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speciation

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.

speciation“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

 

Comstock Park, MI – Speciation Artisan Ales is a small production-only brewery focused on mixed cultured sour and wild ales. They aim to highlight the yeast and bacteria in their beer, noting how it can change from batch to batch, develop over time, or represent a unique place in time through its specific “terroir.” This plays into the evolution theme of the brewery, as they celebrate each beer that is created as unique and cannot be duplicated. Speciation’s two main brands Genetic Drift, a farmhouse saison, and Incipient, a sour golden ale, provide the base of these experiments in which consumers can compare how each batch provides a new experience.

Currently, Speciation is open once per month for direct bottle sales to their customers. Bottles can be reserved online the week before the release, but frequently sell out within a matter of minutes. However, there is hope for those who want to give them as try, as Speciation has announced plans to expand into a tasting room in the coming months. They have acquired additional space next to their current production facility which will serve as both barrel storage and a tasting room.  Speciation plans to be open weekly for limited hours out of their tasting room for both draught pours and bottle sales to go.

speciation

Great American Beer Festival

Most recently they made a big impression at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival. Speciation donned long lines and quickly ran out of beer at each session. They were also cited in several publications as a “must try brewery” and critics raved over their Tequila barrel aged Incipient with Agave, Blood Oranges, Limes, and Salt as well as their Rhubarb Vanilla Incipient.

 

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.


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