Thursday, August 2, 2012

[Beerie] Master Brewer and Helluva Bloke: Mike Hall of Northern Michigan's Northern United

Photo by Nicole Rupersburg.

Mike Hall is a Master Brewer and senior member of the International Brewers’ Guild. He’s also a shitwit, which explains why I took an immediate liking to him.

As a partner of Northern United Brewing Company – a partnership that includes Greg Lobdell, Jon Carlson and Ron Jeffries and encompasses Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, North Peak Brewing Company and Civilized Spirits – Hall lives in northern Michigan and oversees brewing operations at what is currently the Civilized Spirits distillery and North Peak brewing facilities on the Old Mission Peninsula (though that will soon be changing as North Peak’s brewing operations will be moved downstate into Jolly Pumpkin’s new 70,000 sq. ft. brewing facility).

Mike is quite the character. Like so many other world-travelled, accomplished brewers, winemakers and chefs living and working in the Traverse City area, Mike’s background doesn’t instinctively scream “Will one day end up in northern Michigan.” He’s got an unidentifiable lilt of an accent, which if you have spent some time talking to other food and drink artisans in the area you might assume he too is from South Africa, much like Old Mission winemakers Coenraad Stassen and Cornel Olivier (of Brys Estate and 2 Lads Winery, respectively). Northern Michigan just seems to have that global draw.

But to answer that question, no, he’s not from South Africa like his vitner peers. Mike was born and raised in Nova Scotia and from there has lived and worked in the UK, Berlin, Amsterdam, Russia, and all over the United States. He has also helped open over 50 breweries and trained more than 200 brewers, but despite being among the most prolific (for lack of a better word) Master Brewers in the world, he is every inch the embodiment of northern Michigan approachability and conviviality.

Photo from here.
Mike started brewing with his dad at the age of 13. “My dad didn’t like the beer he could get at the store in Nova Scotia and figured he could do the same at home,” Mike explains, joking that his dad figured he couldn’t do any worse on his own. His dad got his brewing equipment at the local pharmacy and they started making their own beer at home. Then Mike went off to college – he started off studying medicine – and he started making beer in his college dorm “so I could drink more than I needed to.”

Halfway through school, one of his college buddies (and fellow student of hops) started talking to Peter Austin, founder of the Ringwood Brewery in the UK. Mike decided that after going to school and working full time, he needed a break, so he took a year off and went off to Europe with just $5,000. He remembers having to sleep in train stations and bushes (bumming around Europe for a year with only $5,000 means no boutique hotels or charming B+Bs). “There is something to be said for waking up in a park [on a bench] and seeing the Alps [right behind you].” But, lest he start sounding too wistful, he adds, “I was not plagued by average intelligence at that age!”

But his brazen, ballsy, and perhaps somewhat slightly insane European experiment would eventually take him to the Ringwood. Peter Austin was still running it so Mike stopped in “to say hi and have a few pints.” Mike’s career path was decided right then and there.

Photo from here.
“He saw I was into it,” Mike says. “I showed the appropriate enthusiasm.” And so Mike had the opportunity to train at the Ringwood for free, the kind of opportunity that is not only rare but almost unheard of. Maybe Austin took pity on the broke kid slumming it out in Europe who showed huge potential; maybe it was Mike’s inherent likeability that compelled Austin to help him out. But from there, the doors were opened. After that he immediately went to Granite Brewery in Halifax to work under Kevin Keefe, the owner/brewer who had also trained at the Ringwood. Mike started his apprenticeship there and was thrown right into the deep end, spending the bulk of that year doing things himself with Keefe acting as his support when needed.

So then Mike finished a degree in fine art and sculpture and got a studio in Berlin. Yes, we’re skipping around a bit, but to be fair so did he. “I was bartending, making sculptures, having fun, brewing beer at home,” basically living the good life. Then he got a job in Amsterdam (hang tight, we’re going to skip around some more), then went to visit his dad in England and under the auspices of his father’s almighty beer-sniffer found the (now defunct) Ash Vine Brewery in Somerset, which was looking for a head brewer and manager. So now we go from Somerset to Amsterdam to Berlin and back to Somerset, where Mike stayed for two years when his apprenticeship “really picked up.” “I was a student member of the [International Brewers’] Guild and was working under the head brewer every day with my senior member mentor in the Guild telling me what I should be focusing on.”

