Barrels of Fun
The meeting is part history lesson, part chemistry class. The group discusses fermentation temperatures and boiling processes. Chris Felesky asks about planting hops, whose fruit gives beers a tangy, bitter taste. Hops are relatively easy to grow, explains club organizer Chris Martinson of Grass Lake, who is working on plans to open a brewpub in downtown Chelsea. Martinson started a side business in hops a few years ago, when a worldwide shortage drove prices up. Felesky likes the idea of growing his own, even though he might get a more consistent flavor by buying hops: "If I wanted consistent I'd go and buy a six-pack."
Late last year, Ron Jeffries opened the Jolly Pumpkin Cafe & Brewery in downtown Ann Arbor and began expanding his Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Dexter. It's crammed with dozens of oak barrels, pallets filled with bags of wheat and barley and hops, boiling kettles--and boxes of bottles waiting to be shipped. "Michigan: the great beer state!" reads a sticker on a cooler.
"We've been growing every year since we opened," says Jeffries, whose wife and son also work for the company. Between Ann Arbor, Dexter, and another new brewpub in Traverse City, the Jolly Pumpkin made 1,400 thirty-one-gallon barrels last year, twice as many as in 2008.
Many microbreweries don't ferment their beer in oak casks, but Jeffries does. People travel from all over to taste Jeffries' concoctions, like the experimental garlic-hot pepper beer he unveiled in late February at the Michigan Brewers Guild's Winter Beer Festival in Grand Rapids.