Short’s Brewing Company
When Short’s Brewing Company produced those first 178 barrels of beer in 2004, they must have known they were on to something special. Since then, production at their Bellaire brewpub and now the Elk Rapids brewery has grown exponentially, along with the popularity of the brand.
Now, Short’s Brewing Company beers, on tap or in bottles, are a common sight throughout Northern Michigan. So popular are they that readers of Northern Express voted the beer Michigan’s Best Product.
The Express talked to brewery founder Joe Short about beer, art and business.
Northern Express: Before you got into making beer, before there was a lot of craft beer for sale in Northern Michigan stores, what kind of beer did you like to drink? What do you think about that kind of beer now?
Joe Short: Back when I became interested in craft beer, there were very few kinds being sold in Antrim County. I liked Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I was always looking for Pale Ales and IPAs to purchase. When I could find Bell’s Two Hearted or Bell’s Pale Ale, I’d buy as much as I could get my hands on. I still love those beers today.
NE: Tell us about those wonderful Short’s labels. I understand many of them are made by an old college friend of yours, Fritz Horstman, who is a successful artist in his own right. How did you two get started working together?
Short: I met Fritz through a friend at Western Michigan University. I used the name “Short’s Brew” on all of my old home brews, and Fritz came up with the dancing Short’s logo way before I opened the brewery. We’ve been working together ever since. When we need a new label, I’ll describe it to Fritz and he’ll send a few test drawings. When we land on one we like, he’ll finish it.
NE: What beer are you most proud of creating?
Short: It is hard to choose, but I would have to start with my favorite, Huma Lupa Licious. As someone who loves American IPAs, Huma Lupa Licious is my conception of what an ideal IPA should taste like. That’s why Huma is my favorite beer and, I’m proud to say, our best selling beer. I am also tremendously proud of the Imperial Beer Series of 2007, which included Bloody Beer, Spruce Pilsner, Black Licorice Lager, Woodmaster, Peaches & Crème, Abnormal Genius, Publican Porter, Imperial Soft Parade, Aorta Ale, Black Cherry Porter, the Good Feller, and Ginger in the Rye. Over the past year, we have begun seasonally releasing many of these beers in 12 oz. bottles and that has been very rewarding.
NE: What is the most unusual ingredient you have used in a beer?
Short: Probably horseradish for the Bloody Beer. However, I am also proud of the way we used Rooibos and Lapsang Souchong tea leaves to mimic the flavors of smoke and tobacco in the Gambler, which was an experimental IPA designed to replicate the experience of drinking bourbon and smoking a cigar at the same time. The Gambler was recently chosen by Draft Magazine as one of the top 25 beers in America in 2011.
NE: When do your ideas for beers come to you?
Short: Typically at 10:45 pm on clear, full moon nights. Just kidding. Really, there is no defined answer here because you can’t schedule inspiration. Trust me, I’ve tried. Ideas are born from a lot of things like books, movies, food, taking hikes & walks, long drives and dreams. My creative direction with beer is consistently evolving. I also give a lot of credit to Tony Hansen, our Director of Brewing Operations, and other staff members. Short’s employees are always coming up with really cool ideas. We have a policy that no idea is a bad idea. Some ideas are just harder to pull off than others.
NE: What’s your favorite compliment you’ve gotten on a beer?
Short: “I never appreciated beer until I tried yours, and now I love beer!” Or, “I don’t know how you guys do it, but this stuff is amazing!” One of my main goals is to change people’s minds about beer. It is a difficult task, because everyone has different tastes. That is why we have 20 different kinds of beer on tap every day at our pub. Oh, and I also like when people ask if we could put a Short’s Brewery in their town, because it means that they enjoy our beer and our pub.
NE: How often to you come up with an unusual idea for a beer, make a batch, and decide you have to go back to the drawing board?
Short: We are getting really good at hitting the mark on our first try, but there are occasions when we try something and are not satisfied with the result. I brewed Carrot Cake three times because I was convinced that there was room for improvement, but then ended up deciding I liked the first batch the best. If we don’t hit the mark, you wouldn’t know about it because we wouldn’t release it. Given that our beer is so expensive to make, and therefore really painful to dump out, we put a ton of research into every new beer before we brew. We have a method that we use for developing recipes and we spend lots of time mixing ingredients beforehand to get an idea of what the final product will taste like. It is a lot of work, but also a lot of fun. Creating new beers is one of our favorite things to do, and I enjoy the challenge of continuing to be creative while also managing our company’s growth. It keeps everything new and exciting.
NE: What advice would you have for young people who want to become entrepreneurs in Northern Michigan?
Short: Entrepreneurs are folks who love what they do, and as a result they do whatever it takes to bring their ideas to fruition. Even if I didn’t work at Short’s, I’d be making beer and bottling it to give it to my friends, the way I did in the beginning. So first of all, choose something that you love to do and are naturally good at. After that, my best advice is to be tenacious and passionate. In the beginning, I had to work around the clock to keep my business alive. Finally, I believe than an emphasis on quality is extremely important. When I opened my business in Bellaire, I knew we would need to be able to draw people based on the quality of our beer alone. If we didn’t make good beer, people wouldn’t travel out of their way to get it.
NE: I see from your website that Short’s staff takes questions from home brewers about the craft via email. What do you enjoy about helping people who want to make beer on their own? Do you get a lot of questions? What kind of questions do you get?
Short: At this point in my brewing career, it’s really easy for me to answer questions because I’ve had experience with everything these folks are encountering. It doesn’t take much time to answer a few questions that might save someone a lot of agony and get them on the right track. I’m a helper by nature. I like to solve problems and think about potential solutions. That’s largely what I do now anyway, just on a really big scale. I like putting my knowledge and experience to work. I really enjoy talking about beer and helping other brewers find joy in the craft of brewing.
Unfortunately, more and more, we have more people asking specifically about the processes or formulations that we use to make certain brews. For obvious reasons, we have to keep many of those secrets to ourselves. It is becoming increasingly difficult to tell if someone who asks us a question is a homebrewer or someone who wants to start a brewery and brew like Short’s. Still, it never hurts to ask us a question, and we make an effort to respond to every email that we receive.
NE: What’s going on with the proposal to open a Short’s Brewpub on the harbor in Elk Rapids?
Short: We proposed an idea for the redevelopment of the former Bech’s Mustard Factory on Dexter Street. It doesn’t sound like the Village is going to sell us the property, but we’re discussing a lease. At this time we’re exploring all options. We do want to develop an Elk Rapids brewpub of some sort, because that is where our production brewery is located, but we’re just not sure how it’s going to happen at this time. We are currently in the process of renovating the inside of our production brewery and preparing for the arrival of 16 new tanks, so, as always, I seem to have a million things happening at the same time.