Under the warm afternoon sun in early May, we found ourselves on the patio of Farm Club, an innovative restaurant and farm just North of Traverse City, Michigan, in Leelanau County. Sara Theisen, one of the visionaries behind this distinctive establishment, explained the multifaceted experience that is Farm Club.
The First Rule of Farm Club
While surveying the expansive yard before us, she said, “We like to say that there’s a lot of different ways you can Farm Club.”
I found myself mulling over her words, “Ways you can Farm Club.”
It was as if my furrowed brow was broadcasting my thoughts. She elaborated, “Like in summer, we have the outdoor bar open too. Some people just ride their bikes up. You can get a little snack and a beer out there and not deal with the parking lot or an hour-and-a-half wait. Some play cards. Or if you want to come out and do a five-course dinner. There are a lot of ways to Farm Club, which is nice.”
Chuck, with a mischievous glint in his eye, chimed in, “Quite unlike Fight Club.”
“Huh?” I muttered, seeking clarity on his cryptic remark. “The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club,” Chuck replied happily.
Fight Club Explained
Once I had the digital world at my fingertips, I delved into his enigmatic comment, which was, of course, the intended effect. For those of you also left scratching your heads, Fight Club is a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, later adapted into a film, that explores themes of societal alienation and rebellion through the formation of an underground fight club.
Drawing parallels between Farm Club and Fight Club may appear far-fetched, yet upon closer examination, intriguing perspectives emerge.
- Community vs. Isolation: Farm Club is a place that fosters community, bringing people together over food and drink in a shared space. It’s about connection, enjoyment, and a shared appreciation for locally sourced food and drink. On the other hand, Fight Club is about isolation and disconnection from society. The characters are alienated and use the fight club to feel something real and connect with others in a raw, primal way.
- Creation vs. Destruction: Farm Club is about creation and growth. They grow their own food, brew their own beer, and create a space for people to come together. Fight Club is about destruction and chaos, with the characters seeking to disrupt and dismantle societal structures.
- Transparency vs. Secrecy: Farm Club is transparent, with its operations open for all to see. You can see where your food comes from and how it’s prepared. Fight Club is about secrecy, with the first and second rules being “You do not talk about Fight Club.”
- Sustainability vs. Consumerism: Farm Club promotes sustainability, focusing on local produce and minimal waste. Fight Club critiques consumerism and the emptiness it can bring.
Back to Farm Club
In a nutshell, these two entities are like the yin and yang of modern life’s responses. Farm Club is the sunny side up, championing community, sustainability, and transparency, while Fight Club is the rebellious black sheep, thumbing its nose at consumer culture and diving headfirst into the thrilling abyss of chaos and secrecy.
Having dissected the intriguing contrast between the sunny-side-up ethos of Farm Club and the rebellious spirit of Fight Club, we’ve untangled the “Fight Club” enigma. Now, let’s hop back on our metaphorical tractor and journey back to the verdant fields of Farm Club.
Caught in the allure of this idyllic setting in picturesque Leelanau, Michigan, I found myself musing over the path that leads one to cultivate a community, grow their own food, and brew their own beer. Could there be a fork in my road that leads to such a journey? Unable to contain my curiosity, I blurted out, “If you don’t mind me asking, what was your life like before Farm Club?”
Sara responded, “Nic and I have been part of Food and Agriculture since, basically, 2001.”
Maybe there wasn’t time to reinvent myself into a farm-to-table restaurateur.
For over 20 years, they sharpened their green thumbs by volunteering at the student organic farm and the food co-op in Colorado. Sara was the proud owner of a cozy cafe, and they started a CSA farm. “We would grow the vegetables, and I’d bike them to my cafe. It was kind of like a very scaled-down version of this,” she said, laughing. “Like one 50th of what this place is or 100th.”
They had a bite of the Farm Club life and found it deliciously satisfying.
In 2010, Sara and her husband, Nic Theisen, moved to Loma Farm—their organic farm about a mile and a half from Farm Club and a 30-minute bike ride from Traverse City. Then in 2012, some of their best friends, Allison and Gary Jonas, moved to Leelanau from Brooklyn, New York, to open The Little Fleet in Traverse City.
