founders education program

“At first we thought, what more can we learn about Founders?”

That’s what Eva and Bob Trudell asked themselves before attending a “Palate Exploration Series” event at Founders Brewery in Grand Rapids. The two Founder’s aficionados were given tickets as a Christmas gift from their children and weren’t sure what to expect. The event was part of the Founders Education Program and was a collaborative, cross-promotional night between Founders and Robinette’s, an apple orchard just north of Grand Rapids. After a few hours of donuts, drinking and discussion, the curious Bob and Eva were sold. “It was right up our alley,” they said, “We’d recommend it a billion percent.”

founders education program

The Founders Education Program is more than just learning how to pair beer with local food. It’s a comprehensive outreach effort to teach everyone; customers and employees, novices and experts, everything there is to know about craft beer. It’s what Founders has created to spread the gospel of beer.

The Education Program has an extensive syllabus and most of the offerings are open to the public. Tours are conducted on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The weekend tours are combined with tastings as well. Founders also offers two classes designed to enhance your brew knowledge. “Beer 101” is a crash course in craft beer. It covers beer history, ingredients, brewing processes, beer styles and tastings, and the evolution of Founders. The “Sensory Evaluation” class is a chance to take a deep dive into how to properly taste and evaluate a beer. Both classes take place quarterly and are open to the public.

Also open to the public are two different types of special events. The Palate Exploration Series featuring Robinette’s was one of those events. Founders teams up with a local food merchant and gives beer fans a chance to see how beer pairs with a wide variety of food. The other special event is the Founders Beer Dinner. This is a six-course food and beer pairing with food prepared by Founders’ own culinary team.

The events are hosted by the Founders Curriculum Coordinator, Mike Willcox Steil. Mike loves showcasing Founders beer, but what he really enjoys is the experience he can create for his customers. “When you set something up like this (the Robinette’s pairing) all the sudden you have 15 to 20 people who never met each other and within fifteen minutes they’re all talking like friends.”

founders education program“That friendly feeling was what got me working in this industry to begin with,” Mike elaborated.

The friendly and outgoing vibe he speaks of is intertwined deep into the fabric of Founders and it’s a huge reason for the existence of the Education Program. They truly believe in the “good news” of beer and they’re anxious to share it with anyone who comes through the door. Mike explains, “If I was working at the bar and someone told me they only liked Budweiser, to me, that’s an opportunity. Let’s change this guy’s mind. And if we can’t change his mind, let’s get him something so that he still has a good time tonight.”

Eva and Bob Trudell mentioned that the same outgoing and educational attitude is what endeared them to Founders from the beginning. “I feel like we originally learned about beer from Founders,” said Eva. “All the servers we’ve ever had at Founders, that’s how they’ve been. They want to educate us about the beer we’re drinking. It’s not just about giving you a beer.”

It’s no coincidence they had that experience with their servers. The final part of the Founders Education Program is all internal. It includes staff education and beer orientation for everyone in the company. Every month, Founders offers to pay for a 3-session training program that allows staff to obtain their Cicerone Beer Certification. It’s a program that certifies and educates beer professionals in order to elevate the beer experience for consumers. Currently, Mike says the entire staff is at least a level 1 Cicerone.

The other internal education component is the beer orientation program. This program is required for all new employees, despite Founders growing size. “No matter what, everyone comes for orientation,” said Mike. “That includes new heads of marketing, guys starting in the deli, or someone new on the packaging line.” That company-wide inclusion is a philosophy that goes back to the early days of Founders. “The Founders family mentality that brought this brewery to where it is, we try to keep as much as that as possible.”

The welcoming attitude that Founders attempts to show towards both employees and customers alike also extends to everyone else in the craft brew industry, including other brewers. The tours that are part of the Education Program are popular among brewers large and small from all across the state. Mike says that in the world of craft beer, they aren’t viewed as competitors, but instead as friends and collaborators. “I’ve always felt like nobody’s better than I am, and I am better than nobody else. That attitude is very much a part of this place. It’s the ‘rising tide lifts all ships’ kind of thing. We wouldn’t be around if other people weren’t trying other craft beers.”

