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 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.
Jeff: 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)
Jeff: 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?
Jeff: 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.
Jeff: 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.
Rockford Brewing Company
12 E Bridge St
Rockford, MI 49341