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speciation artisan ales

Imagine life’s first strands, the RNA in volcanic pools wriggling like an eel in attempt to express itself. As it reacts to cyanide and sugar, nucleotides are formed—RNA’s baby food. From these humble beginnings we have a miracle that science is still trying to understand. Information unfurls, cells are born. Earth settles. Not too hot, not too cold, the stage is set for life to really go bananas. Multi-celled organisms split and explode in unnamed oceans. Fish grow legs and walk on land. Things are changing. Flash-forward a few billion years and we have humans drinking beer in cities. They share the planet with termites, giraffes, and more. After all this time, life has done a lot of differentiating.

When drinking Speciation Artisan Ales I end up thinking about these large spans of time, certainly in regards to the patience required for the beers to mature, but more so in how the flavors feel so outside of time, prehistoric, like those first eukaryotes struggling and succeeding to become life. How when you have a sip time narrows, the palate a petri dish for yeast to slow dance on. They say there’s beer to drink about and beer to think about. These beers demand attention. “That’s the goal with the beers that we make,” owner Mitch Ermatinger said. “They’re not meant to be shotgunned, we want you to sit and enjoy.”

speciation artisan ales

Mitch Ermatinger

While rewarding in their complexity, brewing with the wild yeast can feel like leading blind sheep to the pasture. “We try to guide the beer in the direction we want it to go through, but we leave a lot of fermentation up to nature,” Ermatinger said. “Here’s some food, munch on it and make something magical.” There does seem to be something mysterious at play beneath the cage and cork. How did he learn to coax magic out of microbes?

By now, many are familiar with the Speciation origin story. As a brewer at Colorado’s Former Future, Ermatinger helped spearhead Black Project, a spontaneous fermentation side project so popular it eclipsed its forebearer and became the main gig. In spite of acclaim and a handful of medals won at GABF, Mitch always had the dream of someday opening his own place. There would need to be a homecoming. That came in 2015 when he and Whitney Ermatinger, his co-owner and wife, returned to West Michigan with experience and a business plan. His reputation snowballed as he helped Harmony Brewing Company launch their sour program and distributed personal test batches to community bottle shares. “I was hoping that the quality of the beer would show that we were worth their time and money, and that we were serious about making world class beer,” Ermatinger said. Call it guerilla marketing-lite.

All the hard work culminated on January 14, 2017 when Speciation released its inaugural beer Genetic Drift, a funky Saison with wild yeast harvested from a crab apple flower found on family property in Holland, MI. Traces of this original culture are sprinkled throughout much of Speciation’s lineup, cultivating a unique identity to the brand. If not the sexiest beer in the Speciation portfolio, Genetic Drift at least serves as a powerful mission statement. As Charles Darwin put it, “Species undergo modification, and existing forms of life descended by true generation from preexisting forms.” Meaning? As the culture evolves over time, it’s important to respect its ancestry. It’s pretty romantic. The dust off a petal helped launch a brewery.

Now, just shy of two years later, Speciation has grown into a different sort of beast. Previously opening the garage only once a month for bottle releases, they’ve finally unveiled regular hours to the public: Thursday through Saturday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Fans have been chomping at the bit. It’s been a long time coming, unfortunately marred by unanticipated frustrations. “My biggest regret is not finding a landlord who was on board with what we’re doing, even basic things like opening a tasting room,” Ermatinger said. “It’s caused a lot of stress dealing with someone who impedes our vision for the company.” Thankfully, after plenty hard fought battles, the team has assembled a space that fits the beer they make.

speciation artisan ales

Mitch & Whitney Ermatinger

Hidden in a warehouse on the outskirts of Comstock Park, the building looks more like a place you’d get a root canal than a Berliner Weisse, but once inside the facade seems like an intentional fakeout. The air is thick with a dungeon musk. Low light and picnic tables accentuate the farmhouse cozy. There’s this pervading feeling that you’ve stepped into another era—Jurassic chic. Looking around though, the obvious set piece is the number of barrels stacked high against the walls. It’s a confident decoration choice, confessional in a way: here you are surrounded by what you’ll eventually drink. Spotting a Gray Skies Distillery logo on a barrel teases possibilities; what kind of collaborative experiment could be aging in there?