The Founders Education Program is an effort by a growing company to share their passion with as many people as possible. For them, it’s all about the beer, and they’re doing what they can to spread the gospel.

If you’re interested in tours, special events, classes or any other part of the Education Program, get more information from the Founders website.


Photography: Jason Batts & Steph Harding


Established breweries that have survived the blood, sweat and tears faced by opening in a saturated market need to make a decision — stay the course, or make some changes. Grand Rapids Brewing Company chose to change its direction by no longer being a certified organic brewery as of 2015.  

“We did that mostly so we could use more local products – that was the biggest thing…We want to support local business and use local ingredients,” said Jake Brenner, Head Brewer of Barfly Ventures – which owns GRBC, Hopcat, Stella’s Lounge and The Waldron Public House.

Holding the certification of “organic brewery” limited GRBC to acquiring ingredients that held the same certification, which in Michigan is very little. This prevented GRBC from getting ingredients from local farmers who are producing high quality but are not organic certified, such as Pilot Malt House and most of the local hop farms. Organic is important to Brenner, but he’s excited to have less restrictions on where he gets the ingredients for his beers.

“Now we can go to the farmers market on any given summer morning and pick up produce. It opens tons of doors,” said Brenner.

GRBC’s change in direction also inspired them to find unique ways to give back to those who support and work hard for GRBC. Something they have been doing for almost a year now is a staff concept beer. Once a month, a staff member gets to meet with the brewers to come up with a beer recipe, spend the day brewing the beer, and then name the beer. It is a great way to educate and involve the people working for the company that don’t spend their days down in the basement brewing daily.

Currently you can stop by the tap room and check out El GoseRita — the brain-child of the Kitchen Manager, Brendan. It is a German-style Gose with a margarita-like quality from being brewed with sea salt, limes and grapefruit.


The staff concept beer is just one of the ways you can familiarize yourself with GRBC’s rotating beer list. With GR Beer Week underway, GRBC will have another new beer on tap to celebrate, as well as a bottle release of the beer. This year they brewed, Polish Eagle, an Imperial Porter, and aged it Wild Turkey Barrels.

And, of course, the talk around town this week is this weekend’s Winter Beer Festival — and GRBC will definitely be in attendance. Bringing eight beers, all with an ABV over 8.2%, you’ll want to pace yourself if you swing by their booth. A couple to keep an eye out for are — Batch 300, a Russian Imperial Stout that will be making its first appearance at the festival, and Decadent Eagle, a sour Imperial Stout with cherries and when its gone, its gone.


Photography: Steph Harding

michigan craft beer

LANSING, Mich—Craft beer enthusiasts are passionate about Michigan brews…and February is the perfect time to fall in love with rich, chocolaty and fruity beers. As you head out with your sweetheart this year for Valentine’s Day, consider ordering up a pint of one of these deliciously romantic Michigan made libations recommended by the Michigan Brewers Guild.


Espresso Love (7.5%ABV | 15 IBUs). Oatmeal and 20 pounds of fresh roasted 100% fair-trade coffee, from the nearby Ugly Mug Café Brewed, contribute to a mildly chalky espresso character balanced by a rich, sweet creamy maltiness. The coffee finish dissolves into chocolate, with a slight roasty bitterness. Pairs well with desserts, especially dark chocolate, raspberries, and cheesecake.

ARCADIA ALES, Battle Creek

Cocoa Loco Triple Chocolate Stout (7% ABV | 39 IBUs). This award-winning beer gets its rich flavor from Simpson Chocolate, Weyerman Chocolate and Crisp Chocolate malts. The addition of lactose lends the beer a creamy quality- not unlike a milkshake- while the Blackstrap Molasses adds rich, burnt, syrupy flavors.  Flavors of baker’s chocolate and espresso dominate, while rich malty flavors and a subtle kiss of hops add nice balance, making this a truly one-of-a-kind BIG beer.

