On a bright, blue day last October, a fresh and steady north wind pushed down the length of West Grand Traverse Bay. It churned the dark, autumn water, blew up white caps, channeled between two buildings and blustered squarely into Right Brain Brewery and its sister operation, Salon Saloon, just a block from the beach. Out on the loading dock, a set of 16 wooden casks sat on pallets, wrapped together in groups of four by shipping plastic that looked like giant Saran Wrap. The stiff wind set the plastic to vibrating, and it seemed the casks were humming, like they were biding time till they could carry out some appointed mission.
Right Brain Brewery, as the name implies, makes beer, and by license can make only beer, but these were not beer kegs. Stenciled onto the cask lids were the words “Labrot & Graham Distillers Company” and “bourbon whiskey.” The kegs, fresh off a truck from Kentucky, were here to enter the second stage of their lives and serve as crucibles, reaction vessels, in yet another grand experiment in beer making conducted by brewmaster John Niedermaier and his most-enabling employer, Russell Springsteen.
Into these casks would soon pour a smooth, dark liquid, a stout called Distill My Heart, and there it would age for many weeks until it tasted the way Niedermaier liked it. The aging would allow the stout to absorb the bourbon flavors that seeped into the oak during the casks’ previous use, aging bourbon whiskey. When Niedermaier eventually opened the kegs, around New Year’s 2009, the beer sold like crazy. Traverse City beer drinkers cherished how the bourbon and oak elevated stout to a rich, new place. Even the color was captivating, so chocolatey, silky and dense.
In every way the beer was a home run. For most brewers, the obvious next step would have been to slip Distill My Heart onto the regular beer menu, make it a flagship beer. Clearly it would sell sure and steady and ring up profits. But Right Brain doesn’t have a regular beer menu. And besides, for Niedermaier and Springsteen, that would be too boring, too predictable. Sure, Distill My Heart would re-appear at some point, maybe brew a few batches a year, but in the meantime, there were just way too many other beer recipes to invent and concoct, to tweak and tinker with, way too many other beers to bring into this world.
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Meet Russell Springsteen. Five-foot five. Career hair stylist. Beer lover. Former high school wrestler and wrestling coach who still carries the compact, muscular physique the sport bestows. Trim hair. Soul patch. Owner of Right Brain Brewery and Salon Saloon. Meet John Niedermaier. Six-foot two. Lifelong lover of cooking, food and beer and sharer of these things with friends. Shaggy hair. Mustache and goatee. Paunchy wizard of the Right Brain brew house. Know that neither one of these men is a fan of conventional wisdom.
Cut to April 2009, and a midweek morning finds Springsteen getting ready to open the pub. One by one he pulls chairs off their nighttime perch on table tops and slides them below. The squeak of a chair leg across the painted dark gray cement floor punctuates his work in the otherwise quiet bar, a bar that feels more like a coffeehouse.
“I wanted a place people would feel comfortable bringing their families to,” Springsteen says, as he wraps his hand aroung the leg of another chair. Around him, soft early spring light fills the space and illuminates key pieces of the Right Brain formula.
EXHIBIT A: A stack of well-used board games, like apples to apples, bingo, booby trap and more. When people play games, they talk, interact. “We’re trying to reinvent the art of conversation,” Springsteen says. He banned TVs for the same reason.
EXHIBIT B: The wall of beer club member mugs, each uniquely decorated by the members themselves. “I want to use as much local business as I can,” Springsteen says. “So when I learned there was a place a hundred feet away where people can decorate their own ceramics, I thought why not have people go over there and decorate their own mugs. They take a lot of ownership over these things.”
EXHIBIT C: The hair salon, visible through a window in the bar. About half the salon customers order a beer while getting a cut. And when the pub opened, salon business increased by 30 percent.
EXHIBIT D: Things not here—dinner menus, ash trays and (again), tvs. If you want food, you can bring it in. If you want to smoke, you can go out. If you want TV, talk to your friend instead.
EXHIBIT E: Most important, the beer menu. Written in red and yellow and blue chalk on a blackboard above the bar, it displays names like Fire Roasted Sweet Corn Cream Ale, Ancho Chili Dutch Double Chocolate Porter, Waltzing Matilda Rye Amber Ale and Spiny Norman IPA, and it’s never, ever, ever, ever, ever the same from one week to the next.