Exploring the universe of beer styles and flavors crafted by Barrel + Beam through stories at the first beer school hosted at Total Wine in Novi.
Barrel + Bream Brewery
For the last six months, whenever we have a conversation about beer, someone mentions Barrel + Beam. So when they hosted the first-ever beer school at a Total Wine store in Michigan, it felt like it was fate—finally, an opportunity to chat with the good folks from Barrel + Beam.
The Novi Total Wine store was humming with customers collecting beverages for the weekend when we arrived. We dodged carts and customers, making our way to the tasting room.
We arrived early. Barrel + Beam’s co-founder, Nick Van Court, and Kevin Mckinney, their new sales rep, were setting up for the event. During the small talk before the event, it struck me that Nick felt familiar. Maybe it was his charm and easy smile or that he grew up on a farm before going to school and meeting his wife.
Information and stories just bubbled out of him.
I asked him towards the end of beer school, “Are you having fun?”
Nick replied, “I am. I tell you, once you get me going, it’s really hard to stop me. That helped when I was pitching to the banks.”
Making the Leap
Was Nick afraid when he and his wife started Barrel + Beam?
“You know,” Nick said, “basically, we’ve spent five years doing what we needed to do to make it. Asking, “How do we survive?” Because it’s really hard, and two of those years, of course, were during Covid. We don’t even know what happened during Covid because that was such an anomaly. We can’t even look at those years to figure out where, how we’re growing or progressing as a company.”
He continued, “It’s all been a huge learning curve. I was just asked last night, were you afraid to make the leap? No, I was blindly confident. I wasn’t afraid at all. Now I’m like, what did I get myself into?”
Warm laughter floated in the air. Nick was warming up his class.
Nick continued with his cautionary tale, “It’s way more work than you could ever even realize or that anybody can tell you. You know, even people who have started a business will be like, don’t do it. It’s so much work, but, you know, I just have this goal in mind, and nothing could stop that. Now, I see what they mean; basically, you’re always working. It never stops because even when you’re not at work, you’re going over in your head like, okay, what’s happening now?”
Beers and Stories
Beer school was free. Each guest received four tastings and snacks. Plus, the best part was Nick’s stories inter-twinned around each tasting. I picked just a few. There are so many more.
Nick asked, “Who has tried a Belgian Kriek Lambic?”
I haven’t and had to Google it. Thank you, Wikipedia, “Kriek lambic is a style of Belgian beer made by fermenting lambic with sour Morello cherries. Traditionally “Schaarbeekse kriek” (a rare Belgian Morello variety) from the area around Brussels are used.”
“We wanted to make a beer as good as that, but a Michigan version,” Nick said. “And I tell you, it takes a lot of freaking cherries because this bottle has half a pound of cherries. If we put 2000 pounds of cherries into eight wine barrels worth of beer, and if you do the math exactly, I think that’s like two and a half pounds per gallon of ale is cherries.”
“It has a massive second fermentation, making the brewery smell amazing for weeks. It smells like a tobacco shop, cherry pipe tobacco. Because it is a tart cherry, it has that really good depth–an earthy note with that cherry note. You’ll smell that in the beer.”
He told the story behind Spooky Kreik’s name. When they were self-distributing, and Nick was driving home, he would be dying to sleep.
Nick said, “I started listening to a ghost story podcast to keep myself from falling asleep. The first batch that we did of this when we put the cherries in, I told Joe, who works full-time for us. I will put this podcast on, and we’ll listen to it while we put the cherries in the barrel. Well, by the time we were done putting cherries in the barrels, we were scared of our shadows. The beer named itself that day; Spooky Kreik. There’s no going back, you know?”
It was driving me crazy. Who did Nick remind me of?
Blanc Du Nord
Barely taking a breath, Nick launched into another beer’s story. He said, “Blanc Du Nord is an example of one of our classically styled beers, this does not go into a barrel. This is a traditional Belgian witbier beer naturally carbonated in the can,” Nick explained. Fun fact, they sell more Blanc Du Nord than any of their other beers.
Most Belgian witbier is made with coriander, but that is one thing Barrel + Beam do differently. “Coriander doesn’t age very well in a beer. Has anybody ever had a witbier that tastes meaty almost? Does it remind you of a Christmas ham? It’s because they season Christmas hams with coriander and other spices, obviously.”
Laughter rippled around the room, and again I thought Nick reminded me of someone I knew.