BELL’S BREWERY, Galesburg / Kalamazoo  

Smitten Golden Rye Ale (6.0% ABV | 42 IBUs). This spring seasonal offers rustic flavors from rye malt combined with citrusy, resinous hop aroma from Pacific Northwest varieties to create a crisp, refreshing take on the classic pale ale.


Ancho Chili Dutch Double Chocolate Porter (5.3% ABV). There’s a special magic that happens between chilies and chocolate that was first utilized in ancient Latin America and still weaves its spell today. Ancho Chili Dutch Double Chocolate Porter showcases the perfect balance of chili flavor and warmth combined with dark chocolate. This is not a hot pepper beer – the warmth from the chilies builds slowly, enhancing the character of the beer without becoming dominant. Far from being a novelty beer, the richness of chocolate malts and Dutch cocoa combined with the deep, smoky flavor imparted by whole Ancho chilies while the beer is conditioning will keep them coming back for more.


Imperial Cocoa Cherry (9% ABV | 80 IBUs). This robust imperial stout is like chocolate covered cherries in a glass, complete with a kiss of cherry sweetness—like a loving embrace. This beer will pair well with all of your Valentine’s Day desserts.


Founders Porter (6.5% ABV | 45 IBUs). Described as “Dark, Rich and Sexy,” this beer pours silk black with a creamy tan head. The nose is sweet with a strong chocolate and caramel malt presence and no absence of hops gives this beer the full flavor you deserve and expect…it’s cozy like velvet. This 2010 World Beer Cup silver medalist is described as “a lover, not a fighter.”


Lion Heart (6.8% ABV | 36 IBUs). Forget the box of chocolates, let your lover’s sweet tooth indulge in the Lion Heart, an amorous robust porter made even more sensual with the addition of raspberry puree and cacao nibs. Luscious chocolate notes balance against the coffee and roast malt profile with accents of fruity tartness from the raspberry.

Susie Q (4.9% ABV | 16 IBUs). What’s better than a bouquet of flowers for your craft beer sweetheart? A bouquet of flavor from Susie Q, a cream ale brewed with hibiscus and rose hips. Soft smelling as a rose and light as a sunny day, Susie Q exhibits light malt sweetness which transitions to delicate citrus and floral flavors of the rose and hibiscus.


Winter Nights (8% ABV) – the toasted aroma, smooth maltiness and slight chocolate and coffee notes give this winter warmer the tools to keep you and your loved one warm on a cold winter night!

JOLLY PUMPKIN, Dexter / Ann Arbor / Detroit / Traverse City 

iO Saison (6.8% ABV). Part of the Baudelaire series, this beer will capture the hearts of art and artisan beer lovers alike. Drawn in by the historic elegance of the label design and then held tight by the rapture of flavors, it will be released in limited quantities. iO Saison is brewed in a lovely fashion, with rose hips, rose petals and hibiscus. Yet, don’t be easily deceived by her looks, for like love – she can be oh so dangerous. Available in late February.


Love Fuel (3% ABV | 6 IBUs). This raspberry Berlinerweiss looks like pink lemonade and smells like a fresh combination of fruit and German yeast with a tasty, bubbly flavor.


Doctor Love (8% ABV | 18 IBUs). This imperial red ale with ale brewed with eight different invigorating herbs and a touch of flavor hops.

Love Potion #8 (7.5% ABV | 32 IBUs). This double chocolate stout is brewed with four different invigorating herbs, to get the blood flowing.

Sacred Gruit (5.8% ABV | 4 IBUs). The flagship gruit brewed with 3 different herbs that stimulate the mind, create euphoria and enhance sexual drive. For a little added fun, try the Peach Gruit, with peace juice added.

Chocolate Vibrant Stout (9% ABV). This imperial stout is full of flavor from chocolate, with aphrodisiacal herbs added for her pleasure.


Sweetheart Stout (5.8% ABV | 35 IBUs). This oatmeal stout is blended in three steps, with pureed raspberries.


