Thursday, March 1, 2018

From Cultivate to Collaborate

Cultivate brewing guru Kuma Ofori-Mensa and owner Ryan Wallace.

In just a few short years, Cultivate Coffee and TapHouse in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town has established itself as a premier community gathering place, not to mention a good spot to get a finely roasted cup of joe or a cold and foamy glass of beer. Now, with the addition of longtime brewer Kuma Ofori-Mensa – formerly of Arbor Brewing, Glasshouse Brewing, and Tecumseh Brewing – Cultivate is setting its sights on even bigger things: a regular collaboration with different breweries to produce exclusive new beers for customers to enjoy. I caught up with Kuma recently to talk about this unique new collaboration program.

Cultivate isn’t a brewery, so why did they hire a brewer?

Ryan [Wallace, Cultivate owner] started the brewing collaboration program several months ago, and it’s reached a point where he wants to make it a regular part of the brand here. But he doesn’t have time to flesh it out himself. The dude is busy – like he’s always doing something. I’m not even sure he sleeps. I know for a fact he rarely eats.

A pretty common thing among business owners…

Right! So I got hired on to take over this collaboration program as part of my full-time responsibilities. I also work shifts behind the bar and make sure the draft lines are clean.

Can you explain how the collaboration program works?

We come up with a recipe first, then we approach a brewery where we definitely can work with them to create that specific recipe. If there’s a brewery that excels at IPAs, we’ll go to that brewery, or there’s a brewery that’s good at stouts, we’ll go there – that kind of thing. We’re always seeking out places where we already know someone, and thankfully between me and Ryan that’s a lot of someones. Then we ask if it’s something they have time and want to brew. If yes, we go back and forth on the recipe, and we’re open – we say, “Look, if you think the recipe sucks, let’s change it.” There’s no reason any of us should try to sell something we’re not proud of.

Then it’s a matter of getting to the point of where they can say "We have these ingredients, we’re happy with the proportions, we’re happy with the targets, let’s brew it." We plan a brew day and Ryan and I go out to the brewery, though with Ryan being so busy it eventually will probably be just me. After that, there’s follow-up communication about the fermentation and any secondary additions – whether we’re dry-hopping or adding coffee, tea, or whatever. We try to find things in-house that we make to add to the beers to give them characteristic flavors.

So it sounds like the breweries you collaborate with are pretty much local to our area?

I think the farthest place Ryan’s worked with is Tandem Ciders in Suttons Bay, although I’m not sure he actually traveled there. I’ve actually just been in touch with BlackRocks in Marquette, so if it turns out they want to brew with us, then we’ll head to the U.P. We’ll plan it so on the way down maybe we hit another brewery or two, whatever makes sense to make it all as economical as possible.

When the beers are done, are they served at both the brewery and at Cultivate?

We take half the batch, typically. We brand it as our own and the brewery taps their half under whatever name they choose. The IPA we just brewed with Ascension Brewing should be going on here this Saturday, and I believe Ascension is tapping theirs the same day.

That leads nicely into the next question: Is there a set schedule for when you’ll be serving these collaboration beers or is it just going to be an irregular sort of thing?

Right now the target is to have a release every Saturday. We’ll see if that’s sustainable in terms of keg storage space – in some cases we’re buying from a distributor while other breweries self-distribute. We don’t have a very big cooler. Anyway, our goal is to keep doing this on Saturdays as often as possible. Right now we have we have all the weekends in March planned out, and we’re working on brew days in March so we can keep it going after. The time will come in the summer when it’ll be so crazy busy here that I don’t know what to expect. Will I still be available to go brew or will we have to rely on what’s left over from late winter and spring to carry us through until some time frees up? We’ll see what that looks like.

You mentioned working with Ascension and maybe BlackRocks. What are some other breweries you’ve worked with and what are some of the beers you’ve made so far?

Ryan worked with Transient before I came on to make Juicy Saison, a sour saison oak-aged with Meyer lemon and navel orange. With Ascension, we made this IPA – the idea there was I hadn’t really made a New England-style IPA yet, at least not successfully. So I was playing with the recipe and I landed on a grain bill that looked so much like a hefeweizen that I thought, why don’t we throw in some of those new German hops like Huell Melon, Mandarina Bavaria, and Hallertau Blanc? Then it turned into an all-German ingredient IPA, and when I talked to Brandon, the brewer at Ascension, he wanted to do an IPL, so we ended up using the same base and fermenting half each with kolsch yeast and I think a bock yeast. That was a fun little creation and should be available by the end of March.

We also have a coffee stout coming out with Drafting Table using our own roasted coffee. With River’s Edge we brewed a blonde ale made with our marzipan tea, which features sweet almond and dried papaya. We also went out to Speciation in Grand Rapids. We tasted some of the beers they had aging in barrels and found something we wanted them to blend – that one’s gonna be a lemon-lime sour saison. And we’re already brewing again with Ascension. Are you familiar with the Milkshake IPAs from Tired Hands?

Can’t say that I am.

I haven’t actually tasted one yet but I was reading about them and I’ve started to put together a recipe for Mango Lassi IPA. Mango lassi is a drink made of mango puree and yogurt. You can get it at a lot of Indian grocery stores, and it’s awesome. So I was like, “What if we did something like that?” We’ll be brewing that pretty soon. Then we’ll be working on a hoppy red ale with The Livery. That one’s still in the communication phase. And we’d like to do a premium pils with BlackRocks, but we’re waiting to hear back from them.

Anything else you’d like to add?

We really want to be making our own craft here. We started roasting our own coffee, and we want to flesh out the beer side just as much. Ideally we’d like to get to the point where most of the taps are Cultivate beers. We’re looking to take it to the point where we can say definitively, “We have a brewing program.” It might take a year or so to get to that point where it’s not just this thing we sometimes do, but it becomes who we are. We roast and we brew.

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