From snagging Gray Skies barrels to joint recipes with HOMES, Speciation’s collaborative spirit has proven a testament to their success from day one. “We can all make beer better,” Ermatinger said. “Every time we collab with another brewery we learn something about their process, and it goes the other way around too.”

Their relationship with City Built Brewing Company reflects that symbiosis. Brewing roughly ninety percent of Speciation’s wort, City Built provides them the liquid foundation for yeast to create alcohol. They do make a buck as the host brewery, but more importantly, it conveys a mutual respect. Ed Collazzo, City Built’s co-founder, clued me in to a dynamic shift in their partnership. “Beyond our friendship, he needs a brewery because he doesn’t have one. For our new sour program, we’ll need a space to avoid getting bugs in our brewhouse.” City Built has been kicking out awesome kettle sours for a while, but the decision to up the ante with wild fermentation could have to do with friendly competition. “We’re encouraged to do better because he’s in town. There’s a lot of thought behind his plan, both in quality and how he’s changing the sour game in Michigan.” It’ll be a bit before we taste the fruition of this endeavor, but we can sense the Speciation influence in City Built’s November can release, #happyfriendsgiving, a Cranberry Berliner Weisse with lactose.

Another key to the success of the tasting room will be Quinn Vollink, Speciation’s taproom manager. A long time face at The Sovengard, his relationship with the Ermatingers and passion for sour beer landed him a full-time spot handling day-to-day operations. “The big thing for me is educating the public on our process and getting people excited about what we do,” Vollink said. “I’m a Zingerman’s alumni and I put big pride in making sure everyone leaves happier than when they first arrived.” Knowledgeable and friendly, whether you want to talk to him about yeast strains or the Talking Heads, you’ll want a spot at the rail to get to know Quinn.

speciation artisan alesMitch clearly appreciates the help too, “For two years I was working 80-100 hours a week and I was burning out. Then we had a kid. When we had Quincy it made me realize I needed to delegate or I would die. Despite this being so much fun I don’t want to work my life away.” This trust to relinquish control is necessary in both fatherhood and beer. Volatile and fickle, I imagine brewing a sour isn’t altogether different from raising a toddler. “I can’t control all the microbes, there’s too many variables. But I also don’t want control, I want the beer to go in different ways, come together and make something unique.” Spoken like a true dad.

With a little extra time on his hands, Ermatinger has started plotting a next move. “We applied for our winery license, so soon enough we’ll be making wild fermented wine and cider too,” he said. “They’re a funky wine. Similar to lambic.” Essentially wine that’s alive, natural wine is a middle finger to the bore and snobbery put on by sommeliers. “Because we’re not selling to wine people we’re going to be doing things that are unorthodox like a tequila barrel-aged white wine.” Maybe on paper that sounds like dorm room hooch, but the staff promises they would never release a product they wouldn’t drink. Regarding quality control, “Our beers take time, the production staff is constantly tasting them, making sure to see how they taste and if they’re ready or not,” Volink said. “We use the highest quality ingredients and we have fun getting them. I like that we don’t take shortcuts.”

Speciation also takes a page from the wine world when it comes to terroir—how climate, soil, and aspect affect taste. I like to think about it abstractly, like how it feels returning to a family cabin; how bombarded by stimulus both sensory and spectral, the environmental factors congeal into something, well, home. “The whole point of our beer is to make it taste like the place that you’re in. We’re proud to be part of the Michigan beer scene,” Ermatinger said. With a fully-fledged tasting room and a vision for the future, expect Speciation to only get better with time.

 

 

harmony hall sour man

Harmony Brewing Company, located in the Eastown neighborhood of Grand Rapids, quickly made it’s mark on the funky, artistically bent part of town. It just worked. Now, with their addition of Harmony Hall in the Westside neighborhood—historically known for its strong German and Polish roots—this brewery has proven its mettle. The Westside continues to diversify, melding businesses old and new, bringing in a rich community of individuals from all backgrounds. In Grand Rapids, it’s become a place for those who care about the residents and community to make their mark and try something new.

