Pints with the Pros


Jeff Sheehan & Seth Rivard: Rockford Brewing Company 0

Jeff and Seth(Rockford, MI) I sat down with Seth Rivard (left) and Jeff Sheehan (right) of Rockford Brewing Company for the third installment of Pints with the Pros. What isn’t talked about in the interview, but known from past conversations with both of them, is that together they hand made every piece of furniture in the brewery.  Whats even more impressive, is that they did it the old fashioned way and you will not find a single piece of hardware in any of it.  The interior is as beautiful as their beer is.  Jeff poured us all a pint before sitting down at one of their long wooden tables.

Chris: How did you guys get started?

Seth: Jeff and I had two different paths, Jeff has been a professional brewer for quite some time and ill let him speak about that, but I was in the corporate world doing my corporate things and wanted to get into the brewing world. I’ve been a big craft beer fan for a long time. I just eventually got the idea that I wanted to be part of a brewery. Owning a brewery seemed like a good path. Long story short, I decided Rockford would be perfect for me and discovered later that Jeff had the same plan. We met through the city and found that we had very similar ideas and the same goals.

Jeff: Mostly we just talked about music.

Seth: (laughs) Thats what kind of started it.

Jeff: Our brewery is beer inspired. I’d say both of us found this path because of our passion for craft beer. Like so many others, I wasn't on the path to being a brewer but I was studying sciences in College. I was a geology major and started working at a local brewery. A lot of the basic knowledge of almost all sciences is chemistry and it was all applicable to making beer.  Even before geology I was pursuing a biology degree so I already had all the microbiology knowledge when it comes to working with yeast. It all made sense.  I really didn't know what I was going to do with a geology degree anyway. I was really into volcanos (laughs).  

Seth: I went to Michigan Tech and I started in computer science. I quickly decided that I couldn't be a computer programer all my life, it just wasn't for me. I stumbled upon business administration and wound up with a business degree. The computer information background definitely helped me get my feet wet and helped me to become an entrepreneur.

Chris: You [Jeff] came from New Holland Brewing, correct?

Jeff: That was my second stop. The brewery I started at out West was Portneuf Valley Brewing.

Chris: [to Seth] Did you ever get into homebrewing?

Seth: Yes, I first started homebrewing in 2006. I had some friends that introduced it to me and really got into it. Thats when I first got the idea to be involved in a brewery.

Chris: Do you ever brew here?

Seth: Originally when we were getting ready to set up the brewery I wanted to be a brewer, that was kind of my path, but once we opened and learned how much work there is in just running the day to day operations, finance, marketing, and purchasing it was just more of a natural fit for me to do more of the business end of stuff and less of the production stuff.  I love meeting with Jeff on production items and we get creative, we have an awesome team and we have a lot of fun with Brian and Sam [their other two production members].

Jeff: I don’t even brew anymore (laughs). I was going to be the head brewer and Seth was going to help out, but now neither one of us are getting our hands wet in the brewery. We’re managing production but like Seth said, there are just so many other things involved in day to day operations. Even on a slow winter day, its still a busy day for the business owners.

Seth: I brew with Chris [Psycho Brew] every now and then.  Thats about as much as I do.  I have a bunch of homebrew stuff in my basement, I love it, but….

Jeff: We need to fix that. We should both dust off our homebrew equipment and have a regularly scheduled homebrew day. (laughs) Just so we can get our fix.

Chris: Do you guys work with any homebrew clubs?

Jeff: Yes, sort of. We do an annual collaborative beer with O’Conors homebrew shop. Once a year they do a homebrew competition and the winner gets to brew that beer here.

Seth: We do a lot with the Primetime Brewers (club), some sponsorship stuff.

Jeff: We also just did a collaboration with three of the Grand Rapids area home brewers that won medals at the AHA competition last year. We have a release party here in April for it.

Seth: The three categories were Mead, Cider, Beer. So we made a Belgian strong ale using all the ingredients.  Its a great beer.  We debuted it at the Michigan Winter Beer festival, but its official release will be April 9th. 

rbc logoJeff: We are definitely firm believers that the homebrew community drives the craft beer industry. A lot of the ideas and techniques that are new to the craft brew industry start with home brewers brewing on a smaller system and are able to try out new things.  Until its a proven method its too expensive for a brewery to dabble with. I still get Zymurgy to my house and get inspired by flipping through it. I like reading about new styles of beer, whats trendy, what are they [home brewers] doing? Because it might make sense for us to try it out on our system.