The Poet (5.2% ABV | 37 IBUs). This is a romantic offering for Valentine’s Day. This beer reveals a rich, smooth malt character enveloped in tones of roast and chocolate. A soft mouth-feel brings luxurious flavors and a soothing aroma. The Poet is as versatile as it is delicious – the perfect accent to any chocolate dessert.

NORTH PEAK BEER, Dexter / Detroit

Dubious Black Chocolate Stout (5.3% ABV | 50 IBUs). Sporting its “giant man-eating beaver” icon, this beer pays homage to Northern Michigan’s Beaver Island. This beer has the perfect combination of chocolate with roast and black malts, resulting in a smooth and rich beer. Judicious use of hops brings out a complex, yet subtle bittering, finished off with a big Goldings nose. This swirl of aroma, flavor and body is underscored by the rich, dark chocolate that is added at the end of the boil.


Shot Through the Heart (9.5% ABV | 30 IBUs). This imperial porter is aged on cacao nibs, giving it a big, smooth, malty sweetness, with notes of dark chocolate, dried fruit and caramel.

ROCHESTER MILLS BEER CO., Rochester / Auburn Hills

Milkshake Stout (5.3% ABV | 20 IBUs). The combination of four different malts, along with a low hop level creates a deep dark beer featuring rich, roasted, malt flavors. The addition of lactose (milk sugar) adds complexity, body, and a residual sweetness lending a smooth creamy texture to this full-flavored brew. Once a seasonal offering in the pub, now prominently featured in state-wide distribution due to popular demand.

Paint Creek Porter (6.0% ABV | 21 IBUs). This pub-only offering is a robust beer that features a rich, velvety chocolate malt flavor that will compliment any chocolate dessert.


Hoplust IPA (7.1% ABV | 70 IBUs). A profoundly hoppy hand-crafted American IPA, with a proprietary blend of six different hop varieties for a unique flavor experience. An intense bouquet of fresh hops will greet you on the nose, followed by the bursting tropical, citrus and piney flavors on your palette. The approach to this IPA is to focus more toward satisfying the craving for hop flavor than bitterness.


Hot Loins. A beer brewed with aphrodisiacs: Pomegranate, vanilla, honey and the most powerful aphrodisiac of all time – Tongat Ali – aka long jack.

Love Knife (6.7% ABV – 45 IBU) is a brownish red Belgian ale that explodes with aromas of strawberry, banana, and nectarine. Malt sweetness is quite low, allowing for the fruit flavors to be apparent throughout the beer.

Of course, there are countless other beers to LOVE…and the best is the one in your hand. Hopefully, that’s locally-crafted here in Michigan!

the hideout

GRAND RAPIDS – Hidden down a side street, nestled amongst an apartment complex and a television station, the Hideout Brewing Company is aptly named — it is like a secret that everyone wants to hear. The inside speaks that of a secret society, drawing you in with their 32 tap handles that you may stop to sit right in front of. However, I do encourage you to take a closer look. What used to be a hot tub rental and spa in the 70s is now home to a 10 bbl brew system, an upstairs full of old school video game consoles, and horseshoes in the beer garden —and maybe it’s the place you’ll dare yourself to conquer the biggest flight in town.

“A lot of people say you can still smell chlorine from when the hot tubs were functioning, but really you just happen to have walked in when they were cleaning the kettles,” states Heather Vredevoogd, one of the head brewers at the Hideout.

With two brewers on staff, one male and one female, they balance the duties as a team and both answer to the title head brewer. Vredevoogd was surprised by how much respect she received as a female.

“I was expecting them not to (respect me) because of being female. I still do all the heavy lifting and (have been) doing this as my main job for a year and a half. I was coming in off the clock to watch and learn the brewing process. In Michigan there is such comradery. There is nothing like this beer community in other states. Being able to start up a brewery and not really know everything that goes into it and know there are people that you can say hey, I don’t know what I need for…I have yet (to) run into an owner that hasn’t been helpful,” states Vredevoogd.

the hideout

The Hideout, under the latest ownership by Nick Humphrey and Scott Colson, has participated at the Winter Beer Festival the past four years. This year the Hideout will bring their latest bourbon barrel aged beers – a chocolate imperial stout and a barleywine. Keeping the high ABV, but subtle in bourbon taste, the chocolate imperial stout is like a nice smooth chocolate dessert in a glass. An attendee can expect other winter style beers brought by the Hideout as well. Maybe check out the Hideout for your last go around at the festival to end the day off just perfect!


