We journeyed to Stormcloud Brewing in Frankfort, Michigan, for their 31 Planes Beer Release Party, and as you’d expect, it took us on quite a trip!
We arrived at Stormcloud Brewing after driving through a slushy mess that shrouded our car in ice. We felt like tiny birds chipping our way out of an egg when we opened the car doors. The parking lot was full, with people flocking into the heated tent where there would be live music.
Stormcloud Brewing’s 31 Planes Release Party
We were excited to join other Michigan beer lovers for the 31 Planes Release Party. But first things first, we had a beer with Brian Confer, Stormcloud’s co-owner, and Chris Schnepf, Stormcloud’s lead brewer. What I thought would be a quick conversation about 31 Planes took many turns and ended with tasting a few beers from their Lakehouse Ales Project.
It helps to know this beer is named after a Buddhist idea; there are thirty-one planes or realms to which you can be reborn.
Which Plane of Existence is this one?
Brian replied, “It’s funny. I just had a phone call from a beer bar manager down in Detroit who called to ask the same question. I didn’t realize that was so much of a thing. Well, this is plane 19, officially. I don’t know; it might be 19 ½. We really like this version of it. We’ll probably keep playing around a little bit. It’s only going to change if we hit on one that we like better.”
Turns out this is halfway between Devas of Unbounded Glory and Devas of Refulgent Glory, so Stormcloud has that going for them.
Can you tell us about the process?
Chris answered, “It’s not like a mid-fermentation dry hop or anything. We let fermentation complete itself. Then it’s just a single charge of those two hops, Simcoe and Zappa.”
It’s contained for a while, the dry hops, right?
“We’ve been dialing that back across the board with our beers. I’ve messed around with different temperatures as well on a smaller scale on different beers. Our standard is 3 to 4 days. sitting at that single temperature, and then we get it really cold and get those hops out of there. Some hops can really go downhill fast after four or five days,” Chris said.
Brian added, “The dry hopping has been through the journey of the planes as well. Not only the ingredients but also the process has been a part of the whole planes. That’s what I meant when I said it might be 19 and a half because it’s like, do you change it just because we changed some of the processes? This is an old-school IPA. It completes fermentation. We cool it down a little bit, hit it with a pretty big hop load, and let it sit for 3 or 4 days. And then crash it.”
He continued, “This beer has been through a journey. We used to do two dry hops over a longer period of time. Done mid-fermentation.”
“It’s the same hops and amounts as 19, but we’ve changed the process. So the 19 ½ is kind of a joke. Maybe we’re dry hopping at a different temperature in a shorter period of time, but nothing else has changed.”
What elements do you feel are Belgian about 31 Planes?
Brain jumped in to answer this question, “The yeast is our Belgian strain. It’s worth talking about that. We use a house Belgian strain. We use various strains, but we don’t use any American West Coast or American strains at all. This strain we treat it so that it produces sort of a pepperiness that sort of blends into the hop. It’s not Belgian fruity. It’s not sweet. So it finishes dry. We try to do the same in our regular IPA, Wild Away. It’s producing a sort of a peppery backbone in that beer. Sort of a spice.”
Chuck said, “When some people think of Belgian, they start thinking of “banana-ie” taste.”
“We try not to get banana. I don’t get banana out of this beer,” Brian said.
Chris added, “I think it does work well with the Zappa hop. I think we learned over time that Zappa almost presents itself as phenolic. That pepper is a phenol from our yeast.”
“You know, when I was home brewing and working on this business, I knew we were going to be Belgian. I knew I wanted to do a good IPA and tested a bunch of yeast. I settled on this yeast as our house yeast specifically because it, to my palette, it did a better IPA than the other Belgian yeasts.” Brian said.
He continued, “If you did it side by side with an American yeast, they wouldn’t have that. Some people would prefer it cleaner. I like the complexity that it puts into those IPAs. There’s a tail end of sweetness, you know.”
Chuck said, “It’s not like a super crisp dry IPA. I’m thinking of a Blackrocks’ 51K, which is super dry and crisp. And this is not, but is a double, so it’s a little bit different.”
“So that also plays into it. There’s just more malt, more everything,” Chris said.
“In all of our Belgians, we strive to have a dry finish. In fact, half the time, we are fighting to get it to finish a little sweeter than it wants to.
Laughing, Chris added, “We do like dry beer here.”
Is it coming out in cans now because you’ve got a bigger facility so that you can do more production?
We’ve done a slow roll on beer releases. We haven’t done a lot all at once. We’ve slowly added releases as we grow capacity. Yes, we’re doing it because we have the bigger production facility, but we’ve slowly expanded our territory. We’ve also slowly expanded our offerings just to make sure we don’t run into out-stock situations. We’re not in the entire state yet.
