, perfect for cellaring beer. Founders has access to a figurative gold mine, spiderwebbed throughout old gypsum mines approximately 85’ underground, somewhere beneath the streets of Grand Rapids. Well, we know where they’re located. With a little Googling, the savvy can find them, too. But. Unless you know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy, you’re not getting in, or in the elevator.

We spent the day rubbing elbows with Founders’ founders, Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers, talking 20 years of history filled with hits and their fair share of misses, but zero regrets.

cellar

Mike Stevens & Dave Engbers

Heystek and Kosmicki were our personal tour guides. With screwdriver and rubber mallet in rubber-gloved hands, Heystek casually displayed why he’s the man. Repeatedly dipping a barrel thief (sanitized every time, we might add) into vintages of popular limited releases being secretly aged in brandy or scotch scotch barrels, experimental recipes with fruit and salt in gin barrels, or KBS (who cares what year?!), Heystek let us drink straight from the barrel beer that most people will never know existed. We were only able to drink after we picked our jaws up off the floor. We can say now that, at the time, we saw barrels of CBS, but weren’t able to talk about it. They even made us prick our finger and sign an NDA. Trust us, it took everything we had not to spill the beans.

After we reemerged, we also visited Founders’ new production facility, which defies comprehensible size. Let’s just say it’s big enough to house some of the estimated 15,000 barrels from the caves when they’re finally ready to see Founders’ Taproom, or hit distribution—if the rest of the world is as lucky as Grand Rapids.

We were gifted an experience you can’t put a price tag on. We’re talkin’ Golden Ticket access: level Charlie Bucket. Here’s proof.

 

Photography: Steph Harding

 

cadre

On December 1, 2017, Founders Brewing Co. quenched the long-endured thirst of beer nerds internationally with the rerelease of CBS, otherwise known as Canadian Breakfast Stout. Originally released in 2011 on draft and in 22oz bottles, in 2014 in limited quantity as draft-only across the U.S., and quietly at random in their Grand Rapids taproom if you were in line at the right place at the right time, CBS’s reputation and allure have preceded it for years—and for good reason. I mean c’mon, its base beer is KBS, transformed and sweetened by being aged in bourbon barrels that also previously nestled maple syrup.  

In what has been a rather impressive display celebrating their 20 years with zero regrets, CBS was Founders’ climax to the six beers they released this year as part of their newly branded Barrel-Aged Series. They teased the rumors that had already been subtly circulating for months that this elusive 11.7% stout was making an official return. Founders activated a creative way to connect to the masses via a respectably labor intensive social media campaign, unveiled first only to members of the Cadre.

founders cbs

Founders’ philosophy : “We don’t brew beer for the masses. Our beers are crafted for a chosen few, a small cadre of renegades and rebels…”

Francesca Jasinski, Founders’ Communications Manager, says, “We decided to form the Cadre as a way to reward our biggest fans with exclusive content, early access to news, opportunities to attend events and more.” While their Mug Club serves the local fan base, the Cadre, Jasinski explains, “is meant to serve our fans who are all around the country (and world). We recognize that many of them do not have the benefit of visiting the Taproom frequently enough to justify our Mug Club membership.

founders cbs

In an email sent to the 5,800 Cadre members on October 21, Founders told them, “Keep an eye on your mailbox – 1,000 of you will be receiving a package that contains a clue to what our sixth and final Barrel-Aged Series beer of 2017 is. Because you are our most loyal followers, we thought it would be fun to get you involved in the announcement process.” Founders snail-mailed out sets of mini flags—one Founders, one Canadian, and asked Cadre members to post photos of both flags to Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #FoundersBarrelAgedSeries. And finally, the rumors were true. Or, at least we could assume.

Since the launch of the teaser campaign, the Cadre grew to over 7,900 strong. Founders invited us to attend the CBS release party at their taproom on December 1, where we got to meet a few of them who were either in line early to get one of the first draft pours of CBS 2017 or to claim their allocation of two 750ml bottles per person of this 100-point bucket list beer of capped goodness.

 

Doug McDowall, 65, Brampton, Ontario, Canada, @dougzone

MittenBrew: I’d be surprised if you got up this morning in order to make the drive from Canada to be the first guests in line for the Taproom.

McDowall: It’s not a bad drive, five hours. We got in last night, and got a hotel in town. And once Founders pulled everyone from this line—those who got here way early so they could join their Mug Club—we were the lucky Canadians left at the front of the line.

Did you make the drive solely for the chance to have CBS on draft, or were you one of the lucky ones to who secured bottles in advance online?

Both. But, we’re going to try it first on draft to make sure it’s any good. [McDowall laughs.]

founders cbs

What are your plans for the bottles?

