The southwestern portion of Michigan has become a hotbed for craft brewing over the past couple of decades, with producers such as Bell’s (of Kalamazoo) and Founders (of Grand Rapids) growing into nationally recognized brands, and others gaining serious regional reputations.
Yet when Michigan Travel and Vacation magazine in June 2012 named the winner of its survey on the state’s best microbrewery, the award went to Walldorff — a homey and modest brewpub and bistro located on the main street in the equally homey and modest city of Hastings, the seat of Barry County.
While some rural centers are described as being in the middle of nowhere, Hastings and Walldorff can better be described as being in the middle of everywhere, at least for craft beer aficionados from the region. It is at the edge of the Grand Rapids statistical metropolitan area, and is a relatively short drive from cities such as Lansing, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and the tourist havens to the west along Lake Michigan. It is easily accessible to beer tourists from Detroit (135 miles east) and Chicago (a bit less than 200 miles southwest).
Sam Sherwood is the 35-year-old head brewer at Walldorff. He learned the craft at other breweries around the state, and worked for Founders immediately before he took over the compact brewhouse located at the front of the restaurant.
Walldorff makes some lighter beers, such as its Bistro Blonde ale, which has just 17 International Bittering Units and is described as a “great entry level craft beer or crossover from domestic beers.” But the clout and hoppiness of Walldorff’s brews ranges all the way up to its Cobain’s Double Dark IPA (India Pale Ale), which has more than 100 IBUs.
Veteran journalist Bob Benenson sat down with Sherwood at the Walldorff in June. Just by coincidence, the interview took place just a day after the Microbrewery of the Year award was announced.
The following are excerpts of Sherwood’s comments on a variety of issues pertaining to craft brewing, including the increasing availability of hops grown in Michigan.
Q: Well, the timing certainly couldn’t have been better, showing up on the day after you won Microbrewery of the Year. That’s quite a feather given the competition.
A: It’s pretty big seeing as we’re going up against Bell’s, Founders, Dark Horse, all the big guys who make lots more beer than we do. It goes to say we’ve got very drinkable beers. People like coming here. It’s a little out of the way, but it’s worth coming to.
Q: What would you attribute it mostly to?
A; All of our beers are sessiony type beers. They’re all drinkable beers. They’re not something off the wall, that’s fun to try once, like a hot pepper beer.
Q: We talk a lot about beer tourism. It sounds like it’s happening here.
A: We’re starting to see the casino here has [Bell’s] Two-Hearted on tap and [Founders] Centennial IPA, I’ve heard New Belgium is coming to Michigan this year. Sierra Nevada getting closer to us, you never used to be able to get Sierra Nevada Pale Ale even six, eight years ago, now it’s in every supermarket in 12-packs, party stores, it’s everywhere. Real beer has become mainline beer instead of the swill. There’s nothing wrong with the swilly beers if you’re marinating something. Something to rinse off your brat when you’ve dropped it in the dirt.
Q: What makes Michigan such a hotbed?
A: Michigan, as a whole, [the economy] has been so rough, we’re trying to find anything we can do to bring people to our area. Craft beer is definitely one of them. Like having a good resort or a good restaurant to go to. Craft beer is bringing people here too…. Back when there were only three or four microbreweries, you’d get a few people who would come to Founders when I worked there. But now that there are six or seven, there are beer tours, there are buses coming from Detroit and Chicago on beer tours, and they’re hitting all the ones in Grand Rapids and they’re coming to us and Dark Horse and Arcadia and Bell’s.
Q: The Walldorff, how did all this come about? [Note: The Walldorff, named for a family that ran a furniture store there for decades, is located in a renovated building initially constructed in 1868 and helped revitalize downtown Hastings.]
A: They saved this whole building from being demolished. They were probably within a year of tearing it down. It ended up being a little garden on a corner in downtown Hastings. It would have been nothing. With us being here, the other businesses are doing better, because people come and they hang out downtown, come in and have a beer, come in and have dinner, meet up with family here.
Q: Let’s talk a little about hops and the cultural shift we’ve seen. Almost everybody, growing up drinking PBR and Bud, we’re all weaned on 5 to 10 IBUs [International Bittering Units, the measure of the amount of bitterness in beer]. Now you have beers that are 100 and 80 and 75. How did this happen?
A: I’ve had Mug Club member who were Bud Light drinkers, now they drink IPA [India Pale Ale], they’re mad when IPA isn’t on. I say, ‘Two years ago, you were drinking Bud Light or Miller Lite.’ Now they’re drinking IPA and Double IPA, our Cobain’s Double Dark, and they say, I can’t get enough of this. They realize there’s something out there besides water…. People have found with the hops and the hoppier beers, that’s just what they like. It makes them feel good. And if it makes you feel good, you’re going to want to keep drinking it and tasting and trying new beers.
Q: So why were we willing to settle for so long?
