The Creative World of Traverse City’s Right Brain Brewery

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.

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. Life-long lover of cooking, food and beer and sharer of these things with friends. Shaggy hair. Mustache and goatee. Paunchy wizard of the Right Brain brewhouse. 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 around 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.

Springsteen had been cutting hair in Boulder, Colorado, in the early 1990’s, when he discovered the joy of microbrew beers. “There were a ton of microbreweries right in the city,” he says. But when he moved back to rural, downstate Michigan in the late 90’s to help his dad with a real estate appraisal business in Durand, he found there were no microbreweries around.

“I wasn’t going to start drinking swill,” he says. “So I started to home brew.” He tried to match flavors of beers he liked, and his hobby became his obsession. “I tried to get jobs in the industry, but I had no connections, no experience, and I got frustrated,” he says.

Figuring he would have to make his own way, he looked into starting his own microbrewery, but he had no start-up capital. So he relied on his appraisal experience to buy homes, fix them up and sell them, all with the goal of building enough money to open a microbrewery.

All along he was also researching the business. A microbrew industry insider “told me the industry was about to peak because so many people were getting into it with no experience and looking for a fast buck,” Springsteen says. Her advice: wait for the shakeout and buy equipment for ten cents on the dollar. Springsteen took the suggestion and one other key piece of advice she offered: don’t serve restaurant food. “She told me it’s really hard to make good food, and if your beer is great but your food is only okay, people won’t come back.”

So a clear goal and good advice he had, but Springsteen still couldn’t quite see how to transition from making money as a hair stylist to making money as a brewer. “Then I read a story from New York about people putting bars in hair salons. I thought, dang, I could put these two together and cut hair and have income and do this crazy idea with the brewery.” Not long after, he was reading his horoscope: today is the day you will do the thing you have been wanting to do. He took it as a sign and called an attorney, and then he called a guy about renting a building.

Springsteen found an old warehouse on Garland Street, in Traverse City’s warehouse district, opened his Salon Saloon in the front and began renovating the pub space on the other side of the wall. About a year and a half later, in the last week of December 2007, Right Brain Brewery opened.

“I wanted a bar that I would want to go to,” Springsteen says. It turned out lots of other people wanted that same kind of bar. Right Brain hit a four-year production goal by the end of the first 12 months.

Like Springsteen, brewmaster Niedermaier’s long journey to Right Brain began about the early 90’s, but his introduction began with some skanky homebrew that an uncle brought as a gift to a Christmas gathering. “It was bad, but I was intrigued. I didn’t know you could make your own beer,” he says. He tracked down “an old English guy in Royal Oak” who sold home brewing equipment and started making bad beer of his own. “My friends would drink it when we ran out of store-bought beer,” he says.

But Niedermaier didn’t quit experimenting, because the multitude of taste possibilities and the complexity of beer making commandeered his fascination. “If I had to choose between making beer and drinking beer, I’d choose making beer,” he says. “The joy of producing beer, being creative, is what I live for.”

Niedermaier landed a brewer job at Traverse Brewing in 1996. The brewery had a much different business model than Right Brain; primarily wholesale, focused on five flagship beers with some seasonal rotation. The beer-making was more small factory than Merlin wizard improvisation in its sensibility, but the daily routine and deadlines taught Niedermaier the importance of lab work, record keeping and beer analysis. At home on weekends, he’d bust out, explore the creative side of beer making that so appealed to him.

“My friends would stop over, and they would love that they’d never know what they’d get when they’d walk in the door,” Niedermaier says. And nobody ever asked for the store-bought beer anymore.

So where does Niedermaier’s beery inspiration come from? Walks in the woods, music, scenery, art. Sometimes he tries to re-create people’s characters in the form of beer flavor. Conversations, things his nieces and nephews say…you get the idea, basically anything. He keeps a pencil and paper near at all times for when ideas careen through. It’s late afternoon in the brew house, and Niedermaier has been hustling for hours. Climbing up on scaffolding to peer into tanks, dumping in hops, connecting hoses, disconnecting them, measuring, scooping, dipping. He pauses, cups his hands over his nose and inhales.

“Mmm…hops. I’m going to invent a cologne that smells like hops,” he says. His girlfriend told him she’d never go near him if he did. “I said, ‘that’s fine, I’ll be happy anyway.’”

When Springsteen hired Niedermaier shortly after Right Brain opened, they initially talked about going the traditional route, a fleet of flagship beers with a few others rotating through. At one point they discussed the need for an amber ale.

“Russ asked me what my amber was like. I said I have about 20 of them,” Niedermaier says. “I started bringing in beer from my house, and we’d have one after work. Russ would say, ‘I really like this and this and this.’ ” So how to choose a narrow set of beers from all that carnival of flavorfest?

Eventually, Springsteen made the obvious decision. “John said he had hundreds of proven recipes. I said, ‘Well, brew them.’ ” As for those customers who most wanted the comfort of a fleet of flagship beers: “They’re the ones who now come in and say, ‘what’s new this week?’ ” Springsteen says.

As Right Brain nears the end of its second year, Niedermaier has put more than 100 beers up on the chalkboard, and customers drank down every one of them. Springsteen and Niedermaier expanded their beer production capacity last April and will likely do so again. Bottling is still off in the distance somewhere. And Right Brain has become a central part of the beer scene in Northern Michigan.

For Springsteen in particular, it’s a vindication, doing something that so many people said he couldn’t do because he lacked experience, capital, whatever. And sometimes he thinks back to a test he took in high school. The exam was supposed to reveal if a person is right brain or left brain dominant. “The teacher said there’s no right or wrong way to take the test,” Springsteen said. Springsteen did the work, and it showed him to be right brain dominant. “I showed it to the teacher, and he said, ‘you must have done it wrong.’ ”


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