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mushroom head

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

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

mushroom head

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Schaefer family has been growing in the apple business since 1855. Last year, their commercial farm produced 300,000 bushels of apples. As is the case with most commercial farms, many of those bushels went to waste. One hundred thousand Schaefer apples too ugly or too large to put on the fresh market were thrown away. Watching this happen over the last couple of years, it occurred to Chris and Andy Schaefer that they could use those reject apples—whose only downfall was their appearance—to make hard cider.

“We’ve always got these leftover apples that aren’t good enough to put on the fresh market, so just kind of figured we can use them for something else,” said Andy Schaefer.

About three years ago, the Schaefers purchased the 75 acres which make up the “Centennial Farm,” the grounds on which the Schaefer apple legacy started. Their intent was to grow apples specifically for cider, which they plan to produce under the moniker Schaefer Cider Company. Since then the Schaefers and their farm employees have been grafting, planting and experimenting to get the farm cider ready.

At this point in the season, they’ve got about six weeks before they start picking apples. As they near harvest, Chris and Andy Schaefer are enjoying the “calm before the storm” on the farm.

“We’re just hoping we don’t get hail or something else that pops up that takes out the crop,” said Chris Schaefer.

But the Schaefers are hardly without work. In addition to the “regular,” non-farm-related jobs they both hold, they’re putting together their tasting room and transforming the farm into a destination where they hope people will come to enjoy traditionally influenced hard cider. They’re also awaiting the licensing paperwork to go through the final stages before they can begin serving alcohol.

The Schaefers have 12,000 trees that they’re devoting primarily to cider apple production. Among those trees are reliable varieties that the Schaefers can count on to produce plentifully every year. Also among them are some more experimental varieties, ones that haven’t been grown since Prohibition.

“We’re planting stuff like Jonagold, which is good for fresh eating but it’s also good for cider,” said Chris Schaefer. “But we also have these really cool varieties that nobody’s really grown for [100 years], some of them, and we’re seeing how they work.”

Because Prohibition snuffed the cider game out early on in the United States, many varieties of cider apples stopped being grown. Cider apples don’t always meet the flavor and aesthetic standards set by the fresh market, so they weren’t viable crops without a market for cider. The Schaefers are devoting a portion of their acreage to bringing those varieties back to life.

A lot of the Schaefers’ experimentation is a complete shot in the dark. There’s no telling how much the trees will produce, whether or not they’ll produce every year, what soil conditions they prefer—all this must be determined by trial and error.

“There’s very little known about some of these,” said Andy Schaefer. “That’s the tricky part, because you don’t know exactly what rootstock to put them on, what conditions they like to grow in.”

“There’s going to be a lot of failure, a lot of wasted time,” said Chris Schaefer.

But the freedom and room for experimentation are exciting, and they give Schaefer Cider Company a leg up on the competition. They have complete control over what kinds of apples will go into their cider, whereas cider producers who don’t have their own orchards must rely on what their apple producer is willing to grow.

“We are able to experiment with this stuff, where a lot of other cider producers can’t,” said Andy Schaefer.

While these experimental varieties may be fun to replicate from history, they also need to make money. Another job that faces the Schaefers as they enter into the cider business is educating their customers’ palates.

“There is a problem with getting people’s tastes evolved,” said Andy Schaefer.

The Schaefers plan to look to the craft beer movement for inspiration on how to approach this issue. For them, it will mean keeping a range of flavors and styles on draft. They plan to include more familiar back-sweetened styles for those with a taste for the sweeter alongside their more traditional, naturally sweetened styles.

“But we really want to do something that is unique and traditional.” said Chris Schaefer.

Keep up with Schaefer Cider Company on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

 


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