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Strange Brew vs. Traditional

The days of Bud and Miller Lite ruling local beer taps are long gone.

Patrick Sullivan - March 10th, 2014  

The craft brew scene has matured and beer makers have developed their own personalities. In recent years, two camps have emerged – some beer makers strive to push boundaries. Others want to stick to tradition.


Beer from Short’s Brewing Company could get even stranger soon.

Joe Short, who began his career as a home brewer before he launched his beer empire in Antrim County, hasn’t had time to brew at home since he was in college.

“I have this whole new dimension I want to add at some point, I’ve been trying to add over the last couple of years, to get the home brew set up in my house finished, so we can get really crazy,” Short said. “I think we’ve covered a lot of bases as far as exploring unusual ingredients – fruits, nuts, herbs, spices, yeasts, beer styles, teas. I think there’s other elements that need to be explored.”

Short’s made its name exploring the creative limits of beer making.

Take Nicie Spicie, a wheat ale with a jolt of coriander and peppercorn; or Key Lime Pie, made with limes, graham crackers, and marshmallow fluff.

Perhaps most of all, Short’s is known for beers that put the hops front and center.

Huma Lupa Licious is known for that.

So is Liberator, a double IPA brewed for Joe Short’s 30th birthday with an even bigger hops punch.

“We’ve established a pretty good benchmark, and have a wide portfolio, probably two, three hundred beers, that are pretty tried and true,” Short said. “And, of course, the ideas are a never-ending thing.”

But before they get weird, brewers need to master the tried-and-true, said Matt Drake, Short’s chief operations officer.

“One thing that I think is not widely known, necessarily, is that our [Germanstyle] hefeweizen and kölsch are a couple styles we brew fairly to style, and when people come to festivals and they’re German or they’re European, a lot of times they’ll seek out those beers because they’ll think they are very authentic to their pallets,” Drake said. “I think having that understanding of traditional styles allows us to be successful in our experimentation.”

Even the strangest beer, if it’s going to be successful, has got to taste good, he said.

“A lot of people are trying to figure out how we use the ingredients that we do without making our beer turn out really weird in a bad way,” Drake said. “It turns out weird in a good way.”


Russell Springsteen, who owns Right Brain Brewery in Traverse City, said he knew if his Mangalitsa Pig Porter got lots of attention, that might lead to some other attention.

And so it happened – the concoction won a gold metal two years ago at the Great American Beer Festival.

The Pig Porter is one of Right Brain Brewery’s successes and strangest inventions. It’s actually brewed with pig parts – a pig’s bones and head go into the vat and infuse the beer with a smoky flavor.

That’s what brought federal regulators to the Traverse City brewery’s door.

“It immediately got me attention from the feds. When I tell other brewers that, they don’t believe me,” he said. “When they got there, all they wanted to talk about was formulation, formulation.”

Springsteen said the Food and Drug Administration plans to regulate beer production. If brewers are going to use pigs and pies, then the government will treat them like food producers.

Springsteen said he understands the move.

“If you are brewing in a nontraditional way, using pig or asparagus or whatever it is that we put in our beer, there’s going to be new oversight,” he said. “It’s not the worst thing. I eat food everyday. And I drink some other beverage other than water everyday. And even when it comes down to water, I want that to be safe.”

Right Brain also offers a chipotle porter and a collection of “whole pie” beers, made with entire pecan, apple or cherry pies.

But Springsteen said that while he believes weird beer gets people in the door, many just want to drink something normal. He said he sells a lot of samplers of the stranger beers and a lot of pints of less strange beers.

That doesn’t mean Springsteen isn’t looking to push boundaries.

“I like asparagus beers. Over the last four or five years, we keep tweaking that. But last year I think we totally dialed that beer down,” Springsteen said. “It’s a nice clean, crisp, easy drinking beer. People have this whole impression of asparagus and beer, and then they taste it, and I always love it, because then they’re like, ‘Well, that’s not bad.’ Aww, thanks! I don’t think they know what to expect.”


The communist motif at the Workshop Brewing Company in Traverse City is the craft brewer’s design identity; owner Pete Kirkwood says he does not endorse a Soviet-style workers’ revolution.

But there is something in that iconic Soviet style that relates to the beer served at the pub. Workshop sticks to traditional, triedand-true Old World recipes that have proven as solid as a neoclassical Lenin statue in a Russian square.

One of Workshop’s tenets is “to honor traditional craft,” said Kirkwood, who ran a brewery in Pennsylvania for serveral years before opening up Workshop in the Warehouse District.

“You’re not going to find dessert products or cuts of meat in our beer,” he said.

“Those are really cool, and I take my hat off to all these cool brewers who are doing radical things with huge hop content and innovative ingredients.”

Workshop offers a concise menu of traditional beers. There is a saison. There is a blonde ale. There is a porter.

There is also an IPA, but the description on the menu seeks to distance this hoppy brew from the kind of hops-explosion of other beers, Kirkwood said.

“It boasts the wallop of hops that craftbeer lovers have come to expect without the aggressive attack characteristic of many American-style IPAs,” he said.

Kirkwood’s brewing interest veers more toward heirloom-quality recipes, he said.

“I talk about the beers we make as being heirloom beers,” Kirkwood said, “and what I mean by that is that the same way a treasured piece of furniture might be handed down from generation to generation, these are recipes that have been handed down for centuries.”

Just because his beers are based on traditional recipes, however, doesn’t mean they are boring, he said.

“I don’t think people should equate traditional with uninteresting,” he said. “Something like a Flemish Sour Brown Ale, it’s a very obscure and rare beer to have in this country, even though it’s been made for centuries in Europe.”

Kirkwood also values local ingredients.

Peasants would have used whatever sugars were available to make beer, he said.

Take the Workshop’s saison, a beer named after the French word for season.

“They would have put in anything they had into that beer. If they had squash, if they had rutabaga, whatever they had,” Kirkwood said.

So in the fall, Workshop makes a pumpkin saison.

“It’s a super popular beer that comes in here as Michigan pumpkins. They come in here and we chop them into pieces and it comes out as the Reaper, our pumpkin saison,” he said. “Again, if Flemish peasants had a bunch of pumpkins on their hands at harvest time, I promise you they would have made a saison out of them.”


A beacon for European beer lovers opened last summer in Frankfort.

Stormcloud Brewing Company designates itself a maker of Belgian-inspired ales.

They also offer non-Belgian ales – a porter, a vanilla blond – but the heart of the menu consists of those high-octane Belgian brews like a dubbels (eight percent alcohol) and tripels (nine percent).

In brewing primarily Belgian ales, partner Rick Schmitt says his team adheres pretty closely to the traditional recipes and that the “reaction to the brewery has been good so far.”

The brewery has attracted brewery tourists – Schmitt says Stormcloud regularly sees customers who are on a beer tour through Michigan and they stop there before heading to Traverse City and beyond.

“We seem to be heading down the right path as a new brewery,” he said.

To shake things up a bit, Stormcloud just began an 11-beer brewing experiment using a single recipe for one of their favorite Belgian pale ales.

Using 11 different kinds of hops grown in Leelanau County, the expectation is that each batch will have a unique flavor.

Schmitt said most people don’t realize how many varieties of hops are grown in the area. Most of the hops Stormcloud will use come from Empire Hops Farm.

“We’ve got one batch done and it was really good,” he said.

By diving deep into tradition, Schmitt says his group’s aim is to find something new in the old ways.

“God bless Joe and the Short’s team for what they’re doing,” he said. “We have decided not to step into that genre of beer.”

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