Michael Crane never liked beer. Not even in college.
“I was the only student to go through the Kansas City Art Institute and not drink,” the 58-year-old Leawood man says.
There were occasional exceptions. Crane choked down Mogen David wine on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. On dates with his wife of 30 years, June, he ordered gin and tonics or, if they were at Houlihan’s, a pina colada.
“And once or twice a year, I got a pack of O’Doul’s,” Crane says, referencing the nonalcoholic beer.
Unlike their dad, Joey and Jonathan Crane love beer. So three years ago, when June and Michael Crane went to Target and saw a Mr. Beer home-brewing kit on closeout, she pointed it out. The kids are gonna love it, Michael told June, even though Joey and Jonathan are 26 and 28.
That $15 Mr. Beer kit launched a hobby that morphed into an obsession not for his sons but for Crane. The self-taught design engineer is now Kansas City’s highest-ranked home-brewer in the High Plains circuit, a competitive group of home-brewing clubs in eight Midwestern states. Consider it the Big 12 of brewing.
Crane’s beers — particularly his Belgian-style saisons (a summertime farmhouse ale) and sour beers — have won dozens of awards in home-brewing contests all over the country. They’ve made fans out of more experienced local home-brewers such as Amy Satterlund and Steve Cook.
Satterlund, High Plains brewer of the year in 2010, says Crane “makes some of the best saisons I’ve ever had, hands-down. They’re phenomenal.”
Cook, a nationally certified beer judge and the president of Kansas City Bier Meisters, says Crane made the most perfect pale ale he has tasted.
“In competitions, we score beers on a scale, from 0 being horrible to 50 being perfect,” says Cook, who was named High Plains brewer of 2012. “It’s the only 50-point beer I’ve ever tasted. Ever.”
If he didn’t enter his beer in contests or share it with other people, Crane wouldn’t know if it was any good, because he still won’t drink it.
“If I have to taste it and I say, ‘Oh man, that’s kind of nasty,’” he says, “then I know it’s good.”
Ask Amy Satterlund if she has ever heard of a home-brewer who doesn’t like beer, and she laughs for a solid 10 seconds.
“Part of the fun of home-brewing is getting to taste your product,” she says. “Just like cooking dinner or making cookies.”
Most home-brewers are hardcore beer geeks who adopt the hobby because drinking commercially made craft beer isn’t enough: They want to understand every step of the brewing process, from milling and mashing to hopping, fermenting and aging.
Brewing is a complicated process that requires a lot of research, precision and passion. Not to mention space, time and money. But the hobby’s popularity has been growing rapidly since 2005, says Gary Glass, director of the American Homebrewers Association.
In 2005, the association had about 9,700 members, Glass says. Membership has grown 20 percent every year since, and now the association is 40,000 strong. Many of the new members fall in the under-30 demographic.
Glass says the rise in home-brewing is a direct result of the craft beer movement.
“The more craft beer that’s out there, the more people are inclined to start home-brewing,” Glass says. “You have to be an aficionado of craft beer to want to start home-brewing.”
As a baby boomer who hates the taste of beer, Crane doesn’t exactly fit that new-home-brewer mold. But his son Joey does.
Joey, an avant-garde music composer who’s working on his doctorate at the University of Minnesota, is a craft beer nerd who prefers saisons and sours. Because he lives in Minneapolis, he can’t brew beer with his dad all the time. But he regularly emails new recipes and suggestions.
“I call him every few days,” Joey says, “and the only thing we talk about is beer.”
Jonathan Crane likes to drink beer, too, but he’s not as interested in the brewing process. So it was Joey who helped their dad brew the first batch from the Mr. Beer kit over winter break in 2010. The results were mediocre, but Michael liked the process. By spring break, Joey was helping his dad brew with barley (the grain, not extracts, which most beginning home-brewers use).
Last Thanksgiving, the father and son worked together to brew a 60-gallon batch of lambic, a sour beer fermented with wild yeast and bacteria, then aged it in a Cabernet wine barrel. To make such a large batch, Michael had to buy a 40-gallon stockpot. That’s when the hobby became something more, he says.