Chris: You guys do a lot with fruit during the summer time, and the only reason I bring it up is because i’m such a huge fan of your Erdbier (unfiltered strawberry wheat) and thought you could share some of your techniques for the home brewers out there who are interested in learning how to add more flavor to their Wheats and Weissbiers.

Jeff: In addition to fruit, we have a family of beers that belong to our Permaculture Series.  Basically what that means is we are sourcing ingredients that are natural to West Michigan and a lot of the local agricultural communities are already proving to the local farmers markets and restaurants.  We are utilizing those ingredients when it makes sense, when they are fresh, when they are harvested. The first one that kicks off the season is coming up.  We are going to be brewing with maple sap any day now.  Thats the Ain’t Jemima. Then every time there is a harvest that makes sense for us to work with, thats the next ingredient. There are about a dozen different beers in the Permaculture Series.  

Seth: After that, the next big harvest is rhubarb, so we make the Rhubarb Radler. Then strawberries for the Erdbier, etc. 

Jeff: Its a lot of fun for us.  To me, the romance of it is the fact that we’re in West Michigan and we’re submerged in this agricultural mecca. So many different beer styles from around the world came about because brewers embraced what was natural in their environment.  The rest of the world tries to duplicate those styles.  In America we have our American IPA, but almost every style comes from another place and I think its great to embrace the agricultural community and work with whats natural around us. So strawberries are a great fit for that wheat beer.

Chris: Can you get into specifics on using strawberries?  I’m sure you use hundreds of pounds of  them, but lets say a home brewer has a solid wheat beer recipe and they are looking to add to it.  How would a home brewer go about changing that wheat beer to a strawberry or blueberry wheat beer?

Jeff: Our approach is fairly conservative. Thats not always a word we like to use but we like it to taste like beer first and for the ingredient we are working with be an accent to that beer.  Rather than being a glass of strawberry jam with a hint of wheat beer in the background, we want it to be a wheat beer first.

Chris: Thats exactly why I enjoy it so much.

Seth: We get that a lot.  Our guests will say that they normally don’t drink fruit beer, but you guys do it the way I like it. Its not in your face crazy fruit.  Its a subtle accent that’s noticeable but like Jeff said, tastes like beer.

Jeff: The other thing is, people shouldn’t be afraid of the way it looks. If you’re using real ingredients a strawberry beer is going to be a pink beer and big burly men can still drink it (laughs). 

Chris: Yes they can (laughs)

permaculture logoJeff: If its not pink or your raspberry beer isn't fuchsia then you are probably drinking an extract. We’re purest at heart and refuse to use extracts or concentrates and we firmly believe in sharing the true essence of the ingredient that we are working with.  Straight from the field to the brew house.  We will work with it when its ready to be worked with.  That’s the other key component to the Permaculture Series, when strawberry season is here the beer is not.  The beer comes after the season because we are working with it when its ready.

Chris: You guys pick all those yourself, correct (smirking)?

Jeff: (laughs) We haven’t yet, no.  We work with Krupp farms down the road. They harvest the morning we put them into the beer.  They come with dew still on the strawberries, straight from the fields.  

Chris: How do you prep them?

Jeff: We heat them up. There is a lot of unknown microflora that can be coming from the fields.  Unknown yeasts, maybe some unknown bacteria that you wouldn't necessarily want to get involved in your beer and contaminate it.  We work so hard to keep everything clean up to the point where we introduce the fruit that we only have the one organism, the yeast strain that we’ve chosen, to ferment the whole thing.

Seth: The other benefit to that as well is we don’t have to use sulfates or nitrates or any chemical to make it sanitary.

Jeff: So we heat it up and macerate it. We’re actually breaking the fruit apart by hand, basically with a potato masher and heat a little bit of it at a time.  The beer is already fermented so it’s added to the secondary.  There is alcohol present. The beer is finished. We essentially do it as an infusion.

