Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Conversation with Dave Engbers of Founders

Dave and Dave, circa 2011.

Interview with Dave Engbers, co-founder and president of Founders Brewing, conducted November 11, 2016, on behalf of Ashley's.

Founders beers have been part of the Ashley’s lineup since you started distributing in the Ann Arbor area, which must have been in the late 1990s?

Yeah, since 1998 or 1999. We started brewing in November 1997, with the beer getting to market in early 1998. Initially we distributed only in Western Michigan before we looked to expand into Ann Arbor and Detroit in 1999 and then the rest of the state.

Can you talk a little bit about those early years in the beer business? The landscape must have been much different then than what we see now.

My partner Mike [Stevens] and I were just a couple young kids cutting our teeth. We weren’t shy about telling people we were naïve about the industry we were getting into. For example, we knew about the three-tier distribution system, but didn’t really understand the politics of it. Initially our gut reaction was that as long as we made a quality product and put it out in the market at a fair rate, then everyone would support us. But reality woke us up fast.

How so?

We didn't realize how many retailers were loyal to certain wholesalers, and unfortunately it wasn't always about the quality of the products but rather the relationship with the retailers. Craft was so new and there weren't enough consumers interested in our brand. The enthusiast community wasn't large enough to impact the larger market.

We were just a couple of nice Midwestern guys, not really aggressive. As a result, we were getting a lot of doors shut in our faces and it didn’t take long before we knew we had to change tactics. Others had these long-term relationships with wholesalers that we didn’t. It wasn’t unusual to find accounts who didn’t buy from our wholesalers because they just didn’t like us.

Distributing beers that were so new and different must have been difficult.

Well, it didn’t take a genius to walk into an account with Bud and Bud Light on tap and figure they probably weren’t interested in us. We’d mostly see those, along with Miller Lite, Guinness, Molson, Labatt, Killian’s, Bass Pale Ale, and maybe this beer called Bell’s might have one tap handle. Ashley’s was an early adopter, but in those days trying to convince an account to buy a keg that cost $125 vs. $47 usually meant getting laughed at.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Arbor Microbrewery to Host Beer Off-Flavor Class

Certified Cicerone Annette May. 

What does it mean when a beer is "skunky" or "oxidized"? What makes a beer taste like butterscotch, green apples, or creamed corn? What's the difference between an ester and a phenol?

If you want to know all of this stuff and more, then you'll want to check out Fermenta's upcoming Beer Off-Flavor class, taking place Sunday, November 6, at the Arbor Brewing Microbrewery in Ypsilanti. Using the Siebel Institute's Sensory Training Kit, Certified Cicerone and beer educator par excellence Annette May will take you through the eight most common off-flavors in beer, including their causes and how to recognize them.

This class is essential for homebrewers, folks studying for the BJCP exam, those pursuing Cicerone certification of any level, or any beer enthusiast looking to deepen his or her knowledge of the world's best beverage. Tickets are $30 for Fermenta members or $35 for non-members. For more information and to purchase, go here.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Tickets for Saturday's Zwanze Day Event at Jolly Pumpkin Still Available

Damn Dark Lord Day. The hell with Heady Topper. Kick KBS to the curb. The beer dork event, bar none, is Brasserie Cantillon's annual Zwanze Day, which is this Saturday, October 1. Only 60 locations worldwide are selected to participate in the release of this #whalezbro sour ale from Brussels, and Dexter's own NULL Taphouse (aka Jolly Pumpkin) is one of them!

But unless you've been living under a rock, you probably already knew that. Maybe what you didn't know is that tickets for this event are still available. In my case, I was faced with the cruel choice of going to Zwanze Day or watching the Michigan Wolverines beat the crap out of the Wisconsin Badgers in person. I chose my Wolverines, but I'm writing a nasty letter to Belgium complaining about scheduling stuff like this during football season.

Anyway, the folks at Jolly Pumpkin have made sure this event goes way beyond an ultra-rare, OMG beer release. They've invited more than a dozen breweries from across the country known for their sour ales to also participate, and the list will make even the most jaded of Michigan beer dorks soil his trousers. Names like Jester King, Allagash, Tired Hands, Monkish, Lost Abbey, and plenty more. See? Go change your pants.

I could go on and on, but why bother when Jolly Pumpkin already has. If you need no further details and want to go straight to buying your tickets, follow this link.

Wolverine Launches Packaging Re-Brand for October

Photo from Wolverine State Brewing's Instagram.

Wolverine State Brewing is re-branding the packaging for its bottled products, as well as re-naming (or re-re-naming, actually) one of its staple brews. Here's the official press release with the details:
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Wolverine State Brewing Co. is excited to announce a packaging re-brand of its flagship lagers. The update encompasses three brands: Wolverine Premium Lager, Gulo Gulo IPL, and District 16 Amber Lager, formerly known as Wolverine Amber Lager.

The new labels and carriers will be on shelves beginning in early October.

The project’s aim was to bring all labels into a cohesive line and set the stage for future seasonal and year-round bottle releases, which are set to begin in spring of 2017. The repackaging comes on the heels of a recent agreement that puts Wolverine State Brewing Co. flagship bottles in Kroger locations statewide.

