Friday, October 30, 2009

The Beer Series #2: Dragonmead Microbrewery

Most microbreweries will have about 8-12 beers on tap at any given time. Dragonmead Microbrewery has 45 or more, with about 60 different beers available in total (they have more beers than they do taps).

Dragonmead Microbrewery is tucked away in an inudstrial park right off the I-696 service drive at Groesbeck in Warren. If you're out that way, odds are pretty good you've driven by it dozens of times without ever noticing it. But inside this nondescript building is the highest-variety brewery in the world, thanks to an innovative three-barrel brewing system, which allows them to brew multiple times throughout the day in smaller batches enabling more variety as compared to most microbreweries’ 15-barrel system. Okay, for the layperson that might sound like so much mumbo-jumbo, but when co-owner Larry Channell walked me through their brewing operations and explained them to me it made PERFECT sense.

Put it this way: yes, having a three-barrel system is much more work-intensive, which isn't necessarily practical for most small breweries. A 15-barrel system yields 5x as much beer as the 3-barrel, allowing brewers to spend less time brewing (and more time focusing on other aspects of the business). However, if an ambitious brewer with a 15-barrel system tried to match Dragonmead in variety, they would end up having to dump about 5,000 barrels of wasted beer every year (keep in mind, most beers are only good for about 90 days), versus Dragonmead's 20 wasted barrels. "We designed it to be simple," Larry tells me. "With this system it takes about 6-8 hours to brew a single beer but we can overlap the brewing because of the different vessels we use, which means we can brew multiple times throughout the day."

Translation: they've got A LOT of different beers.

Larry went on to explain that their goal in opening this microbrewery was to target a niche market. They wanted to make every single style of beer in the world available at all times, and have each of those beers be excellent examples of that particular style of beer making. "We would ask ourselves, 'Why would anyone buy our beer over someone else's?' and 'Would the company last at least 50 years?'" Larry recalls. "We had been wanting to start a business for 10 years before this, but every kind of business we looked at we saw it gobbling itself up after a few years. The niche we created here is something no one else was trying to do. It's difficult to offer such variety, but it's something that can last forever, and we already knew people would pay more for superb beer."

And so, in 1997--long before craft brewing became the exponentially growing trend that it is today--Dragonmead was born. "We were all home brewers before this, and we found that we were making better beer than most breweries," Larry says. He was a chemical engineer, Bill and Earl (the other partners in the business) had backgrounds in sales & marketing and metal model making, respectively. Between the three of them, they had the trifecta for a successful brewery. Earl made the vessels, Larry made the beer, and Bill made it marketable: voila.

The rest of the story is rather simple: they chose this location in Warren because it was a central location to all of their homes and workplaces (of course they've since been able to quit their automotive jobs, and lucky for them) and because they wanted trucks to have easy access to get in and out. The name "Dragonmead" came from their background as avid Dungeons & Dragons fans. In fact, this was their whole inspiration for getting into home brewing. "We held a Medieval Wassail Feast and the only thing we didn't make or kill ourselves was the beer." So they started home brewing, and kept trying until they got it right.

And got it right they did! At the World Beer Cup, the Oscars of beer held on alternating years, they've taken home medals in the last three competitions, including a gold for the English-style mild ale Crusader Dark Mild Ale, another gold for the Belgian-style tripel Final Absolution Trippel, and a bronze for the strong Scotch ale Under the Kilt Wee Heavy.

During my visit, I got to chatting with Jack, who was himself enjoying a pint of Wee Heavy. Jack is a regular at Dragonmead and a home brewer himself. As I talked with Jack, a thought occurred to me: Jack is Michigan's beer industry. The more I spoke with various brewers, brewery owners, and beer lovers--the more I saw their passion for craft brews and the excitement they displayed when talking about different beers and the craft beer industry in general--the more I realized that this is a community unto itself. Most brewers start at home, they seek the advice of professional brewers on equipment and grain blends, the professionals in turn are more than happy to share their expertise, some even go on to open their own brewery (Dragonmead, Kuhnhenn, Sherwood, Liberty St.), and others just truly love the beer and want nothing more than to be around others who love it too. The craft beer industry is like one big extended family; if you're in one of these places enjoying a pint, then consider yourself a second cousin.

Oh, but the beer. Most of the beers at Dragonmead are high gravity and high alcohol (which also means they can store for a year or more). I've already mentioned Wee Heavy, a smooth and creamy Scotch strong with notes of toffee. I also sampled Lancelot's American Cream Ale, a light, smooth, slightly malty beer that appeals to a wide audience of beer drinkers. Nagelweiss is their Hefeweizen (a German-style wheat beer), with all that familiar hefeweiz-ian banana-clove goodness. The Crown Jewels Imperial Pale Ale starts out hoppy but mellows over time. The Russian Imperial Stout had the robust chocolate notes familiar to Imperial Stout fans. Bill's Witbier is everything Oberon could be. The Ring of Fire is brewed with hot jalapeno and habanero peppers (though the heat isn't overpowering; it mostly just lingers on your palate). Then there's Final Absolution.

Final Absolution: the beer that could be a video game. As with most Belgian-style brews, it is fermented with Belgian Candi Sugar. It's a very high gravity beer with a deceptively smooth finish, but don't be fooled: this baby's 10% alcohol by volume. Three pints of this are equivalent to one full pint of Scotch. This is a serious beer. (Another bar owner recently told me that the reason they don't carry Final Absolution is because most people can only have one--"We're not trying to encourage people to get drunk, but we definitely want them to be able to have more than one beer.") There is also a dark version of Final Absolution available, called simply "Evil Twin." Final's big brother Armageddon Grand Cru comes out once a year in May to celebrate their anniversary. Like all big brothers, Armageddon makes Final Absolution look like so much child's play.

All these high-alcohol beers will probably leave you nibbly. Dragonmead does have a deep fryer and can cook up some burgers, mini tacos, fries and such. They also have a cheese plate and venison sausage, which fits with the whole Wassail feast concept the brewery was born from. Otherwise, they have menus from all the local restaurants that deliver and encourage guests to go ahead and order some food. They also make their own wines, meads, and sodas (sold only on premises).

Efforts to expand the taproom (and the number of taps in said room) continue, and there may even be a second clone location in the future (possibly Frankenmuth, but this is all very premature). In the meantime, if it's quality and variety you seek and good company to share it with, Dragonmead awaits you. Say hi to Jack for me.