steve siciliano

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

 

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

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

 

MB: How so?

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

 

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

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

 

MB: Something you turned on and off?

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

MB: Did it stress family life at home?

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

 

MB: What turned it around?

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

 

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

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

steve siciliano

 

MB: Simple, but genius.

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

steve siciliano

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

steve siciliano

 

MB: Are you going out kicking and screaming?

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

steve siciliano

 

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

 

Photography: Steph Harding

homebrew

Ben Darcie at Gravel Bottom Brewery and Homebrew Supply in Ada, Michigan, believes that all of us should have the opportunity to brew a 100% Michigan made beer. Even the homebrewers.

As the locavore movement continues to gain popularity in our area, it only makes sense our craft beer follow suit.

But what makes a Michigan beer a Michigan beer? Is it local brewers, utilizing Michigan’s agricultural bounty? Or is it using only locally grown hops and collaborating with Michigan Maltsters? Perhaps it’s a combination of all these things, and more.

“For the first time in Michigan homebrewing history, people can actually make a 100% Michigan beer at home,” Darcie states with a touch of excitement in his voice—and why not? This is huge.

homebrew

 

Think, for a moment, what goes into a beer. Water, hops, malt and yeast. Michigan water is wonderful and plentiful, easily sourced for all. Michigan hop farms have exploded over the last ten years or so, with a wide range of varietals to meet most of your brewing needs. The focus on malt has been huge in the last three to four years, with four start up malt houses opening between 2015-2016 alone. But yeast? Yeast is a new one, and finally we have a Michigan company, Craft Cultures, located in the UP, that completes the Michigan ingredient circle.

While Craft Cultures has offered its product to many of our local breweries (for example, 57 Brew Pub and New Holland’s Pub Only offerings), Gravel Bottom is one of the first homebrew store to approach them to create packaging specifically for smaller batch brews. “We are the only [store] in West Michigan, possibly the lower peninsula, that has 5 gallon pitches of Michigan propagated yeast,” Darcie shares.

homebrew

One of the goals Darcie had when coming aboard at Gravel Bottom was for home brewers to have the opportunity to make Michigan beer, and he took it upon himself to contact Craft Cultures and request specialized packaging for carrying their product within the shop. All the yeast from Craft Cultures is captured and propagated in state, and they even carry two indigenous strains of yeast as well—Keweenaw Ale I and Eagle River Ale II, with more available soon.

“For the first time we can make a beer  at home that is 100 percent reflective of our state. Which is really really awesome… It’s all about our air, it’s all about our soil, it’s all about our sun. it’s all about our elevation and our water. It is all us, 100 percent our state and I think that’s what makes it so cool.” Darcie’s commitment to this concept is palpable.

So visit Gravel Bottom Homebrewing Supply and see their extensive selection of Michigan grown product for yourself. “The biggest thing that separates us is our extensive hop selection. We carry between 60-75 different options. With the addition of Michigan malts and Michigan yeast, it definitely sets us apart in the entirety of West Michigan. We are very, very excited to offer this.”

From the very beginning, embracing the homebrewing community was a part of Gravel Bottom’s existence, and meeting homebrewers where they are, from novice to expert, is part of the experience of the shop. Darcie and crew are there to help.

In addition to the knowledgeable staff and a plethora of Michigan grown product, a free homebrewing class is offered the first Saturday of every month, and a hands-on brewing class is offered every 3rd Saturday, alternating between extract and all grain brewing. Classes are $20 or $40, and include the class session, a pint of beer and $20 off at the homebrewing shop if you spend $100 or more.

Darcie was kind enough to offer some recipes for your experimentation. Check them out following this article.

MITTENBREW MICHIGAN WHEAT IPA

OG: 1.060
FG: 1.015
ABV: 6.1%
IBUs: 66
SRM: 5.3

All Grain Recipe
Target Batch Size: 5.5g
Target Boil Size: 6.75g
Efficiency: 70%
Boil time: 60m

Mash Time: 60m @ 152*f
Fly Sparge @ 170*f

8.5lbs Pilot 2-row Brewer’s Malt
4.5lbs Pilot White Wheat
1.0lbs Pilot Munich Malt

1oz MHA Centennial (12.1%aa) @ 60min
1oz MHA Cascade (9%aa)          @ 15m
1oz MHA Centennial (12.1%aa) @ 10m
1oz MHA Chinook (12.1%aa)     @ 5m