The re-brand is the latest in a series of milestones for the brewery. In 2015, the company completed a 6,000 square foot on-site expansion. This expansion will bring the brewery's production capacity to nearly 5,000 barrels by the end of 2017. In May 2016, the company received a bronze medal from the World Beer Cup for its Raucher Smoked Lager.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Some Thoughts on a Recent Controversy

This post may anger or otherwise upset some people. It is not intended to. But witnessing the past few days’ worth of online outrage over a dispute between a local brewery and an individual contractor they engaged for design work has left me dismayed at what I believe to be a fundamental lack of perspective.

As I know and consider myself friends (or at least friendly) with most of the individuals involved in this dispute, I do not wish to “take sides.” It is not my dispute. Neither, however, is it the dispute of the hyperjudgmental mob taking to the Internet to trash people they don’t know, imputing all manner of nefarious motives to them and feeling free to issue categorical opinions, all on the basis of a few Facebook posts.

Here, then, is my attempt to provide some of that sorely lacking perspective. But before I get to that, there are a couple disclosure-y things to note so that you, the reader, can properly judge what I have to say.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Stroh's: The Return of a Detroit Icon

A month ago, I wrote a quick piece for the Metro Times about Stroh's beer being brewed in Detroit again after three decades in exile. Last week, I was invited to try the new version of Stroh's Bohemian Pilsner, hot off the taps at Brew Detroit, a contract brewing facility in Corktown. Today, the beer is available in bottled form at stores around the area.

So, you're wondering, what does it taste like? Here's the official label description:
Established in 1850, the Stroh Brewery Co. is proud to honor our brewing heritage by reintroducing Stroh's Bohemian-Style Pilsner. Our Master Brewer has crafted an exceptional European-style pilsner brewed in the heart of Detroit, using Saaz and Magnum hops with Vienna malt. The result is a crisp, balanced pilsner, with a floral aroma, subtle hop spice, and a rich, bready maltiness. Brewed for everyday enjoyment, this is a Bohemian-Style Pilsner worthy of the Stroh's name.
As I sip on one now, that description seems pretty accurate. The nose is mainly biscuity with only a hint of floral hoppiness. It's light amber in color and medium-bodied, with a solid foamy white head. The taste is of sweet malt, followed by a balancing bitterness in the finish. It's definitely not a fizzy yellow drink, but at 33 IBUs and 5.5% ABV, neither is it in any danger of becoming a darling of BeerAdvocate dorks.

Verdict: The new Stroh's Bohemian Pilsner is pretty much as advertised – a decent everyday drinker with enough flavor to satisfy but not so much as to overwhelm. I have heard tell the price is on the order of $6.99 a six-pack, but have not confirmed this. Now if they would put these in 30-packs of cans, you'd have a great beer for boating, camping, golfing, or passing out with your underage friends in your parents' basement.*

Update 8/23: Seems as if there may be some kind of distribution snag, with some outlets reporting they don't expect to receive the beer until the end of this week or early next. In Ann Arbor, the Busch's on Plymouth Rd. had space saved on the shelf for six packs (in the "domestic" area), with a listed price of $8.49; however, no beer was there. Seems folks may need to wait a wee bit longer.

Update 8/24: Looks like it will be coming Friday, according to this Instagram post from distributor O&W.
* Not that I ever drank when I was underage.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Glasshouse Brewing Set to Open

Glasshouse owners Brad and Brent Payeur with head brewer Kuma-Ofori-Mensa.

Whenever I talk to business owners I marvel that there are any businesses at all. The sheer amount of bullshit required to launch a new venture, such as, say, a brewery, would be enough to dissuade most people.

But fortunately for humanity, there are crazy folks like Brad and Brent Payeur, the brothers behind Glasshouse Brewing on Ann Arbor's west side (occupying the back of the same building housing the city's oldest continuously operating business, Diamond Glass & Feiner's).

The Payeurs hired Arbor Brewing veteran Kuma Ofori-Mensa to produce the beers, which he has dutifully done – there are six in the tanks ready to be drunk. They include an English-style bitter; a robust porter; a saison brewed with rye, lemongrass, and grains of paradise; an amber wheat ale; an American IPA; and a cherrywood-smoked stout.

The only reason you aren't enjoying these beers right now is the state of Michigan and its Byzantine, antiquated, dopey license approval process. Despite the fact that Glasshouse has been in planning for over a year, Lansing still hasn't managed to get around to bestowing its blessing on the endeavor. So whenever that happens, which should be soon, Glasshouse will officially open its doors.

In the meantime, I was able to try the IPA and the smoked stout. Both were quite tasty – the smoke is subtle in the stout – which one expects from an experienced brewer like Kuma. He plans to create a wide variety of solid as well as experimental beers in the future.

So there's the update. Keep an eye out for Ann Arbor's newest brewery, opening whenever the politically ordained nonsense runs its course. Hours will be 4 p.m. to midnight, Monday through Friday, and noon to midnight Saturday and Sunday.