The journey of Brewery Terra Firma’s John Niedermaier. What a long, experimental trip it’s been. Follow along with us.
This article is featured in the April 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
Get your copy for more on the Northern Michigan food, beer and wine scene.
John Niedermaier has a hops pillow, that is, a pillow he stuffs with cones of hops and sleeps on, not all the time, but now and then. “The dreams I have are surrealistic,” he says. “They are dreams so vivid, and I remember them way more than my regular dreams. It’s just bizarre. It is an old, old practice.” Hops are a member of the Cannabaceae family—marijuana is also in that family—so he wonders if there’s a connection in the dream department, too.
Niedermaier, founder and master brewer at Brewery Terra Firma, has fresh hops on his mind at the moment because as he speaks he is standing beside a picnic table heaped with hops bines (bines look like vines, but attach to things differently). The bines are thick with leaves and loaded with cones—Cascade variety and Nugget variety freshly cut from the garden out back. On this warm September evening, about a half-dozen Terra Firma devotees are here on the patio with Niedermaier sharing in an annual rite at the three-year-old brewery: plucking cones from the hops bines and tossing them into buckets.
Tomorrow, before the hops have a chance to lose their fresh and full flavor, Niedermaier will tip the cones, whole, into a vat of boiling water to add flavor to a beer named Indigenous Wet Hop IPA. (“Wet Hop” is a term used for fresh, whole-bud hops.) “There’s nothing quite as nice as picking day, and knowing I will be dropping the cones into a batch of beer in the morning,” Niedermaier says. He pauses on the brewpub deck to survey the people picking hops in the autumn light. A faded red Terra Firma ball cap perches on his head. A whole hops bud floats in his beer glass.
Practicality is not, however, the purpose of this gathering, because an automated hops bine-processing machine—called a hopfenflücker—could accomplish the entire evening’s work in a few minutes. No, this gathering, this plucking, is more spiritual in nature. “It’s a reminder that hops come from a farm, not from a phone,” Niedermaier says.
As he sees it, the people who pick the hops smell the hops, and then when they drink the beer, they remember the aroma of the hops, and then they remember the farm and the land, and when that happens, they are reminded that not just hops, but everything in their beer glass is a gift of the earth, and the circle of beer life is completed. “I love that,” Niedermaier says, and takes a sip of his beer.
That same circle of beer life philosophy is what has guided Niedermaier all along, from the moment he began conceiving of Brewery Terra Firma, and then as he moved along the path, expanding his concept to include reducing the environmental impact of beer-making, thinking of ways to shrink the environmental footprint as far as possible. So today, in addition to being renowned for good beer, his farm-to-table brewery is also renowned as an example of smart environmental brewing stewardship.
Niedermaier doesn’t recall the precise year, but he does recall the moment when beer making began to consume his thoughts. It was maybe 25 years ago and he was at a family Christmas gathering where his mom’s large family did a gift exchange, and all the gifts had to have been made by the giver. “My ex-uncle was a private chef, and he brought two bottles of beer he’d made,” Niedermaier says. “And every- body was like, You made this? You can make beer?”
The family rules allowed gift stealing, so Niedermaier stole the beer. “I was just fascinated by this idea, amazed you could brew beer at home in a kitchen,” he says.
At the time, Niedermaier was working as a billiard table mechanic in Ferndale, Michigan. He started asking everybody he knew where he could buy beer-making supplies—no luck. This was in the days before the Internet, so he dug through the Yellow Pages but couldn’t find anything there either. Then one day he discovered his boss did a little home ￼￼brewing and he told Niedermaier about a little home brewing shop in Royal Oak. “I went over there on a Saturday and bought like $500 of stuff, and like every book the guy had. He was happy as hell,” he says.
Like most home brewers, he started with a kit, but was “immediately disappointed by the results.” He moved on quickly to from-scratch, whole-grain brewing. The quality jumped, but overall, he still wasn’t happy. He sought books written for pros, commercial brewer guides (another tedious search in the pre-Internet days). And finally, Niedermaier’s beer started to taste as he’d hoped it would. But his first gig as a professional brewer—at the now-defunct Traverse Brewing Company—was still years away.
