Matt Michiels: Gravel Bottom Craft Brewery & Supply
(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.
Matt: (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: 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
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- Chris Musil