They’re going back to Canada. I’ll share one with my sons and grandsons and their wives during Christmas. The other will be cellared until, hopefully, Founders releases it again.

Why did you join the Cadre?

I think I remember hearing about it before KBS was released in 2016, and wanted to make sure I got the early news about future bottle releases first. After Founders announced the Barrel-Aged Series, I was anticipating that they’d hopefully announce CBS as the final installment.

Have you ever had CBS before?

[Laughing…] I’ve been to Founders four times—today, plus three previous trips for the annual KBS release party. When I was here in ‘16, you happened to interview me while you were filming Modern Ahabs, and were kind enough to tip me off that I should probably get in line immediately because Founders might be getting ready to tap a “certain rare Canadian” beer. So yeah, I’ve had it once before today, thanks to you. [McDowall smiles.]

Wow. I remember you, Doug. That’s awesome.

By chance, are you a Founders Mug Club member?

No, but that’s only due to proximity. However,  getting the Cadre’s emails gives me the opportunity to decide whether or not I should make the trip. And, when it’s something like CBS, it’s worth the trip.

When are you heading home?

Right after lunch and a couple pours of CBS. We have to be back tonight for a concert in Windsor.

founders cbs

Being a Cadre member from Canada, Founders surely sent you the two flags as part of their social media campaign, right?

Sadly, no, but I would’ve been proud to receive and display them appropriately.

Before we interviewed Doug, who was proudly donning a red hockey sweater with a prominent white maple leaf, he was making friends with others in line by giving out little Canadian flag pins. Once we wrapped this assignment and before we left Founders for the day, we swung by his table in the Taproom to say goodbye. Steph Harding, MittenBrew owner/publisher and photog badass, casually gifted her two Cadre flags to Doug. It was a spontaneous gesture for a really good guy. Standing adjacent to both of them, I watched Doug’s eyes nearly tear up in sincere appreciation, and give Steph one of the warmest hugs I’ve ever seen. Then he made good on his word, and displayed both flags with honor in the middle of his table.

 

Mike Walton, 35, Grand Rapids, MI, @mwalton82

MittenBrew: You responded to Founders’ outreach to the Cadre, asking if members who received the flags would be hip to telling us about their experience. Why’d you join?

Walton: I was tipped off either by something Founders or a friend posted on Facebook. I wanted to be the first to know what’s going on—when beers are coming out, what unique events they’re hosting, what’s happening in the Taproom that I might otherwise miss as a casual guest.

founders cbsWhat’d you do with the flags after you posted a photo to social media?

I actually displayed them at home during Thanksgiving. And, some of the Likes I got on the photo on Instagram were from people I didn’t know, which I thought was cool.

How else have you taken advantage of what Founders offers to the Cadre?

I love the recipes they share. I’ve made their beer cheese, their Dirty Bastard turkey recipe. I love learning how to use their beer creatively with food. There’s a lot of educational value that the Cadre provides.

Has your name been picked for access to other special events or promotions for the Cadre?

I’ve definitely applied, but haven’t had my name drawn for anything else yet, but that’s cool. I get it—Founders is in demand. Everything they do is good stuff.

You got your two bottle of CBS. What are you going to do with them?

Share one with friends who might not be able to get any, and store the other for something special. I’m not stopping at two though. I’ll keep my eyes peeled around town for a few more.

Have you had CBS before?

Fortunately, yes, a few times. I’ve been in GR for almost 20 years, so when you’re in the Taproom at the right place at the right time and you see them slap the sign up on the draft list chalkboard, you don’t hesitate. You just order it. It’s a no-brainer.

founders cbs

Are you also a Mug Club member?

Not currently, but I’ll be here in line early next year to sign up.

Update: Mike stopped us later that morning to tell us that he did, in fact, end up snagging a spot in Founders’ Mug Club for 2018. But, we’re not supposed to tell his wife, so “Shh!”

 

Jacob Zars, 31, Grand Rapids, MI, @jacobzars

MittenBrew: You’re drinking out of an Founders Mug Club mug. This must not be your first rodeo.

Zars: No, sir. I’ve already renewed for the fourth year in a row. This mug is dedicated to my oldest son, and I’ll get my next mug etched in honor of my second son. My plan is to bring both boys to Founders for their first beer when they each turn 21 so they can immediately drink out of their own personalized mug which I will have had for nearly their entire lives.

And you’re a member of the Cadre?

Absolutely. I wanted to get those inside tips directly from the source instead of waiting for the rest of the world to hear it before me.

founders cbs

You got the flags, too?

I did, but… Before I got a chance to take a proper photo of them and post it to social media, my son got ahold of them, and… well, the rest is history.

How else have you engaged with Founders as a member of the Cadre?