Chris: Do you do add the whole mixture, or just the juice?

Jeff: The whole strawberry.

Seth: And thats just with the strawberry. Every Permaculture recipe is a little bit different.  Whether its mash tun, boil kettle, or fermenter.

Jeff: I like doing the infused approach, because you can pull the beer off the fruit when you feel like its got the right flavor contribution. Its very controlled.

Chris: The fruit will float, correct?

Jeff: For the most part. 

Chris: How do you separate the beer from the fruit?

Jeff: As the beer is exiting the tank, it goes through a screen.  So all the solids stay behind.

Chris: Does it ever get plugged?

Jeff: It does if we’re not careful.  Because a lot of it floats you don’t get that happening until the level gets down to the point where its almost even and the fruit wants to leave the tank too.  

Chris: When heating up the fruit, do you keep it below 180ºf?

blue pils permaculture photoJeff: We try to hit 180ºf.  We get it over 170ºf and hold it there for about 20 minutes. The downfall of this, is that the room smells amazing but all of those aromatics are not in the beer. You’ve lost a lot of them but i’m willing to accept that and add more fruit to compensate for it. The trade off is you have more of a controlled infusion.

Chris: Is there an advantage to adding the entire mixture, instead of just adding the juice?

Seth: For the Rhubarb Radler, we juice the stalks and add it to the end of the boil.  Per recipe, things are a little bit different.

Jeff: We’re a small brewery.  So it’s not hard for us to try stuff out like this.  If we were a larger brewery we would have a difficult time sourcing ingredients and making all this happen.  When you’re only making 200 gallons at a time you can mash 200 lb. of strawberries with a potato masher.  With the Rhubarb we used a home juicer.

Seth: It’s a professional one though. It’s like a cold press instead of spinning fast.  It leaves virtually just a dry pulp. It’s very efficient.

Jeff: So the other thing about that strawberry wheat, that I think you’d like, is that its a Weiss yeast.  Strawberry and banana goes good together.  Its not a straight up wheat beer.

Seth: Do we let the temperature on that one get a little bit higher so we get more of the banana esters?

Jeff: No, not necessarily. Its similar to our White Pine Wheat but we adjust the IBU’s and the malt. The idea is that we back off the IBU’s so that the fruit has a chance to add their own personality to the beer without muddying it up.

Chris: Do you just add a bittering addition?

Jeff: Yes, just a balance addition right up front.

Chris: To wrap things up, do you have any other advise or tips for home brewers?

Jeff: The only tips I have are to keep things clean and exercise patience. Those are the two best ingredients in beer. 

Chris: I’m not good at that the patience part.  I want to drink it (laughs)

Jeff: (laughs) Everyone wants to drink it.  I’m like, man, if only you would have given this three more weeks it would have been awesome. A lot of them want to pull it off the yeast, and it’s not finished.  I still taste wort. It never hit terminal gravity.  I’ve heard people say that it’s got that homebrew flavor, and what is that flavor? I’m my mind that flavor is unfermented wort. They’re anxious to drink it and share it with everyone, and the response is, it tastes like homebrew.

Chris: Do you think that has to do with under pitching as well?

Jeff: It could. But I think it all has to do with time.  Beer didn’t hit terminal.  Thats why I say patience.  

Seth: Stress out yeast too. Or if there is not enough oxygen or nutrients in the beer.

Jeff: Not having enough oxygen up front will mean that you won’t have enough cells. They go through reproduction during their aerobic phase and if you don't have enough oxygen then you won’t have a big enough army to ferment all the beer.

Seth: The other thing most home brewers don't have is the quality temperature control during fermentation. They put it in their basement or bathroom and can’t control the temp.

rbc logo outsideJeff: If it crashes too early because maybe it got too cool.  If they put it in their basement and its 60ºf their metabolism isn’t going to be as high and if they slow down too much, they will just floc out.

Chris: This is good stuff.  Because my basement is at 60ºf right now.

Jeff: Its not a problem for primary, but after 3 or 4 days you want to move it up to a warmer room.  During primary is where you shape the flavor profile.  We ferment almost all of our beers at a cooler temperature than what the suggested temperature is. Its not a problem as long as you allow them to warm up. They need a chance to go through and clean up. Once you feel like most of the sugars have been consumed, warm it up. There is very little implications of ester production, and things like that, happening down the road after primary is done.