We had a debate: do we open more territory, or do we release different varieties? We haven’t chosen either one. We just opened a new territory, and we just increased…
Sadly I cut him off before he could finish and asked, “What’s the new territory?”
Brian replied, “The southwest corner of the state with Bud Distributing.”
Chuck was eager to know, “Does this come to Ann Arbor?”
Brain said, “We are not in Ann Arbor yet. That’s one of our last pockets we have opened up. It’ll probably be a little bit. We just opened Bud. They’ve got a pretty good territory, so we need to get through a season and make sure we’re not going to be in out-stock situations.”
I wish you could have heard Chuck groaning in despair with this news.
Stormcloud has a tool on its site to find where to buy its beer.
This past January, during Michigan’s Great Beer State Conference & Trade Show in Kalamazoo, Chuck caught a session in which Brian was a presenter. It was a panel discussion of Michigan Grown ingredients and insights into the challenges and opportunities of growing hops in Michigan. Chuck mentioned the conference and said, “We know you work with the local industry like hop growers, but you are also using local malt too.”
Brian nodded in agreement and said, “Hop growers, yep.” He then motioned to Chris to add more.
Chris said, “We use a lot of Empire Malt. Alison, uh, Stanz now; she just got married. Her farm is right up the road in Empire, Michigan. It’s cool to be that close to a local grower and farmer, and she malts; like she’s all of it, all in one.”
Chris circled back to the original question, “In that talk, you probably heard us talk about why or why not we choose to use local malts. Pretty much anything non-production that’s in a can, we’ll use pretty much her malt exclusively.”
Brian clarified, “Nondistribution.” In layperson’s terms, anything that isn’t distributed to stores but sold onsight.
Chris continued, “especially in our traditional Belgian-style beer right now, we’ve been sticking with her malt exclusively. It is cool because a lot of those beers are almost always a single malt or most of her base malt and then a touch of something else. It is a lot of her terroir (environmental factors), her flavor. Pretty much any traditional Belgian you see here; it’s pretty much her malt exclusively.”
Was it a goal to have Michigan ingredients, or did it just happen?
Chuck added, “When you started ten years ago, there wasn’t as much Michigan Hops or Malt.”
Brian answered, “Yeah, the malt was slower for sure. We started using Brian Tennis’s hops right out of the gate. I’ve known Brian for a long time before the brewery started, so we’ve always used his hops. But then, when Alison started, it just makes sense to use her malt. She’s right up the road. She’s passionate; she’s trying hard. Just makes sense to use it where we can.”
She (Alison) has the same variances as a craft producer that we do. When we’re putting the ABV on a can, it needs to fall in the spec. When we’re working with her malt, we bounce around a little bit just because our own processes are variable. And hers are variable, and you add the two together, and you get out of spec a little bit.”
Chuck brought us back to the panel conference panel discussion, “I remember that came up in that conversation about all malts because it’s the smaller volumes trying to get consistency across the board. So you’ve got a consistent product to work with. And it’s hard for them because, you know, the weather changes, whatever.”
Chris added, “She was even saying field to field.”
“Yeah. And we totally get that. I understand and don’t expect anything different,” Brian clarified.
New Pub System
In the original brewery, where Stormcloud Brewing now has its sour program, they are installing a new little pub system. The sour program is moving to a refrigerated warehouse they have around the corner. There is still a supply chain issue; the new system will arrive piecemeal. They are installing the pub system at their Parkview Taproom temporarily. Brian made it sound so easy, “We’ll brew on it probably for the winter and then move the sour program out of that space, clean it up. We will need to get glycol installed there, get that space prepped, and then all at once, just move it into that space.”
“And we’re gonna put in a glycol system big enough to chill the curling sheet,” Brian said.
Curing, you say! Yes, Stormcloud Brewing has curling. In the winter, they install a custom curling sheet next to the pub on Main St. You can take lessons or join a league. We tried to attend a curling event in 2015, but the warm weather melted the ice.
The new glycol system will give mother nature a run for her money.
When you talk about a sour program, what does it mean to a non-beer person? What is a sour program?
Chris was elected to answer this question. “Sour program is one way to put it. It’s not necessarily what we’re focusing on there. There is sour, and then there’s mixed fermentation or Brettanomyces. We’re leaning more toward the brett side of things. Think about funky beer. That’s the term that goes around here a little bit more funky.
We’re focusing on that over there (In their Sour Program). That is not to say that we haven’t put out an acidic beer or anything like that. It’s a side project that we’ve enjoyed working on over the years. It’s grown slowly.
There’s a lot of wood and barrels over there right now. We have a couple of stainless fermenters from the original pub system that we had. It’s fun to just move beer around and add hops, add fruit — all these different things. It’s essentially mixed-culture beer.
We take a lot of, for the most part, fermented beer from here, lean starting, and then we add wild yeasts, Brettanomyces for the most part. We try to bring in a whole other layer to that beer.