Photography: Bri Luginbill


GRAND RAPIDS – As an original Winter Beer Festival contributing drinker, B.O.B.’s Brewerys Brewmaster John Svoboda’s interests are always surpassed by the excitement and fun that the festival brings. Ever since the WBF made its way to Grand Rapids, B.O.B.’s has been a participant.

“It is wonderful publicity and you have the opportunity to meet new people and people that are a fan of the brewery! It is nice to see people enjoying themselves at the festival and appreciate what we do. It is difficult to stand out at the festival. There are a thousand beers and after you eliminate all of the standards, you have to stand out and bring something unusual and how you get it to be unusual can be a challenge,” said Svoboda.

Their most popular beer to date, the Peanut Butter Porter, will be pouring its dark smooth peanut taste into your cups this year. A similar style and new beer will deliciously be by its side – a milk stout made with hazelnuts and chocolate, rightfully given the name: Nutella Stout.

“It will be really great or we aren’t going to bring it – ha! We want you to taste it and it taste like Nutella, not just chocolate,” said Mick Rickerd, Executive Chef of the Gilmore Collection.


B.O.B.’s beer isn’t only found at the WBF, you can find B.O.B.’s at the bottom level of The B.O.B. Unlike most breweries, this one sits below restaurants, a nightclub, and a comedy club all filling the building’s five levels. The beauty of a setup like this is that B.O.B.’s beer is available on tap at every location, not just the lower level that they occupy.

“Having other beers on tap, actually gets people to try more of our beers,” said Svoboda.

On Saturday February 20 from noon to 4 p.m. The B.O.B. is having their Winter Beer Festival Brunch. With Rickerd’s extensive beer and food knowledge he has created an elaborate food menu that will leave every taste bud happily pleased. On tap will be 43 Michigan beers from 11 breweries and three brunch stations, as well as dessert. You might as well call it, ‘the easy way to keep warm because you are inside’ WBF kickoff to prepare you for the following weekend.

Whether you like to keep warm inside or try and keep warm outside, B.O.B.’s Brewery is lined up with some great brewing talent this February for all to enjoy.

Photography: Bri Luginbill

black lotus

Clawson, MI – Black Lotus Brewing Company will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year in quietly cool Clawson. The neighborhood brew pub has recently doubled tap capacity as its brewing program, as well its customer base, continues to grow.

The brewery is home to an eclectic mix of brews, scratch-made food, and funky decor. Free live music is provided each week by Zap Toro, a Latin infused Jazz band featuring Aretha Franklin’s drummer, percussion from the Pistons drumline, and the occasional Tango lesson.

The brewery recently expanded to connect with the owners’ neighboring business, The Drive In. The virtual golf simulator hall has now been outfitted with 10 taps and equipped for live music.

black lotusOwners Mark Harper and Mike Allen stepped away from Brewing Operations last year to focus on the business. Enter Nick “The Brewer” Joseph, whose big personality and passion for beer make for an irresistible combination.

His claim to fame?

“I was voted best male bartender in Chicago in 2006,” Nick says.

These days he spends less time pouring beer and more time brewing it.

“The owners brought me in to do a job. Once they trusted me to keep the standard brews on draft, they let me go wild.”

Wild—such as a pumpkin-less pumpkin beer randalled through toffee brittle and ghost peppers, which was on tap this year at the Detroit Beer Festival. Or, like a farmhouse saison aged in Valentine gin barrels and named after a Bond film.

His Skyfarm 00Saison took silver in the Belgian specialty category at the World Beer Tasting Championships, second place behind a Unibroue beer.