Chris: Thanks guys. I appreciate your time, I know you guys are busy.  

Rockford Brewing Company is located in the small quaint town of Rockford, MI located 15 miles North of Grand Rapids. It sits right in-between the White Pine Trail Linear State Park and the Rogue River.

rbc logo

Rockford Brewing Company
12 E Bridge St
Rockford, MI 49341
(616) 951-4677





  • Chris Musil

Sam Sherwood & Brian Bastow: Perrin Brewing Company 0

Brewer Sam Sherwood(COMSTOCK PARK, MI) In the back of Perrin Brewing Company sits a beautiful 30 barrel brewing system with a a few long rows of 30 and 90 barrel fermenters.  Boyd Culver and I (Chris Musil) sit down in the brewers office with a pint of beer to wait for Sam Sherwood, one of the four Perrin brewers while he finishes up for the day.  As we look around the office walls, their giant white boards are filled with brewing notes, schedules, and foul language. It's pretty obvious that they all have a sense of humor and enjoy each others company.

Through the office windows we see Sam wrapping up the last of his duties and he tells us he's going to grab a pint before we begin.

As he sits, he tells us that he was just finishing up brewing a high gravity brown ale that ended up being just over 16 Plato (around 7% ABV).  The brewers will regularly brew high gravity batches on their 30 bbl system and then back fill with water to end up with 45 barrels.  Two batches of high gravity beer equals enough wort to fill their giant 90 barrel fermenters.

Chris: So how did you get started in brewing? 

Sam: It was right after my 22nd birthday.  I basically started out on a bottling line, kegging, and then beer tending at Michigan Brewing Company.  I was attending LCC (Lansing Community College) and my friend Joe Short (of the now Shorts Brewing Company) got ahold of me and asked if I wanted to start working on the bottling line at Michigan Brewing Company.  It was supposed to be two days a week, but I think I worked the two days and then the owner immediately asked me if I wanted to start working full time. I agreed, but I was taking three classes at the same time and it eventually became too much. I really couldn't afford college at the time, so I just continued on brewing beer.

The brewing office door opens and Brian "Boomer" Bastow, another Perrin brewer, walks into the office.

Chris: So Brian, how did you get your start in brewing?

Brian: I started home-brewing in high school and it carried on to college where I eventually got a job at Saugatuck Brewing Company. I started working there when I was around 20, all the while getting my degree.  My “in” with Saugatuck and Perrin was that I helped set up their lab.  So I guess I started off as a homebrewer, and next week will mark my one year anniversary at Perrin.

Boyd: Not many homebrewers were smart enough to start brewing in high school.

Brian: (with a half cocked smile) I was a devious little fucker. I was just trying to make whatever I could, making shitty wine.  Using bread yeast, grape juice, and sugar.  It tasted so horrible.


Chris: Where did you go after MBC?

Sam: I eventually went from there to Traverse City Brewing Company, where I worked for those guys for two and a halfSam on Perrins Brew Deck years and then eventually went on to Arcadia in 2003. I was with those guys for about two days.  A head hunter from Black Forrest sought me out and offered me the head positions at their brewery.  They were going to pay me a lot more, so I took it. From Black Forrest I went to Founders, Founders to Waldorf, Waldorf to Perrin Brewing Company. 

Chris: How long were you at Founders?

Sam: Just over two years.  I started there in 2005 and even beer tended for a while.  My longest stint was about 6 years, which was at the Waldorf.  But this (Perrin) is the seventh brewery I have worked for.

Chris: Do you remember the first beer you brewed?

Sam: First homebrew I brewed? First beer I brewed myself? or first beer I brewed on a brew system?

Chris:  How about all of the above?

Sam: (laughs) First beer I brewed, I was just helping out with Joe (Short) doing homebrews, I was just kind of hanging out, learning at that point, watching, but the first beer I actually formulated and brewed was at Traverse Brewing Company and they had a little 1/2 barrel brewing system and I brewed a Mmmmmmumblstiltskin Maple Porter.

