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 Ron Jeffries, Founder and Brewmaster at Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Traverse City, Dexter and Ann Arbor.
You majored in literature as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. And then your life’s plot took a decidedly different twist. Tell us about your start in the brewing world.
After college I moved away and then came back to start a Masters of Science degree at the University of Michigan. The focus of my program was brewing science. Before I was finished I was hired as brewer at the Grizzly Peak Brewing Company and I figured the offer was too good to pass up—if I ever needed to finish my degree the university would still be there.
Your umbrella company, Northern United Brewing, is headquartered near Ann Arbor in Dexter, Michigan. How did you come to open Jolly Pumpkin Traverse City?
It was our first restaurant/brewery [now also a distillery]. At the time Jolly Pumpkin Dexter did not have a taproom and Jolly Pumpkin Ann Arbor Cafe and Brewery opened a couple months after Traverse City. Our partners in Traverse City owned Bowers Harbor Inn and they thought a Jolly Pumpkin restaurant would be a perfect fit for the spot.
We saw the location as a wonderful opportunity—as a way to showcase our beer with fresh, local food. Chef Paul [Olson] does an amazing job with Jolly Pumpkin and of course Mission Table restaurant, also on the property. In-season he is able to do whole menus right from what he can purchase on Old Mission peninsula.
Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales are characterized as farmhouse ales or American wild ale. What do those terms refer to?
To a traditional European style of beer that is aged in oak barrels and soured by the naturally occurring wild yeasts and other bacteria in the barrels.
Back in the early 2000s when you launched Jolly Pumpkin the style had become pretty esoteric:
Yes, very few breweries were still making these traditional sour beers by that time. There were really just a few pockets of these traditional breweries left; in Belgium, Germany and in France, and they were shrinking.
Wild sour ale sounds like a bit of a risk for a small start-up microbrew in the American Midwest! Tell us about the decision to go that route:
My wife Laurie and I had already put a business plan together for a microbrewery. One summer day, just months before we were going to start building the brewery, we were sitting in our backyard drinking Belgian sour beer. I said, “If only we could make beer like this.” Laurie said: “Why don’t you.” So I did some editing to the business plan and turned it into one for wild, sour-style beer.
Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ale turned some heads from the get-go, garnering a slew of national and even international awards. Not to mention that Bam Bière was named one of the top 21 beers in America by Men’s Journal and Oro de Calabaza was selected by the New York Times as the best strong golden Belgian style beer in the world. What was the reaction in the beer world to all of that notoriety?
It really shocked a lot of people. It was like, Who is this guy? Where is Dexter, Michigan? There was a lot of back-story that people didn’t know. That I’d been brewing professionally for 10 years—I wasn’t just a guy who came out of the wilderness with a shaggy beard … I didn’t even have a beard [laugh].
What is your goal for Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales?
The goal has always to be an international boutique brand. We are starting to export a little bit so we are well on our way to that. We were the smallest exporting U.S. exporting brewery. We might still be the smallest, I’m not sure. We will continue making an international reputation for what we do: crafting super flavorful beers.
Learn more about the Jolly Pumpkin on their website.