West Michigan, we know you love to raise a glass of local craft beer, but have you ever wondered what, exactly, a brewer does all day at work? We found out. (Hint: It's more than just drinking beer.) Just in time for this week's American Homebrewers Association conference descending on Beer City, USA, Stephanie Doublestein finds out what Mitten Brewing Company's Rob Wanhatalo does to turn fermented grain into that pint in your hand.
West Michigan loves its craft beer, and the industry continues to grow exponentially, with new microbreweries popping up and current players upping their production all the time. This week, Grand Rapids plays host to the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) National Conference
, welcoming a crowd of beer enthusiasts to Beer City, USA for seminars and camaraderie. All year round, barstools are filled by happy patrons, and local market shelves are full of porters and IPAs made right here.
But who, exactly, is behind all these delicious beverages?
Meet Rob Wanhatalo, known widely as "Wob," brewer at Mitten Brewing Company
on Grand Rapids' West Side. He spends his days making some of the beer you're drinking, which seems like a pretty cool job. If you wonder what a craft brewer actually does
all day (does he . . . sit around drinking beer?) and just how all this local beer gets brewed, Rapid Growth went behind the scenes to check out a day in the life of a Michigan craft brewer at a growing neighborhood brewery. Turns out, there's a little more to it than drinking the beer.
Rob WanahataloHow -- and where -- the magic happens
Rob Wanhatalo, 33, has a truly impressive beard and a talent for talking. He sports tattoos of hops, and he wears jeans with a towel on his belt. He doesn’t like chaos. He's lived in West Michigan most of his life, though he's originally from the Upper Peninsula. He went to high school with the brother of the Mitten's other brewer, Jason Warnes, and was working in quality control in the automobile industry and going to school for a social work degree when he got an opportunity to be an assistant at the Hideout Brewery. He took it.
"I learned by watching," he says. "Slowly." He's the kind of person who used to take apart machines just to figure them out, a problem-solver who learns from his own mistakes as well as from books. "I like being on my toes, understanding how things, systems, and ingredients work," he adds.
Those are skills that serve him well, now that he spends his days in the brewing room at Mitten Brewing Co. at 527 Leonard St. NW. It's crowded in there, and he's excited about plans underway to move operations
to a new, 10,000-square-foot space across the street later this summer.
For now, he and Warnes work together to brew three to five batches per week. On this particular day, they're making a light cream ale, a blond ale, and a pale ale. They spend their days in a room that's crammed full of tanks, fermentors, and mash tuns. There's a scale where grain and hops are measured and weighed, a computer system for tracking batches, and bags of hops piled up near the door. Hoses and clamps are everywhere, along with spray bottles of sanitizer, and part of the floor is usually covered with soapy water. Over the course of the day, trucks pull up to pick up kegs for the ballpark and timers go off every hour or so. The air is filled with that telltale malty, yeasty smell that surrounds a brewery, and a He-Man figurine watches over the whole operation.
Equal parts janitor, scientist, and chef
"Brewers are glorified janitors," Wanhatalo says, and watching him work confirms it. He hauls bags of grain up the stairs on delivery days, cleans tanks and equipment during down time, scrubs, measures, loads and unloads trucks, peers inside tanks with a flashlight, and takes the trash out. He's responsible for keeping inventory, tracking each batch of beer on a clipboard and making notes in a binder that's spattered with beer and water, and he keeps a schedule on a white board.
He patiently explains how each batch of beer begins in the hot water tank, has grain added in the mash tun, proceeds to the boil kettle (where hops and possibly spices are added at timed intervals), and ends up in the fermentor. Much of the job involves carefully timed, sterile transfers of a batch from one location to the next. "I was never a science guy," he says, "but I had to learn reactivity, chemistry . . . I continue to learn."
Each Monday morning, he and Warnes meet with Mitten owners Chris Andrus and Max Trierweiler to plot out the week, measure what's left on tap, and plan ahead for festivals and events, like this week's AHA conference. Wanhatalo, who brews his own mead and cider at home, feels a kinship with the homebrewers.
"The work is a mixture of high-tech and low-tech," he says, "similar to home brewing. The technology we're using is the same idea: movement of liquid from one vessel to the next. The homebrew scale uses gravity, but technology lets us automate, stir . . ." He looks around. "We still put the grain in by hand," he adds.
When Mitten moves to its new facility, he says they'll automate more, but will still weigh out seasonal specialties and small-batch beers by hand, allowing them to experiment – a little.
"I was always taught, if you're going to experiment, tread lightly: You can't take back what you've overdone," he says. "It's like cooking; when I do make something, like a pumpkin ale, I go light. If something is too much, it's not fixable. Our MVP ale is just milk, vanilla, and pumpkin."
Drinking the beer
Wanhatalo gets to work around 1:00 p.m. each day and works until 8:00 or 8:30 p.m., when he sometimes gets pulled to the front of the house, where he inevitably finds himself "talking shop" with customers and, yes, finally drinking the beer he's brewed.
"The neighborhood has embraced us, and we're turning this corner into a destination," he says. The baseball-themed taproom and restaurant now has over 300 mug club members, and Wob loves seeing those mugs on the tables instead of the typical pint glasses at the end of the day.
"I'm proud as punch," he says. "Trivia night is standing room only. This is a place I'd want to come even if I wasn't part of it."
When he's not at work, he's playing music – mandolin, guitar, banjo, "anything with strings" – or occasionally visiting the hop farm he keeps on his grandparents' property north of Houghton in the U.P. No matter what, he's usually talking or drinking beer, naming Country Strong IPA as his favorite Mitten brew and refusing to choose an overall favorite beer when asked.
"I like Zombie Dust by Gumball Head, Moon Man by New Glarus, Heady Topper by The Alchemist, Pliny the Elder . . . " he trails off, then adds, "I still love PBR and Miller High Life, too. I'm still a Yooper at heart."
Stephanie Doublestein is the managing editor of Rapid Growth Media.
Photograhpy by Adam Bird