We've talked up the Michigan brew scene a lot lately, here at The Hop Review; and with good reason. The state has been pumping out some of the country's best craft beer for a couple decades now and their industry has had a direct influence on the booming Chicago scene.
Greenbush Brewing Co. is situated 12 miles across the Michigan border from Indiana, in Sawyer. While the proximity to Chicago makes for a convenient homeward-bound pit stop along I-94 – the excellent food, constantly rotating tap list, and friendly atmosphere are reason enough to make Greenbush a required 'Michiana' destination. Headbrewer Peter Hasbrouck is charged with concocting the bevy of brewery year-rounds, seasonals, and one-off beers that can be sampled in an increasing footprint throughout the Midwest. We grabbed a few minutes of his time to find out a little more about the newish Michigan staple and what makes the man behind the magic tick.
Pete, thanks for meeting us on your day off. So, how does a fella such as yourself end up brewing here in Sawyer, Michigan?
I have a food background. I went to culinary school up in Grand Rapids. I made my way around in the food industry for a bit. I went to Oregon for a few months for an internship also. Then, I made my way around Grand Rapids and got a chance to work about town and eat everywhere. Part of 'eating' is drinking. When I was in Oregon, the sous chef I was working for was home brewing. In Oregon, everyone brews. I was like “Man you got to show me how to do that, I've always wanted to learn.” He showed me how to extract-brew and then I bought all of his equipment off of him and drove it back home. This was five or six years ago.
After, I took a culinary job just up the road in Sawyer. And three weeks after that, Greenbush opened [in 2011]. Naturally, I became a patron. It was really small back then. The bartenders were the brewers and the cellermen; they did everything. I brought in some ciders and meads and they thought they were really good. In the wintertime, when things slowed down, I asked if there was any way I could come in and just watch from the corner. They said if I wanted to come by and help, that I just to swing in here. So I started to come in every Monday at 6am. A little bit later they needed a brewer and they were like "You already know the job, so do you want it?" – Yeah, sure!
As for day to day, I deal with raw material stuff all the way through to carbonation. Ryan Beach is basically my other half. He deals with everything from carbonation to packaging. Labels, kegs, 6-pack holders, talking to sales guys: that's all him.
Were they any challenges opening in a small town like Sawyer?
It was kind of one of those things that wasn't really thought about. We thought it was just going to be a tasting room and that we were going to try and sell a few kegs locally. The plan was to brew about 250 barrels the first year. That's about what we have for total fermentation capacity right now. At any single moment we have 245 barrels of fermentation capacity without our brite tanks. The launch was supposed to be on June 11th . On June 10th, [Owner/Founder] Scott [Sullivan] was running in and out of the place. And left the door unlocked. He came back in and there were people sitting at the bar, so he was like “Yeah, I can sell you some beer!” There were 200 people in on that first day.
The bar area has grown a lot in recent years. It's really a beautiful space.
We have an old school look here. It’s 50’s-Industrial; the Edison bulbs, the copper. My favorite part is the signage outside. It’s maybe 2.5' tall: just says "Brewery." We make beer, that’s what we do.
What does your distributed lineup look like?
We have six that we distribute all year round. We have Anger, our Black IPA; Dungräs, our regular IPA; Brother Benjamin, our Imperial IPA with honey; Distorter, a Porter; Closure a pale ale; & 1825, our Belgian Strong. Then we rotate seasonally. Right now we are on Sunspot, which is a German Heffe. For fall we’ll turn to Unicorn Killer, our Pumpkin Ale. Then winter, we’ll have Jadis, a spiced winter white.
We've certainly seen an increasing Greenbush presence in Chicago, as of late.
Since we're so close to Chicago, a lot of people consider us a suburb of sorts. Everyone here goes to Chicago since it’s the closest city. We were debating on opening up distribution there, but it’s a huge market. Finally we said, let’s do it. And it’s been great. We are now throughout the whole state. We only do bottle distribution to the city. I went to a Binny’s and there was a tower of our beer. It was cool to see that.
I always have had a life motto of, 'If you’re not growing your dying.' Always keep pushing yourself. Complacency would be the death of us. If we were to slow down, and say, we only make three beers – we would get bored. It’s great coming from a food background because I talk to farmers all day to see what they have coming out. Whatever I can get my hands on, I’ll write a recipe for it, and wing it. If I can get my hands on 2,500 lbs of raspberries: we’re going to make some raspberry ale. We’ll write new recipes because we have the opportunity to play. We're small enough where we aren't relying on one single thing to hold us over. Whatever we want to make, we make it.
Have you brewed any beer with other local ingredients then?
Scott brewed a beer called Indispensable. We got enough local hops to brew one batch of it. We are kind of kicking ourselves now because we didn’t get more. We could have, but they were experimental [hops]. We just contracted out 2,000 lbs of those hops for next year, though. But now we have to wait a year to brew it again. Everyone here was like "when is it coming back?" And we were like "we literally only got 50 lbs the first time!" That kind of response makes us say 'we are going to brew the ever-living-heck out of it.' I feel like we’ve established a name where people think that they've never had anything bad by us. If they’re at a bar and they don’t have Anger on tap, but they have Closure – they’ll try that.