Amid the pandemic in 2020, best friends Sara, Nic, Allison, and Gary opened Farm Club. “We came together and did this. They live over there,” Sara said, gesturing. “We live over there. We wanted it in the neighborhood. The property was ideal cause it’s right on the bike path, the Leelanau Trail.”
“Farm Club was a COVID baby,” I said, which caused a ripple of laughter.
“Right. It’s so true. It was a very stressful first couple of years, opening any project is, and then something as big as this is — farming and baking and brewing, and we make cider, you know, it’s just a lot. Then a pandemic.”
“What is your first love,” I asked Sara, hoping she understood I was referring to the Farm Club and Loma Farm.
Sara didn’t need to think about a response. Before I’d tacked a question mark to my question, “It’s very driven by agriculture, which is baking, and is brewing and is wine, and is eating. It’s the through thread, like the line that runs through all of it. And preserving land and stewarding the earth, creating a fun place to work with good jobs and. Have fun.” Sara’s eyes lit up as she spoke of agriculture, the thread that weaves through every aspect of Farm Club.
Farm Club Ethos
Sara shared, “My husband Nic is a super talented and really committed farmer and steward of the land. He’s very passionate about food history and food culture, just scratch living. So that really informs a lot; that’s the quintessential farm club and the ethos we started with. It’s just like if you take really good ingredients, then you don’t have to mess with them a whole lot, and they’re delicious. We try not to overly fuss.”
It was like the thought just popped into her head, “I don’t know if you’ve heard much about our Brewer Corey Valdez; he’s not here right now. Or I’d take you back there, and I’d introduce you. He is Allison and Gary’s brother-in-law and has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. He makes very clean beers. He’s very sciencey. We wanted just like real crispy light (beer).”
Chuck chimed in, his face lighting up as he recalled the rhubarb beer he’d had with lunch, “That was awesome.”
As our conversation with Sara neared its end, we managed to snag an invitation in late June for a chat with their master brewer Corey.
Master Brewer Corey Valdez
Sipping on a farmhouse ale, we explored Corey’s journey. His nomadic beer life, tutelage under a Jolly Pumpkin elder, and background in organic chemistry all intertwine, forming the backbone of Farm Club’s beer philosophy. So, resist the urge to utter TLDR (too long, didn’t read) as there are some delightful stories as we crossed the threshold into Corey’s world.
As we were settling into our seats, Corey emerged behind the bar. His cheeks were rosy from a recent run, and his hair was tousled in that effortlessly perfect way – he could have stepped straight off a track and field poster.
Just like our chat with Sara, we found a quiet spot on the Farm Club’s patio. This time we were under a Birch tree which really wasn’t providing much shade.
We dove straight into the heart of the matter, starting with the seemingly simple questions, like the secret behind Farm Club’s delightfully crisp, light beers. Corey got his training from a master! As in Mike Hall, one of the Jolly Pumpkin’s brewing elders. Despite not initially focusing on the beer styles he would later create at Farm Club, Corey credited his solid educational foundation as a crucial part of his brewing journey.
Corey unraveled the tapestry of his nomadic beer life. His journey started on the West Coast, in the heart of Portland, Oregon, just as the craft beer scene was beginning to bubble. His thirst for knowledge and good brews led him to explore the burgeoning beer landscapes of the East Coast and Michigan, where he tried heavy sour beers and potent double IPAs.
Farm Club’s Beers
However, he confessed, “The beers that were blowing my mind were always 5% or lower.” He explained that the beers that resonated with him were those with subtle complexity, not those that overpower you with intensity. They maintain a harmonious balance of all the elements, resulting in a beer that is easy to drink. The beers he was inspired to create.
He continued, “It’s a farm-to-table restaurant – it doesn’t work if the beer is really loud. It makes more sense as something to accompany what we’re making. It just balances better.” His words painted a picture of a brewer who values harmony and balance, both in his beers and in how they complement the culinary offerings of Farm Club.
Shifting the conversation, Corey shared, “We captured a yeast before we opened. I set some jars of wort around the property and caught a yeast that fermented the wort. Grew out the culture, then found the one we liked.” I couldn’t help but picture him darting from jar to jar as if trapping an animal.
