To celebrate Traverse City Beer Week, MyNorth will be running a daily interview with brewers and pub owners in the Northern Michigan microbrew scene. Today we check in with John Niedermaier, founder and head brewer of Brewery Terra Firma in Traverse City.
You kicked off Traverse City Beer Week with a win in the IPA Challenge at Little Fleet. Tell me about your winning beer?
Actually, there was some confusion early on. Tina [Schuett] from Rare Bird Brewpub and I thought we were supposed to collaborate on a beer, so we came up with the beer that ended up taking second place, Pterdact Ale. I found out a week before the event that we had to come up with our own beer so we actually used our Magnum Hopsitality IPA that was already brewed and at the distributor.
And what makes Magnum Hopsicality so good?
I first brewed this beer in my kitchen about 15 years ago and I have been brewing it off and on commercially ever since. It has a lot of malt in it—and consequently a lot of that crystally, caramelly flavor. It has an eight percent alcohol content so it is a pretty substantial product. In order to have as many hops as this beer does, you have to have some malt body. Otherwise it is like chewing grass clippings! It makes for a more expensive beer because you need more materials but it is worth it.
Tina Schuett seems to be the new kid on our crowded brewer’s block in Traverse city. How did you like collaborating with her?
She’s a rock star and doesn’t know it.
You designed Terra Firma to be a model of cutting-edge sustainability. Can you explain what that means?
Terra Firma is really a revolutionary facility in that we don’t waste anything. Typically there is a lot of liquid waste from breweries that goes into waste treatment plants—for every pint of beer you drink there’s about five pints of wastewater produced. At Terra Firma we harvest all our liquid waste—meaning we have a special DEQ permit to land apply it and use as fertilizer and irrigation on our 10-acre farm.
Which brings us to another major component of sustainability—you call yourself an agricultural brewery because you grow many of the products that go into your beers:
Yes, we grow our own pumpkins, hops, parsnips, basil, beehives … this liquid waste is amazing fertilizer and it is what everyone else puts down the drain.
In addition to harvesting the wastewater, we harvest the BTUs produced from the production facility and use them to heat the taproom through an in-floor heating facility. Last winter our furnace didn’t kick on until the temperature dropped to 19 degrees.
That is fascinating! Did you have any prototypes to follow in designing it?
No, there really isn’t an existing model. That’s why it took so long to build—it had to be designed from the ground up.
Well you obviously never take the cheat-cheat route—right down to the fact that your produce old-school unfiltered (unpasteurized) beer. Tell us about that?
Humans have been brewing beer for 9000 years and it only started being filtered about 100 years ago. It’s done to remove as much yeast as possible to make it more stable for packaging. It takes more energy, materials and man-hours to produce filtered beer. But if you know the nuts and bolts of how to design beer from the ground up you don’t need to filter and it leaves more flavor.
As the story goes, your passion for cooking led to your passion for brewing. What kind of cuisines do you favor?
I like ethnicity—a huge variety. I love Cajun Creole, Mexican, Japanese, and Vietnamese. A big variety.
And you can drink a beer with any of these cuisines?
Sure you can. That’s why we brew 1,000 different beers.
What’s a favorite beer and food pairing?
Well a dish I am getting ready to cook—and often do in the fall—and winter (it actually has the beer in the recipe) is steamed mussels with Belgian beer and a whole bunch of cilantro, shallots and garlic tossed in as they are steaming. The beer reduces and then you get a really, really good locally-made crusty bread to soak it up and oh man it’s awesome. I’m getting hungry talking about it!
Before you go drown yourself in a pot of mussels leave us with a vision for what Terra Firma is going to look like in 20 years.
I’d like to think that we had expanded enough to cover [distribution] in all the counties of Michigan. Currently we are in 40. I would also hope that Terra Firma had made a difference in the waste issues from brewing.
Find out more about Brewery Terra Firma.