Harmony Hall continues that tradition with the addition of their sour beer program.

harmony hall sour manMitch Ermatinger, formerly of Former Future Brewing Company and soon to be Speciation Artisan Ales, is Harmony Hall’s new ‘Sour Beer Man’, brought on board to develop the bones and beer for the new program, coming soon to a pint near you. As soon as the first beer sours, that is.

Barry VanDyke, co-owner of Harmony Brewing Company, reached out to Mitch in November, the day he announced his return to Grand Rapids (yes, he is a native Michigander) and the future opening of Speciation. E-mails and messages back and forth as well as in person conversation during Christmas week cemented the partnership.

“This really is a mutually beneficial relationship in so many ways.” Ermatinger said, “It’s great for Harmony Hall, bringing in more people by offering different styles of beer, and I get the opportunity to use the knowledge I gained at Former Future and [elsewhere] to really run a program from the start, and show more people in the area what I love to do.” Ermatinger will develop the initial run of sours and set up the space for the program, and then train the brewers  at Harmony Hall with the skills needed to maintain the program after he is gone.

The sour program will operate as a mini-brewery within the brewery, in it’s own area to avoid any chance of contamination for Harmony’s mainstays. Luckily, souring bacteria don’t like hops very much, so there is only a slim possibility of that even happening—but better safe than sorry.

So how does one start a whole new brewing program?

“For us, it’s a number of things. Developing the initial barrel program, obviously, and we have at least one stainless steel sour.” Ermatinger explains, noting that a faster turning beer, such as a Berliner weisse or a Gose, would be brewed in that particular vessel. This allows for the brewpub to have one on tap in a more timely, predictable manner, and also allows the brewers to play with some barrel aged options for the future.

Gose, an old German style wheat beer, known for its crisp, tangy and tart notes, will be the first sour on tap at Harmony Hall. It’s very accessible, but still a good sour option. Harmony’s Gose will feature lemony tart notes as predominate flavor characteristics. With the quick conditioning time, this could be  on tap in five-eight weeks.“[Gose] is very similar to a clean beer, without the souring microbes. It has a similar fermentation, so we’re still pitching brewers  yeast, which is done in about five days. We wait for the yeast to coagulate and fall and the beer to clarify somewhat. The rest of the time is conditioning time.” Ermatinger speaks fluidly, passionately, even, when talking about the intricacies and particularities of brewing sours. Of course, we probe more. How, exactly, does one brew a sour?

Ermatinger laughs, “There are so many different ways to brew a sour. The most accessible way I can explain it is that a ‘normal’ beer is fermented with saccharomyces, or brewers yeast. A sour can have saccharomyces in it, but the main differentiating thing is that it has lactic acid bacteria in it. What these bacteria, lactobacillus in our case, do is take the sugar that is produced from the malt and convert that into lactic acid instead of alcohol (but sometimes alcohol too). The introduction of the bacteria creates lactic acid in the beer, and that’s your souring agent, that’s the difference.”

Methodologies differ, and our conversation delves into open vessel fermentation, spontaneous fermentation, and enough sour brewing knowledge that could probably fill a book—so rest assured that Harmony Hall’s sour program is in good hands. Here’s the low down on how Harmony will make their sours, straight from the Sour Man.

“The method I use here is to pitch the lactic acid bacteria first, before I pitch any yeast. It will quickly sour the wort, within 24 hours. Then I pitch the brewers yeast (saccharomyces) or brettanomyces (wild yeast), depending on the beer. With the stainless steel beers, it will be about four weeks conditioning and then we can keg it and put it on tap. For barrel aged beers, this is the point where they get transferred into the barrel, with the brettanomyces and lactobacillus doing their work. It will mellow in the barrel for as long as it takes to just taste really good.”

This is much of the art of barrel aging sours. The brewers must try it and decide when it’s mellowed and matured, tasting like they envisioned.