Beer experiments aside, Black Lotus specializes in clean, balanced beers with no additives or filtering. The mainstay beers include a sessionable IPA, a Brown Ale, a Stout, and a Pilsner style beer.

They keep it local, using all Michigan hops, Barley from 44th parallel, and, of course, Detroit city water.

“There is a group of younger Michigan brewers elevating the game here in Metro-Detroit,” Nick said. “Quality improves with better technical training and boots-on-the-ground experience.”

Nick started his career in beer at Kuhnhenn’s Brewery in Warren, where he spent a year as a production brewer. He spent 5 years in California homebrewing and playing music before returning to Michigan last year.

At that time, Black Lotus owner Mark Harper was looking for a brewer to take the program to the next level.

“I came here one year ago and started getting to know the beer program. Now I feel like I have infused myself into it and I am comfortable growing the brand,” Nick said.

Nick is responsible for the entire brewing process, from cleaning and maintaining equipment, to coming up with recipes, to hand bottling and labeling.

“The whole program is on me. Some days I’m a brewer, but most days it feels like I’m a janitor. When your career and your passion align, and you have confidence in your system, good things happen,” he said.

Nick aims to start a monthly podcast featuring brewers from around metro-Detroit, which will be hosted at Black Lotus with a live audience.

He also plans to invite other breweries to compete in a local beer challenge.

“We’re ready to put our beer alongside anyone else’s, and have a lot of fun doing so. A lot of the breweries around here have great relationships, which makes it more fun to collaborate.”

One such collaboration will be a cider/beer collaboration done with Cellarmen’s Meadery this month; a Belgian Quad mixed with a 28 varietal Cider from a farm in Michigan, potentially barrel aged in gin barrels.

“Beer should be an experience, and it should take you on a journey,” Nick says. “All I do is move the beer, clean the tank, move the beer, clean the tank, but I love it, and I love sharing this craft.”

Photography: Steven Pham

Ann Arbor Distilling

Ann Arbor, MI–One of the great things about modern society is that it gives people a chance to remake themselves, to be what they want to be. The same could be said for buildings. Take 220 Felch Street, located in the Water Hill neighborhood in Ann Arbor. It was built as a fuel oil storage for Amoco in 1924. At other times in its life, it has been a bicycle shop called Cycle Cellar, Kaufman Studios, Ann Arbor Art Center studios, the Pot & Box, and the Daily Grind Flour Mill, which provided the grain for the Wildflour Bakery. Grains are back at the location today, but in the form of distilled beverages.

Last year, Ari Sussman and his partner/co-owner Rob Cleveland opened the Ann Arbor Distilling Company at 220 Felch Street. The tasting room provides thirsty patrons with vodka and gin straight up or in the form of craft cocktails. More alcohol is on the way.

Ann Arbor Distilling

“We make whiskey constantly,” Sussman said. “The earliest batches will be available in early summer, with releases continuing after that.” Sussman said that it can take anywhere from 18 months to more than three years to make a good whiskey. “Most folks are used to the Kentucky style of whiskey, because it’s what they are used to. That takes three years, usually longer. But if you want a different profile in your whiskey, you can do it in less time. It all depends on the character you are trying to achieve.” Sussman has found craft distilleries across the country releasing products that compare favorably to legacy brands of whiskey.

Sussman is no stranger to good liquor made from good products. In his early 20s, he spent time in France working with wine and brandy makers. When he returned to Michigan, he found that no one was making spirits. “Some winemakers made some brandy on the side, but that was it,” he said.

To familiarize himself with the products he had made in France, Sussman bartended at some of the finest places in Ann Arbor: Zanzibar, eve the restaurant, and the Raven’s Club. “The entire time I bartended,” Sussman said. “I had it in the back of my mind to get into manufacturing.”

Then Sussman received a life changing opportunity—to work at the Michigan State University Distillery. He worked with students in the program, and with Kris Berglund, the professor who founded the program. (The program is part of MSU’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and still provides product and process development consulting for people who want to start distilling operations.) “I was able to learn from the best,” Sussman said of Professor Berglund. After three years, Sussman worked his way up to head distiller.

