brewery vivant

Plein de Vie, when literally translated, means “full of life.” There couldn’t be a more appropriate name to describe this new wood & wild fermentation series of beer from Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids.

MittenBrew had the opportunity to chat with Kate Avery, Abbess of Beer, Brian Kuszynski, Master of Wood, and Jason Spaulding, President and Co-Owner at Brewery Vivant, about this much anticipated series release.

brewery vivant

“We’ve always offered something a little different to the Grand Rapids drinking audience. It’s been a road of education and talking, about flavors and different styles of beer. With Plein de Vie, wood aging and intentionally souring of these beers, it all comes back to that education experience for the consumer,” Avery shares as she shows off the three initial brews in their bottle release.

Indeed, Brewery Vivant is known for doing things a little differently—offering Belgian and French style old-world libation, and allowing their Brewers the opportunity to experiment and create complex, nuanced one-offs that eventually sparked the annual Wood Aged Beer Fest. With a recent expansion, more time and dedicated space to the souring process, they are able to take it to the next level—bottling and offering these taproom favorites on a larger scale and to a wider audience.

If you are familiar with Brewery Vivant, you’ll know that bottling their beer is also something new to their repertoire, but with good reason.

“Cans aren’t meant for letting a beer develop in the package,” Spaulding notes, “These beers especially can be more lively, and bottles simply offer the ability to hold more pressure.”

These are meant to be enjoyed when you are ready to enjoy them. Big, full bodied, unfiltered beers retain their characteristics better in a bottle instead of thin aluminum. Practically speaking, introducing live beer on their main canning line is a no-no. You don’t want to risk introducing wild yeast strains which could affect the taste of their staples. Beyond that, bottling is another way to differentiate this unique series of beer from Vivant mainstays.

Unique also is the packaging. Highly detailed, crisp clean lines with variants in color that reflect the beer each vessel holds. Each label also explains just how each beer was aged and soured. Tap handles in the pub for this series are old barrel staves, wood burned with Vivant’s iconic rooster. Just another way to distinguish Plein de Vie, no matter how you are drinking it.

On Sunday, June 5 at Noon, you will be able to try these three initial offerings:

Angelina – The mother of all Vivant’s sours, if you will, is finally offered in bottles—much to the delight of long time Brewery Vivant fans. The very first sour beer made at the pub, a barrel named Angelina produced something tasty, magical, and sparked the direction of Vivant’s future sour offerings. Inoculating other barrels from this mother to keep the culture going, this pleasant, wood-barrel aged sour retains its majesty for (hopefully) years to come.

Harvest Breed – A brand new brew, this stainless steel brettanomyces wild sour ale offers a big sour punch on the noise, with the bretta coming through as the beer warms to room temperature. Almost citrusy, this sour offers a bergamot, earl gray tea flavor with a hint of lemon pith or orange rind.

Habanango – Many of you may remember this from a previous Wood Aged Beer Fest, but don’t expect the exact same brew. Feeder fermented and barrel-aged, this sour is blended with habanero peppers and mango to give a little heat with the sweet. Strongly mango on the nose, the peppery sweet heat of the habanero creeps up on you, making you want to take that next sip.

With safety and containment always a top priority, we end our tour, complete with booties on our feet, in what’s known as “the Funk Room,” where all the wood aging and wild fermented magic happens. Brian Kuszynski meets us there to share the story of how Plein de Vie came to be.

Carving out this separate space allows the Brewers to finally produce these sours and wild ales without risk of cross contamination, and at a volume that allows for bottling. Thank goodness.

Brian takes us around the crowded Funk Room, lovingly tweaking small things here and there, continuing to work while talking with us as we bask in the woody glory of all things wild.

brewery vivant

A comment remembered from a gentlemen at a previous Wood Aged Beer Fest, asking where he could find this in his home state, put the bug in Brian’s mind to produce these sours at a larger scale.

“Obviously we are passionate about beer, and we’ve always loved wild and sour ales. We’ve had opportunities to make them and packaged them here and there, but always on a really small scale. This gives us the ability to make a larger quantity, get it out there and let the public try it, age it, cellar it. They can share it with their friends, introduce them to something new. Here and out-of-of state, even. We hope to be able to produce beers in this brand at the rate of 2-4 a year. But, of course,the beer tells us when it’s ready.”


Photography: Steph Harding

elk brewing

As some of you may already have heard, Elk Brewing is expanding. The sudsy city of Grand Rapids contains yet another brewery with eyes growing larger at the prospect of snagging a good location and introducing more of their product into the market.

Eric Karns, co-owner of Elk Brewing, is expanding the brewery into a second location in Comstock Park across from the Fifth Third Ballpark. The new facility will be used to brew Elk’s mainstay beers on their new 15 bbl system, as well as to develop a brand new food program utilizing a full kitchen.