Yeast: Craft Cultures Yeast Lab CCYL110 California Ale Yeast
Temperature: 60-65*f

MHA = Michigan Hop Alliance


MITTENBREW MICHIGAN ENGLISH RYE PALE ALE

OG: 1.055
FG: 1.014
ABV: 5.5%
IBUs: 42
SRM: 6.7

All Grain Recipe
Target Batch Size: 5.5g
Target Boil Size: 6.75g
Efficiency: 70%
Boil time: 60m

Mash Time: 60m @ 152*f
Fly Sparge @ 170*f

8.0lbs Pilot 2-row Brewer’s Malt
3.0lbs Pilot Munich Malt
2.0lbs Pilot Rye Malt
0.5lbs Pilot PB Toast

1oz MHA Chinook (12.1%aa) @ 60min
1oz BCH Crystal (3.2%aa)      @ 10m
1oz BCH Crystal (3.2%aa)      @ 5m

Yeast: Craft Cultures Yeast Lab CCY123 Dry English Yeast
Temperature: 60-65*f

MHA = Michigan Hop Alliance
BCH = Black Creek Hops


MITTENBREW MICHIGAN HONEY BROWN

OG: 1.058
FG: 1.015
ABV: 5.9%
IBUs: 23
SRM: 18

All Grain Recipe
Target Batch Size: 5.5g
Target Boil Size: 6.75g
Efficiency: 70%
Boil time: 60m

Mash Time: 60m @ 156*f
Fly Sparge @ 170*f

6.0lbs Pilot 2-row Brewer’s Malt
5.0lbs Pilot Munich Malt
2.5lbs Pilot Toasted Brown Malt
1.0lbs Pilot PB Toast
1.0lbs Michigan Honey (Added with 5m remaining in boil)

1.5oz BCH Hallertau (4.5%aa)      @ 60min
1oz    BCH Fuggle (4.5%aa)          @ 5m
0.5oz BCH Hallertau (4.5%aa)      @ 0m

Yeast: Craft Cultures Yeast Lab CCY123 Dry English Yeast
Temperature: 60-65*f

BCH = Black Creek Hops

 

For more information about Gravel Bottom and specific classes offered, follow them on Facebook or check out their website.

home brew league

If you heard the name “Home Brew League” you might think it was some kind of summer softball showdown or a group of guys playing fantasy football. But for Boyd Culver and Chris Musil, owners of Coldbreak Brewing Equipment in Cedar Springs, the Home Brew League is a revolutionary idea to test the skills and bring together some of the best home beer brewers in Michigan. The inaugural competition they’ve created is a one-of-a-kind brewing challenge that stretches the skill of the participants and has them producing beer that rivals your local microbrew favorites.­

“The way we do it, it’s the only one like this in the country,” proclaims Musil. “There’s 32 teams and each division has 8 teams. Each team has 4-6 homebrewers.” Unlike other brewing competitions, all 32 teams submit the same style of beer for each round of the tournament. Culver adds, “There’s homebrew competitions all over the place all the time, but there’s definitely not one like this. There’s 32 teams all brewing the same beer.”

The league’s “season” stretches from the beginning of May through the end of October. Throughout the season, there are seven different events where teams compete with a new variety. The teams who rack up the most wins during the season then move into the “playoffs,” where one set of talented brewers will be crowned the first ever Home Brew League Champion.

This unique setup quickly captured the interests of local brewers who are anxious to see how their beer measures up. “Having these monthly competitions is really helping me refine my palate when I’m drinking a beer and what to look for when I’m creating my recipes. Plus, I’ve been brewing like crazy. It’s keeping me on my toes,” says John Wesorick, a member of a team known as “The Brew-Tang Clan.”

The idea for the Home Brew League came to Boyd and Chris as they were looking to create a fun promotion for their store, Coldbreak Brewing Equipment. They convinced three other local brewing suppliers, Siciliano’s Market, O’Connors Homebrew Supply, and Gravel Bottom Brewery and Supply, to sign on as sponsors. They were overwhelmed when it was time for brewers to sign up. “We didn’t think we were going to fill it up at all, and then it sold out in 24 hours,” said Culver. “The Siciliano’s division sold out in just 8 minutes.”

