The general image of craft beer may be one of urban hipster entrepreneurialism, with breweries popping up in gritty post-industrial surroundings. But that is far from the whole story, as underscored by Michigan’s New Holland Brewing Company.
New Holland — the third-largest craft brewer in the busy beer state, behind Bell’s and Founders — is located in Holland, a Lake Michigan shore community and one of the prettiest little towns in America. And Brett VanderKamp, the co-founder and president of New Holland, is blond and as clean-cut as most of his fellow southwest Michiganders.
VanderKamp runs New Holland out of a popular brewpub on Holland’s main street and a production facility a couple of miles north. He and co-founder Jason Spaulding, boyhood friends from Midland, Michigan, landed in Holland together as students at Hope College (a liberal arts college affiliated with the Reformed Church of America), where as upperclassmen they started experimenting with home brewing.
After graduating, he took a unrelated job in Boulder, Colorado, which already had a growing craft beer industry, and that only boosted his interest in exploring a career as a brewer. Not much later, he returned to Holland and worked to open New Holland in 1997.
It wasn’t long before New Holland was receiving buzz for the quality and stylistic varieties of its beers, as its distribution expanded through much of the Midwest and into other regions. Beers such as Mad Hatter India pale ale, Full Circle kolsch, Sundog amber ale and The Poet stout, all marketed with distinctive label art, developed a growing following.
Hopivore, scheduled for release on October 1, is New Holland’s annual harvest ale that features fresh “wet” hops grown by Michigan’s burgeoning hop-growing industry (and this year includes first-year product from Hop Head Farms in Hickory Corners, Michigan).
For beer geeks, though, New Holland’s trademark product is Dragon’s Milk, a rich, complex, barrel-aged dark ale with a smooth drinkability that doesn’t not betray how high-octane (10 percent alcohol by volume) it is.
VanderKamp and company have hardly rested on their good brew reviews, though. Starting in 2005, New Holland went where few craft breweries have gone — into craft distilling, which also takes place in the Holland production facility. Their spirits line includes Knickerbocker gin, Zeppelin Bend whiskey and Freshwater rum, among others.
VanderKamp sat down recently for an interview with veteran journalist Bob Benenson, excerpts of which are below.
Q: When did you first learn about craft beer?
VanderKamp: When I was in college… I took a trip to Europe and discovered some of the beers there. When I came back, there was already a home brew store and Bell’s beer was around. That got me going off on totally exploring American-made beer that was out of the mainstream. That would have been my junior, senior year of college and I started home brewing…
What we’re so blessed with now, if you go into any reasonably serious beer drinker’s refrigerator, you’re going to find he has some craft beers… There’s not that hurdle anymore than we used to have to get people, psychologically, what in the world is this? Kids turning 21 now, they’re already well aware of what craft beer is.
Q: In terms of home brewing, because that’s where a lot of professional brewers start out, how did that happen?
VanderKamp: I started out with the classic “two-can slam.” We took basic malt extract and sugar extract, light and dark, putting them together, and used pelletized hops on the kitchen stove. Then we graduated to truly a real Frankenstein-type system with the turkey fryer burner and a sawed-off keg. We were doing 15 gallons at a time, and then having to build a draft system to accommodate… I had some batches that weren’t terrific. We had some batches that were fantastic. That’s just home-brewing…
When I was in Boulder, it was the right time, because it was when New Belgium was moving from their first facility into their new facility, which at the time was unbelievable… When I came back, we committed, and a year after I moved back, we had a building, and another year, almost to the day, we opened the brewery.
Q: When did you get that feeling that, yeah, we got this?
VanderKamp: I don’t know if I’ve ever had that feeling. (Laughs) If you get that feeling, maybe you’re not working as hard. There were a couple of batches, I made a coffee stout that just turned out fantastic and probably gave me a lot of confidence, because my roommates all just drank it right up and it was, wow! Not to say there wasn’t any doubt in our mind, but once you go all in, that was it. I’d had a taste of more of the other kind of work in professional life and I recognized pretty quickly that wasn’t going to satisfy my soul. I needed to do something that I was passionate about…
It’s incredible to me to see the explosion that is craft beer, and I think we’re really leading a movement that’s bigger than just beer. It’s about being sustainable, not in the totally environmental way, but building communities, connecting people and making beer more beery, not just trying to mechanize how we make our beer. The same is happening in coffee, you could point to food in general. Let’s stop mechanizing how we get our food. Let try to understand how our food is brought to our table. And I think craft beer has a lot to do with that.
Q: What were your goals at that time? Did you have a vision?
VanderKamp: The goal was to build a great brewery. I don’t think we ever thought about volume and said we have to get to this size… We’re still relatively small, but growing now takes a tremendous effort. We’ll do about 25,000 barrels this year, and that’s a growth rate of around 35-40 percent. That’s tremendous. There are breweries that grow faster than that. We don’t have any desire to grow faster than that.
Q: What was the learning curve for your customer base?
VanderKamp: Tremendous. When we first came out, people weren’t used to the alcohol strength. We had to educate them on that. People would come in and you had the possibility of over-consuming. We also had people who would come in, try a little bit and walk right back out… Let’s fast forward to now. There aren’t too many people who walk into our place anymore and don’t know what it is. They know it’s a brewpub, and they know we brew our own beer. They’re not looking for Bud Light or Miller Lite.
Q: Was that kind of experimentation in styles part of the original plan, or did it just happen, growing into barrel aging and using different kinds of yeast, things like that?
