High Stakes, High ABV
Looking back at Short’s Imperial Beer Series
By Karl Klockars | March 11, 2023
“I wanted to create something that was extraordinary.”
That’s how Joe Short, founder of Short’s Brewing, describes the beers he crafted for their famed Imperial Beer Series, the collection of 13 craft beers released in 2007 that put Short’s—and the northern Michigan beer scene—on the global map.
It was in the early days of the American craft beer renaissance, and just a couple of years into the existence of the company, when Short came up with the idea for the series.
“It was a pretty ambitious project, [and] I knew that my time physically brewing beer was limited,” Short says. His beer was beginning to get a toehold in Michigan’s brewery landscape thanks to his flagship IPA, Huma Lupa Licious, but “because we are in such a remote area, we needed something that set us apart, something that would give people a reason to explore and seek us out,” he says. “I felt like I needed to really swing for the fences.”
That project started with a plan to brew a different imperial beer per month and concluded with an epic beer dinner at the end of the year, though the series became a baker’s dozen of extreme beers. (“There’s 13 because I brewed an extra just in case one didn't turn out,” Short says.)
The series required brewing over 200 gallons per month, as well as labeling and filling up to a thousand bottles by hand. Those 750ml bottles ended up carrying the Short’s name throughout America as aficionados and tourists took them home and even shipped them internationally to friends abroad who needed to try the boundary-shattering beers coming out of Bellaire, Michigan.
“The ones that went overseas were the ones that blew my mind the most,” Short says. “People would send us photos or write us notes saying that they were traveling abroad and went to a beer bar and saw a lone bottle of Ginger in the Rye or Peaches & Creme.”
And for a beer program that produced some of the craziest beers on earth (at the time), there was one simple rule Short followed through the entire process: “I really tried to make sure we were at least 8 percent ABV,” he says. Beyond that, as you’ll see below, the only limitations were those of imagination and fermentation.
The imperial series was also, fiscally speaking, something of a moonshot. “We didn’t have any financial resources. I think we made $25,000 or $30,000 that year and I spent it all on glass and labels,” Short says with a laugh. “You dream big and you try to make it work. I just knew that the payoff wasn’t going to be until way later—and by ‘later’ I didn’t mean like, 10 years away later, I meant like at the end of the year I thought I was gonna sell all these beers. It really took two or three more years to sell all these beers—no one was buying a case of these things.”
We recently sat down with Short for a look back on the entire series and to hear some of the origin stories and behind-the-scenes tales that went into every single beer in the series—many of which are still being brewed to this day. Here, in Short’s words, is the tale of each beer.
Spruce India Pilsner
The inspiration was largely drawn from historical, early colonial brewing. As the pilgrimage was underway, settlers were building churches and breweries, and the Native Americans had shown them their tips and tricks for their own fermented beverages. And so they would use things like corn and spruce.
That first batch was done with old-growth pine. We clipped the tips in the winter time so they were all hard and crunchy—they probably didn’t have as much residue or oil in there as new growth would, but we emulsified it with the liquid wort and fermented it like normal. Let’s say it accomplished all of my personal objectives, but the beer itself was super polarizing, especially for newcomer craft beer enthusiasts back then.
Peaches & Creme
[This] one wasn’t necessarily like a beer of inspiration, it was more like a beer of technical components that sounded good, you know? The first two times [I made this], I did it with fresh peaches that Leah [Joe’s wife] and I had peeled by hand, and then we left for a weekend. I came back to check on it, and it [had gone] lactic—I’m sure that would have been a great sour beer.
I finally caved and bought IQF [individually quick frozen] peaches which were easier to process and easier to keep sterile versus the fresh whole ones that were probably full of so much bacteria. I think the music prevalence in craft beer is just as important as the beer itself, so having the Peaches & Creme inspired by a Beck song just kind of helps tie that thing together in a nice little bow.
It’s pretty boring. Actually, the best part about that beer is the story about the publican, or the tavern keepers, or the purveyors of public houses. The publican is essentially the bartender at a portside tavern, and porter also was a style that was born from mixing fresh beer and stale beer together. I don’t even think roasted grains came until later. But I did want to do a stylistically accurate porter, but then I wanted to bump the alcohol to make it imperial. So that’s really the best, straightforward porter recipe that basically just amplified the alcohol in it.
Growing up in the bar scene, I first learned that people would pour tomato juice in a Miller Lite or a Bud Light. I thought that was odd, but it wasn’t uncommon, so I filed that away in my memory bank. That’s definitely the most technically advanced brew of the mix—something truly experimental and imperial. So being a big Bloody Mary fan, I sort of reverse-engineered a Bloody Mary into a beer.
We used Roma tomatoes, blanched them all, pulled the skins, and then emulsified them in five-gallon buckets until they were all poured into the fermenter. Once the beer was close to being done, I pulled a couple of gallons out to use for the spice, and that’s where I added the horseradish, the peppercorn, the celery seed, and the fresh dill. [Then] I sterilized it in just a small solution of the beer itself and then poured that back into the fermenter. And it did turn out really good. That one is really a technical masterpiece.
I don’t know why I decided sunflower seeds went with honey, but I had read a lot about honey and mead, and there’s a lot of powerful elements of honey. I think the “Abnormal Genius” name was taken out of a kind of a conversation I’d had with somebody about my thought process [and] how it doesn’t make a lot of sense if you hear me talk about it. But then, after you see and experience the result, it makes sense to you—so I coined that “the abnormal genius approach.”