Customer feedback from the taproom sounds like a good testing ground for you.
Absolutely. One of the things that we definitely do is what we call our 'Small Batching Program' or our 'Lab Beer Program.' We have the original five-gallon pots that Scott first started brewing with at home. I've heard the stories from his wife so many times about how, in the middle of the night, they would hear exploding bottles. We'll go over there for dinner and he'll say "Oh yea, there's still a yeast strain right there on the ceiling." So we still have all the original equipment that he started with. If we have a day that we're not production brewing, I say "Alright, get on the small batch system and go make something." For instance, this summer I've locked down a bunch of cherries. I looked at one of the guys and said "Hey, I want you to make ten recipes of a cherry beer. Go buy the cherries, put them on our card, and do your thing. But all your raw materials are across the street [at the storage facility]. Go play. Try to develop something good. If you get one that we're all happy with, we'll make a large scale batch of it." This guy had never done that so he's real excited.
Has there been an experiment you've been excited for that has ended up a flop?
Oh yea, totally. There are some beers that were just straight up gross. We dump 'em. We'd rather dump them down the drain than ruin our name and our standards.
Have you had to educate the local crowd on what makes a good beer?
Yes – we have a few beers we made specifically for that. We have one called Traktor. It's the 'lawnmower beer' we make. But it's still 6%, so it's more like your 'tractor beer.' Yea, it's a bad joke. We started with that because it was the easiest-drinking. We found a lot of people who don't typically drink craft beer like 1825 because of of the Belgian strain. It's a little bit sweet still, and it has a very low hop profile. But it's a 9.3% beer.
We've seen people come in and order a Bud Light and we'll think "You don't understand what we do here, do you?" We've had some guys come in and curse our servers out even. And then we throw them out because, 'what do you want from us?' We're a brewery, we sell the beer we make here. We've had that a few times, especially with the truck stop. We get a lot of truckers who park for the night and walk over here. They have a meal and some beers and stuff. But when we first started, that's what people wanted. We were like, 'oh boy, we're in trouble.' After a month though, we stuck to what we do and how we do it; they just stopped asking for other beer. It started to become its own little monster over here. People still ask for gluten-free beer, or wine. We're a brewery...so 'no.' This area is huge for its wine. I'm personally working on getting licensing so we can start doing some meads and ciders and gettting back to my personal roots. It would be nice to be able to offer another product for someone who doesn't drink beer, though.
We've seen you do a collab with Haymarket. You did one here and one there?
Yea, it was pretty much the same beer. It was a couple weeks before I started, which I'm so bummed about because I've met Pete Crowley and he is an awesome dude. I actually just called him the other day because I had a question about process. The guy knows what he's talking about and he just wants to make good beer. Our old headbrewer went out there and brewed with him and just had a blast. They learned a lot from him and had a great time.
We don't see as many collaborations in Michigan as we're used to seeing in Chicago.
We're trying to start doing a little more of that. It's kind of weird because the guys who are much bigger than us are typically much more production-oriented. We actually went up and brewed with a brewery called Right Brain [Traverse City]. We met Russ, the owner, at a beer festival. If you ever get a chance to go to one of the Michigan Brewer's Guild events – they're like no other festival you've ever been. There're four of them over the year. We met Russ at one of those, having a few beers, telling jokes and stuff. We chatted and mentioned we should do a collaboration. We went up there and did a brown ale with roasted apples and cardamon. That was pretty solid. They came down here and we did a 10.7% Scotch Ale with peat-smoked malts. That beer turned out really great. I was really happy with that one.
We just brewed at Buckledown [Lyons, IL]. We've been chatting a little about doing that beer again over here – because we can't sell that beer here. They asked what they had to do to get that beer to us. We said, "Well why don't you guys come out here? We ran something on your system, why don't you come out here and run something on our system with us? You can see how we differentiate from you guys." When we were hanging out they were doing some different stuff. They said they were talking with Pete from Haymarket and he told 'em to do 'this, and this, and this' and just hadn't done it yet. I told them "If you guys do that, it will make your life a lot easier." They said, "Where do you guys learn that from?" I said: Pete. It's great to learn little tips and tricks.
Alright, lastly [pointing up behind the bar] – what’s the deal with the '7-pack'?
Haha. We donated some money to a local cause and in return we got some filming from Rhino Media, out of Kalamazoo. Those guys are awesome. We had this idea for April Fools that we wanted to do: a '7-pack.' Poking fun of the people who are doing the 15- or 20-packs. We called ours the "Cellerman’s Half Dozen." The video is absolutely hilarious. You need to check it out... [For that, see below].
Thank you to Pete for spending his Sunday morning talking shop with us. Next time you find yourself in Michigan, be sure to pull off at exit 12 on I-94 for a taste of what's brewing at Greenbush.