“Because of the natural carbonation and knowing we have this extended shelf life, I just couldn’t put that ingredient in there. I knew I was going to screw that up for us in the end. So we’ve replaced the traditional coriander with lemon peel because that’s the kind of note we were trying to get out of the coriander. It is that extra zesty, spicy sort of citrus peel kind of thing.“
Nick shared the story behind the beer named “Tart.” Perhaps this is the beer school’s marketing chapter.
He shared, “I think we went a little too hard by calling this Tart. It’s actually what we call a biere de coupage. That means that some of the beer in that can, when it was packaged, was fresh and straight out of a stainless steel fermenter. Some of that beer was aged in barrels in sour. What we figured out was the right blend to make a beer that was tart but not sour.
Sadly, the name “Tart” just turned off anybody who didn’t want any sour. But it also turned off the people that did want sour and made the people that didn’t know what it meant; I don’t know what that is. So it didn’t hit any points that it should have.
It’s a delicious beer, though. It’s a very, very good beer. Kuma, our beer rep, who stocked all this for us today from M-4, he’s like, change the name, keep making it. You know, sometimes that happens. Because sometimes the name’s awesome, but the beer’s bad. So put the name on a different beer and hope that everybody forgets that beer.
But with “Tart,” we just went too fast to it (the name). Maybe we should have figured that out a little bit better to market it. Unfortunately, the best beer in the world can be just completely unrecognized.”
Someone asked, “Where do your recipes come from?”
Nick quickly replied, “My head.” Then he said “No, really, I have a better answer.”
He seriously said, “All of these beers have been slowly turned into these beers. They might have had different names and been suddenly different. For instance, “Heritage” before we finally got it right where we wanted it and put this brand on it and did this label, it had different names and was different beers.”
He continued, “The Golden Partager is an example of a beer that is just what it is because of what we do to it. And it’s not really about the recipe. Sadly this is changing. This beer started because we had a maltster in the U.P., and I could get U.P.-grown barley malted and U.P. hops. This started as our only U.P.-sourced beer. Well, now it’s a Michigan source beer because, unfortunately, I can’t get those malts and hops anymore because those companies didn’t make it. I try to keep the flavor profile the same by using different ingredients.
The reality is to keep a beer consistent; you’re changing it actually a lot. Because you’re tracking the changes in your inputs if you’re trying hard and making sure to keep it where it’s at.”
During beer school, Nick gently eluded that Barrel + Beam’s next phase is riding on Kevin’s shoulders. We asked Kevin about his journey to Barrel + Beam and his plan for them.
“In 2018, I met Joe and Nick behind the bar (at Barrel + Beam). I just started drinking their beer, and I was just, what the hell is this? It was literally so different than anywhere I’d been. It was an instant love affair. I probably mentioned it a handful of times over the five years; I just kind of said out the side of my mouth, “Nick, if you ever are looking for someone to represent you downstate, I’m your guy.”
Kevin worked for 25 years in ophthalmology sales but knew he never wanted to be a brewer. He said, “I knew that if I ever got in the (beer) industry, what I was looking for was probably gonna be sales because that was my background.” Adding with a laugh, “You wouldn’t want to taste a beer I tried to brew.”
“It is good to know our strengths and weaknesses. To know when to get out of the way,” I said.
Nick said, “That’s why I’m getting out of Kevin’s way every day.”
Kevin continued, “I’m finding out in the few months I’ve been doing this full-time; I’m introducing the name to people and the beer style. Because even liquor stores with huge walk-in coolers full of craft beer don’t know much about what a true farmhouse ale is or a good fruited sour compared to an overnight or two-night kettle sour that a lot of breweries are doing.
It’s educating not only the vast public but also store owners and restaurant owners about what good beer is and why they should carry it.”
Nick said, “I live in our environment every day, and to me, it’s not new anymore. But to 99% of the people we talk to, it’s brand new. I need to be able to describe it to them as though it’s brand new to them. Having Kevin come in and affect our sales the way he has, and we know we’ll continue to do, means that we have the challenge of now we are going make a lot more beer, I hope, this year. That’s a fun challenge, I think. We got a great team and everything, so it should be good.”
Nick painted a vivid picture of brewery life during beer school. Often he was laugh-out-loud funny but also brutally honest about his products and various setbacks along the way. Finally, the switch flipped.
Nick reminded me of Jeremy Clarkson from the British television documentary series Clarkson’s Farm: “An intense, arduous and frequently hilarious year in the life of Britain’s most unlikely farmer, Jeremy Clarkson. Join Jeremy and his rag-tag band of agricultural associates as they face-up to a backdrop of unhelpful weather, disobedient animals, unresponsive crops, and an unexpected pandemic. This is Jeremy Clarkson, as you’ve never seen him before.”
