Brewing with the pros

While colleagues stir the mash, others enjoy samples. From left are, Karl Walby of Bloomfield Hills, Steve Kastens of Holland, and Patti Greer of Grand Haven. Photos by Ann Smith.

Brewing beer with friends at home is quite a project. Brewing beer with friends at Saugatuck Brewing, 2948 Blue Star Highway, Douglas, involves parking the car, strolling in, and getting down to work with expert guidance. And partway through the two- to three-hour project, when you’ve been sampling the brewpub’s pitchers of various beers for quite some time, out of the kitchen come fresh-baked soft pretzels to soak up the suds.

That’s key if you started sipping at 10:45 in the morning. Lunch is also welcome when the work concludes. “It kind of takes the edge off,” says Patti Greer of Grand Haven, who one summer weekday was brewing an amber ale and a stout with colleagues from Fogg Filler in Holland (which manufactures, appropriately, equipment for filling beverage containers). She calls the experience “very fun.”

The Michigan Brewers Guild is aware of only one other one brewery in the state that has a “Brew on Premise” program (Stiggs in Boyne City). Saugatuck Brewing has done it for eons, for as many as 400 groups a year.

The process plays out along one wall of the brewpub’s bar and dining room. Five kettles sit side by side, each one sized for half a barrel of beer. The Fogg Filler group used two; bigger groups may keep all five in action. Pitchers of already-foamy ingredients rest on barrels.

While people take turns stirring the mash in the kettles with perforated red paddles to keep it at the proper temperature for enzymes to change starches to just the right amount of sugars for the varieties that are underway, those on a break chat with pros who shepherd the process. If you want to talk about amylase enzymes and flavor extraction, they’re your guys.

“People who drink beer are curious about how you make them. What are the ingredients, and what do they do? This is Beer 101,” Saugatuck Brewing’s co-founder Barry Johnson says. Twenty years ago, he ditched his job for “beer school” in Germany, so when die-hard enthusiasts come in, he gets it.

Producing a custom beer (serrano peppers, anyone?) for a wedding or other special occasion is what brings some folks in. Others make a party of it, or visit for workplace team-building. “Some brew at home and just get tired of all the cleaning,” Brew on Premise head brewer Bob Bayer reports.

A group’s hands-on hours at the kettles get things started. After they leave, the mixture is chilled out back in the brewery’s production room. Then it ferments for 12 to 14 days. A “cold crash” drop in temperature halts the chemical reactions.

Two to three weeks after their initial visit, groups return to taste, bottle, and label their beer (with labels they design themselves). For every kettle used, Saugatuck Brewing guarantees they’ll take home at least 60 22-ounce bottles.

Brew on Premise manager Dexter Gauntlett recommends that interested people make arrangements with him two to four weeks in advance. He talks them through choices and recipes. When brewing day comes, it’s just a matter of showing up.

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