Crane spends most Saturdays and some Sundays brewing in his unfinished walkout basement, which looks like a mad scientist’s microbrewery.
Gold medals line the walls of the staircase leading to the basement, which has the usual fodder (boxed holiday decorations, a covered-up pool table, an elliptical machine, luggage). The rest of the space is devoted to brewing, fermenting and aging.
There are five refrigerators, two mini-fridges, a commercial sink and a locker overflowing with 20 carboys filled with sour beers in various stages of fermentation. The liquids inside look bubbly and come in shades of amber and crimson.
Crane’s white Nike Airs squeak as he walks across the bare concrete floors and points out all the gadgets he designed and built. Here’s a new mill that grinds grain — the old one wore out after a year — and there’s a counter-pressure bottle filler and a bench-top pneumatic bottle capper.
“He likes tinkering with contraptions,” June Crane says. “That’s what I call them.”
A sign on a basement shelf reads “Yes beer — I mean, Yes Dear,” a surprising decor choice for a man who doesn’t drink.
June, a preschool teacher, likes beer even less than her husband.
“But she loves me,” Michael says, so she allows him free rein in his basement beer cave. She says he’s the kind of guy who needs a hobby.
“He’s that antsy type of person,” June says. “He’s not one to sit around and relax.”
The home-brewer rigged all of his own plumbing and electricity. He even made his own kegerator by drilling four holes into a refrigerator and installing taps. As an experienced woodworker, he made the “Drunken Crane Brewery” tap handles, too.
“I always liked working with my hands, building things,” Crane says.
The Tennessee native went to KCAI in the mid-1970s to study ceramics but finished school with a degree in photography. For 12 years, he worked as a commercial photographer, shooting everything from fashion to homes and food for clients that included The Kansas City Star.
In the early 1990s, when Joey and Jonathan were starting school, Crane designed a play table for their preschool at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park. One side of the table top was smooth and outfitted with storage bins. The other side was a base for Legos.
The table concept took off and launched Crane’s furniture career. His Raytown-based company, Funblock, employs eight people and makes furniture for classrooms and retail stores across the country.
Photographers get to see their names next to photos they took. Ceramicists carve their initials on sculptures and clay bowls. But furniture designers don’t sign their cabinets and tables.
“It’s so totally anonymous,” Crane says. “Have you ever gone to a Kansas Sampler store? Most of the displays, I designed. Nobody knows that.”
In home-brewing, Crane has found a creative outlet that he gets credit for. And lots of new friends.
Two years ago — about a year after he started home-brewing — Crane found the KC Bier Meisters club online and forced himself to go to a monthly meeting.
“I’m painfully shy,” Crane says.
After the meeting, he introduced himself to Satterlund. She asked if he wanted to meet up at a bar with some club members and talk beer.
“I’ve never done that,” Crane told her.
Something similar happened this year, when Crane met a home-brewing group called KC Nanobrews for drinks at Bier Station in Waldo. The bartender asked if Crane wanted to start a tab. He had to stop and think about what that meant.
Crane’s cluelessness about drinking beer — coupled with his ability to make mind-blowing brews — has made him a bit of a local legend among brewers.
Alex Pope, a home-brewer and chef who owns the Local Pig butcher shop in the East Bottoms, trades steaks and sausages for bottles of Crane’s award-winning Saison de Porc Locale. Crane also made the wood signs for the Local Pig’s food truck, Pigwich.
Boulevard brewer Jeremy Danner knows Crane — “He’s super nice,” Danner says — but can’t wrap his mind around the fact that Crane doesn’t drink beer.
“It’s insane,” Danner says. He has never heard of a brewer, amateur or professional, who doesn’t like beer. And he says he can’t imagine brewing beer without tasting at each stage. Sour beers are particularly tricky, Danner says, because the flavor evolves along with the yeast and bacteria.
Not tasting the beer during brewing “is like driving blind,” Danner says. Somehow, Crane gets there.
His engineering background helps. So does curiosity. Crane is fascinated with the science of brewing. He’s particularly interested in yeast, a single-celled organism that eats the sugar in unfermented beer, or wort, and converts it to alcohol and CO2.