“The rule of thumb is to not outclass our product of beer” said Karns regarding the food program at both locations. The new location will also be serving wine and cider, which is not served at their original location.

There was one question I couldn’t resist regarding the expansion — did Elk Brewing feel pressured to expand due to the growth and expansion of other local breweries in town?

“I think for us we didn’t get pressured into it. If anything, the location became available and pushed us into it more than what we were pressured into it.”

Though many changes are ahead, the original location, set at the corner of Wealthy St. and Henry St, is going to have quite a roller coaster ride in their future. With the production of their mainstay beers being moved to the new facility, their current 3bbl system will be the home to their new souring program, as well as the testing site for new beer recipes.


With two brewers now on the staff, Karns can tend to the necessities of running the entire operation — though, he said he’s still present for recipe building and overseeing the brewing operations. “The major fun part is coming up with the recipes.”

I was curious, though — Is there a theme, or even certain beer styles, that embody Elk Brewing, or is it being kept undefined as tweaks and kinks are worked out?

“I hate styles and themes. I brew it purely out of taste” Karns said. Flavor first, specifications later. Karns likes to brew until it tastes right and then locate the specifics once the artistic component is complete.

elk brewing

Speaking of no strict style usage and brewing for taste — their mainstay, the Blonde Espresso, has been a great success to the brewery. “We keep our beer list where the demand is — Blonde Espresso. We didn’t plan on that being a mainstay but it’s become a mainstay.” said Karns.

Upon inspection of their food menu, I’d like to suggest to all of you to drink their Blonde Espresso with The Salty Pig sandwich. Prosciutto ham, beer braised onions, fig and goat cheese spread and lemon zest sounds like a fascinating pairing for the beer. A Blonde beer style base can cut through the fats that are consistent in this dish, while the coffee notes latch themselves onto the prosciutto, onions, and fig for contrast. Think roastiness + salty fat (coffee rubbed prime rib anyone?) and roastiness + sweetness from the braised onions and fig. Lemon, or citrus in general, can also have a surprisingly pleasant effect with roasty flavors from coffee.

Be sure to test out their six sauces as well at the original location. All sauces are made with different beers from the brewery and can make for a fun palate exploration with friends.

So who are the folks visiting, drinking, and eating at Elk Brewing?

“70% of our beer goes to the Detroit area. Kalamazoo has picked up quite a bit too.” Karns said. As far as the on-premise guests, Karns finds it to be a lot of walking traffic, with about 90% being locals and 10% tourists checking out the brewing facility. When asked what drives the traffic, the opinion is that “Founders is the best thing that’s ever happened to my brewery (to drive traffic). The beer passports have also helped. They’re amazing.”


Photography: Bri Luginbill

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



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.

DEXTER – Sour Beer aficionados will want to be at Null Taphouse this Saturday. Sour Beer Day, celebrated on the second Saturday of September each year, will be observed at the production home of Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales.

The term “sour” refers to brews that have been affected positively by bacteria that change the character of a base beer into a tart, acidic flavor. This is commonly accomplished by introducing Lactobacillus, Pediococcus, or the yeast strain Brettanomyces, often through the wood of a barrel. The intentional infection is taken into the brew by surface contact.

Jolly Pumpkin gets its unique results from naturally occurring local wild yeast introduced via air through open spontaneous fermentation. The quickest a sour is produced in their facility is two months, with some taking as long as two years to fully develop.

Master Brewer Ron Jeffries takes the individual batches of beer and blends them.

“It’s all about tasting and flavor. I keep track of the amounts so I can tell the cellar folks when they’re racking. We have electromagnetic flow meters so they can very accurately tell the amount of beer they’re racking from each tank,” said Jeffries. “As we get bigger and bigger, it’s more and more important to keep the ratios consistent with the smaller blends I create,” Jeffries said.

The latest blended creation, Ursae Majoris, had its official release last weekend, but if you’re lucky you’ll still be able to get some. It’s made of “three ages of Oud Bruin that Ron did, blended with Roja, Maracaibo, Bier de Mars, and Noel. It’s big, it’s deep, while being super balanced,” said Dan VanDuinen, General Manager.

Visitors will enjoy 25 percent off the price of all Jolly Pumpkin brews on tap by the glass, in to-go growlers, as well as bottled selections only at this location.

Jeffries said, “Every day is sour beer day, it’s what we do,” but the sale is valid only during this celebration.

Jolly Pumpkin beers, brewed entirely in the Dexter facility, can be found in more than 35 states and many countries. According to Jeffries, the 11-year-old boutique brewery produced 3500 barrels last year and will continue increasing production to meet demand.

Collaborations are in the works with several breweries and so-called gypsy brewers including another with previous collaborators Anchorage Brewing. It’s a yuzu lime Gose with Alaskan sea salt harvested locally by the brewer’s father.