I love having access to some of their invite-only experiences. I just went to their recent beer and cheese pairing, which was awesome. I love going to anything in the Centennial Room [Founders’ private event space on the second floor of the Taproom]. I even had my college graduation party and the rehearsal dinner for my wedding there. It’s just a great thing to be a part of—getting a chance at something that sometimes might not happen anywhere else.

What’s been your experience with CBS before today?

I’ve been really fortunate to have it a number of times. Of course, I was first attracted to it because… well… KBS. It’s just a natural progression.

What are your plans with your bottles?

Sharing them with friends and family. I’m also going to make the rounds to some of my favorite bottle shops around the city to pick up bottles for friends, including some guys I know in Canada who are already scouting 12oz bottles for me.

Any parting words for what sounds like a brewery you hold in high regard?

Founders has been near and dear to my heart for years. When you visit, it’s just the coolest place to gather with your family and friends, and you’re always surrounded by the friendliest faces.

 

Anthony Reed, 33, Grand Rapids, MI,

MittenBrew: You seem pretty excited to have just joined Founders’ Mug Club.

Reed: I’ve been trying to sign up for years, but kept missing my opportunity because of weddings out of town and other stuff that just comes up. But today’s been great! I got my first coveted spot in the Club, got to try the new batch of CBS on draft, and picked up a few bottles.

As Ice Cube would say…

Looks like you snagged four bottles of CBS. Where are they going?

Both my wife and I got tickets just in case I couldn’t track down any bottles elsewhere. I’ve also got a couple other bottles at the ready from some of my local stores that I keep a solid relationship with. And, I’ve already got plans to crack open at least one bottle at a Christmas party beer exchange next week. I’ll save one for my brother-in-law who’s always on the move with the Air Force, and the rest are going in the cellar for some sweet days to come.

founders cbs

Have you had CBS before today?

A few times. Easily one of my top five favorite beers. The first time was a few years ago at Founders’ Black Party. It absolutely blew my mind. I was hooked.

Why’d you join the Cadre?

CBS. [Laughing]

We’re not exactly sure just how much CBS was brewed, kegged, and packaged this year (a lot more, it seems, than in years past, likely thanks to their recent barrelhouse expansion), but we’re okay with there still being some mystique surrounding how hard we’ll have to hustle to get our lips on some (more).

 

black friday

Pigeon Hill Brewing Company released three specialty canned beers to an enthusiastic group of early rising holiday  shoppers in Muskegon, Michigan on Black Friday. Grapefruit Renny, a double IPA (DIPA) featuring, as the name suggests, grapefruit juiciness. Also released was the rare Your Mom on French Toast, now officially dubbed “YMOFT,” an imperial stout featuring maple syrup, vanilla, and cinnamon. The final new canned beer of the day was Your Grandma on French Toast, now called “YGOFT,” which was the star of the show. A bourbon barrel aged variation of YMOFT which is highly sought after and produced one of the longest lines at the Winter Beer Festival this past February in anticipation of its pouring.

The can release was to begin at 10:00 a.m., and despite arriving an hour early a line had already formed some 50 people deep. Foregoing the madness of holiday shopping, a great crowd of warmly clad craft beer lovers stood in line on a relatively mild late November morning. Jamie, Stubby, and Cody were the first three gentlemen in line, but Cody actually arrived first. “I came right from Cap and Cork after their midnight release so I was here about 1:40 a.m.” says Cody with a hearty laugh. Deciding he didn’t want to be first in line, Cody chose to nap in his car despite a couple of interruptions from a random “passer by” who was looking for cigarettes, beer, the time, and to sleep in his car. Cody laughed it all off citing just how stoked he was to be getting one of his favorites—YGOFT.

black friday

A sunny autumn morning was made more pleasant by the brewery with a complimentary breakfast that was served to all patrons. Breakfast samples were brought out to those of us standing in line. Upon entering the taproom from the breezy Western Avenue, the smell of bacon, sausage, pancakes, and syrup grabbed you by the senses and just hugged you all over. The breakfast scent combined with the true brewery aroma created a sweet aromatic melody that made the beer and the food even more rich and satisfying.

“The name Pigeon Hill was a nod to the community. Pigeon Hill was a large sand dune that was mined out for cast iron castings” says Michael Brower, who is a co-owner of the brewery. “When you walk in the taproom it’s basically a living museum. Everything from the wallpaper which features Muskegon street scenes to the lights which are from local factories that have closed. Our tables are made from old virgin white pine that was cut here in Muskegon and sank during the 1880’s.” Michael’s dedication to family, community, and craft were clearly on display as his parents were cooking breakfast, his grandmother (pictured on the YGOFT label) and his wife were all working to serve the thirsty and excited crowd.