Chris: Did you have help, or did you just know what to do after watching all the other brewers.

Sam: I went in there on a Saturday, I was there by myself, I brewed it all myself, formulated it all on my own, did everything longhand, even writing out all the formula.  I didn't start with any kits though, I used their yeast, which was their Ringwood English yeast and I did an all grain mash.  It ended up being like 7.5% ABV.  They ended up tapping it in the pub because I technically made it at the brewery.  I think I got to take a couple growers home but it was gone from the tap house in like two days, if that.  But you have to understand that the Traverse City Brewing Company's tap house had four stools in it. 

First beer I ever brewed up on a big brewing system would've been at Traverse City Brewing Company. Bobby Mason wouldn't let me brew at Michigan brewing Company which is why I kinda took off, because there's no way I would’ve ever become a brewer there, I couldn't even help the Brewer.  I couldn't even go near their stuff.

Boyd: So you didn't make the “bad ass.” (referring to Kid Rocks beer made by the former Michigan Brewing Company)

Sam: No, that was well after me.  Shit, that was probably close to 6 years ago.  

Chris:  So what’s the biggest mistake you see homebrewers making?

Perrin Brewing FermentersSam: Not being clean and not paying attention to detail.  You can’t sanitize something unless you clean it first.  You know a lot of people, they put a lot of time into their homebrew, and you taste it, and we end up tearing them apart.  I don't know how many homebrews I've tasted that have iodine in them. You know they wind up tasting like smoke or like a Band-Aid.  You probably shouldn't have made the solution so strong or you should have rinsed it before putting beer into your fermenter.  Whats the other one you guys like to use? Star San?  It's not supposed to have a carry over flavor and its supposed to be no rinse, but if over mix it,  its not a no rinse at that point, and you have to rinse.  It all has to be mixed properly. Iodine should look like tea, not black.  Its too many ppm (parts per million) at that point.

Also, temperature control.  Homebrewers have a hard time controlling fermentation temperature.  I get a lot of brews that are hot.

Brian: I get a lot of beers that have DMS (Dimethyl Sulfide).  So they aren't boiling long enough.  They aren't driving off all those volatiles and it stays in their wort.  The beer winds up tasting like cream corn or it takes on a vegetable flavor.

Another thing is not using a vorlauf, which is a filtration step. You take the wort form the bottom of the mash tun and recirculate the wort over the grain bed for 10 minutes.  This creates a natural filter and when you're ready to go to your kettle, it clarifies the wort.  I'll go homebrew with somebody and i'll show them how to vorlauf and it changes their world.

Sam: Even two minutes will help, instead of boiling all that grain.

Brian: If homebrewers throw that step in there, it'll make a world of difference.

Sam: Under pitching is another big one.  Not enough yeast.  Poor pitch amounts will lag the fermentation process and if there is any bacteria in there, it will take off and you start getting weird flavors.  Homebrewers don't really have to worry about over pitching.

Brian: You would have to triple or quadruple pitch before getting any off flavors.  Even just activating their yeast is a step some homebrewers skip.  They will use dry yeast, or that yeast that been sitting in the small vials, and just dump it in there.  Yeast needs to be active.  Throw a little bit of wort in there prior to pitching to give that yeast something to feed on.

Sam: Even if its just for a couple hours, it will help start the fermentation process.

Chris: This next question came from Dan Wall, a homebrewer, on our Pints with the Pros Facebook page.  He wants to know "whole cones, pellets, or extracts?  when, why, and why not."  Basically, why would I choose a whole cone over a pellet?

Sam: I wouldn't.

Brian: (laughs) I don't know if I would either.

Sam: Its just more organic material that winds up soaking up your wort.

Brian: You get less acids out of cones and so it becomes less efficient.  Pellets take up less space too if storage is an issue, though not usually a big deal for homebrewers.

Boyd: We know what you mean.  We dry hopped our harvest ale this fall with the hops we grew at our shop and the cones soaked up 2 gallons of wort.

Sam: I would not suggest it for dry hopping.  I like leaf hops for mash hops.  It helps lauter.  Its like adding rice hulls to your mash.  But you have to be careful because mash hopping can lower your color if your using specialty grains.  Its not a big deal if your brewing a pale ale or a golden ale, but if your making a brown ale, you might end up with a red.

