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Published 1/17/2007

At Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Dexter, brewmaster Ron Jeffries is taking his craft to the next level. Not only are his rustic, country-style beers made with traditional methods like open fermentation, oak barrel aging and bottle refermentation, he's also using wild, naturally occurring area yeast and bacteria to add another layer of complexity to his award-winning products.

Metro Times: How important is barrel aging?

Ron Jeffries: There are elements in this brewery that we know and can control and there are those we can't. The whole idea behind all our beers being matured in oak barrels is that we have naturally occurring wild yeast and souring bacteria — these natural cultures that occur in the air all around the world. What we've done is allowed them to find nice little homes in our barrels, and they contribute an element of the unknown because they are always changing, always producing different flavors, adding different elements to the beer that change throughout the year. The environment of the brewery is important in their life cycles and the flavors they produce. The barrels are producing different beer all the time.

Some of our beers are blended beers. This is an age-old tradition that some brewers are still doing, mostly for consistency. All of our blends are to make exceptional beers as opposed to beers that are falling within set parameters. We take the science, do what we can with that and then we allow the wild yeasts and souring cultures in our barrels to contribute what they can and blend it together to make our final creation.

MT: So the consumer should expect some variation in your beers?

Jeffries: Most definitely. But not because we have a little leftover malt or hops we throw in. When we do the La Roja, which is blended from barrels ranging in age, we are looking for a general flavor profile. We blend to get that profile. Every blend is going to be slightly different because we're different every day. Maybe some of the barrels are a little hot. They all contribute different spice characteristics, different nut characteristics. On top of that we do a third fermentation in the bottle, more flavors and subtle variation in the beer.

MT: Besides flavors and carbonation, doesn't this bottle refermentation help the beer to age gracefully?

Jeffries: You can cellar it just as you would a fine wine. It's going to continue to mature and develop for years. We've got beer here that's several years old. We can taste that beer and the beer we just started to sell today and it's very different. Sometimes people will find one of our seasonal products from last year and it's like a rare treasure. They found this old aged beer and if it has been kept well it can be very exciting.

MT: Isn't brewing with wild yeasts a little risky?

Jeffries: It was a very big risk when we started Jolly Pumpkin because we didn't know what the local wild yeast would be like. We didn't know what souring bacteria we would attract to our barrels. We could have just been making vinegar instead of really good beer. In the beginning it was certainly a lot more of a risk than it is now. But it still is. We buy a lot of used barrels and we never know what is going to come out of a barrel the first time we bring it into production.

MT: How did you attract these wild Michigan yeasts? Did they come from the open fermentation?

Jeffries: No. Actually open fermentation is a traditional form of fermentation. It has only been in the last half of the last century that breweries started switching over to closed vessels. You can make a very clean beer this way. A lot of people think it's what makes our beer sour. It's not. It's the cultures and the populations of yeast we have in our barrels. Wild yeasts are everywhere. It helps if you have certain things nearby, like fields and orchards. Fruit always has wild yeast on it. It helps to be in a rural location. It's the same for the souring bacteria. It's all around. If you make a happy home for it, it will show up. Then you just cross your fingers and hope it's the stuff that makes good beer.

MT: How long have you been brewing?

Jeffries: Professionally for 12 years. I make a point of that because Jolly Pumpkin is a relatively new brewery. This is our third year in operation. People will come in and think I'm just some crazy guy who started making beer yesterday. I think for what we do it's important that people know it was 16 years ago that I started studying brewing science.

MT: What do you drink that inspires your creative process?

Jeffries: I drink an awful lot of beer. I think it's important for brewers not just to drink their own beer. You need to drink plenty of other people's beers as well, so your palate stays fresh and doesn't get skewed.

Todd Abrams is a Detroit-area freelance writer. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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