During the last year of his Guild apprenticeship he came to the States. His final “test” came two years later when he traveled with Peter Austin to help open a brewery in Russia. After that he was recommended for a full senior membership in the Guild, making him a Master Brewer. Since then he has helped build and train some of the biggest-name breweries and brewers in the States – Shipyard Brewing, Dogfish Head, Magic Hat and Arcadia Ales, just to name a few.

Photo by Nicole Rupersburg.

“One year I spent only 35 days in my home state,” Mike remembers. “I had a mummified piece of pizza in my fridge and I was using that as a gauge of time.” It was a lot of travel time and a lot of sky miles to travel all over the States as a consultant and trainer, but “it was good fun. I totally enjoyed it.” He would help train brewers, help set up equipment, help develop recipes, and basically do everything to get start-up breweries started up (what they did after that was on them). That particular year he helped open 13 breweries.

In the meantime he was also working as a carpenter. Yes, he’s a carpenter too. “Consulting is not very lucrative. You spend a good deal of time trying to find work and competing with others. It’s kind of hard to make a living on it … [you have to be in it] for the love. When you go to sleep, you go to sleep exhausted and happy. It is satisfying work.”

Eventually he got involved with Northern United, helping launch Grizzly Peak, North Peak, Blue Tractor, Bastone, and even training he-of-sour-infamy Ron Jeffries. “His dirty kegs are not welcome in my brewery!” he jokes (sours are made by using wild yeast strains, something that brewers otherwise work very hard to keep OUT of their beer by maintaining sterile brewing environments). “He’s made an arc out of everything I’ve told him not to do!”

Photo from here.
After starting six breweries under Northern United they asked him, “Why do we keep paying you as a consultant? Why not join our team?” He told them to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and they did. He officially joined the team in 2009 and has been overseeing the brewery and distillery since then.

With the changes afoot at Jolly Pumpkin/North Peak, Mike is anxious to let Ron oversee all of the brewing so he can focus all of his energy on Civilized Spirits, Northern United’s craft spirits line. “It’s time for me to have some fun and get the creative juices flowing again,” he says. “It was always part of the original plan to merge the two breweries but we wanted to make sure we could walk first before we run.” Mike will also be in charge of specialty one-offs and North Peak’s “Nomad” hard cider.

So what are some of the things Mike has planned? A biere de garde. A gluten-free IPA (“just because someone is gluten-sensitive doesn’t mean they can’t like big beers”). A beer with Omega-3 fatty acids derived from flaxseed (“I have this perverse desire to make a highly nutritional, vitamin-rich beer endorsing that beer is good for you!”). And also doing some really traditional lagers. “I want to push the envelope on a few things but also get back to some really old-school classics.”

He jokes about the compulsion in the American craft beer industry to push “extreme” beers. “People say, ‘I want to be into extreme brewing.’ So try brewing all day with a razor blade in your mouth, THAT’S extreme. Just because you put too many hops in doesn’t make it extreme, it’s just stupid.”

Mike has plans for Civilized too, like making a “rum” made from Michigan sugar beets. (They’re calling it “Rhumb” because it is legally not allowed to be called “rum” unless it is made from sugar cane.) He also wants to start experimenting with local medicinal plants to make a gin, drawing on Native American homeopathic remedies using local materials “but drinkable instead of just being able to say we did it … herbal but not herbal like Jagermeister; something that tastes good and doesn’t make you puke out your nose.” He also wants to try distilling prickly pear juice for a tequila-of-sorts, a flavor that he always recalled fondly after staying in Mexico. (Yeah, add Mexico to the list.)

Oh, and did he mention that he also went to distillery school in Lexington, Kentucky (aka Bourbon Country)? So yeah, there’s that too.

Mike can’t wait to start mad-scientisting his many ideas once the Jolly Pumpkin/North Peak transition is complete. “I’ve been chomping at the bit to do this. It’s been a long time coming but the gears have been going in my head for a long time.” Ron Jeffries might be Northern United’s star of the moment with all the buzz Jolly Pumpkin is getting, but Mike Hall is easily one of the most interesting blokes you could ever hope to meet. Which is really just yet another reason to love Old Mission.