Bell’s is Michigan’s No. 1 producer of craft beer.(Photo: Courtesy photo)
What makes a great brewer?
Passion, for one.
For the beer, for the craft, for the chemistry, for the camaraderie of a night in the pub.
Originality, for another. That might mean adding theoretically crazy ingredients like meat or pie to the mash to produce a complex and interesting end result.
Throw in business sense, some luck and great word-of-mouth and you’ll understand how four Michigan craft brewers — Bell’s, Short’s, Arcadia and Right Brain — made it into our Beer Madness bracket’s final four.
Here are some thoughts from folks at each company about what makes beer great, how they built their breweries and why their beer is the best.
Take a look, then make sure you vote for your favorite at www.lsj.com/beermadness.
Who will make the final matchup? It’s up to you.
Larry Bell opened a home-brewing store in Kalamazoo in 1983 and a brewery in 1985. By 1993, he was selling his brew out of his own pub.
A brew pub was a novelty then, and people flocked to see what it was all about.
“The original bar was kind of a dump, but it was legal,” he said.
Today, Bell’s Eccentric Cafe, decorated with quirky maps and artwork Bell finds in his travels, seats hundreds. It has 30 to 40 beers on tap at a time and is undergoing a $2 million expansion. Bell’s also has a production facility. Between the two, the brewer employs 340 people (with a job fair coming to hire 70 more) and produced 319,000 barrels of beer in 2014.
Bell’s recently expanded into the north. The Upper Hand brewery in Escanaba has been producing beer since October and Bell has no plans to distribute Upper Hand products below the bridge.
Bell’s produces more than 60 varieties of beer, including seasonals that fans look forward to drinking. Bell’s has created a spring “event” with the March release of its popular Oberon summer brew.
Bell said his criteria for good beer start with chemistry.
“No. 1 is that it’s got to be microbiologically clean and stable,” he said. “And beyond that, I think an important thing in beer is balance, that the various components of the beer work together, complement each other.”
Bell came up with the idea — and even sketched the label for his favorite beer — an occasional brew called Quinannan Falls Special Lager.
Bell is too busy these days to brew beer himself, although he does offer suggestions to the brewing staff.
“I write recipes, I write road maps, I say ‘Hey, let’s make this,’” he said.
Short’s Brewing Co. has plenty of classic beer styles and flavors on the menu: brown ale, pale ale, pilsner, India pale ale, stouts.
But there’s much more than that.
“We allow ourselves the freedom to experiment, and, if somebody’s got an idea, the crazier the better,” said Bridgett Beckwith, director of marketing for Short’s, which started as a brewpub in Bellaire in 2004 and expanded to include an Elk Rapids production facility in 2009. “We encourage creativity in every department, not just brewing.”
Last year at the Great American Beer Festival, Short’s took home a gold medal for its Key Lime Pie brew. There are other unique flavor blends as well. Black Licorice Lager, for example, incorporates anise, chocolate mint and vanilla.
Soft Parade is a fruit-infused rye ale that includes a variety of berries. Founder Joe Short wanted to create a brew that would appeal to wine enthusiasts as well as beer drinkers. The result is one of the brewery’s flagship beers and was just released in 12-packs for the first time.
Beckwith, who visited Short’s Bellaire brewpub frequently as a guest for years before she ever went to work for the company, is hard-pressed to pick her favorite beer, but ultimately settles on Huma-Lupa-Licious, an India pale ale.
Short’s will host a street party in Bellaire April 25 to celebrate its 11th anniversary; Beckwith says as many as 4,000 people are expected to attend. The third release in the “Private Stache” series — named after Joe Short’s signature waxed mustache — will be released at that event, Beckwith said.
Short’s brewed more than 34,443 barrels of beer in 2014, with a 51 percent production growth at year end. The company also has projected production of more than 42,000 barrels in 2015.
Short’s has some new projects in the works, including a hard cider bearing the label Starcut Ciders. It’s expected to be available around the state this fall. The brewer works with nearby fruit growers to provide apples.
“We’re anxiously awaiting apple season so we can make some more of this,” Beckwith said.
Working in the pulp and paper industry, Tim Suprise traveled the United States and the world.
“I started visiting and becoming interested in the local brewery wherever I was,” he said. “That could be from Baton Rouge to Boston or from Bangkok to Beijing.”
Suprise and his family moved to Kalamazoo in 1991 so he could take a paper industry job. But by 1995, his love for full-bodied, artisanal beer won out and Arcadia was born. The first brewpub opened in Battle Creek in September 1996 (there’s also a Kalamazoo location now). Both sell what Suprise describes as “British-inspired American-crafted beer.”
Suprise won’t pick a favorite brew — “whatever Arcadia I have in my hand at the time is my favorite,” — but said Arcadia ales draw their distinctive aroma and flavor profile from yeast.
Just released for the summer is Arcadia’s Whitsun Wheat, which includes coriander, orange zest and Michigan-cultivated honey. A session ale called Cheap Date is coming Memorial Day weekend.
“It’s a very light, easy-drinking offering,” Suprise said.”It’s less than 5 percent alcohol so it should have a broad appeal to many different consumers.” A bonus: 1 percent of the profits from the beer will go to the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail.
Suprise said he expects production to exceed 15,000 barrels this coming year. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to Michigan’s largest craft beer producers, but that’s part of the plan. “We’ve been very deliberate in our growth and where we sell the product,” he said.
Once a year, the staff at Traverse City’s Right Brain Brewery makes up a batch of Mangalista Pig Porter.
“It’s kind of the Kobe beef equivalent,” head brewer Nick Panchame’ said of the Mangalista pig. Mangalista bones smoked over cherry wood are added to the brew on the front end of the process.
“It comes through in the beer as a slightly smoky touch” as and a hint of salt, Panchame’ said.
That beer will be released later this month, and it’s an indicator of the way Right Brain brewers like to operate — with a culinary edge.
The brewery has created a cucumber and basil beer, an asparagus ale (it comes out in May) and one of its signature items is the CEO Stout, a coffee stout (which is also used in the barbecue sauce at the brewpub).
“We’re not a brewery that is trying to put crazy things in beer,” Panchame’ said. “The mindset is to kind of do things differently, but also in a way that still makes sense.”
Right Brain’s founder and CEO, Russell Springsteen, got the brewery’s name from a high school teacher who tested the class to determine who was right-brained, with dominant thought on that side of the brain. He was the only student in the class who tested as right-brained, and it became a running joke between him and the teacher. “Right-brained” people are said to be more thoughtful and intuitive, while “left-brained” are more analytical.
Panchame’ said the brewery made about 3,600 barrels of beer in 2014, and he expects to brew 5,000 this year. The brewpub’s limited menu (sandwiches are served on waffles; there are snacks as well) will also expand.
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