Asking Michael about the origins of YMOFT he replied, “‘Your mom on toast’ was actually one of my catchphrases. In fact, I have emails going back to 2008 in which I sign off with that phrase. It means nothing but I loved it and it fit in with my sense of humor. We talked about it from day one, ‘What beer will Your Mom on Toast be?’ We didn’t know if it would be something bready or not but when we tried a french toast beer and decided to make our own it clicked, ‘Your Mom on French Toast.’ I’m not even sure if it was me who came up with the name!”

When asked about the process of making YMOFT, Michael replied “We start with our imperial stout Majestic Beast as the base beer then add maple, vanilla, and cinnamon and really that is the recipe.” I then asked when the idea for grandma came up he laughed, “I think the day we brewed it. We were like, ‘I wonder what this would be like in a barrel?’ When we started we were working out of the tap room and only had 940 square feet so we didn’t have room for barrels. Once we opened our production facility it became a reality. We got our hands on a couple of Buffalo Trace Rye barrels and said ‘let’s see what happens!” Indeed!

black friday

Joel Kamp, Chad Doane, Michael Brower

We were given a small tour of the original taproom and brewhouse as well as the newer production facility located nearby led by Michael and Chad Doane, head brewer. Upon arriving at the doors, we were greeted by an unknown drummer who played very well. Joel Kamp, co-owner of Pigeon Hill Brewing, came out from behind his kit and greeted us warmly as he wiped the sweat from his brow. “I really had a nice groove going there” he said with a smile on his face. A wonderful German lager was poured and the three gentlemen showed us around the facility. There was a very tangible sense of excitement as they talked openly and freely about the obstacles they’d overcome, the work that led to the success of the day at hand, as well as the future for their company.

Cheerz!

 

Photography: Steph Harding

ernie richards

“What good is sanity?!”

That was the first thing out of Ernie Richards’ mouth when I showed up to interview him, after having commented about how impressive Grand Rapids Brewing Co.’s draft list looked. He laughed from his belly partially in self-reflection and part exhaustion, which made his salt and (heavier on the) pepper beard move, just a little. His eyes, although caught under the shade of his flat-brimmed baseball hat, gleamed with kindness behind the glare from his black-rimmed glasses. He offered me a beer, poured one for himself, and then pulled back the curtain to expose the methods behind his playful madness.

ernie richards

Ernie Richards

Before taking over the head brewer position at GRBC in early 2017, Ernie brewed on the opposite corner of the same block at the original HopCat location, a sister property in the BarFly Ventures family. Before brewing at HopCat, which he admits was “pure luck,” Ernie didn’t have a single batch of brewed beer to his name.

He earned a degree in genomics and molecular genetics from Michigan State University, but wearing a stark white lab coat for the next 30 years wasn’t going to cut it. His exit internship amounted to him “hanging out with boring people, culturing algae colonies, and screening them for fat production,” while still paying down his student loans. He laughs, “I wish I would’ve found out what lab life was like before I spent all those years and poured all that money into it.”

Fortunately, his comprehension of organic chemistry and microbiology would ultimately lend itself well to a proficiency in brewing. He’s able to reflect on what he’s been able to apply from his education, “Whereas most people learn how to homebrew first, and are able to grasp the functionality of it, and then progress to the more technical aspect, I learned the process backwards.” There’s still part of a sweet, innocent nerd in him that justifies his journey, “Brewing is a beautiful way to manifest the science component of what I paid for without having to be restrained in a lab.”

Ernie seems much more comfortable in his current role wearing broken-in jeans and a T-shirt embellished with a cuddly raccoon, holding a stemless wine glass filled with a barrel-aged sour. Speaking about his years in the hospitality/service industry, surrounded by his type of colleagues, “It’s so rad because you work with the weirdest, most eclectic, colorful people.” While enduring at an upscale fine dining restaurant, hating that he had to “wear a fucking tie,” a buddy of his tipped him off about a new craft beer bar in downtown Grand Rapids that was holding open interviews.

He walked into HopCat hoping to get an interview, but showed up at the wrong time. Instead, he bumped into two guys checking out the place, and struck up a casual conversation with them about Belgian beer and jazz clubs in Chicago. He had no idea who they were, but says, “They were super cool.” After he told them why he was there, they introduced themselves. Mark Sellers and Garry Boyd, the owner and ringleader of HopCat, respectively, were instant fans of Ernie—so much that they offered him a bartending gig on the spot.