The non-stop work on the farm, dealing with covid, having setbacks, and finding a solution paralleled Nick’s stories. Plus, now Nick is opening a kitchen which Jeremy does in season 2 of Clarkson’s Farm.
Barrel + Beam’s Origins
Twenty years before Nick Van Court co-founded Barrel + Beam with his wife Marina Dupler, she told him, “You should really get some education and experience first.” So he did exactly that. He worked in breweries in Wisconsin before returning to Michigan, to Marquette, to take a job at Ore Dock Brewing.
In 2017 they were able to break ground on the Northwood Supper Club building on the North edge of Marquette.
Northwood Supper Club
Nick shared, “If you’re familiar, the Northwood Supper Club was the spot for weddings, proms, high school dances, and funerals. On Mother’s Day, they would serve 2100 people sit-down meals. This was a huge supper club, 16,000 square foot building.
We purchased it for almost nothing because who was going to buy this giant old building that was put together over the years? Log cabin portions, cinder block portions, stick-built portions. Basically, we were the fools that said, we’re going to make this into what we wanted to be. Which was great, but it did take over a year and a lot of renovations, but we’re really stoked to say that we have, when it closed, the second oldest, continuing to exist restaurant in the state.”
They only had to redo half of the building to have a giant space for barrel aging a lot of their beers. Plus, the large space is perfect for wedding receptions and other parties.
Barrel + Beam continues the Supper Club’s tradition of handing out matchbooks. Kevin said, “ When we’re at Beer Fest, and we lay those out; usually the matchbooks go quicker than the stickers.”
Michigan Sourced Products
Barrel + Beam tries to make Michigan Source products when possible. Many of their beers, ciders, and meads are all Michigan ingredients. Nick said, “We get apples from up in the Traverse City area. Honey, from right up the road in L’Anse to make the mead. As far as the Michigan Source beers, most of the malt and most of the barley, wheat, and spelt are the main ones that we use, are grown generally in the central part of the state and the thumb. Then malted at Great Lakes Malting Company in Traverse City. Virtually all the hops we use from Michigan come from MI Local Hops.”
French and Belgian Styles
“We also make a couple of products meant to represent the quintessential or classic versions of these French and Belgian styles. The saison “Terre Terre” and the “Blanc Du Nord” are brewed with malt I import from France and Belgium. The hops are from France. With these beers, we are really trying to the new world a very authentic and classic version of those beers,” Nick said.
Nick continued, “Of course, one thing that’s the same for all of our products is our absolutely amazing water, like most of Michigan has. That’s a really wonderful point to make about these beers. That crisp, dry, minerally kind of quality about a Farmhouse Ale is really easy to achieve when we have a blank slate for water. All of our products are really dry, so you won’t get any sweet flavors.”
It Takes Longer
It takes about 21 days for most breweries to turn over a beer. For Barrel + Beam, it generally takes ten times longer.
Why does it take so long for Barrel + Beam to make their beer? “Because when we ferment in the package, any oxygen that’s in there is getting consumed again or getting consumed by the fermentation that happens again in the package. We have oxygen levels like most breweries wish for, but the compromise is we have to wait longer.” Nick said.
Nick clarified, “Our average is about 110 days from start to finish. The sour beer that you see often in the market now, and a lot of times at brewery tap rooms, a lot of it is kettle soured. So basically, they do the fast version of souring the beer in their brew house over a day or two, and then they boil it, and that kills the organisms. We take the opposite approach.”
Barrel + Beam makes handcrafted farmhouse and barrel-aged ales, ciders, and meads. “When people come in and look at the board, and they’re looking for, which a lot of people love, hazy IPAs, double IPAs. Nick doesn’t have anything like that at all,” Kevin said.
I’ll be the first to admit I thought they just made sour beers. I got that wrong, and I didn’t even know I liked Farmhouse Ales. Nick said, “Yeah. It’s got all that stuff you want in a beer. It’s refreshing; it’s flavorful. It’s different. It’s new. Even if you’ve had it before, they evolve. It ticks all the boxes for me anyway.”
More To Come
This was just a small sampling of our beer school crib notes.
In August, we are making a field trip to Marquette to visit Barrel + Beam. We plan to combine the rest of the beer school stories with the details from our Barrel + Beam field trip. It just makes sense to combine school with a field trip, right?
We’ve got more shots from Beer School with Barre+Beam in our gallery. Please take a peek and let us know what you think. Leave a comment and show some love by sharing this post.
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