Petoskey Brewing launched where a righteous brewery should: in a refurbished century-old brewhouse.
This story is featured in the September 2017 issue of Traverse Magazine. Get your copy.
Step through the door and the space smells like beer. Bready yeast esters, burnt sugar malt wafts and piney citrus peel hop perfumes escape like zephyrs from foaming spigots and surf the air currents around Petoskey Brewing’s taproom. Backlit by burnished industrial fixtures glowing beside exposed brick, the bar crew hustles to fill pints for a crowd of late summer cyclists and thirsty weekend beer geeks. A towering chalkboard above the tap handles advertises the brewery’s mainstay beers, and more than a dozen ephemeral small-batch potions like Morning Fog Mochajava Stout or Love Grenade India Pale Lager. Platters of gargantuan cheeseburgers and doughy pretzel sticks land amidst the slosh at a corner table of Mug Club members sipping Gym Selfie American Strong Ale from clay flagons turned in a local pottery studio.
Past the bar and the bustle of service, a glass wall peeks in on the guts of the brewery. A shiny mash tun fills with crushed grain augured via chute from a mill behind the far wall. Story-high stainless steel bright tanks and 40-barrel fermenters silently burble as they convert alchemies of grain, water, hops and yeast into pilsners and pale ales. Head brewer Brad Bergman and his lieutenants scuttle between switchboards and a serpentine maze of hoses that ensure optimal temperatures and chemistries for today’s batch of brew.
Launched in September of 2012, as Michigan’s craft beer zeitgeist was hitting its second surge, the new Petoskey Brewing has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the Michigan market as both a destination for craft beer pilgrims and an increasingly ubiquitous draught presence on tap in nearly every corner of the Mitten. While its present buzz is a testament to savvy entrepreneurship and skilled brewing, Petoskey Brewing’s original story starts in 1896 on a dirt track at the back of Little Traverse Bay.
“We’re one of the oldest breweries still operating in the U.S.,” says co-founder Lou Gostinger, who sold his successful beer and wine distributorship in the Thumb to start Petoskey Brewing five years ago with fellow entrepreneur Patrick Dowd. “The brewery was built in 1896, and this site was chosen because of its natural artesian well and the proximity to Mud Lake, which was a ready source of ice to keep the beer cold. As there was no electricity at that time, the brewery was gravity-fed with a water vessel on the fourth floor, grain on the third floor and fire-brewed fermentation tanks on the second floor.”
Operating from 1896 until the start of prohibition in 1919, the towering brick brewery churned out in excess of 10,000 barrels a year, supplying the small tourist, logging and industrial communities springing up around Little Traverse Bay. “The brewery had a fleet of horse-drawn carriages that would deliver 35-bottle wood cases house by house to Petoskey’s neighborhoods,” says Lou. “Since we’ve opened, the community has come forward with a bunch of photos, artifacts and family stories, many of which are on display at the historical museum.”
It is probably safe to posit that while fishing for brook trout or telling stories in Petoskey saloons, Ernest Hemingway found refreshment in a cold bottle of Sparkle, Petoskey Brewing’s original signature lager, which is the cornerstone of the brewery’s current line-up. Sparkle’s implications of purity are at the heart of what drives Petoskey Brewing today.
“Our message goes back to our water,” Lou explains. “Petoskey Brewing’s tagline is ‘Pure water. Pure malt. Pure hops.’ And the artesian well underneath the brewery is the reason our beers have the flavor and quality that they do. The rest we owe to our very talented head brewer, Brad Bergman.”
The driving goal here is to make flavorful beers that are balanced in composition and supremely drinkable, explains Bergman, while poring over his inventory of hops. “Regardless of whether we’re brewing a fruit beer or an IPA, I strive to get something that showcases all of its elements,” he says.
Elements are Bergman’s power zone. The Asheville, North Carolina, native earned a chemistry degree focused on brewing science from Appalachian State University; research from that program laid the foundation for the college’s subsequent fermentation science program. After a stint working as a chemist in the food industry, Brad supervised brewing operations for Sam Adams at a Cincinnati brewery before taking over as head brewer for Petoskey Brewing in 2014.
“Working at a big commercial brewery really taught me the importance of consistent quality,” Brad says as we pass freshly canned pallets of Juicy, a New England–style IPA that is Petoskey Brewing’s newest commercial release. Having tight controls on the quality of raw products like malted grain, hops and yeast that go into his brews delivers the consistency that has helped propel Petoskey Brewing’s success, but Bergman is quick to note that creativity and innovation are just as important. “We use a wide variety of hop and yeast strains, so there’s not a lot of monotony from one beer to the next, and we’re not afraid to experiment with unconventional ingredients.”
One of Brad and his brew team’s unconventional experiments that has morphed into a cult favorite is Super Trooper, a seasonal release that begins by pouring a malty English brown ale over coffee beans from Traverse City’s Higher Grounds. The mixture steeps to make a kind of cold-brew ale coffee, which Bergman then infuses with donuts from Petoskey’s beloved Johan’s Bakery.
Annual batches quickly sell out, and a dollar of the proceeds from every case benefit a Michigan cops fund to support the families of fallen officers. “Last year we were able to write a check for $10,000,” co-owner Lou Gostinger says proudly.
Bergman’s brew science experiments, however, sometimes require artistic improvisation to deliver delicious beer from unexpected results. “Our Boom Pow Surprise Mango Sour Ale, was supposed to be an easy drinking blonde cream ale but an accident in measuring for the mash bill got us 16 pounds of acidulated malt when the recipe only called for a pound and a half. The result was so unbelievably tart I decided we’d try to kettle sour it. After fermentation we added pineapple juice, vanilla and tons of chopped mango, along with some lactose sugar for body, and citra hops for a bright citrus note. The result sold like crazy.”
Less crazy, however, is Petoskey Brewing’s innovative approach to marketing. Before going to market, the brewery uses its taproom as a test lab and social media accounts as a feedback forum to involve customers in product design and refinement. Bergman says that this was instrumental in dialing in Juicy, Petoskey Brewing’s take on the explosively popular New England IPA category. “We went through four iterations of Juicy in the taproom that utilized different combinations of hop strains, yeast selections and malt bills and had our patrons vote and leave feedback on each until we found a beer that we felt would work best in our markets.”
Part of Juicy’s success, and that of New England IPA’s in general, is drinkability, Brad explains. “Typical Midwest and West Coast IPA’s are drier and lighter in body, with a firm aggressive hop bitterness. The New England style uses English yeast strains that yield a softer mouthfeel and build in peach and apricot flavors. We use a late addition of hop strains like mosaic, galaxy and el dorado that give off tropical and sweet citrus notes and very little to no bitterness.”
When asked what’s on the horizon for Petoskey Brewing, both Brad and Lou stress steady conservative growth in the business and continued innovation in the brewery. “We’ve seen other small breweries go down under the weight of debt that comes from trying to grow too big too quickly,” Gostinger cautions. “We’re happy to grow 5 or 10 percent a year and stay focused on the quality of our product.”
“I strive every day for the beer to be a little better than it was the day before,” Brad says. “We’ll continually work to critically assess each brew and make little tweaks to improve our recipe for the next batch.”
As tables continue to fill and beer geeks stack three deep at the bar, the next batch, it seems, can’t come soon enough.
Traverse food and drinks editor Tim Tebeau writes from Petoskey, [email protected] /Jon-Paul Allgaier photographs lifestyle, food, product and weddings from his base in Traverse City, greyscalegroup.net