Since opening in 2008, HopCat has seemed to have birthed a litter of sought-after brewers who have all since been adopted by new homes. Before Jake Brenner, who also had a tenure on HopCat’s modest 3-barrel system, went on to open GRBC in 2012 as their inaugural head brewer, he was pulling double-duty bartending on the weekends alongside Ernie and Bobby Edgcomb. While these three were counting their tips and drinking beer after their shift one night at close, Jake told them that he was moving next door to GRBC. Confident in what he saw in Ernie, Jake casually nudged him to take over brewing in his place at HopCat. Perhaps lubricated with slightly impaired judgment, Ernie accepted and told Jake, “Yeah, sure!” When Ernie woke up the next morning to a text from Jake that said, “You’re still coming in on Monday to learn how to brew, right?”, confirming Ernie’s verbal commitment, Ernie thought, “Fuck. What did I sign up for?”

ernie richards

Bobby Edgcomb & Ernie Richards

In hindsight, Ernie is happy with his decision to take the leap into brewing because he had gotten his fill with bartending, “It starts to wear on your soul a little bit.” Bobby soon started brewing with him at HopCat—until Jake recruited Bobby as his assistant brewer at GRBC. Ernie, now unsupervised, was left to his own devices, responsible for brewing solo at what was becoming one of the most recognized and respected brewpubs in America. No pressure, right? There’s something to be said for picking the person with the perfect amount of intrinsic motivation to do the job right—to do the job well, coupled with being a little bit weird. Just enough to keep things from getting too safe. Ernie was that guy.

His uninhibited knack for harnessing weirdness now had an outlet. Ernie got to “venture down deeper into the rabbit hole” of fantastic creativity. He says the freedom HopCat trusted him with was “probably one of the most ideal scenarios I could have ever asked for. It was truly the best learning experience for me.” He wasn’t entirely an island. “I pretty much had an entire bartending and service staff who were well-trained critics, who were available to me all the time. They were really open and honest with me about the beer. If they didn’t like something [I brewed], they were awesome about being objective and constructive. They know what good beer is supposed to taste like, and categorically where it’s supposed to be stylistically. If I was off, they let me know.”

The OG Grand Rapids HopCat is currently the only location out of the anti-chain chain’s nearly 20 locations that brews its own beer on top of having a well curated draft list. With almost 50 national and international taps always rotating right next to his own, Ernie had serious benchmarks by which to judge whether he was going in the right direction. “When you’re putting up a tap directly next to similar beers that are wildly popular—known by everybody, you have to be on your A game.” It was 48, give or take, constant reminders for him to strive to be better. “If you’re only surrounded by your own [beer], you don’t have anything to shock you out of your own bubble of what’s comfortable.”

Fast-forward to late 2016/early 2017. Ernie had been the sole brewer at HopCat for over five years when Jake tells him and Bobby that he’s been offered a professor position in the brewing program at Secchia Institute for Culinary Education at Grand Rapids Community College. All three guys had become beer brothers, bonded over brewing, so “neither of us could’ve been upset with Jake in the least for taking advantage of an amazing opportunity—for himself, and his family,” Ernie supports. Garry, one-half of the executive team who originally hired Ernie, invited Ernie to inherit Jake’s position as head brewer at GRBC, reuniting him with Bobby, for critical support.

ernie richards

As most things do, the timing happened for a reason. Ernie felt as though his head may have been scratching the metaphorical ceiling of what he was able to accomplish at HopCat, with its system’s very specific limitations. Of what he was able to achieve at HopCat, Ernie says was “the equivalent of competing in a full-grown adult’s BMX race while riding a little kid’s Strawberry Shortcake Huffy. So, the fact that I was able to brew beers that were in comparable range with some of the country’s biggest breweries, with relative consistency, and find ways to fine-tune that system to compete with them was pretty humbling.” In Ernie’s place now at HopCat is Ben Bagby, a homebrewer and former Kalamazoo HopKitten, who earned the job after an internal company wide brew-off challenge, of sorts.

Now, nearly a year into brewing at GRBC, Ernie seems right at home to be reunited alongside his better half. However, Ernie’s now brewing on a system that’s about five times larger than HopCat’s, so both he and Bobby have had to, in a sense, relearn their jobs and how to work with each other. Ernie’s an obsessive tinkerer, and Bobby is a “master of consistency.” Ernie acknowledges, “I’m very aware that I can’t just leave anything alone, and since Bobby’s a wizard with so many aspects of that system, I’ve had to let him teach me the intricacies of it. He’s got the patience of a saint. He’s like a brother to me, and in some cases nicer than a brother probably would be. Mentally, strategically—Bobby’s the voice of reason. My bread and butter is taking risks, but he calls me out when it’s probably going to end poorly. I know ‘assistant brewers’ are way too often not given the credit they deserve, but shit seriously would not get done at the level we’re doing it if it wasn’t for him.” Honestly, they’re so damn adorable together.

grand rapids brewing company

Camp Rapids

Coming off of GRBC’s second annual ArtPrize submission, this year’s Camp Rapids, Ernie and Bobby probably won’t have the luxury of slowing down anytime soon. Teases in the local press, recent public feedback, and internal staff support of the current beer program seem to be unanimous: the beer is good. Flattered, Ernie says, “It’s been really cool to watch the staff come together around the beer Bobby and I are making.” Still, they can’t get complacent. They try to approach their production schedule with a little more intentionality than what Ernie was used to at HopCat (especially in its earlier days), because at GRBC they have 18 taps to fill with consistent integrity.  