This was just a combination of being inspired by all the powerful properties of honey and then balancing that with something else that would also make it like a golden ale made sense. So you have the sweet and then sort of the salty and the nutty part of the beer … but it definitely was not my favorite beer.
[This was] the one beer that I don’t feel tasted right to me … but I’d never really brewed with sunflower seeds before, and nuts can get weird. But I’ve also had people tell me that was their favorite one.
That came from being inspired by a guy named Bill Sohn. Bill still does a ton of woodworking for us, so I call him the Woodmaster. Bill and Pat Sohn are important because without meeting or knowing them, Short’s wouldn’t exist today. Way back in the 2000s, I was dating Bill and Pat’s daughter for several years and through that time, Bill and I became good friends. I always tested all my homebrews on him.
I made the choice to leave college after my third year to really pursue this brewing thing, and when I came home, I learned about this old hardware store for sale. I was in between brewing jobs, [and] I needed to decide if I was gonna find the next brewery to work at or see if it was worth exploring going out on my own yet.
I knew that the brewpub [I was working at] was not going to last, and I’d just packaged an Imperial stout that I had made [there that] was probably one of the best beers I’ve ever made. So we had cracked one of these in his woodshop and we’re just admiring it, and I told Bill that I found this building that was for rent and some brewing equipment online for like $25,000.
I was working on my business plan thanks to a book that Bill had bought me called Starting Your Own Business, and we kind of just took a couple of sips of that stout, and he said, “Why don’t you call those guys who have that equipment and tell them you want it?” And that’s how this started. We’re still very good friends.
That one was inspired by a guy named Mark Mueller, who got me into mountain biking and kicked off my physical fitness regime. I was a young brewer at the time without any real health regime outside of picking up 50-pound bags of grain. He had an issue with his heart, and long story short, he had surgery and he’s still with us, and it was a beer to honor him. [He was] a regular at the pub. He was always drinking Huma Lupa Licious, which was an IPA, so a red ale inspired by the heart, the hoppiness, the Imperialness, the whole story—just to acknowledge a friendly local.
Ginger in the Rye
The name was inspired by The Catcher in the Rye, but ginger is a great, great brewing ingredient. It adds a lot of personality, and rye is another one of those ingredients that isn’t super common because it’s very difficult to brew with, but it does produce some real earthy, bigger elements on the maltier side of things. And then you cut through that with a slice of ginger, which is the refreshing component. I felt like those two were kind of a good fit. It sounded like a cool name and sounded like it could be very imperial-worthy.
We kinda shot ourselves in the foot on that one. Over the course of time, that beer confused what our regular offering is by being “Imperial,” and it was always kind of imperial. The Double Soft Parade that we brewed last year was the same as the Imperial, which is, I think, two or three times more fruit and maybe a little beefier malt bill to just amp it up a couple percent.
The fruit was the same makeup; the Imperial just used way more of it. And fruit is an agricultural product; it has elements of nature that make it “good” or “not good” in some years. So, our most recent claim to fame with Soft Parade is that we really found a great fruit supplier that was better than years past, so the flavor is a lot better than it was.
This was a “double our pleasure, double our fun” kind of beer that’s already pretty much double everything.
I’d never used carob before, but I thought it would be cool to do something different, something that was unusual but would still complement a stout. Carob has a kind of chocolatey nuttiness to it, without the oil and the sugar. So it was really easy and simple to use. It did add some flavor, some nuttiness, some earthiness, some dryness. I wouldn’t mind trying that beer again. [It was] another classic style that was amplified, and we used it like tea. We made some big muslin bags and steeped it in there.
So, Good Feller is essentially a double IPA that took our Stellar Ale and Hanging Frank [now known as Controversi-ale], which were two regular IPAs but they used exclusive hops. Stellar Ale was all Amarillo, Frank was all Simcoe. So “Frank” and “Stellar” [became] “Feller,” became Good Feller. Just an imperial version of two really awesome independent IPAs joined at the hip with a fun name.
Black Cherry Porter
Like so many other ones, this was really just a beer that sounded like it was a good combination of style and adjuncts. And being a local product is always nice too.
I don’t know how many people know this part of the story, [but] it still kind of pisses me off. A friend of mine, his family owns this orchard, and he says, “Oh man, just come get these cherries off the tree, they’re just falling on the ground going to waste.” I was like, “Great, I’ll just come fill up a bunch of tubs and help you with this cherry problem that you have.”
So, we spent hours just filling up hundreds of pounds of containers full of cherries, and my friend’s dad comes out—the real owner of the farm—and charges me for these cherries! … We ended up buying the “free” cherries that were offered to me and we made the beer with it by mashing them with my bare feet.
Black Licorice Lager
That beer is inspired just because I simply love black licorice. I love black jelly beans, [and] I thought it would be a cool beer if it tasted like black licorice. It was made with anise and I think even fennel, and then I used vanilla and some mint. It came out a little mintier than expected, so that one I actually would like to try again. That beer and the Bloody Beer both won medals, which is a point of pride, especially for those two styles. I wanted to age a batch of black licorice lager in Absinthe barrels—I thought that would have been cool. I just don’t know where to get an absinthe barrel from.
Where to Find the Imperial Beer Series
Want to get your hand on some of these beers? Good news: Some are available regularly, while others still make occasional appearances.
Short’s recently debuted their “Classic Stache Pack,” which featured the return of Aorta Ale and Black Cherry Porter. The Peaches & Creme is regularly sold in their “Dessert Island” variety pack alongside their Key Lime Pie and Strawberry Short’s Cake beers. And, of course, Soft Parade has become one of their most popular offerings.
And if you can source an absinthe barrel, we know someone who might like to talk to you.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.