“Wait, so how did you find the one you liked? Did you just try a bunch?” I asked as the image of him in a nocturnal yeast chase, fireflies twinkling around him, still playing in my mind.
A knowing smile spread across his face as if he’d tapped into my thoughts. “Life finds a way, right? All of them had something going on. The mason jar has the cheesecloth, something in the air gets in there, and then they start to ferment or whatever.” Now, images of microscopic revelers having a grand old time flooded my imagination.
Corey cleared his throat to get my attention, ‘Yeah. And some of them were clearly moldy and not suitable. There were a few that seemed to ferment cleanly. You could see CO2 being involved over time. We have a microscope, so we looked. It wasn’t just like, you know.”
Chuck completed the thought, “A horror movie.”
Corey let us process the horror movie idea before adding, “It was captured under a pear tree, so it’s probably fermenting something over there. I’m probably projecting a little bit, but pear, like fruit esters, delicate esters. That’s been evolved out of the yeast. Now it’s got a little bit of citrus, feels more like Belgian saison spice.”
Beers You Want to Make
Moving on from the yeast-trapping story, we asked, “Is there a beer you’re itching to brew that you haven’t yet?”
Corey answered, “It’s not so much another beer style, but I want to make Helles, like, seven or eight more times just to change things and try to refine it.” As he spoke, I was reminded of the novel, The Lager Queen of Minnesota, by J. Ryan Stradal. The protagonist, a budding brewer, painstakingly brews the same beer repeatedly until she nails it. It’s a heartwarming tale, and its characters echo the passionate individuals I’ve encountered in the beer industry over the years.
While I was lost in thought about books, Corey continued, ‘Like perfect balance and character without being overwhelming and then just like super drinkable. Especially for the lagers, I’m trying to get it exactly right. The beer should feel a certain way, and I think that’s true for all, and it is not just lagers.”
Transitioning from the art of brewing to the business side of things, Corey shared some insights about Farm Club’s distribution strategy. The brewery self-distributes, focusing primarily on southeast Michigan, and sends out about 100-150 cases of beer and kegs each month.
He elaborated on the rationale behind this limited self-distribution plan. “As busy as it gets up here in the summer, it really shrinks in the wintertime. So for us, it’s a way to let people know that we’re here and also to keep the brewery producing the same volume of beer during the winter. That’s at least the idea.”
Chuck chimed in, “I stumbled upon you guys at the Produce Station in Ann Arbor. There were cans of the Schwarzbier, and when I saw ‘Farm Club’ and ‘Michigan’ on the label, I had to grab some. It was fantastic. Then Nick from Barrel and Beam mentioned Farm Club. And then Brian Tennis was talking about Farm Club. It was like the universe was saying go to Farm Club.”
Bikes and Boats
We couldn’t resist drawing some fun comparisons between Farm Club and Les Cheneaux Distillers. Both are nestled in stunning Michigan locales, yet they offer distinct experiences. For instance, at Farm Club, you can pedal your way to the outdoor bar for a refreshing drink, while at Les Cheneaux, you can cruise up in your boat to the dock for a tipple. Both have a select beer distribution and a shared commitment to local sourcing and quality. It’s like comparing apples and oranges, or in this case, bikes and boats!
Farm Club Reflections
As our conversation with Corey drew to a close, we found ourselves reflecting on the unique charm of Farm Club. Nestled in this picturesque landscape of Michigan, it’s a place where the art of brewing is not just about crafting delicious beers but also about fostering a sense of community, promoting sustainability, and honoring the nuances of nature’s bounty.
Corey’s passion for brewing, meticulous attention to detail, and commitment to balance and nuance are palpable in every sip of Farm Club’s beers. His journey, from his nomadic beer life to his tutelage under a Jolly Pumpkin elder, has culminated in a brewing philosophy that is as refreshing as it is inspiring.
Whether you’re a beer enthusiast, a foodie, or simply someone who appreciates the beauty of nature and the warmth of community, Farm Club offers a unique experience that leaves a lasting impression. So, here’s to Farm Club – a place where the beer is cold, the food is fresh, and the memories are just waiting to be made.
There are more pictures in our Farm Club Gallery! After you take a look, let us know what you think.
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