The clientele, generally speaking, is noticeably different at GRBC than it is at HopCat, but Ernie and Bobby can use that to their advantage. Unlike HopCat, “GRBC can’t be so willy nilly with our beer because we don’t have a national lineup to pick up the slack if we screw up. What we brew and put on tap is entirely who we are. There’s a lot more weight put on the decisions about what we brew.” When asked if that adds any additional pressure, Ernie takes it in stride, “Yeah, definitely, but it translates to a healthy pressure—to ensure that every beer we put on is worth it.” That hasn’t swayed Ernie’s inherent urge to still pull off “wild and crazy shit.”

Their current draft list represents a dichotomy, yet is complementary. It’s a well-balanced lineup, grounded in safe, gateway styles like their mainstay IPA, brown, stout, and Hefeweizen. Its other half is a trip, appropriately offset by plenty of “weird shit” for the curious. For those who crave the peculiar, chase after hybrids like their bourbon barrel-aged dark strong ale blended with a Flanders red, a bourbon barrel-aged barleywine with cocoa nibs and vanilla, and one of Ernie’s ever-rotating signature funky saisons or fruit-forward sours. GRBC’s barrel-aged portfolio is evolving, “almost to an impressively annoying level,” Ernie says, noticeable by the volume of barrels starting to squeeze the relatively modest space of their brewhouse.

ernie richards

Bobby Edgcomb & Ernie Richards

There should always be room allowed to be playful and test people’s comfort zones. If nothing else, Ernie has been known to keep himself entertained by naming his beers, which can often be a little left of center. Earlier this summer, GRBC proudly released a flamboyant 5.7% sour with lactobacillus fermented with a tropical brett blend, “peached to the far depths of fantasy land,” known as… wait for it… Princess Peach Unicorn Fairy Glitter Sparkle Queen. For Ernie, “It’s a weird social experiment. Names will often change how you approach and perceive that [beer]. Sometimes, these names are designed to be challenge. If you can get over that, and enjoy it—actually appreciate the beer aside from it’s dumb name, then you know what—it’s gotten you out of your comfort zone, and creates a dialogue. I don’t want to get to the point where we’re taking things so seriously, where all we’re thinking is, ‘What can we name this beer to just make it sell the most?’. It’s much cooler when a grown-ass, white, heterosexual male, who can admit he sincerely loves the beer, has to verbally order a Princess Peach Unicorn Fairy Glitter Sparkle Queen.”

Being obnoxiously macho about beer isn’t the only thing that Ernie takes a swing at. “Too much of the cool craft beer world pretends to be aloof to our culture of extreme consumption patterns—that they’re too good to make, or drink, quality lagers and pilsners. When are people going to get worn out by everything having to be so over the top all the time, and just learn to be comfortable with simple and delicate?” He wants to help move the needle. He’d love to see Silver Foam, GRBC’s flagship 4.5% American lager (first brewed in 1893) available year round in cans (it’s currently only available on draft and in 22oz bottles) at a price point that helps contribute to taking a bite out of AB InBev’s market share. “There’s so much more to be said for brewing clean, subtle, laid-back beers that don’t feel obligated to be so intense. To me, it takes more skill to brew a beer like that than it is to just throw as much as you can at it.”

Part of chipping away at the absurdities of what’s considered acceptable is Ernie’s commentary on social media. Social Bot War Pawn, GRBC’s spin on an English Mild, was a subliminal message to everyone overly consumed by social media. “If you look at how people are influenced by it, you start to realize that, before they know it, they’ve become victims of being social media pawns. People will proliferate a story that suits their own internal narrative—essentially planting the seeds to influence others’ perceptions, which will then circle back to affect their own perspective on how they’ll approach a thing. It’s the same with beer. You can name a beer whatever you want to lure people expecting one thing, and then give them another.” For Ernie, he’d like that other thing to be an elevated experience with his beer around a deeper conversation about life.