A: Because we were told to in all the advertising. It was advertised to us that this is the best, this is better, it’s the King of Beers. That’s what you had to drink because that’s what your grandpa drank and your grandpa’s grandpa drank. It’s not. My dad drinks MGD. Like hell I’m going to drink MGD every day of my life… People are willing to set the case of Busch Light down, the 30-pack, and drink two or three decent beers now and spend the same amount of money on those two or three beers, and have a good time, because they knew instead of drinking that 30-pack, filtering all that shit through their body, they are willing to drink something and sacrifice a little of their hard-earned money.
Q: Are you able to use many local ingredients?
A: Our grain comes from Country Malt Company and it comes out of Chicago. Our base grain is Canada Malting. If we could get Michigan malt, we would. I just took delivery the week before of 10 bags of Michigan-grown and malted wheat, so there is a guy working on it right now. I’m supporting him as much as I can… As far as the Michigan grain, I wish there was more of it. We need more people growing barley.
Q: Let’s talk about your relationship with the reviving hop-growing industry in Michigan and the growers at Hop Head Farms [located in nearby Hickory Corners, Michigan].
A: I did sign a contract last year with the Hop Head Farms guys, I think I’m the first one to sign a contract with them. It’s pretty cool for me actually sign a contract with someone who is actually 15 minutes down the road, those guys come in here all the time….
In the last three years, I’ve made three harvest ales. They’ve all been Michigan hops. Dry but not pelletized. That’s what’s interested me about the Hop Head guys, because they’re actually going to pelletize. I’m hoping this fall I’ll stop buying hops through the suppliers out West. Hopefully by this fall I’ll be using 100 percent all Michigan grown and pelletized hops. I still will be using some leaf in my IPA, leaf hops are hard to use and they have to processed.
Jeff is the first one to realize we have to pelletize, what are we going to do, ship our hops to Oregon and have them ship them back? He bit the bullet, and I don’t know what he spent, a quarter of a million dollars on a processor. Just the picking and drying machine is a quarter-million dollars… They’re putting a lot of money and a lot of heart. They’ve got a good dream. They need to follow it. They’ve got a good thing going and they have to follow it.
[Sherwood discussed his participation in a hops summit held in March 2012 at the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, at which he rebutted a pessimistic outlook for Michigan hop production from bigger craft breweries.]
I was sitting on a panel next to the production manager for Founders and the production manager from Bell’s, and there was a guy there from New Holland. Even compared to New Holland [of Holland, Michigan], we’re a drop in the bucket. They’ll produce 25,000, 30,000 barrels this year. We’ll be lucky to hit 850 barrels. Founders is going to do 120,000. Bell’s is getting ready to do 300,000. Bell’s makes in a day what we make all year. I’m not kidding. To them, all of these little hop guys, five acres, 15 acres, even Hop Head Farms’ 40 acres, there’s no way you’ll ever be able to grow enough hops… You’re not going to be able to grow 100,000 pounds in a year. Founders and Bell’s both said that in the conference. I was like, ‘This is bullshit. Don’t listen to these guys.’ There are all these guys in there wanting to grow hops and they have one acre, two acres, five acres, 10 acres.
It gave me goosebumps when I told them, but what we need is a hop like Amarillo or Citra or something that is only being grown out West. One of you guys out here is going to name it and it’s going to be the next big thing in Michigan, and then Bell’s and Founders will want your hops. And then you’ll sell your rhizomes to this person and this person and this person. They’re only grown in Michigan, you can’t grow it in Oregon.
Q: From the Michigan hops you’ve been able to use so far, is there any qualitative difference between here and the Northwest, and is there any kind of ‘terroir’ that goes with hops?
A: There is. It depends on whether you get Cascades from Hop Union or Brewers Supply Group that was grown on a different farm, just from Oregon, even in the color, the size of the pellets, and if you were to get whole cone, there’s a huge difference too. The hops look very much the same, the oils feel the same. They tend to be very similar in aromatics, especially if they’re from the same strain, if you get Cascades or Centennials, for instance….
When I do use the hops here, they’re way fresher. They’re harvesting out there end of August through September, first of October they’re done. We don’t get any of those hops til February or March, six months almost down the road…
I’m sure there would be noticeable differences if I could sample a Cascade from there and do a pale ale and do a Cascade from here and do a pale ale. I haven’t had an opportunity to do that. And maybe that new little brew system I just got will come in handy….
Q: So to sum up, why do you think craft brewing is on the rise?
People are sick of being told not only what to do, who to endorse and what to buy, they don’t need to be told what to buy to eat and drink. People are teaching themselves or learning more and more about food and beer together. That’s the cool part about it. It’s not just beer and it’s not just food. They go hand in hand….
Things that are cheaper will get a lot more because it’s there at the time, because it’s easy, but when you’re talking about people’s food and beer, it’s a different story. People will go way out of their way to smoke meat, to make craft beer, to make craft wine. I know people who have stills. It costs them more money to make a fifth of liquor, but they enjoy doing it. It’s theirs….
We charge $3.50 for a bottle of Bud Light, it’s ridiculous, people come in and they’re mad. You’ve just come into a bar and we make beer and we’ve tried giving you samples of blonde ale and amber, we’ve given you three samples of 3 ounces apiece. A pint is $4. Or you can spend $3.75 on a 12-ounce bottle of Bud Light.