Although the event has already proven to be a winner for the stores business-wise, Musil explains that it’s not just about creating revenue. “It’s not all about us. It’s about getting everybody together. It’s about the community.” Culver adds, “That’s the cool thing, there’s four stores that are essentially competitors, all joining together for this great event.”

The way the league is organized isn’t the only unique aspect. The Home Brew League is also putting its competitors’ brewing knowledge to the test with some uncommon beer varieties. The first event in May required each team to brew a British Golden Ale. If you’re not sure what that is, you’re not alone. Brewer Rick VandeKopple says he had never even heard of it before. “There’s a lot of reading done online to find out, O.K., what’s this style like? It was all a new experience to try and build this recipe. It’s kind of a cool way to be forced to branch out,” said VandeKopple.

home brew league

Even the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) judges for the event were entering new territory. “This was a new style for me,” said Jim Halliberger, a judge who volunteered to offer his expertise. “I’ve been judging beers 20 years, and I’ve never seen a competition like this. To do a single style every month for several months…it’s just a really different idea.” The other beer varieties for this season include Scottish Heavy, Dunkles Weissbier, Pre-Prohibition Porter, Marzen, White IPA, and Foreign Extra Stout. “The styles are all something that people usually wouldn’t brew,” Culver explains. “And every month we have one mandatory ingredient, and most of them are Michigan ingredients.”

There are prizes for the winning teams after each event, but the last team standing in December will get to brew 15 barrels of their championship beer at Cedar Springs Brewing Company and have it served on tap. That’s an enviable prize, but some competitors say they’re only doing it for fun and for the expert feedback to help them become better brewers. “We thought it’d be kind of a fun way to take our beer making to the next level,” said Rick VandeKopple. “The judges let me know about a little bit of an off flavor they found, so that helps me get my brewing level up so that I can brew a better beer.” One of those judges, Mark Thomson, believes their feedback and these competitions are doing exactly that. “I expect there to be a lot of good beer. I think overall, the quality has gone way up in the ten years I’ve been tasting home brews,” said Thomson.

Culver and Musil agree that the entire homebrew community is on the rise, both in terms of sheer numbers and in terms of quality. And with the public’s appetite for craft brew rising right along with it, any one of these competitors could become another successful brewing entrepreneur. “The majority of brewers at one point were homebrewers,” claims Culver. “Brewers are like guitar players. We don’t know who the greatest guitar player is to ever hit the big stage, and it’s the same concept with homebrewers. I know a guy who won’t leave his basement who makes the best beer I’ve ever had.”

To learn more about the Home Brew League or Coldbreak Brewing Equipment log on:

www.coldbreakbrewing.com

www.homebrewleague.us

 

coldbreak brewing

I had the pleasure of chatting with Boyd Culver and Chris Musil of Coldbreak Brewing Equipment recently. They’re new to the home brew store community, and with their educational classes and their Homebrew League involvement, we at MittenBrew thought it was about time to chat about their new venture out in Cedar Springs, Michigan.

coldbreak brewing

Steil: You’ve been selling your products online before the physical store opened, correct? What inspired you to start selling product online in the first place and how did that morph into a physical location?

Culver: “Because we have our own brand of equipment, it was our way of having it nationally. We have around a hundred stores in the US that carry our brands. Not everybody has access to it, so that was why we sold strictly our brand online. We had no intentions of having a homebrew store…but then Dave (Ringler) got ahold of us and it fit”

 

Steil: How long has Coldbreak Brewing Equipment had its physical location?

Musil: “It was about a week before the brewery (Cedar Springs Brewing Company) opened.”

 

Steil: Why Cedar Springs?

Boyd: “We’ve got customers like Siciliano’s, O’Conner’s, Gravel Bottom, Pauly’s… they’re all customers of our brand of equipment, so we’re essentially competitors of theirs, but we went to them to make sure they were ok with us putting a homebrew store in. They were totally fine with it and they said there’s nobody north of Grand Rapids and there’s a lot of homebrewers north of Grand Rapids, but there’s nobody to facilitate them.”

Musil: “And it was far enough away that we felt that, ok, we’re not competing with them in the same way.”

 

Steil: What relationships do you have with other homebrew shops? Is there a sense of camaraderie like in other portions of the beer world such as with breweries?

