State of the suds: Northern beer scene evolves

REGION – To paraphrase Joe Short, beer is exciting. To civilians, it just tastes good, goes well with pizza, and no matter that it can be traced back to ancient Egypt-it is still the all-American beverage. To professionals like Short, founder of Short's Brewing Company on Bridge Street in Bellaire, a glass of good beer contains a microcosm of culture, history, human evolution and even art.

"Fermentation is an inevitable phenomenon of nature that has matured with human evolution," says Short. "Humans were designed by nature to drink beer! As we evolved and became more intelligent, so did our sacred spiritual beverage."

"Fermentation" is also a good word to describe advancements brewing in the local microbrew industry. Since he opened Salon Saloon on Garland Street in downtown Traverse City, proprietor and barber Russ Springsteen had planned to offer a trim and a tasty micro-brew. It has taken longer than expected to open the brewing portion of the business, but Springsteen says he expects to be a new member of the area microbrew scene by summer.

"I've secured a couple investors and we could have our own beer to sell by June," said Springsteen. "We'll start with six beers and could double that in the first year."

Traverse City resident Dave Page thinks he has an idea to take beer sales to a new level. Why not sell the popular beverage and raise money for a great cause? Page plans to brew Sergeants Ale, which would be sold via VFW Halls throughout the region, with a portion of sales set aside for veterans. The concept has been a year in the making, said Page, who served as a bomb technician in the Gulf War. Along with two of his Army buddies, he is negotiating with a Michigan brewer to make Sergeants a reality.

Calling beer an "evolved" beverage may sound like lofty talk to those whose beer comes from a grocery store cooler. Yet for those who brew small batches of regionally-inspired beer here in northern Michigan, Short's words ring true.

"I was home-brewing for nine or ten years before I started doing it professionally," said Kim Schneider, head brewer for North Peak Brewing Company on Front Street in Traverse City and one of only a handful of female professional brewers in Michigan. "There's definitely both an art and a science to it."

Schneider, whose office is the glass-walled box at the front of North Peak that contains the stainless steel tanks and yards of vinyl lines and copper hard piping customers pass on their way into the brewery and restaurant, spends her days surrounded by more than 600 gallons of hot, foaming, fermenting beer. Her background is in home brewing, reading about brewing, and in academic and pharmaceutical research.

"Ninety percent of brewing is cleaning," she said. "But it's still a lot more fun than research." During the winter, Schneider spends two days a week actually brewing beer; during the summer months, when the demand for local beer is much higher, she said she expects that to increase to five days a week.

Besides a brisk tourist market, there is another reason northern Michigan is a place ripe for growth in its micro-brewing industry. Because of its location on the 45th parallel, there is a perfect climate here for growing hops, one of the key ingredients in beer. The climate here is similar to that of Oregon and Washington where cherries, apples and hops are the biggest crops.

Just down Front Street, at Mackinaw Brewing Company, Brewer Mike Dwyer says increasing demand for micro brews has led to strong growth. "There was a time when the thirst for micro brews was a little behind here, but I've watched that really grow. We have so many local connoisseurs now. I even notice with new employees here, who come in as Bud drinkers, and soon start enjoying a pint of bitter or stout."

Both North Peak and Mackinaw report strong growth in their brew clubs, which offer members discounts, invitations to private tastings, and more. And the local beer community is connecting people more than ever. Dwyer says he's friends with all the local brewers.

"It's a fraternity, perhaps even more so than anywhere else. If any brewer needs something like growler (bottle) caps or grain, we just call each other up."

The staffs from Short's, North Peak, Mackinaw and Traverse Brewing Company in Elk Rapids all took a Saturday recently to celebrate the unusual combination of beer and snow at the first annual "Suds 'n Snow" event. It paired snowshoers and cross-country skiers with micro-brewers. Several brews were available for tasting at the welcome area and at a pouring station on the trail.

"We're just here bringing some life to a couple low-key sports," said Kristin Levesque, Timber Ridge campground co-owner. "Micro-beer is just the way to do that."

Some of the monikers could be enough to inspire someone to turn to a life of brewing. Among some current local names: Huma-Lupa-Licious IPA and Pandemonium Pale Ale (Short's), Red 8 (Mackinaw), and Steelhead Red (North Peak).

Tempted to start a micro-brewery in northern Michigan? According to Short, all you need is "lots of money, skilled labor and tenacity." And of course, a tasty recipe. "As long as you have good beer, you can open a brewery."

Watch for more local brewers to do just that. Ray Minervini of the Minervini Group, redevelopers of The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, is negotiating with three brew pubs to locate in the historic Building 50.

"It's a perfect fit," he said. BN