Brian:  If feel like its hard to be sanitary with whole cones too.  I used to steam them before putting them in the fermenter.  But we've started using extracts more.

Sam: Yeah, the way the industry is going, it's heading towards extracts.  Especially with dry hopping.  We'll dry hop our double IPA with 55-60lbs of hops in a 26 or 27 barrel batch. And you only get 20 barrels out of it.  So it soaks up 6 or 7 barrels of beer.

Boyd: So if you were brewing homebrew, you would use pellets?

Sam: Yes.  If I had leaves and wanted to use them, I would bag them.  Then at the end of the boil and whirl pooling I could pull it out and drain it.

Boyd: So to wrap up our interview, we need a funny story or a homebrew disaster from your past.

Sam: I have one that I tell a lot.  When I first started at Michigan brewing Company, I think it was my second week Perrinthere, we were moving beers from a trailer outside that was full of packaged six packs on pallets. I think there were 144 cases to a pallet. I shouldn't have even been moving it by myself, but at the end of the trailer there was a little bit of a down slope and a lip that just dropped right off.   I was bringing them from the back of the trailer to the front of the trailer, and Joe was running the hi-low.  I had already moved four or five pallets out and he was moving them inside.  To this day I remember moving the next one and I just got it going too fast.  The momentum was too much for me to handle.  I remember Joe coming around the corner and his jaw dropped.  I had to let go, and it went right off the end of the trailer.  There was glass everywhere. Then I had sort through a 144 cases.  I think out of the 144 there were 12 cases that were damaged.   And the owner just laughed at me.  He asked if I had cleaned up my mess and told me not to worry about it.  Shit like that happens all them time.

Sam and Brian can be seen working alongside John Stewert and Justin Stewert, Perrin Brewing Company's other two brewers, through the huge glass dividers that separate the tap room and brewery.  Perrin currently does not offer scheduled tours, but much of the process can be viewed with ease.   And just for the record, their beer is incredible.

Perrin Brewing Company.  5910 Comstock Drive NW, Comstock Park, MI 49321.

Matt Michiels: Gravel Bottom Craft Brewery & Supply 0

matt michiels(Marne, MI) For this installment of Pints with the Pros, Matt Michiels, owner of Gravel Bottom Craft Brewery & Supply waded through the rubble of tax season in our office to talk homebrewing.  Matt has been working with us the past few weeks and hired us to build his 8 tap jockey box for the Michigan Winter Beer Festival. Like most brewers, Matt is laid-back and loves to talk about brewing. We poured him a black ale (brewed by Chris) and began.

Chris: How did you get started in brewing?

Matt:  My wife and I were driving through Charlotte Michigan, I think I was 21 at the time, and we passed this place called the Happy Homebrewer.  I had a peeked interest in it at the time after talking with a friend that homebrewed. So we decided to stop and I walked away with a couple Ale Pails and a standard beginner kit.  Luckily our first few batches turned out really good, which only inspired me to brew more.  It became my release, a hobby, and something fun to do with my wife.  Well, that was until I went to all grain.  She exited after I switched.

Chris: How come?

Matt: Too much work.  (laughs)

Boyd: I think you're the first person I've meet that their wife didn't kick them out of the kitchen after they made their first hop addition.

Matt: No, in fact my wife loved it.  She's still sad to this day that I went all grain.  Even though it lead to a brewery.  It was quality time for her and I.  She loved the process and she loves good beer.  But what happens when you get into brewing is you're either in it to brew a couple beers or you get really immersed in it.  You get immersed in the history and science of brewing.  It starts taking over your life in some degree. At least thats what happened to me.  For example, I don't read.  Hell I'm learning disabled.  I have a hard time comprehending what I'm reading, but dammit if I didn't find myself pouring through brewing books.  There was this natural draw to understand more.  Where did beer come from? How did it originate?  What was the culture behind it?  What kind of science is behind it?  I'd read books on yeast, water chemistry, malts.  It was that one thing that I kept finding myself, on my own free time, embracing.  So when my wife and I moved back to the area I had a choice to make.  Stay in the corporate world or start a small business.  I have a finance and accounting background, but brewing kept coming up so my wife and I decided to try and turn it from a passion, into a career.  