Crane gathers wild yeast from the skins of fresh blueberries and the dregs of kombucha bottles.
“There’s yeast everywhere,” he says, holding his hands out as though it’s snowing in his basement. It even comes from trees, he says. To collect yeast from a pear tree, he covered a sanitized plastic bucket with a paint strainer cloth, then placed the bucket under the tree for a couple of days. The yeast fell through the strainer and into the bucket. Later, he added wort to the bucket until the yeast multiplied and formed a thick slurry.
Now that pear tree yeast is fermenting a lambic beer.
“Yeast is an amazing creature,” Crane says.
Home-brewing is a science and an art. To make truly good beer, Crane needs feedback from beer drinkers and other brewers who can tell him if there are any off flavors or help identify a beer’s correct category.
Most of the KC Bier Meister brewers bring one or two samples to a meeting. Satterlund says Crane once brought 12.
“He has a lot of respect for people who brew and drink beer,” Satterlund says. “He wants their feedback so he can make better beer.”
The home-brewer listens to his sons, too. Once, Joey Crane told his dad he’d had beets for dinner.
“You should make a beet beer,” Joey joked.
Days later, Michael Crane sliced and boiled beets, then added them to a cream ale he’d been working on and fermented the beer a second time. The resulting brew poured deep magenta with a head of hot pink foam. It tasted like spring beets freshly pulled from rain-soaked dirt.
Crane’s beet beer was the Chocolate Ale of the 2013 KC Nanobrews festival in July. Before the festival opened to the public, organizers announced that Michael Crane was popping bottles of his beet beer. Within seconds, 20 home-brewers lined up at the Drunken Crane booth. Crane’s four bottles were empty in less than a minute.
For Michael Crane, the joy of beer is in the sharing. The same goes for the other hobbies he has taken up over the years.
Crane loves to barbecue — his back deck is crowded with two gas grills, one charcoal grill and a commercial smoker — and once a month, he makes a barbecue dinner for the parents on the cancer floor at Children’s Mercy Hospital. It’s a place the Cranes know well.
When Joey was a junior in high school, doctors found bone cancer in his jaw and successfully treated it with aggressive surgery and chemotherapy. During Joey’s recovery, the family’s rabbi brought Joey chocolate truffles — a small but sweet distraction during a rough time. Joey seemed to really like the truffles.
“When your child has cancer, you give him everything he wants,” Michael Crane says, “and then some.”
Crane started making chocolate truffles by the dozens. He imported 20 pounds of fine Belgian chocolate at a time. He experimented with various liqueurs and made every truffle shape imaginable. He gave them to his family and friends and sold them to raise money for his synagogue. Crane beamed when people told him his truffles tasted better than Christopher Elbow’s.
June says her husband takes after his mother and grandmother, talented bakers who were always making pies and cakes and giving them away.
“His grandmother would take a cake to the butcher at the grocery store,” June says. “He inherited that gene.”
Now that he has moved from truffle-making to brewing, Crane gives cases of beer to his sons and their friends. He caters his recipes to the beers they like to drink.
“It’s really rewarding for him to make a beer, give it to someone, and they love it,” Joey says. The accolades are rewarding, too.
“He realized he’s really good at this,” Joey says. “That kind of put it over the top.”
Home-brewers tell Crane his saisons rival Boulevard’s popular Tank 7. The highest-ranking beer judge in the world, Gordon Strong, gave Crane a gold medal and 42-point score for a saison he brewed with wild yeast and fresh raspberries. And a couple of weeks ago, the American Homebrewers Association named Crane its brewer of the week.
After work on a recent Thursday, Crane sat at the computer desk in his basement and Googled “Michael Crane homebrewer.”
His face lit up as the page filled with links to his awards and mentions of his name.
A clipped, months-old event posting on craftbeerkc.com read, “Saturday lunch is going to be BBQ provided by Michael Crane. For those of you who don’t know him, he is about the best homebrewer in Kansas City and he doesn’t drink beer.”
Crane leaned back in his chair, drinking in the recognition. It tasted better than any beer.