So, what was it about beer that ignited Niedermaier’s obsession? “I didn’t understand that for a while,” he concedes. Eventually, though, he realized brewing combined all of his favorite things. “I’m a big science guy. I love science. And brewing was a massive bowl of science—the microbiology, the thermal dynamics, and at the same time you throw in a giant dollop of cooking creativity, and I love cooking.”
He also loved that he could engineer beer, the mouthfeel, the hoppiness, how it swirled in the glass, the color. “Once you understand the nuts and bolts behind brewing, it’s really fun and exciting,” he says. That discovery, that fascination, happened early on for Niedermaier, “and it’s what has kept the foot on the gas pedal ever since,” he says.
Niedermaier’s life took an important turn when, in the early ’90s, his billiard table boss opened a billiards hall in Traverse City—Niedermaier’s hometown—and asked him to manage it. For Niedermaier it was a dream come true because he’d been wanting to move back to the area. He moved in with his mom in Elk Rapids and, as luck would have it, he drove past Traverse Brewing Company on his way to and from work every day.
He wanted to stop in, but he couldn’t get past a feeling he had, a mix of fear and powerful urge. “I had this fear that I would want to get a job there and brew, but what if I sucked at it? I knew it was a whole nother game. It was not home brewing,” he says. He continued to drive by; he continued to not stop. Then one of his line cooks at the billiards hall came in and resigned, saying he got a job as an assistant brewer at Traverse Brewing. A few months later, the line cook stopped back in to the billiards hall. He told Niedermaier they were hiring a part-time brewer. Niedermaier made the jump—but kept his billiards job.
Soon, though, he quit the billiard business and followed his beer passion at Traverse Brewing, a place he stayed for 11 years. While there he made a huge leap in his understanding of the process, but he acknowledges that when working for somebody else, though you make beer well, you make it the way they want it made. He saved his R & D for home. “That’s what home brewing becomes when you are a commercial brewer,” he says. He made tweaks, changes, kept scrupulous notes, wrote everything down, and the results of those experimentations are what formed the Terra Firma product line years later.
As one of Northern Michigan’s first microbreweries, Traverse Brewing became a kind of incubator for brewing talent in the state, among brewers who did a stint there are Joe Short, founder of Short’s Brewing, and Russell Springsteen, founder of Right Brain Brewery, but there were many others, Niedermaier says—connections that helped him later in his journey.
Ultimately Traverse Brewing didn’t make it and Niedermaier signed on with Springsteen, who by then was just opening Right Brain in downtown Traverse City. Niedermaier’s penchant for experimentation established Right Brain’s reputation as a brewery known for both innovation and quality beer.
Still, Niedermaier wanted his own brewery, one where he could live out his visions of the circle of beer life. “Brewing a pint of beer can be pretty wasteful,” he says. A rule of thumb is it takes 7 gallons of water to make 1 gallon of beer. “That always kind of bugged me,” he says. He looked for answers back in history. “How did they brew beer back then—they’ve been making a lot of beer for a long time.” And back in the day, people could not afford to waste things.
Niedermaier also knew he wanted an agricultural brewery, because circle of life meant not only caring about the output end of things—the waste—but also the inputs, and he wanted to be growing some inputs of his own to keep his innovator’s soul well stoked. He wanted a farm with hops, basil, pumpkin, beets, and more and more and more. So he needed a place with a little bit of acreage, but one that was also close enough to town to be able to attract a decent clientele.
He found a defunct farmstead B&B that had fallen into foreclosure. It had a barn, a house, other outbuildings, 10 acres, and was just a few miles south of downtown Traverse City on Hartman Road.
Niedermaier prepped to go to the banks. He pulled his numbers together for a brewery and pub and set a week aside to make three presentations. It was not long after the economic crash, so his CPA warned him. “Don’t get your hopes up. Banks are cautious right now, they are not lending to things like restaurants.” It turned out all three banks wanted to meet on the same Monday, so Niedermaier said okay. He met with the first one, then the next and finally the third. He called his CPA to debrief. The CPA reiterated his caution: Don’t get your hopes up.
But then the first bank called and said they wanted to fund everything. Then the second bank called and said they wanted to fund everything. And then a fourth bank called and said they heard he was shopping and wanted to talk. And then the third bank called and said they wanted to fund everything. And then a fifth bank called to say they heard about it and wanted a chance. If you got lost in all of that, just know the takeaway: a lot of banks were interested and Niedermaier got the money. Beer was a bankable commodity.