The popularity of sours has migrated across the country, from California to Colorado, where Ermatinger cut his teeth on sour brews. “In Denver in particular, there are a number of brewers making really excellent sour beers. People in Michigan have been dabbling in sours, Jolly Pumpkin of course, but it’s really coming to the forefront now. Also, the availability of quickly souring beers like Gose and Berliners has put a ton of sours on the market, and it’s influencing what people are drinking, just by what brewers are deciding to put out there. I see it getting even more popular than it is now.”harmony hall sour man
When all’s said and done, the program at Harmony Hall will launch with about 6 sours available, with 2-3 on tap at any given time. The Gose will be first, and, depending on how it’s received, it might be a mainstay or continue to be tweaked. A Brett Saison and Brett Pale Ale were discussed as well, their flavor notes to be on the funkier side as in the traditional brettanomyces brew. Other beers expected to be on deck include a sour blonde and a sour black, which will allow Ermatinger and the other Harmony Hall brewers  to experiment with blending.

“With the sour blonde and black, we could, if we tasted two separate barrels and they were really good together, we could blend them into a sour red.” Ermatinger offers as explanation for the two brews. Essentially, this could allow for a wide range of sours, each a little different from the last—and that may be the biggest appeal of all.

While consistency can be seen as a mark of quality for some, the real terroir and taste of a place imparts itself into a sour beer, creating nuanced and varied distinctions from barrel to barrel. It’s beautiful—this essence of place in every pint. When you drink a sour beer you’re drinking the spirit of a community.

Sponsored by Harmony Hall

Photography: Steph Harding

 

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GRAND RAPIDS – Mitch and Whitney Ermatinger are coming home to Michigan. The husband and wife team has officially announced plans to open Speciation Artisan Ales, the first 100% wild ale brewery to be located in Grand Rapids, by late 2016. The small scale brewery will focus on producing high quality mixed fermentation sour and funky beers to be released monthly in bottles.

Both raised in West Michigan, the Ermatingers have chosen to return to start their brewery in Grand Rapids because, “The enthusiasm for beer is unparalleled to other areas of the country, and yet many of the innovative techniques and styles of beer have not yet caught on in the Michigan market,” said Co-Owner Whitney Ermatinger.

Locals may remember Mitch Ermatinger from his stint at O’Connor’s Home Brew Supply where he began his beer career in Spring 2011. He will be leaving his current post as brewer for Former Future Brewing Company in Denver, Colorado to head up this new venture. His extensive brewing and blending knowledge of sour beers was formed in large part by his work alongside James Howat, head brewer for Black Project Spontaneous and Wild Ales. He was on the Black Project team that won Great American Beer Festival medals for wild ales in 2014 and 2015.

“We have lived in Grand Rapids for much of our adult life and consider it home. We love the amazing and supportive beer culture that Grand Rapids has, and so it was the obvious place to establish our brewery,” Mitch Ermatinger said. “GR is a growing and vibrant city, with the overall market making a huge comeback in the past couple of years. More importantly though, Grand Rapidians are really tenacious about their beer!”

Using influences and ingredients from the local area, Speciation Artisan Ales hopes to highlight the unique terroir of Michigan in its flavor profiles. The brewery’s name was inspired by the variations that occur in nature over time to create an ever-changing product.

They plan to have a number of recurring beers as well as several special barrel aged and spontaneously fermented projects.

“We hope to expand the perception of what wild and sour beers are while still creating a variety of products that are accessible to all types of palates,” said Mitch Ermatinger.

Wild beers are differentiated by their wide variety of flavors created from combining different yeasts and bacteria, longer fermentation times, and variability within the product. The beer styles will be roughly split into three categories: Brettanomyces-focused beers, Sour beers, and Spontaneous beers.

“We know that other breweries around town are dabbling in sour beer, which we think is great and is preparing people’s palates for even more.” Mitch Ermatinger admitted.

Speciation Artisan Ales is currently in the planning stages as owners work to secure funding sources to get the brewery off the ground. They will be establishing in a yet to be determined location in the Grand Rapids area. The plan is to have fermentation vessels and barrels as the backdrop to the combined production area and tasting room.

Initially opening one day per month for bottle sales and tasting, Speciation Artisan Ales will eventually expand its tasting room hours to be open weekly. For updates visit their website, or follow them on Facebook.