Chris: Do you remember the first kit you brewed?

Matt: Umm, I don't.  But I'm sure it was either a pale ale or an IPA.  I've got my old books and can probably go back and look, but I'm almost certain it was the pale ale.  What got me into craft beer was a Widmer Hefeweizen.

Chris: That's funny, mine was the Erdinger Hefeweizen. 

Matt: Hefeweizens are a great transition beer.  

Chris: Whats the most common thing you see home brewers doing wrong?

Matt:  Not brewing enough.  When it comes down to it getting good at brewing is a matter of doing it.  There are all kinds of
things your can do wrong when brewing, oxidation, hot side or cold side aeration, sanitation, you name it.  Everyone has their quirk.  Every home brewer comes in and they have their own questions, their own hurdles, something that they don't understand about the brewing process.  I don't know if I've ever heard of one single thing.  Theres no one issue that always comes up.

Chris: As a brewery owner, is there any advise you can share with us today that home brewers can use to make better beer?

Matt: Absolutely.  One, have the ability to crash your beer fast.  Its a great plug for you guys (laughs), but its true. Chill your beer fast to lock in your hop profile, avoid contamination, and get your coldbreak material out of the wort. Two, sanitation.  Homebrewers think clean, but not necessarily sanitized.  Clean is fine until you chill.  Now you have to think sanitized. Three, avoid oxidation.  Don't handle your beer.  When you're a home brewer there's this big debate on if you should go to a secondary or not.  I really think that the opportunity, especially if your not purging your secondary with CO2, to oxidize your beer is really high.  So purge your vessels or don't go out of the primary.  Unless you have some incredibly big beer that has a huge trub and a lot of hop material, I don't see the benefit in transferring.  Your better of leaving it in the primary, where all the oxygen has been removed.  

Boyd: Whats your take on aerating after the boil?

Matt: Depends on the type of brewing your doing.

"if your doing a full boil, oxygen with an air stone is your best bet"

Boyd: Let's say 5 gallons, all grain, full boil.

Matt: During the boil, extract or all grain, what happens is during your boil you're pushing all that oxygen out of the wort.  The problem is that the yeast needs that oxygen but you have to do it on the cold side.  If you do it on the hot side you going to have stability problems.  Your beer won't necessarily taste bad but it won't stay good for long.  You won't have much of a shelf life.  On the cold side though you want to oxygenate it because the yeast cells go throughout this huge exponential growth phase during the first 4 days or so and they need that oxygen to build their cell walls. If you don't add that oxygen your going to get a sluggish start and you probably won't fully attenuate your beer because they don't have the proper building blocks that they need to be successful.  Now, if your an extract brewer that boils 2.5 gallons and adds 2.5 gallons of distilled water, the act of pouring the distilled water in on top of your chilled wort is going to aerate it.  To do some sort of manual aeration is probably unnecessary but if you need to shake it and rock it to aerate it, go for it.  But really if your doing a full boil, oxygen with an air stone is your best bet.  

Chris: Any funny stories related to home brewing?

Matt: Oh, I have a ton of them!  How many do you want?


Matt: Probably the best one has to do with me going from an extract brewer to all grain and what ultimately pushed me to start a brewery. As we discussed before, I got into the science of brewing. I’m pouring through all these books, i’m reading about all grain, reading about all these brewing systems, so I went out and bought 3 half barrels for my all grain system. I ruined a step drill and countless sawzall blades trying to cut the tops off. (laughs)

Boyd: (smiling) I torched on mine.

