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.
“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