Both: “Yes!”

Culver: “You can even see it with the Homebrew League, since we’re all involved with the Homebrew League.”

Musil: “That and even ordering our yeast is with Gravel Bottom because of the shipping costs and all that. It’s such a fragile product that we all put our orders together and split the shipping costs.”

Culver: “But we’re all friends, Steve (Siciliano) was my first customer with Coldbreak. He started selling the chillers on consignment, and basically if he would have said no, I don’t know that any of this would have existed.”

“Well and then with Big Brew day on Calder, it was obviously started by Siciliano’s, but then Gravel Bottom and Cold Break co-hosted it starting this year, so moving forward it’ll get more teamwork out of that.”

 

Steil: You’re known for producing and selling jockey boxes nationally. How did that get started?

Culver: “I mean, there wasn’t a lot of competition for the products and all of the products compared to ours were inferior. We just looked at it, and it looks like a cheap item and then you’re serving something that you put your heart and soul into a poorly put together jockey box. And I think that with better quality products like our jockey boxes, people tend to take care of it better because of that higher value.”

Musil: “And actually the price is comparable to what you can buy elsewhere for lesser quality jockey boxes.”

coldbreak brewing

 

Steil: Do you see seasonality with your products? Changes during the seasons?

Culver: “In the home brewing industry, summertime is awful for sales. They plummet, because no one wants to homebrew because everybody’s on their boat, while it’s the exact opposite for jockey boxes because festival season is right there where it’s the slow time for homebrewing, and so it kind of evens out the year for us.”

 

Steil: What makes your homebrew shop different than the other homebrew shops we have?

Musil: “Our grain is kind of our specialty I think. We got a bigger grain selection than the other stores.”

Culver: “There’s not many in this country that have as many grain options as we do.”

 

Steil: Tell me about the education program you have for Coldbreak.

Culver: “Going back to what makes us different, I think the classes, and we know the other stores offer classes, but Chris does a really good job and he has a nice powerpoint setup, it’s comfortable, and that’s the focus, and any question we have, if we don’t know the answer, we’re very resourceful. The classes are really thorough and in depth, but still down at a level that someone who’s never brewed before can understand it. But then we’re also doing kombucha, wine, and mead classes which are coming up.”

Musil: “Each class is about once a month. The Intro To Homebrewing we had running every couple of weeks, but at the moment it’s summer so we’re having trouble filling them, but it’s not surprising. In fall they’ll pick back up. I’m teaching the Intro class but then we have other guys coming in to teach the other ones if they know more than I do about, say, the wine for the wine class. It’s other homebrewers who come in to teach.”

 

Steil: What do people request most often?

Musil: “Not physical items, but there’s a lot of people coming in looking for help. Like, “I want to do this style of beer, can you help me put a recipe together?” but that’s as far as it goes when it comes to getting consistent requests.”

 

Steil: Do you see a variation in trends from customers about specific products they’re looking for? Anything in particular you’re noticing now?

Musil: “No, but I think that the homebrewers that are in the know, are looking for things like the Azacca hops or the Zeus hops or something specific like that. Just certain ingredients that might be trending at the moment.”

 

With a new storefront location, specially made jockey boxes, an influx of brewing classes, and an obvious want to collaborate with others to create an education friendly environment for homebrewers, Coldbreak Brewing Equipment is no doubt a wanted addition to our Michigan beer family. I want to thank Chris and Boyd once again for taking the time to fill us in on their endeavors! Also be sure to keep up on which classes they are hosting at the store

 

Photography: Steph Harding

Following is the first in a series of pieces spotlighting area home-brew clubs. If you have been seeking a way to engage in the home-brewing community, or would like to see how beer can be made at home without investing in equipment first, joining a club or attending a club meeting is a phenomenal way to fortify your understanding of the many ways people make beer at home.

The tale of Patriots Brew Club is one that coincides with that of the forefathers of this nation. The members of this club pride themselves not only on their ability to make beer for themselves, but also on their ability to help others understand how beer is made. Like the original patriots, these are people capable of making much more than just beer for themselves, and their pride in teaching others extends to their vast wealth of cultivated hobbies as well. This is a group of people who like to hunt, not just in the traditional sense, but for ways to fix things, solve problems, build things, and live a mighty life.

