Brewmaster Mike Hall pours a hearty porter at the Jolly Pumpkin
By MIKE NORTON
Lots of brewers like to see a nice creamy head on their beer. Not many think of actually putting heads into the beer itself.
But the ever-inventive beer lovers at Traverse City’s Right Brain Brewery used four smoked pig’s heads and three bags of pork bones to brew their Mangalitsa Pig Porter, a smoky dark beer with a distinct bacon finish that won them a gold medal at the 2011 Great American Beer Festival.
“It was like drinking bacon wrapped in chocolate. Or chocolate wrapped in bacon,” says owner Russ Springsteen. “We didn’t use the brains.”
Traverse City brewmasters are known for pushing the envelope when it comes to using unusual flavorings in their beers and ales – especially if they can be grown locally. That may be one reason why Draft magazine just named this small community one of Americas’ three newest Emerging Beer Towns (along with St. Louis and Oklahoma City).
Emulating the region’s award-winning wine industry by their emphasis on local ingredients, craft brewers are suddenly multiplying across the Traverse City landscape. The area now boasts nine microbreweries, brewpubs and craft brew taprooms – three of them added in the past year – with three more scheduled to open this summer.
The Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas, already renowned for their acres of fruit trees and vineyards, are now sporting a third cash crop: hops. Grown on enormous 15- to 20-foot trellis systems, the fast-growing vines provide one of the key flavorings in beers and ales and are being snapped up by eager brewers.
One of them is Mike Hall, the master brewer for Northern United Brewing, which creates the beers for Traverse City’s North Peak Brewing Co. and the Grizzly Peak Brewing Co. of Ann Arbor, as well as the Jolly Pumpkin family of microbreweries. Hall and his colleagues have created an entire family of seasonal brews using fresh Old Mission Peninsula hops, which he says are fresher and more aromatic than pelletized hops from the Pacific Northwest.
“We could use local hops in all our beers if there was enough production to meet our needs – and I think there will be,” says Hall. “There’s a lot of interest from the customers, too.”
Traverse City’s status as a craft brew town began in 1996, when the area’s first brewpub, Mackinaw Brewing Company, opened its doors in an elegant 19th century brick building at the corner of Front and Cass streets. Mackinaw was soon joined by a second brewpub, the North Peak Brewing Company, in a former candy factory down the street, whose basement eventually became the headquarters of Kilkenny’s Irish Public House.
It was the 2004 arrival of Short’s Brewing in the nearby village of Bellaire that kicked things into high gear, moving beyond a classical palette of classic ales, lagers, stouts and porters into previously uncharted territory where such ingredients as raisins, maple syrup, spruce buds and cherries began finding their way into the mix. In 2007, Right Brain Brewery opened in Traverse City’s Warehouse District, and the local craft brewing scene suddenly got much more interesting.
Nearby packages stores and restaurants began stocking local brews, a pair of taprooms (Seven Monks and The Shed) opened their doors, catering almost exclusively to craft beer drinkers, and in 2009 local promoters put together the first-ever Traverse City Microbrew & Music Festival, which eventually split into separate summer and winter versions. The festivals are held on the lawns of the Grand Traverse Commons, the city’s former mental asylum.
Sampling a flight of microbrews at Mackionaw Brewing Co.
In early 2012, former Vermont baker David Cannizzaro and his family opened the Filling Station Microbrewery in the city’s elegant Italianate railroad station, while former Right Brain brewmaster John Niedermaier announced the midsummer opening of his new venture, Brewery Terra Firma, a “farm-to-mug” microbrewery on a seven-acre farm west of town that takes the concept of local brewing to its logical conclusion. Terra Firma will grow most of its ingredients on site, and serve customers at a 2,000 square-foot tasting room right on the farm.
The way Niedermaier sees it, Terra Firma is a way of appropriating for the craft brewing industry the same concept of “terroir” that has made Traverse City’s wine industry so successful – incorporating the flavors and aromas of Northern Michigan into every sip of beer. (The region’s microdistilleries are following the same path, using local grains and flavorings, and large amounts of the area’s glacier-filtered water in small-batch vodkas and whiskeys.)
Meanwhile, Springsteen and his crew have outgrown their old warehouse and are in the process of moving the Right Brain operation to an enormous quonset hut on 16th Street. Yet another brewpub, the Boardman River Brewing Co., will is reportedly open in late summer/early fall in their former space. Local resorts are incorporating microbrew tours and craft brew dinners into their schedules, while over here at the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau we’ve designed a self-guided Microbrew Guide to help you find your way around the local brew scene.