Drinks with Pat

Irish Whiskey and a chat with Pigeon Hill
10
Pat Evans, author of “Grand Rapids Beer: An Intoxicating History of River City Brewing”
Pat Evans, author of “Grand Rapids Beer: An Intoxicating History of River City Brewing.”

Almost exactly 10 years ago, I was reporting on the West Michigan beer scene for the Grand Rapids Business Journal and writing a book about the region’s beer history when I walked into a little Muskegon tap room for the first time.

I was there to interview one of the co-founders of Pigeon Hill Brewing, a place set to open and serve up Muskegon-brewed beer. Little did I know I’d find a good friend and fellow beer history lover in Michael Brower.

Well, 10 years later, Michael and the team are still pumping out incredible beers and growing at a good rate. And they’re ready to celebrate it with an anniversary party later this month [March 22 and 23] out in Muskegon. If you haven’t had a chance to get out there and check out their new taproom and taste their fantastic beer, give it a go!

We had a lengthy exchange, so I’ll switch up the format of the newsletter and end it with the interview. First, let’s hit a very timely subject: Irish Whiskey!

Irish whiskey time!

With St. Patrick’s Day coming up Sunday, we should highlight some great Irish whiskey coming out of the Emerald Isle.

First, one of the first whiskeys that showed me how bright they could shine: Redbreast 15. It’s so mellow and light, but full of fruit and oak. A great Sunday night sipper.

A new one to me I tried this week: The Whistler Oloroso Sherry Cask Finish. Aged in ex-bourbon and oloroso sherry barrels. It carries plenty of warmth and fruity notes, plus a classic smooth Irish finish.

A spin on a classic: Tullamore D.E.W. Honey. I’m not the biggest fan of flavored whiskies, and there are more and more of them all the time, but this is a pretty cool version. I mean, whiskey goes with honey so well in a Hot Toddy… so if Sunday’s a little chilly, pull this out for a fun take on the classic warm cocktail with a spin on the always excellent Tullamore D.E.W.

A connection to St. Patrick: Slane Irish Whiskey claims a “long-established link to Saint Patrick.” The whiskey was created by the Conyngham family of Slane Castle, dating back to 1706. Saint Patrick announced his arrival in Ireland on the hill of Slane in 433 AD. Now, the whiskey is aged in virgin oak, Tennessee whiskey oak and sherry casks for a bold Irish whiskey.

Small batch offering: The Busker Small Batch Single Pot Still. The Busker Irish Whiskey released this experiment, doubled aged, first in ex-bourbon barrels then Oloroso sherry oak butts, it’s a bold and full-bodied whiskey. It’s got tobacco and spice, and a touch of fruit.

One for the Notre Dame fans: Teeling Irish Whiskey. There’s a bunch of Teeling expressions, including Small Batch, Single Grain, Single Malt, Blackpitts, and 33-Year-Old Very Old. For those looking for a whiskey brand to sip on during college basketball this month, this might be the one, whether you root for the Fighting Irish or not.

 

Now on to the discussion with Michael!

Pat: Pigeon Hill is 10! What’s in the pipeline for a party and how about big plans for the rest of the year?

Michael: I know, right?  We are 10?!  Holy crap. You obviously never set out to open a business that won’t survive ten years… but at the same time, hitting that milestone still feels incredibly surreal.

To celebrate, we are throwing our first Anniversary Party since 2019.  We had one scheduled for March 20 & 21, 2020… but we all know how that ended up. Since then, we’ve been so darn busy navigating COVID, opening the Brewer’s Lounge, and then opening Socibowl, that we just couldn’t find the time to plan a proper party.

This year, with it being our 10th Anniversary – and the middle of our 18 months of “serenity” — we made a pact not to tackle any big projects for 18 months after opening Socibowl — we knew it was time to celebrate again.  We’re not going too crazy for the party, it’s more about throwing the type of event we enjoy, with an emphasis on drinking some good beers, relaxing with friends, and listening to good music.

And so, on March 22 and 23, we’re going to do just that!  In terms of beer, we will be officially launching Lake State Beer with Lake State Lager and also bringing back a few of the OG’s — beers that were on tap the day we opened.

For music, we’ve got a lineup of some of our favorite acts who have played with us over the years: Derek Dile, Jason Bryant, Emily Joyce, Scott Pellegrom, Delilah DeWylde, and Plain Jane Glory — with music going throughout the party both days.

Plans for the rest of the year: Launch Lake State and the new labels for our core lineup! We are also working on some tweaks to the core lineup, but it’s too early to go into that.   And… you may be able to buy Pigeon Hill outside of Michigan soon, but that’s all I’m saying about that for the moment.  More than anything, we’re focusing on having fun this year while looking forward to sketching out the path that will lead us to the 20th anniversary party.

Pat: Your new labels are AI assisted, why hop on that train?

Michael: We started using ChatGPT pretty early on to assist us, nothing is ever entirely written by ChatGPT, but it does help provide a starting point and ideas that we can work from.

In roughly March of last year, we added Midjourney to the repertoire, and it was a game changer. Derek Dile, our in-house designer, was understandably nervous about incorporating AI into the workflow, but we’ve found that it really opens new doors.

It adds efficiency in many areas, crafting base content for us to build on, and, in the case of labels, allows our imaginations to run wild. Derek has always had a knack for taking my wild ideas and creating a visual representation — and, of course, he injects his own great ideas as well — but that comes with limits.

Taking a wild idea that is infused with a specific style and emotion can require many iterations and a lot of time. Now, we can utilize Midjourney as our launch point. We brainstorm all of the ideas for a label, hone them into the favorites, and start pumping out hundreds of generations. As Midjourney creates image after image, we are able to find tune our ideas and, in turn, have Midjourney do the same. Once we’ve found the right “path,” we can then take the AI-assisted “foundation” and begin the process of hand-drawing and modifying it to fit exactly what we had in mind.

In essence, it allows our creativity to run wild in ways that were never before possible, while simultaneously speeding up the process.

Pat: I know you’ve always been a big beer history guy, so I wasn’t surprised by the Lake State Beer idea… but take us behind the scenes there about why and what are the plans with the brand?

Michael: Lake State Beer has really been fermenting — pun intended — in the back of our minds for a while now. We all love to grab a crisp, clean, lower-ABV, easy-drinking lager at the end of a long day.

And, while we’ve made some phenomenal lagers over the years, ours have tended to be overshadowed by the big bold core line-up we’ve become known for.

In Lake State Beer, we’re able to create an outlet for our love of classic styles that can stand up and grow independently of the beers that people have come to know and love from Pigeon Hill. We’re starting with a classic American non-adjunct lager — and if it stays with just that, we’ll be happy. But if there’s a chance for the brewers to truly showcase their skills with classic styles and German lagers, we’ve created exactly the ship to sail on.

In terms of branding, Lake State also offers us a fun opportunity. Lately, we’ve been embracing our misfit side more and more, and while it does truly capture most of our essence, there’s still a part of us that loves the clean, classic retro looks that we started out with. Through Lake State, we can channel that side of ourselves without taking away from what Pigeon Hill continues to grow into.

As far as the plans for Lake State… we’ll see! Beyond what I mentioned above, your guess is as good as mine. We’ve tried to position Lake State between domestic and craft in terms of price point, marketing, branding, etc. It certainly is craft, but it’s neither fancy nor full of hubris. It’s simply for everyone. And, if things go well, perhaps we’ll be able to use Lake State to bring more simple well-crafted offerings from lake to shining lake.

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