When I asked the club if there were particular styles of beer they liked to focus on making, the answers seemed to encompass all of beer. I took this to mean that they like to make any and all styles of beer as long as the process and product align with the integrity and authenticity the club so thoroughly exudes.

The club does not operate in a rigidly scheduled meeting archetype; instead they favor spontaneous gatherings that center around the making of beer, food, and merriment in kind. If you’re the type who likes to saddle up and ride on short notice, this is the crew for you.

The club gladly accommodates new brewers, experienced brewers, and those who just want to know a little more about beer. More the drinking type than the making type? No problem, just show up with a hand to lend and you’re in. Located in the Grand Haven area, the members of the club would love for you to come to their next gathering. More information can be found on their Facebook page

A showcase of the Patriots Brew Club, as well as many of the other clubs to be featured in the further articles, can be found on the Calder Plaza in Grand Rapids each year on Big Brew Day. The pictures in this article were taken at the event, hosted by Siciliano’s Market, in May 2015. More info about the Big Brew Day can be found here.

Working in the cellar at Founders Brewing Company often finds me shoulder to shoulder with the Yeast Tech department. Their department, as you may have guessed, is entirely responsible for the care, maintenance, and practical application of any and all yeast used in the brewery. For emphasis, a beer is not released for consumption without their labor-intensive checks and balances that ensure the quality of a vitally important ingredient in the beer-making process. To make beer at home like a professional means we should emulate the practices of a professional. How can we do that? Or, how can we do that without the high-tech equipment and completely sterile work environment of a large scale brewery? To form a kind of answer to that question, I spoke with Jim Knight, Lead Yeast Tech at Founders, about his advice for home brewers.

“Clean, Clean, Clean,” were the first words out of his mouth when I broached the subject. In a past article, I talked about the importance of cleanliness and sanitation. Let’s say it’s doubly important when it comes to handling yeast correctly, and I’ll spare you a speech. However, as Knight stressed, clean environments breed happy yeast which make the best possible beer. Knight went on to propose that there are three things home brewers should be sure of before adding yeast to each batch of beer. Below, I list the three factors of focus, as well as helpful tips, tricks, and links to sources that will help you make the most of your yeast in the future.

  1. Freshness Ranking among the easiest of things for a home-brewer to check, the expiration date for any yeast culture is often clearly labeled and should be checked before purchase. Fresh yeast is happy yeast. Say you pick up a culture of two month out-of-date yeast, you might think of it like an exhausted workforce. A tired worker may still get the job done, though likely not in a timely fashion, or well. Exhausted yeast may manifest itself in heavy doses of phenolic flavors tainting the flavor of your beer. An expiration date check should accompany every yeast purchase.
  2. Correct Yeast Dose Now, just because your yeast is fresh, doesn’t mean you have enough in your packet or vial to ferment the beer you’re trying to make. Continuing the work-force metaphor, say you have half the amount of people show up to work as you were expecting, likely you won’t expect them to get a job done very well, in a timely fashion, or with zeal. Having half the yeast you need for a batch of beer can result in a host of negatives that might have easily been avoided by simply making sure you have enough yeast for the job. There are two ways to make sure you have enough yeast: longhand arithmetic, or using Mr. Malty’s free calculator. This calculator allows you to input the simple parameters of your recipe to ensure that each batch of beer you make has been dosed to perfection. There is even a function that allows you to account of the freshness of the yeast purchased! Neat-O!
  3. Vitality This category is a bit tougher to describe, but let’s continue on with the worker analogy to get us there. Let’s now assume all of your workforce showed up, and, better yet, they’re fresh off their weekend. The only thing you might hope from such an ideal circumstance is that your workforce is excited to perform the task at hand. A workforce that is “hyped” is very likely to get their job done and done very well. The easiest way we can “hype” up yeast at home is to make a yeast starter. The primary function of a starter is to ensure that yeast is happy, healthy, and “hyped,” or active, before being added to your beer. Bonus, a starter will actually help to grow more yeast from an original culture so making starters may help alleviate the expense of buying multiple vials of yeast for those high gravity or lager batches. Now, there are many ways to make a starter, but I think the advice from the one of the largest Yeast providers in the nation has quite a bit of merit. I have distilled that advice here.