gravel bottomMatt: (laughs) No, i used a sawzall. It was like glowing red. We went through half a dozen blades, but we got it done. It was really loud. But I go through making all this equipment for my first all grain batch and I go out in my backyard in Seattle and I set up all theses cinderblocks and burners and I get these weld-less fittings for all these holes. I put it all together and it was awful. It was an absolute awful day. Horrendous, like 14 hours later i’m finally getting this beer into the fermenter. I’m cussing, swearing. I couldn't hold temperatures worth a crap. Beer was leaking out of every possible part. It was an absolute disaster. Mind you, at the time I had spent a lot of money on this system, hundreds of dollars to get to this point. So i go inside around midnight, i’m cold, wet, pissed off and I'm ready to give up brewing all together. But I put it into a fermenter then ended up transferring it into a secondary, purging of course, and finally kegged it and shoved it in the back of a refrigerator.  Not thinking that this thing could have turned out I let it sit for four months I think.  Because I was so disappointed by the whole thing I didn't even want to drink the beer, I was that pissed off (laughs). Finally I'm on paternity leave for my son and had some time.  I figured I should probably carbonate it and see if its any good.  When it was ready I poured off a pint for me and one for my wife.  I handed it to her and we both take our sips at the same time.  I looked at her and said "son of a bitch, thats the best beer i've ever brewed!" (laughs).  She looked at me and said "thats damn good Matt"

I remember saying to her "Erica, that just cost you a lot of money" (laughs)

I spent the rest of my paternity leave fixing the system, buying pumps, building a table, and getting my vessels all welded up to fix the leaking problems.  So that got me into all grain brewing, big time.  Then I eventually built a shed in the back yard specifically for brewing and then when we moved back to Michigan I built a brewery.  It all happened over the course of about 6 years.  

Boyd: For your mash tun, did you just start with a Keggle? Was that your first mash tun?

Matt: Yes.  Most of the systems you see out there are all converted kegs.  When your shopping around you look at stainless steel pots, like the Blichmann, but they are just so expensive.  Quite frankly you can pick up a used keg pretty cheaply.  Not that i'm suggesting anyone does that because thats cooperage for someone else.  Get them in the legal market.  I set my first system up up so I could do step mashing.  I've always set my stuff up so I have maximum flexibility because who knows what i'm going to want to brew next week.  

"heat from the bottom, pull from the bottom, and then recirculate back to the top"

Chris: Did you have a HERMS set up?

Matt: No, at the time I didn't know any better.  But towards the end of that first system I learned the value of recirculation.  We always heated at the bottom of the mash because I had burners under everything and we would stir up the mash tun.  But then towards the end, on my last few batches, we had more or less stumbled in to the recirculation method and the benefits of that so then what we would do is heat from the bottom, pull from the bottom, and then recirculate back to the top.  It helped with the caramelization in the mash, you don't get as much of it but it's still not the most ideal way to heat that mash tun, but it worked fairly well and we got pretty good at holding our mash temperatures.  

Boyd: Any final advise?

Matt:  Get used to cleaning.  Get used to chemicals.  And you have to clean your stuff the day of. It's really easy to get done with an 8 hour brewing day, 10 hours depending on how much your drinking, and walk away.  Once you walk away you might as well clean it three weeks from now because its already coated and caked on there.  

Boyd: Thats why I'm not not a huge fan of the counterflow chillers, I can't see whats in there.  

matt michielsMatt: Same with the plate chillers.  On the home brewing side, and I even fell victim to this, you get turned on to the plate chillers because thats what the big guys use and so you want to buy plate chillers.  I'm not a big believer in them.  Those brazed plate chillers, are brazed.  They are a disposable item.  You can only do so many batches with them before the inside of that plate chiller is toast.  You get beer stone built up on there, hops stuck in there.  There is no way to get into them to clean it.  Whereas in the brewery we are using plate chillers that are sandwiched.  We are able to pull them apart and clean them. And I don't think home brewers see that.  I think an immersion chiller or counterflow is much better than a plate chiller, especially when your brewing 5-10 gallons.  At least with the counterflow chiller, its not all theses channels and you can run a good cleaner, caustic, or at least a hot PBW through it.  With the immersion chiller you don't have to worry about it.  You don't have to worry about whats going on inside of it and if you take care of it, should outlast a plate chiller. Even if you don't clean it, at least you have pasteurized it when you boil it.  180°f is pretty safe and you have it at 212°f.

It comes down to sanitation.  You have to be able to clean it before it becomes sanitized.  If you can't clean it, you can't sanitize it.

Gravel Bottom Brewery
418 Ada Dr SE
Ada, Mi 49301
(206) 403-8563