Thursday, December 22, 2011

Witch’s Hat Brewing the Culmination of a Love Affair – with Beer

Witch's Hat Brewing Co., 22235 Pontiac Trail, South Lyon, opens December 26.

Note: A version of this story was also published on and

It was love at first sight for Ryan and Erin Cottongim. When they found the used “Mr. Beer” homebrewing kit at a garage sale in 2004, the South Lyon couple began a passionate, years-long affair that has now resulted in the birth of a bouncing baby brewery: Witch’s Hat Brewing Co., located at 22235 Pontiac Trail (about 15 miles north of Ann Arbor), opens December 26 at noon.

The project was born not only out of a mutual enthusiasm for craft beer but also from a love of community, a love that made the decision about where to locate a no-brainer.

“We both grew up in South Lyon, went to school here, got married here; this is definitely home,” says Ryan. “It’s great to be able to create something new in this little town that’s treated us so well over the years.”

The name of the brewery itself comes from a South Lyon landmark: a one-hundred-year-old train depot called the Witch’s Hat after its conical design. It stands in nearby McHattie Park, where Ryan and Erin exchanged wedding vows in 2007.

“That area is kind of the downtown of South Lyon, and it obviously has a spot in our hearts,” says Ryan. “We figured what better way to showcase the town than with this name?”

The dual themes of town and trains also permeate the tap room, a snug space previously occupied by a coffee shop, and local lore informs the names of the beers themselves, including Bear-Ass Wheat and Rumble Under the Red Light. (More about these in the tasting notes below.) Antique and reproduction railroad lanterns adorn the bar, which sports 12 taps, and the café-style tables, many of which were built using Ryan and Erin’s extensive bottlecap collection. The relatively small but comfortable-looking space is made cozier with a gas fireplace and wall art provided by local artists and photographers (much of which is for sale).

As a small microbrewery, Witch’s Hat lacks a kitchen and so does not have a food menu; however, apart from a popcorn machine behind the bar, there are many nearby options for bringing in food, including Jet’s Pizza (which will deliver for free to the brewery), Chinese and Italian restaurants, Jimmy John’s sandwiches, and fast food joints like Taco Bell and McDonald’s. Erin also anticipates carrying products from Blue Apron Baking Co., another family-run local business.

The brewhouse features a locally designed and built four-barrel system, which Ryan and two assistants (also drawn from the ranks of area homebrewers) use to create beers from recipes he’s been developing since he began homebrewing as well as newer experiments as he gains more experience on the system.

“In the beginning I made some horrible, horrendous beers with that Mr. Beer kit, but it was enough to get me hooked,” says Ryan. “Then I started doing it right with extracts and then moved on to all-grain. I love brewing and have a real passion for it.”

Far from horrible or horrendous, the beers available for opening day are as follows:

  • Lyger Common Ale – 4.5% ABV, 21 IBU. Described by Ryan as his “lawnmower beer,” Lyger is an ale-lager hybrid in the California common tradition, at least yeast-wise. Light yellow in color and light in body, it delivers crisp citrusy notes with just a kiss of Saaz hoppiness.
  • Train Hopper IPA – 6.2% ABV, 75 IBU. Served uncarbonated out of the tank (it will be on draft by opening), Train Hopper is a relatively easy-drinking IPA bursting with Centennial, Citra, and Cascade hop aromas and bitterness.
  • Edward's Portly Brown Ale – 5.5% ABV, 35 IBU. Not quite a porter but bigger than a brown, Edward’s is named after Ryan and Erin’s springer spaniel, which explains why 5% of the sales from this anticipated mainstay brew will go to the Huron Valley Humane Society. The burnt caramel head, creamy mouthfeel, and chocolatey flavor profile combined to make this beer a standout. The light-medium body and lower alcohol guarantee you’ll want (and be able to have) more than just one.
  • Bear-Ass Wheat Hefeweizen – 4.6% ABV, 25 IBU. A hazy golden brew with a faceful of the classic banana/clove aroma, Bear-Ass is a play on the unofficial name for a local beach area and it delivers all the tartness and refreshing citrus notes you expect from a hefeweizen.
  • Holy Confusion Barleywine Style Ale – 10.2% ABV, 103 IBU. Originally contract brewed by Frog Island Brewing, this beer attracted some attention at the 2011 Michigan Winter Beer Festival with its massive but well balanced malt and hop flavors. It wasn’t on during my visit but should be ready for the opening.
  • 1908 Smoked Wheat Ale – 6.5% ABV, 36 IBU. Confession: I am not a big fan of smoked beers; consequently, I recuse myself from any attempt to describe this beer except to say, yep, it’s smoky! (It was also served not quite finished out of the tank.) The reason for all the smoke? 1908 is named after the original Witch’s Hat train depot, which burned to the ground that same year.
  • Rumble Under the Red Light Irish Red Ale – 4.5% ABV, 29 IBU. This beer’s name comes from stories Ryan’s father and other South Lyon old-timers tell about the epic throwdowns between them and neighboring Brighton kids underneath the town’s then-lone stoplight. A work in progress, Rumble delivers a medium-bodied, grainy taste with a surprisingly hoppy finish.
  • Klucking Kat Belgian Style Ale – 4.8% ABV, 30 IBU. Another evolving brew, Klucking Kat’s varied malty and fruity flavors combine with a mild tartness for a complex finish.

Ryan and Erin expect to distribute kegs soon; bottling, if it happens, will likely have to wait for a larger facility with sufficient space, if it’s deemed viable. Erin also is already working on a variety of meads, which will eventually be served alongside the beers in the tap room. (It should be noted Witch’s Hat has root beer and cream soda for designated drivers or anyone who prefers a soft drink for whatever reason.)

Witch’s Hat is open Monday through Thursday from 2 p.m. to midnight, noon to midnight Friday and Saturday, and closed Sunday. Lifetime Mug Club memberships are available for $75-$175 (depending on if you want a personalized, hand-blown mug), growler fills range from $12-$14, and sampler flights of five 5 oz. tasters are $6.50. Give the brewery a call at 248-486-2595, find them on Facebook, or check out

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