Now, he is head distiller at his own place. “The more you learn about the distilling regions in the world,” Sussman said. “The more you realize that Michigan is one of the best places for it.” About 90% of his ingredients are local because “we can’t find better product anywhere else– it happens that they are all available locally.” The products used include the cereal grains, apples, and grapes.

All of this alcohol is created on two stills, custom made in Germany. They are designed to be able to make any product from the base ingredients.

“The raw ingredients go in and whiskey, brandy, vodka, gin, rum, and so on is what will come out.”

And the alcohol is flowing out! The cocktail menu includes a Moscow Mule, Pomegranate Fizz, Ginger Gimlet, and Seasonal Shrub. Recently, the distillers use Mighty Good coffee to make a coffee liqueur for their White Russians. Sussman said that they are actively looking for snacks that will help highlight the spirits and pair well with the cocktails.

The future of the Ann Arbor Distilling Company is as bright as the gleam on the stills. “People are going to be pleasantly surprised by the quality of spirits that can be made from local ingredients,” Sussman smiles. The old Daily Grind grain mill is long gone—but the grains shine on at 220 Felch Street.

Folks can try the cocktails and spirits Tuesday-Saturday from 4:00-10:00.

Photography: Steph Harding

New Holland Brewing

Holland, MI — A tricked out beer trailer? An eight foot tall metal dragon that will be looming over you as you sip deliciousness? A crazy ambitious series from New Holland that provides 16 variations of Dragon’s Milk? Um, yes. Count me in New Holland Brewing. Your presence at the 11th Annual Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Festival is worth squealing with excitement about.

It’s no secret that Dragon’s Milk, a bourbon barrel aged stout, has stolen the hearts of many, and for good reason! It’s a solid, damn good product. So, how can New Holland Brewing up their game with the beer? By making it an “Unlimited Release” of course. The company has announced that, “We are all in on Dragon’s Milk this year and truly view it as an “Unlimited Release”. We strive to make it “unlimited” by being available year round (no easy feat), everywhere (working towards contiguous US), available to everyone (not just the “geeks”) and now with unlimited variants and flavor possibilities.”

New Holland BrewingBefore I go any further, let’s check out what exactly the selection from New Holland Brewing will be at Winter Beer Fest 2016…

Dragon’s Milk
Dragon’s Milk Coconut Rum Barrel
Dragon’s Milk Mexican Spice Cake
Dragon’s Milk Peanut Butter
Dragon’s Milk Mint Chocolate
Dragon’s Milk Maple Coffee
Dragon’s Milk Brandy Barrel Apple Pie
Dragon’s Milk Bacon
Dragon’s Milk Chocolate & Orange
Dragon’s Milk Sarsaparilla
Dragon’s Milk Black Cherry
Dragon’s Milk Hazelnut
Dragon’s Milk Vanilla Chai
2015 Dragon’s Milk Reserve Triple Mash
2014 Dragon’s Milk Reserve with Raspberries
2015 Dragon’s Milk Reserve with Toasted Chilies

I know I know. A pretty robust list, right? After taking a peek I had a few questions for Fred Bueltmann,  Vice President of Brand and Lifestyle and Partner of New Holland, and Joel Petersen, Vice President of Marketing of New Holland Brewing about these new brews.

AS: It appears that the Dragon’s Milk variants have several options that mesh together beer (of course) with other beverage types (root beer, apple pie brandy, etc). Have you found that creating these new flavor relationships resulted from organic curiosity in production or have you found that listening to and observing the consumer trends (Not Your Father’s Root Beer comes to mind immediately) inspired these variants? Or possibly both?

FB & JP: In this particular case, they were dreamed up by our team of brewers in a very explorative, freestyle manner. Creating variants for the festival, removes some of the common barriers that come with our normal obligation to volume, and commitment to recreate flavors consistently. In this instance, they were charged with creating fun, one-off flavors in small, festival-sized batches, that may never exist again.