And then the conversation got ethereal. Probably because I asked him about his thoughts on life after death. “I’m not that narcissistic to say that I think I’ll come back as a human. How are we any better than all the other possibilities? When you’re dead, you’re just dead. If anything, we go back into this vast pool of lifeforce, and we all become the same energy. People have a lot of comfort in believing in reincarnation or life after death, but I think that’s just masking our own fears and inadequacies because death sucks. Maybe we’re caterpillars, and death (or life) is really just our cocoon phase.” When Ernie dies, my money’s on—or, at least my hope is, that he comes back as a Princess Peach Unicorn Fairy Glitter Sparkle Queen, and we’ll all be lining up, very comfortable in our own skin, to order another stemless wine glass of him.

 

Photography: Steph Harding

 

baffin brewing

On one trip to Maine, brewer Evan Feringa found something that he had not seen in his home state of Michigan—a mug club that you had to drink into.

baffin brewery

Evan Feringa

“We had to drink out of regular pint glasses, and so the locals would make fun of us saying ‘look at the tourists’!” Feringa said.

You couldn’t buy their way into that mug club, nor could you pay a yearly membership to belong—you had to drink the beer to earn that mug.

“And it created this atmosphere that I hadn’t seen in any of the bars I’d visited at home. I told Joe (Dowd, a partner in Baffin Brewery) that if we ever opened a brewpub, we have to do this.”

And they did. Located in St. Clair Shores, Baffin Brewing has been serving mug club members, regulars, newbies and everyone in between since 2015. The mug club boasts over 400 members, most of whom had to drink their way in.

“You have to drink 150 beers—pints, growlers and flights all count as one. After every 20 beers, you get some sort of reward like a Baffin sticker, a t-shirt, a glass growler, and then after that 150th beer you get your own handmade 22-24 ounce mug,”which is refilled at the same price as a pint, Feringa said.

Just like those pubs in Maine, the mug club members at Baffin get to know each other as they hang out in the brewery near Lake St. Clair. White Christmas lights winking out from the wall of hard earned mugs is one of the first things guests see when they walk in. Tables and chairs are scattered about the sunny, open space that includes an attractive wood bar top that runs along the back wall. The shiny tanks that hold the tasty ales stand to the left and self-serve popcorn is always available.

Feringa received training from the master brewers’ program at the Siebel Institute in Chicago and spent time at Dragonmead Brewery. He and partners Joe Dowd and Joe VanderMarliere opened the brewery together.

“Joe (Dowd) and I started brewing together in college. I always loved to cook, loved homebrew, and at some point realized I wanted to open a brewery. We met Joe (VanderMarliere), a St. Clair Shores native, and everything fell into place. It’s a wonderful partnership—we loved it from the get-go and we are still going strong!”

baffin brewery

All of Baffin’s beers impress, but here are some stand-outs:

Mango Unchained (6.5% ABV, uses 75% Michigan hops). Fruit ales often miss the mark. Either they don’t have enough of a fruit profile or they taste like the syrup in Slush Puppies. This beer found the sweet spot (no pun intended) with enough of a mango flavor without being cloying. As it mellowed, it became hoppier—but never overwhelmingly so.

Monkadelic (9.1% ABV, all Michigan hops). Making a 9%+ beer that doesn’t taste like pure alcohol is no small feat, so Baffin is to be commended for making a solid Belgian tripel. Nice malty flavors with some tropical fruit and banana.

Eye of the Porter (6.5% ABV, all Michigan hops). Toasty and chocolatey, this beer is a great example of a  porter style beer. A touch of fruit prevents it from being too chocolatey (yes, there is such a thing!). Roasty, but light enough to enjoy on a hot summer day.

Mickey Redmond Red Ale (7% ABV, all Michigan hops). Nicely balanced ale with hints of biscuit, caramel and malt. Some red ales can be too malty or not malty enough and taste like a regular pale ale–this beer hit the sweet spot.

Ruby Ruby Ruby Ruby (6.5% ABV, all Michigan hops). Even if one is neither a fan of IPAs nor grapefruit, she will find this beer to her liking!  Eighty-eight pounds of grapefruit go into the mash but the taste was not overpowering. Michigan Cascade hops are used in the dry hopping of this effervescent and refreshing ale.

Unlike many other brewpubs, Baffin lists the percentage of Michigan grown hops on the tap list. Big proponents of Michigan industry, Baffin uses locally grown grains and hops except when recipes require ingredients from Germany or other countries.

“We always knew we wanted to use as many Michigan hops as possible, so we teamed up with Church Key Farms (out of Deerfield) and use every hop as we can,” Feringa said.