Would that fall back into Belgian farmhouse beer?
Brian jumped in, “I mean, loosely? I think Chris is right. Actually, it’s funny. I never thought about it. The sour program’s probably not the best way to put it. It’s just a mixed culture program–Farmhouse. It’s funny because we actually don’t call it a farmhouse. We call it a lakehouse because we’re on a lake and don’t live on a farm.
Chris clarified, “It’s literally our Lakehouse ales project.”
Lakehouse Ales Project
Brain asked if we’d like to try some of their Lakehouse Beers. Yes, please!
Brian set up a tasting to compare a “Serie Saison” carbonated differently, one in a bottle and one in a keg.
Brian and Chris explained the process. The bottle was traditionally bottle conditioned. For the other, he pulled a keg off the fermenter. He took all the pressure off and dosed in a little sugar solution with lager yeast instead of the standard bottle condition yeast. Instead of putting it in a warm room to carbonate naturally, it was put into the cooler.
We were the first to do a side-by-side comparison. Brian said, “So, in theory, they should taste the same, but they’ve been treated differently. One was carbonated through a lagering process, and one was carbonated through a warm bottle.”
“The idea behind lagering is that lager yeast is working slowly to clean up anything that it may have produced during primary fermentation. The idea is that the lager yeast might actually clean up some of those phenols that come from a Saison,” Chris added.
We all agreed the nose was different, and the taste was remarkably close. The carbonation created a dancing sensation on my tongue. I liked the keg conditioned slightly better, but after you swirled the bottle-conditioned beer a few times, I couldn’t tell the difference.
We asked Brian which he liked better, and he said, “Well, it’s really interesting because I think I might like the lower carbonation version a little better. It’s a little easier to deal with on the pallet. It almost comes off as cleaner, but I think it’s strictly due to the carbonation.”
We brought two Lakehouse Beers home: “Wild Bear Hug” and “Gerald’s Atomic Dog.”
Wild Bear Hugs’ Description: Our base mixed-culture Foeder-aged Keviek Ale was transferred into stainless after 8 months of rest. We then added 3lbs of Bear Earth Herbals‘ “Wild Bear Ease” Tea Blend, ground sumac, and elderberries. It is aged for an additional month.
Gerald’s Atomic Dog’s Description: Our 2020 batch of Gerald’s Talk Dog, a Cherry Rye Dubble, dry-hopped with Michigan Crystal hops, then aged in stainless for 10 months with additional tart cherries on a 100% Brettanomyces culture.
“Experiments are a big around here for sure. In the brewery, we have a little pilot one-barrel system. Those fermenters are pretty much always full with some kind of experiment. They’re more experimental than attempting to tweak,” Chris said.
It was fun to join in their experimentation process.
Back to the Party – Music of Tim Jones
After our taste testing of “Serie Saison,” we headed out into the heated tent where the music of Tim Jones was in full swing. Picnic tables bordered the walls of the tent, with Tim and friends just off-center as you walked in. Tower heaters with the gas jets blazing struggled to keep back the cold and the wind. We huddle up near the band for the warmth of the music with our fellow partygoers.
We enjoyed the music of Tim Jones and friends immensely. They played a mix of covers and original music. Tim’s voice had Chuck thinking of Little Feat and The Band while the music wandered in the same fields with touches of Tom Petty and Van Morrison. Speaking of Van Morrison, they did a great cover, but I’m blanking on the name of the tune.
When Chuck sat down after taking some pictures, he pointed over to the drummer saying with an excited smile, “That’s Brian Ferriby on drums.” Evidently, Brian has played with just about all the awesome country and American bands in Michigan, including our friends in The Whiskey Charmers. On bass guitar was Beejay Riffitt. Besides being a hell of a bass player, Beejay is also a beekeeper. I guess that explains his first name’s spelling.
Earlier, when chatting with Brian and Chris, our conversation weaved into music. This happens with Chuck. We learned that Tim had recently moved up to Frankfort with his wife and family. Tim and his wife curate live events and movies at the renovated Garden Theater, which is right next to the Stormcloud downtown pub. If you want to check out more of Tim’s music, see his other bands, Whiskey Wolves of the West and Truth & Salvage Company.
Tim, BeeJay, and Brian did some great improvisation during the prize giveaways. Everyone that attended the 31 Planes release party could enter to win prizes such as a free mug club membership or growler fills. Stormcloud’s Amy Martin pulled names from a pitcher as Tim sang out the winning names.
While the festivities were still going strong, it was time for us to move on. We wanted to stay longer, but hunger said dinner was calling from the Stormcloud pub downtown. Happily, this meant we could have one more delicious brew before walking to our lovely room at Hotel Frankfort.
We’ve got more shots from Stormcloud’s 31 Planes Release party 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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