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.
Mitch 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.”
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