 

Photography: Steph Harding

great american beer fest

The popular refrain from the 1971 Gene Wilder classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory seemed the most appropriate way to describe my excitement when I found out I would be attending the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. As a lover of craft beer I was vaguely aware of the festival but never thought I would have the opportunity to attend. I’ve been to several West Michigan beer festivals but I was not prepared for the wonders that awaited me in scenic golden Colorado. Oh, and Golden, Colorado is the home of Coors… right? Get it? Golden ticket? Never mind…

The Great American Beer Festival was started in 1982 and had 24 breweries, 47 beers, and roughly 800 attendees in the Harvest House Hotel in Boulder, Colorado. Fast forward to 2017 where some 60,000 attendees, 3,900 beers, and 800 breweries were crammed into the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver. Tickets sold out in just over four hours.

In an attempt to the make the trip as affordable as possible we packed up the MittenBrew-Subaru and made our way from the Midwest to the Rockies. We agreed to make the drive casual and did so by stopping at some cool places like 3 Floyds, The World’s Largest Truck Stop, several Kum & Go gas stations as well as a Pump and Pantry (no, I am not making those last two up). Once in western Illinois, the long straight highways were lovingly hugged on both sides by vast expanses of corn, grassland, and not much else.

We intentionally arrived two days early to hit some of the amazing breweries that call Colorado home. In no particular order we hit Avery, Oskar Blues, Crooked Stave, Bull and Bush, Left Hand, Wynkoop, Great Divide, Bootstrap, Mockery, Black Shirt, and Colorado’s own—Coors. At each location we were greeted warmly, treated well, and welcomed back. It’s a town very much in love with its beer, both macro and craft.

Returning to luxurious hotel accommodations after each day of exploring might have been nice, but we chose to camp with some great friends from Railtown Brewing and City Built Brewing. Warm, clear sunny days gave way to frosty cold nights (we’re talking 3 layers to sleep cold). I dreamt of having all 4 of Charlie Bucket’s grandparents on my air mattress to keep me warm. Ok, that may have been an overshare.

Thursday, the opening day of the festival, arrived and it was lovely outside—warm, sunny and just really pleasant. We attended the Michigan Brewer’s Guild gathering at 1-UP-LODO which was a lot of fun to watch. Brewers talking beer, the local sites, and playing vintage arcade games. I used to be a decent Galaga player, I am sad to report I am not any more. I was much better at KISS pinball. After some great laughs and beers we headed to the festival.

great american beer fest

The Colorado Convention center is monstrous and appears to be guarded by a frozen two-story tall blue bear. The general admission line was wrapped around the building and I never actually saw the end of the line, and this was almost 45 minutes before the gates opened. People were enjoying the sunny weather and the glorious anticipation of tasting some of the best beers in the world. It was very much like the 5 golden ticket holders meeting Willy Wonka at the gate when we arrived at the event door to get our media credentials—except that there were 2 of us.

I have attended large techie conventions before, but to see that many brewery booths was really overwhelming. Media attendees were granted early entry so I got to walk in and see the place before the onslaught. I casually strolled in trying to maintain my composure while planning my dark beer “must haves.” While perusing the giant map and list we began to hear bagpipes which meant the festival was about to open to the attendees. Reading that 60,000 people attend over the 3 days was a neat fact but it didn’t occur to me what that would look like. There must have been 2,000 people just standing inside the main door waiting to go through the gates. It was literally a river of beer shirts, beards, cargo shorts, weird hats, costumes, and smiles. The vibe was really positive. It was also clear that many people knew exactly where they were going right away, some even running to get that first pour of their favorite libation.

From that moment on it was elbow to elbow with people laughing, smiling, and celebrating the wonderful gift of beer. I was ecstatic to get some fantastic beers that I hadn’t tried before like Double Barrel Baptist from Epic, Barrel Aged Ten FIDY from Oskar Blues, Tweak from Avery, and to close out the festival I had a pour of Utopias from Samuel Adams. What an amazing journey of beer and community.

great american beer fest

These are my tips for first time attendees:

  • Cell phones are only good for taking pictures of your drunk buddies or co-workers. Don’t plan on making calls or getting texts in the convention center during the festival.
  • Know where the bathrooms are. It’s a long walk to anywhere on the convention floor and it takes 10 times longer trying to move through the crowds.
  • Pace yourself and stay hydrated #betterdrinkingculture
  • Smile and take it all in. The sooner you settle into the scene, the sooner you’ll realize you’re with friends.
  • Try something new. I am a dark beer lover and I had a sour or two—I let my hair down.
  • If you find yourself on a brewery tour and are invited to hold a hop pellet, might I recommend that you don’t eat said hop pellet. Trust me.

 

It was an amazing adventure and while I didn’t win control of the chocolate factory I did get to meet some great people. Dates for the 2018 Great American Beer Festival are September 20th – 22nd in 2018. I’ll be seeing you then Denver, and not as a green newbie this time!

Cheerz!

 

Photography: Steph Harding & Ray Ashley


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