VanderKamp: New Holland has always strived to create a beer really focusing on balance, not too one-dimensional either way. Our way of experimenting, while we’re not afraid to throw down the gauntlet on a lager or a bock or even some really crazy stuff. I look at our Dragon’s Milk as a perfect example of a beer that while it’s barrel-aged in bourbon casks, I’m so proud of that beer, it is such a great beer, depending on one’s mood, the place and the establishment where they’re having it, whether it be at a busy, noisy beer bar or whether it be by a campfire on a warm night or cool night, that beer can do so many different things… But that only happens if you don’t overpower it with bourbon, you don’t overpower it with a huge massive malt bill or huge dry-hop late-addition hops…
Q: When you create a new recipe and say, I think this will be good, do you ever have that moment where you say, wow, this is awesome?
VanderKamp: Dragon’s Milk was a beer that I first made in 2001. We were way early on barrel aging. That was probably the one beer that I was just, this is absolutely it.
Q: You came in, there was Bell’s and Founders, and then it starts to blossom. Is there something particular about Michigan and this area of Michigan that makes it really a fertile environment for brewing?
VanderKamp: I haven’t thought about the regionality aspect of it much other than to say that west and northern Michigan have their own flavor of independence. We also have access, we’re right split between two major metro areas for distribution. We don’t have to count on the local populace just to drive all your volume. And for us, people from Chicago frequent our town. So we’re a tourist stop. Add to that a wonderful Michigan Brewers Guild, which is very fraternal for the most part…
Q: How did your distilling spirits come about?
VanderKamp: I fell in love with good rum down in Puerto Rico. I’m always one to tinker and push the edges and diversify a little bit. I designed a still out of an old soup kettle, flipped the top of a fermenter over, put it on top of the soup kettle, and we made a 60-gallon pot still and started distilling. We started making whiskey in 2005, and rum. We’re going to wait until 2015 to release our first Zeppelin Bend 10-year. That will be a good milestone, 10 years of distilling.
Q: Did the issue of whether or not to age come up as part of your decision-making?
VaderKamp: We were both. We were very deliberate on our Zeppelin Bend. That was our line in the sand about what we believe American whiskey should be. American single-malt whiskey. There are some interesting things that happen on a pot still, and a brewer who understands fermentation and high-quality malt, I don’t believe you need the same amount of time to get a whiskey that’s ready for consumption. Now the traditionalists will argue this. But if you taste our Zeppelin Bend whiskey, I think it’s a wonderful whiskey at three years, because we’re getting such a pure product out of the still… We can do things that the Scots do, in a very similar fashion, they use quarter-casks, which gives a much greater surface ratio to liquid volume. So you’re getting color and oak character more intensely, and you don’t sit around and wait as when you have a 53-gallon cask, because you don’t have the same intensity. Combining those two things, we may age one product in both quarter-casks and 53s and then blend them. Now we’re not having to wait the full three to four years, we’re able to mature that whiskey in a couple of years…
We’re fortunate that we have the brewery that can carry the distillery along. We’re not in some of the tight spots that some of the guys starting distilleries were in, where they are absolutely in dire need of cash flow. I fully respect the position they are in.
Q: How much did your brewing experience inform your distilling experience?
VanderKamp: Incredibly. The metaphor we like to use is our Zeppelin Bend. When we did that, it was very intentional and deliberate that we make a very robust mash profile and turn that into a beer. The name Zeppelin Bend, the zeppelin bend is the knot used to moor the airships. What we metaphorically refer to, that’s the knot bringing our brewing and distilling together… There are amazing bourbons out there that have plenty of years on them. We don’t have to make another great bourbon. They’re out there, so let’s play on some edges. I look at Zeppelin Bend and say, this is the perfect area to play, because it’s right between what a great Scotch is and a great bourbon is. We take the best of American white oak, with a nice heavy char, and we take the best of Scotch distilling tradition with the mashing and fermenting off the grain. We’re creating a whole new tradition of distilling right there.
Q: Can we expect more brewers to move in this direction?
VanderKamp: I think it’s going to be a long climb. It’s a different, very restrictive industry, more so than even beer. There are certain hurdles that are set up. I’d certainly like to see more people in it. It really speaks to that whole mentality of a rising tide lifts all the ships up. Spirits is at least 10 to 15 years behind where craft beer is. It’s going to be a long haul.
Q: Given that craft brewing is fundamentally a grass-roots phenomenon, how much of a priority is it for you to have local ingredients available?
VanderKamp: I will say from a cultural standpoint, why New Holland does what New Holland does, it’s absolutely critically important that we have local growers and we have people who absolutely committed, close by, to quality. If we can forge a relationship with folks like Jeff and Bonnie [Steinman of Hop Head Farms], folks that are committed to quality, that get it. It’s absolutely critical for the mission of New Holland to have local suppliers. That doesn’t mean we’re going to have 100 percent local right away… It’s not just about being local, it’s got to be world class. That’s better for the consumer and everybody.
Q: Brewers love the idea, but it’s in a “trust but verify” stage. The quality control has to prove itself before you go all in.
VanderKamp: That’s really easy to say from a brewer’s standpoint, and it’s not fair to the grower either… We’ve got to make an investment for these folks to get over the hurdle. Otherwise we’re not going to have it. Because there’s already a very established growing region they’re competing against. And ultimately, if they can produce something that’s in the beer, then the consumer can decide if it’s a product they want to support because it’s local too.
VanderKamp: The reaction has been very good from the consumer, they like it. We feel good about doing it. It’s just a matter of finding the right growers and the people who do really care. We find the right grower, which I think we’ve found, the experience has been great. Some growers need to be pretty damn honest with themselves.
Q: So what are you planning to do about harvest ale, because I know you had the Hopivore?
VanderKamp: We’re doing the Hopivore… We’re going to use all Michigan hops again. We’re looking at Cascade and Brewer’s Gold in it and we’re hoping to get enough hop for 200 barrels of beer. It’s a huge success. We are partnering with some growers on Cascade again, we’re hoping we have a year-round beer with Michigan hops, 100 percent.