My buddy, Renee from Ypsilanti, wrote a review on Ann Arbor’s Wolverine State Brewing Co. A few weeks ago, Mark from my ‘hood cracked open a bottle of Massacre Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Dark Lager that floored me with its rich intensity. During a family gathering two weeks ago, my nephew Ryan (young kid, fresh liver) mentioned that we were overdue to meet at Wolverine’s Tap Room after work. The last straw was John Fahrner, who mentioned that he stops by Wolverine on a regular basis after work until traffic dies down in Ann Arbor.
The signs were pointing to Wolverine so I went.
I had a long day at work, but it was a Friday, and I was excited about my scheduled visit. When a grown man is giddy about something the minute he wakes up at 5am, it makes for a very long day.
I navigated my Dodge Ram through the crowded rush hour in Ann Arbor, narrowly missing a couple of parked vehicles (if you didn’t see it, it didn’t happen). Finally, I arrived and fell out of my truck (more on this later). I walked in and asked for Oliver Roberts, Wolverine’s Head Brewer, but the brew staff told me he was busy finishing with some bottling. Thankfully, Mackenzie Meter, the Wolverine State Marketing Manager was there to introduce me to Wolverine. We talked shop, ala the challenges of promoting a fast-growing brewery. The challenges for Mackenzie can be daunting as their distribution channels expand into new territory. New beer festivals and marketing events are all fun but challenging. I had a couple of litmus test questions to gauge her mental beer wave pattern.
– “It’s all carbonation — it doesn’t taste bad, you just don’t taste anything”
Drink Local ?
– “Local is a bar stool.”
Fantastic responses, I thought. She then asked if I wanted to try some samples. No thanks, I don’t drink.
“We’ve got a nice Maibock lager, if you want to try that first.” I was scanning the overhead menu as I responded absentmindedly about not really liking lagers much. “We are a lager house; all we do is lagers,” she said without hesitation. I’m reviewing a brewery, sampling their beer, and I just told them I don’t like their style! John Fahrner is going to kill me, I thought. I promised him I would do my research, now this. Here’s the thing though. Mackenzie took it all in stride. She has become accustomed to educating consumers on the wonders of lager, and she is good at it. My initial apprehensions about lagers being too crisp or boring were blown apart after a taste of their Raucher (World Beer Cup bronze medal winner). Later that afternoon, Wolverine’s Brewmaster, Oliver Roberts, gave me a barrel aged stout lager flavored with Michigan cherries that I loved and reflected on for days after. These guys make really good lagers. No more lager prejudice from me.
Fresh liver Ryan showed up, and Oliver soon greeted us. Ryan was my cameraman, and I was the gabber and note taker. Soon we were on a tour of Wolverine’s production facility…..
Oliver went to college at Western Michigan (go Broncos!), took up homebrewing, and then decided to get some formal training. He then enrolled at Oregon State but grew restless as his studies focused too much on cheese, chemistry, and yogurt but not enough on beer. He came back to Michigan to work for another local brewer. Oliver was still homebrewing and had won two awards at Arbor Brewing’s homebrew contest. But he was still with the other brewer and working at a steakhouse as a side job. Now this is where the story gets interesting. One night, a customer walked in and asked for a beer for a premium lager from Wolverine. Oliver went back to the cooler and was challenged to find a beer that frankly he had never heard of. After searching he finally found a beer from Wolverine and brought it out to the customer. That customer happened to be a Wolverine co-founder! Oliver and the customer/co-founder talked for the rest of the evening about beer. They hit it off and soon, Oliver had a new job at Wolverine. Now that’s how you interview.
Walking through the bar areas, brewery and kitchen shows just how much the place has grown. It’s growing for good reason. People love their beer, food and atmosphere. Speaking of atmosphere, the place smells like a southern BBQ and it made me hungry.
Factoid: Brewing Lager is a labor of love that requires extra work and attention. Oliver explained their beer requires 5 1/2 - 8 weeks to ferment and cold-condition. The fermentation occurs at much colder temps than ales too (50-55 degrees F) and cold conditioning occurs at <38 degrees F.
As a lager brewer, Oliver appreciates clean and bright beer that is achieved through filtration. In fact, he bemoans how dark his Tap Room is. “Customers should be able to appreciate how good beer looks.” He’s right. His lager beers are beautiful, and it pays to stop and look before diving in.
Wolverine has a bottling line which I really appreciate as everyone knows bottles are superior to cans (send hate mail to firstname.lastname@example.org). They haven’t canned much of their beer but they do believe that the Michigan craft beer market is evolving to appreciate canned craft beer and are considering adding a canning line in the future.
It was obvious how much Oliver enjoys his job and his passion is contagious. The four of us walked the entire brewery for over an hour and it felt like 5 minutes, He had a knack for flipping a mental switch from head brewer to craft beer fan, which I really appreciate. Seems he has not forgotten his roots as a beer fan and homebrewer. When I mentioned changing beer trends, he laughed and said “we beer guys are a fickle bunch aren’t we?”. Amen to that.
Oliver gave Ryan and I a sample of of Cereza Rey, a cherry cream stout. We met John Fahrner at the bar, funny meeting you here? As the three of us sat, I couldn’t take my eyes off two “four packs” of that lovely Massacre in the cooler case in front of me. The bartender mentioned that these were the last of the season. The price was steep but worth it. I sat and chewed on whether I should buy them and how to keep them off my wife’s financial radar. Then suddenly a customer 3 stools down bought one of the packs. My heart raced, and I raised my hand to buy the last one. I put them safely in the back seat of my truck.
When I got home I opened the door of my truck and ……imagine slow motion here….all four bottles fell 3 feet from the truck directly onto my concrete driveway. I fell to my knees in horror. Thankfully Wolverine had encapsulated the bottles in impossibly thick wax and all bottles landed upside down on that impossibly thick wax. All bottles made it into the Sommbeer cellar, crisis averted.