For those who’d like an even more in-depth look at the technical side of yeast, you can read all the information in addition to preparing yeast starters. For those seeking something more in-depth than that, pick up “Yeast” by Chris White and Jamil Zainasheff. Their book informed much of this article and may well be the definitive written work on the subject. Again, to make beer like a professional, one must emulate the professionals. Happy brewing!

It’s very easy to forget the most important component of any painting is not its nuance, direction, color scheme, or even its finished image; the most important aspect of any painting is actually the canvas on which it is painted. Without the canvas, or raw material an artist paints on, there is no painting. It is almost always the things we cannot see, or forget are even there, that are most intimately responsible for how we eventually perceive something. Forgive the overly poetic metaphor, but such is the case of yeast in beer. Though hard to see and rarely glamorized like the ever-popular hop, yeast could be argued to be the most important ingredient in beer.

This is one of two articles meant to provoke thought on one of the four pillars of beer’s creation. This article is designed appeal to the layman and stress the importance of yeast, while the following piece will offer more technical advice and expertise on the subject for those who are or are seeking to become more advanced home-brewers.

Let’s say you want to design a recipe for an IPA. Aside from dreaming up the taste profile and stylistic category you’d like it to fall in, most homebrewers will decide on the the hops they want to add to the beer to make it unique or to emulate another beer’s taste. Once the hops have been decided on, usually the questions of malts will be attended to. Will the beer’s malt bill be simple so the hops shine? Will the malt bill be complex so as to balance the hops? If you’ve decided the beer should be a hop bomb, a simple malt bill seems the way to go. Now, if you reference other recipes to see what type of yeast is typically used for, let’s call it an American IPA, you’ll likely see a generic American ale yeast in use. You might think, “Great! I’ll use that,” and move on to deciding how much water you’ll need to make the size batch you intend. However, there are two questions you should ask yourself first: why am I using that yeast, and how much of it do I need?

The why, when making an American IPA, is likely the fact that the yeast generally creates little to no flavor of its own during fermentation. That characteristic is paramount to the IPA because it will let the hops do the talking in the glass, besides providing the amount of alcohol we desire from the recipe. Say you made the same beer with Belgian ale yeast, there would be a multitude of flavors created by the yeast during fermentation that could run the risk of clashing with those hops you wanted to showcase.

The answer to the question of how much yeast to use is always recipe dependent. This is where the math your teachers always told you would someday come in handy comes in handy. You see, many home-brewers operate under the assumption that one pack, satchel, or vial of yeast is enough yeast to make any batch of beer. This is not the case. For instance, liquid yeast generally only has enough cells to ferment 5 gallons of beer at a 1.050 – 1.060 gravity range on its own. If your American IPA has an original gravity (OG) of 1.080, there is too little yeast in that liquid culture to ferment the beer the way it ought to be fermented. Add just the one pack or vial to that 1.080 batch and it will still ferment, but it won’t be an ideal environment for the yeast. Sometimes an under-pitch will work just fine, even wonderfully, and sometimes it won’t. The same can be said for over-pitching. The negative effects of too little or too much yeast can be stalled fermentations, unhealthy off-flavors, haze, or a whole host of other effects.

My purpose here is to enlighten, not to frighten, so I reiterate that much of the time, an under- or over-pitch will result in a beer that tastes just fine. However, it is important to note that professional breweries invest a great deal of time, effort, money, and personnel into making sure that their yeast is added in the proper quantity, chosen specifically, and cared for immaculately. If you want to make beer at home like a professional, it’s worth your while to think about your yeast. Look forward to a more in-depth discussion about yeast, yeast starters, and yeast resources in the next article.

To breach the topic of how to make an all-grain batch of beer, as well as what is important about the process, might take a millennium’s worth of discussion.

In order to avoid tangents and/or conflicting personal preference, this mini-podcast opens the discussion of why professional breweries make all-grain batches of beer. Their goal is to have complete control over the process, nothing else. Making all-grain beer vs. extract does not guarantee you will make better beer, however, it will offer you limitless customization of the beer you intend to make.

Listen in and join the discussion!

To learn more about the topics discussed, follow the links below or step into your local homebrew store to explore your options.

For an overview of all-grain brewing, click here. Within the pages of the free first edition of the book, you will find an amazing overview of the process and the important factors contributing to it.

For a primer on the Brew-In-A-Bag method, click here.


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