So, call it a circle within a circle. When Niedermaier started shopping for brewing equipment, he was doing so when lots of other people were doing the same thing all across America (more than one microbrewery a day is opening in the United States these days). And that demand made everything expensive. But then he got a call from Joe Short, who told Niedermaier that all the equipment Niedermaier had worked with for 11 years at Traverse Brewing was up for sale at a really affordable price—the place had been mothballed since it closed. “It was exactly the equipment I did not want,” Niedermaier says. “It’s not flexible. It’s very manual. But it was more equipment than I could ever have afforded otherwise, and I’d produced hundreds of batches on it.” The universe had brought the equipment back to him, and he bought it.
Typically, when a brewer makes 100 gallons of beer, 600 gallons of water gets piped to a wastewater treatment system—that includes the cleaning water. The wastewater most often goes to the existing municipal wastewater system, but some breweries own and operate their treatment system—the Elk Rapids Short’s plant has that setup. But either way, treating wastewater is expensive. But an important thing about beer waste is it contains only food grade products. Niedermaier’s historical research showed him that back in the day, brewers would often spread the wastewater on farm fields, where waste components would simply biodegrade to fertilize the soil, and the water would irrigate crops and be purified by bacteria as it seeped into the soil. Such irrigation—called land application or fertigation—is common in other areas of the food industry, and the DEQ eventually gave Niedermaier a permit to do it.
Today, he captures all of his waste-water, pumps it into a tank mounted on a pickup truck and drives the truck slowly through his hops yard spraying the wastewater out the back. From a sustainability standpoint, the process doesn’t use any capacity of the municipal treatment system, the wastewater irrigates and fertilizes crops, and it keeps the brewing costs down … cheaper beer! As part of his permit, Niedermaier has to test the soil to make sure the natural processes are breaking down the residuals adequately. “The soil is actually becoming healthier,” he says.
As for the waste solids from beer making—all the spent grain—he simply spreads it on the hops yard as well, composting it in place.
Another part of the brewing process that irked Niedermaier was all the heat that is typically wasted. Brewing requires boiling lots and lots of water and then cooling the water as it moves through the process (for example, to control the temperature of the fermentation reaction). What if that heat could be captured to warm the building? Or what if the water could be cooled without consuming all the fuel used by a traditional cooling system?
Niedermaier realized Terra Firma could both cool the water and heat the building by embedding pipes in the cement floor of the brewing area and the pub. He could then harvest BTU’s from the cold conditioning tanks, the fermenters and cold storage to heat a food-grade glycol (nontoxic, safe) that would be pumped through the pipes in the floor. On its journey, the liquid gives off heat—cooling as it goes—while simultaneously warming the spaces.
The system is so effective that the building’s back-up furnace doesn’t turn on until the outside temperature is 19 degrees. Less gas use also means lower CO2 emissions and … cheaper beer!
Niedermaier brewed the first commercial batch at Brewery Terra Firma on May 31, 2013. It was a batch of Gladstone, an American Pale Ale named after the Upper Peninsula town where his grandparents lived, where he spent summers as a kid, where his dad still lives. After that, he made many batches of his Manitou Amber Ale, a recipe he perfected at Traverse Brewing and that had a following so strong it quickly reignited when Niedermaier resurrected it. Almost immediately he had distributors for Manitou all over the state.
As the brewery nears its fourth birthday, Terra Firma has already become a stalwart of Michigan’s craft beer scene, the core of its business selling kegs to pubs and now Manitou Amber Ale in cans in stores. And Niedermaier’s urge to innovate has not diminished. “We are still kind of an inverted brewery when it comes to the product,” he says. “Most breweries will have half a dozen flagship beers and a few specialty beers. But we have only three flagship beers and a lot of specialty stuff.” When customers say, “Why don’t you have my favorite beer today,” Niedermaier says, “We are busy making your next favorite beer.”
And Brewery Terra Firma’s reputation for sustainable brewing has grown in parallel. The State of Michigan has twice sent buses of people to Brewery Terra Firma to study the enviro-smart ways. Western Michigan University’s microbrew program has contacted Niedermaier to discuss its sustainable brewing course content. The phone rings on occasion with yet another craft brewer from somewhere on the planet seeking wisdom on how to engineer the circle of beer life.