The Globe Trotting Brewer Behind Jolly Pumpkin

Jolly Pumpkin
Jolly Pumpkin

There might not be a more well-traveled brewer than Ron Jeffries, the brewer behind the beers at Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales.

With Jolly Pumpkin Pizzeria and Brewery opening this week at 428 Bridge St. NW, GR|MAG decided to chat with Jeffries to get to know how his magical beers come together.

Jeffries and his wife, Laurie, started the brewery in 2004, well before sour and oak-aged beers were trendy. Having worked as a brewer for more than a decade at breweries around the state, he foresaw the future trend.

With low consumer demand, however, the award-winning Jolly Pumpkin beers were spread across the country — and the world — and now can be found nearly anywhere a good beer store is located.

Jeffries also ventures around to brew with well-respected breweries, including Jester King Brewery in Texas, Tired Hands Brewing in Pennsylvania, Monkish Brewing in California, Maui Brewing in Hawaii and Anchorage Brewing in Alaska, just to name a few.

Along with the production brewery, Jolly Pumpkin has an array of restaurants, including Ann Arbor, Traverse City, Dexter, Royal Oak, Chicago and Detroit — where President Barack Obama once enjoyed a lunch on a much-publicized visit to the Motor City.

GR|MAG: How did you get into brewing?

RJ: It’s a long story, and not particularly exciting. I, at some point in graduate school, became interested in the science and art of small craft brewing. Probably 30 years ago. It was an a-ha moment. I walked in on a friend homebrewing and something snapped. I’ve taken a lot of science in school and I dug into the science. I had a young family, and with craft beer being a newer thing, it was still an uncertainty and we didn’t want to give up the jobs we had and go to a fermentation science program, so I just had no idea where it would go. Sounds weird now, but who knew.

After about four years studying the science on my own, I got my first brewing job, 22 years ago at Grizzly Peak in Ann Arbor. One of the original brewers there. Brewed at a number of places, most out of business now.

GR|MAG: What about starting Jolly Pumpkin?

RJ: We started building it in 2004 and opened by spring 2005. We had been open a short period of time and people were amazed by the beers. That first year we took a gold medal at Great American Beer Festival with Oro de Calabaza and that opened the doors to a quick floodgate of awards around the country and media attention. A couple years in, I did an interview on NPR and it was like, “Now what do I do?” That was always a dream. I still hope for Terry Gross some day.

GR|MAG: Why sour beers, long before it became trendy?

RJ: Settling on oak-aged and sour was just a series of progressions. I spent a decade in breweries and I saw people’s taste change from ambers and golden ales to porters, pale ales and stouts. IPAs were just starting up, seeing where that progression was going.

Laurie and I decided to do something unique, French and Belgian style beers. (Maine’s) Allagash and (New York’s) Brewery Ommegang were the only two I knew of focusing on those. Everyone will get on the IPA craze, why not do something different so we’re not competing with those?

It was hard going, there was no market for those beers. Unbeknownst to us, we started the same year as Vinnie [Cilurzo] at Russia River [in California], and there were a few other pockets, but nothing really in the market and we were trying to sell the beer, they all made other types of beer and we didn’t. We were just met with a tremendous amount of bewilderment.

We knew it was good. We won awards and were interviewed in national media, but it became apparent we couldn’t survive in just Michigan, and follow the standard growth of a brewery. What we did, and now other breweries do, is find what market makes sense and send it there.

GR|MAG: When you’re making a beer what do you aim for?

RJ: It seems like in three to four years it went from two wood-aged categories in GABF to I don’t know how many categories there are now. We never know where to put our beers. It’s always been my goal to create beautiful artistic beers that are outside of the box, so we don’t brew to fit in a competition. I don’t want to fit into a category, I want to be doing new things and making beers people can’t really wrap their heads around.

We like to use unique spices and try to use as much local as possible. Tropical flavors and fruits intrigue me, but we don’t have a lot of that in Michigan. We do use a lot of Michigan fruit when we can — cherries all the time.

GR|MAG: Your beers are all over, where do you like to visit?

RJ: I love Hawaii. Laurie and I go as often as we can. The Big Island is much bigger than people think and really very young, like 500,000 years old as opposed to Kauai is five million. People think of Maui with plush resorts or Honolulu. The Big Island is not often in movies, it’s a background piece of a story. That’s where we prefer to go, that’s where we love to go.

GR|MAG: Great beer scenes?

RJ: They’re all so different. Right now we like the Pacific Northwest, Portland and Seattle. We’re split 50-50 on which we like better. California is amazing with so many breweries there and so many of them are really good. The south is really starting to pick up. Charleston is a decent little beer city.

All over the country, you’re seeing little pockets of little brewers and places where there’s nothing but a good big brewery, like Melvin Brewing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Hawaii is getting a much better beer scene, too. Maui Brewing is a real powerhouse and some new breweries on Oahu. Big Island Brew House is an amazing brewery.

Most places you can find decent beer at least. Makes it more challenging in the marketplace with so many local breweries and people excited about local, but it makes it tough for a brewery like us.

GR|MAG: You do a lot of collaborations, how do you decide who?

RJ: I put a lot more into it than a lot of people probably think. Some brewers just seem to be willing to collaborate with anyone who will ask them. Early on I figured out what I benefit from most is brewing with brewers I respect. I get asked frequently from people I don’t know and I just say, “I’m really sorry, I don’t want to be rude, but I collaborate with people I know, I like and I like their beers.”

Sure, you can have fun and make unique beers with a stranger, but it’s also not as free and fun. I have to at least know them and respect them and have similar or be flexible enough in philosophy. And it really comes down to trust. That’s what makes it such a great learning experience. It’s great to come out with a cool beer, but great to come up with a gratifying experience around the country.

GR|MAG: What’s the best beer for a first-time Jolly Pumpkin customer?

RJ: It really depends on the style.

If they’re not in the craft beer space, Bam Biēre. It’s really nice, a great balance of complexity. If you want to think about it there’s a lot, but you don’t have to if you want just an easy drinking beer. We serve it in pitchers. It is a little sour, and it might not appeal to everyone.

Calabaza Blanca is a bit more tart and refreshing than Bam.

If they’re into darker beer, Bam Noire is light and complex, maybe too light if they like big, thick dark beers.

Wine drinkers, La Roja. There’s a nice complexity and balance of acids. Red wine drinkers will latch on to it easily.

GR|MAG: How about pairing with food?

RJ: Food and beer pairing, I find it changes a lot. I find a beer and cheese that work well together and a few weeks later I buy the same and it doesn’t taste as good as it did last time. Everything else around you impacts it; aromas, time of year. It depends on how you feel.

I usually just pick two things I like and they tend to work out pretty well.

So, right now, if I were to go in, I’d get a GammaDeluxe [a sour IPA collaboration with Jester King] and look through the menu at the pizzas and just order what I think looks good.

*This interview has been edited and condensed.

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