AS: Which ingredient(s) in the group of Dragon’s Milk variants was the most difficult to brew with? Anything that gummed up or got stuck in the mash tun or proved to be too powerful of a flavor in too little quantities? Essentially, which variant provided the most challenging brewing experience?

FB & JP: Bacon and peanut butter are currently the big question marks in terms of methodology, as well as cleanup.

AS: Acquiring barrels is never easy nowadays. How do you stay ahead of the pack in terms of collecting barrels for flavor and aging, especially less common ones in the beer scene such as rum and brandy barrels?

FB & JP: We have been barrel-aging beer since 2001, so we have learned a lot and developed many relationships. We have a great relationship with our cooper, who also serves as a bourbon-barrel broker, and we project our needs well ahead of time.  Our barrel cellar also produces a large amount of second-use barrels, so the relationship is reciprocal at times.  Our barrel sourcing efforts are as important and serious to us as our grain and hops.  

AS: Speaking of rum and brandy, could you give us an idea of the flavor differences you noticed between using rum or using the brandy barrels for the Dragon’s Milk?

FB & JP: This is the first brandy barrel we’ve used for Dragon’s Milk, so time will tell.  Rum is made from molasses and cane sugar, and typically expresses the darker flavors of it’s distillate and sugars.  Caramel, molasses and toffee are common to the flavor profile, which is a delicious connection to the dark and roasty malts, as well as the vanilla component found in Dragon’s Milk.  We expect the barrel that held brandy, which is fruit-based distillate, to have more fruit-like sweetness and play a bit brighter, accenting more of the toasty notes from the oak.

AS: What was the method used for including the bacon characteristics in the beer? Allowing full pieces of cooked bacon to hang out in the fermentation tanks? Were they included during boiling? Or was it some sort of steeping method towards the end? I bet the facilities smelled amazing that day…

FB & JP: We are conditioning the beer with bacon, post-brew and post-barrel.  Finished Dragon’s Milk will be transferred to a tank where crispy cooked bacon will be added. This allows us to manage the ingredients well and gauge conditioning time. Bacon brings lots of flavor as well as mouthfeel, so this should be velvety smooth, with tremendous porcine flavors.

AS: What advice would you give enthusiasts out there who are looking to pair these new variants with food? There are numerous pairing options, but perhaps some stood out in particular during your trial period?

FB & JP: Our advice is always to Stop & Taste.  Trust your intuition and think about what flavor you’re picking up, more than any given technique.  Also, since these are Winter Beer Festival only, we suggest, they should be paired with giant turkey legs and whatever chocolate you can get your hands on while enjoying the fest.

AS: You’ve created a purpose-driven program for the Dragon’s Milk series. Allowing the beer to be available year round in all your distribution networks and launching the “Unlimited Release” idea is incredibly difficult and I think will be received very well by your fans. What is the most challenging aspect of this idea? Do you think it’ll push other breweries to attempt this line of thinking with their rare or specialty items?

FB & JP: Our decision to go year round several years ago has definitely changed the face and footprint of the brewery. The need for dedicated blending tanks, refrigerated barrel storage, re-orienting how our barrels are stored, projecting the cash flow for all of those barrels to hang out for three months and having a robust quality control program to make shelf-stable barrel-aged beer, are all challenges that have been discovered and met at one point or another. Who knows whether other breweries will follow suit, but you have to look at it two different ways. Making rare or specialty items more widely available is one thing, and it should be in concert with demand.  Dragon’s Milk has grown in response to our customers demonstrating that they want more and will buy more. The second point is that taking barrel aged beers to market has significant technical challenges to assure that the bottles will be shelf stable and will age gracefully. Once beer is in contact with wood, it has met potential souring and/or staling agents, and we go to great pains to protect our barrel aged beer from preventable negative consequences to that exposure. Both of these points should be considered before breweries expand specialty lines, and are challenges that may keep some rare or specialty beer closer to home and in more limited contexts and volume. 


Photography: Steph Harding