A visit to Jolly Pumpkin

I visited Jolly Pumpkin, one of the world’s foremost showcases of artistry in brewing, and emerged with enough insight and knowledge to fill a favored old foeder.

Sean Brennan

Northern United Brewing Company’s head brewer Sean Brennan says, “Bam!”

What’s in a name?  You say Jolly Pumpkin to a nascent beer fan, you conjure up the polarizing cinnamon-and-clove stuffed pumpkin beers that cause both grocery store shelves and beer writers to groan every fall.

Perhaps unexpectedly, Jolly Pumpkin is the name of one of the world’s foremost sour/wild beer brands.  A brand that didn’t grace the label of a pumpkin beer for its first four years (in 2008 they released La Parcela, a sour pumpkin ale, with the tagline “Now you’ll have to find something else to joke about…”); its name came about simply because husband-and-wife founders Ron and Laurie Jeffries thought it best captured the fun yet provocative idea they had.

Nothing says "fun but provocative" quite like these Jolly Pumpkin tap handles.

Nothing says “fun but provocative” quite like these Jolly Pumpkin tap handles.

I recently spoke with Ron and his production manager (head brewer), Sean Brennan, at Jolly Pumpkin’s brewing facility in south Michigan.  The thought most on my mind was what they felt the “brand” Jolly Pumpkin (full name: Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales) represented.  Founded in 2004, Jolly Pumpkin was the first brewing company in the country to oak-age every beer they released, rightly making it a standard-bearer for the so-called sour beer movement.  But, according to Jeffries and Brennan, Jolly Pumpkin has such an off-beat name precisely to deter people from using labels.

“If you ask me what kind of beer Jolly Pumpkin makes, I’ll respond by saying it’s delicious beer,” Jeffries told me.  “I’ll happily say our beers are tart, or sour, and that they have a wildness that comes from lactobacillus and the wild yeasts the beers encounter, but I’d ask people to look past the terminology and just enjoy the beer as an expression of artistry.”

The name Jolly Pumpkin appealed to Ron and Laurie because it was playful, and somehow communicated the paradox of complexity and simplicity they want their beers to represent.  After all, who doesn’t love Halloween, pirates and smiling Jack O’Lanterns?! So at face value, take it as it comes.  But if you want to know more, well there’s a whole lot more to know.

Sean Brennan Jolly Pumpkin

Sean Brennan schooling The Drinking Classes on some serious beer knowledge.

I learnt this as Sean Brennan took me through the facility.  And the first revelation was that Jolly Pumpkin is not the brewery: the facility is owned by Northern United Brewing Company, a company founded by the Jeffries along with the owners of the North Peak and Grizzly Peak brands in 2009.  All three of these brands are produced at one dichotomized facility just outside the picturesque and peaceful town of Dexter.

(Aside: In my travels I have not come across as Middle American a town as Dexter MI.  In the same way I often feel I’m on a movie set in Manhattan, so I felt in Dexter.  Only it would be a romcom about blissful folk in the middle of nowhere.  In some ways, it’s almost perfect.)

I tried but failed to capture the cool vibe of the Jolly Pumpkin tap room. It's such a cool place to drink beer.

I tried but failed to capture the inviting vibe of the Jolly Pumpkin tap room. It’s such a cool place to drink beer.

I say dichotomized, but the facility has three parts to it: a large (and really well-decorated) tasting room, a “clean” brewing side for North Peak and the barrel-filled Jolly Pumpkin side.  The same staff work in both brewing areas, and to travel between them they traverse a hi-vac corridor, examine themselves for contaminants beneath a UV light, and change their gloves.  There’s also a boot-washing area should it be needed.

“We’ve had an organic approach to developing the Jolly Pumpkin brewery,” Brennan explained to me. “It’s slowly built up over 12 years and we have expressly encouraged all kinds of yeast and bacteria to make it their home.  To maintain the integrity of the North Peak side of the brewery we take a lot of precautions.”

This is the vacuum-sealed corridor separating "clean and funky", or North Peak and Jolly Pumpkin.

This is the vacuum-sealed corridor separating “clean and funky”, or North Peak and Jolly Pumpkin.

Jeffries himself describes the Jolly Pumpkin brewery as “alive”, and, like Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park, he places a lot of stock in the power of nature to achieve greatness with minimal interference from man.  (“I don’t like to pull the weeds out from between the paving cracks, because I feel they’re supposed to be there,” he told me.)

The approach behind Jolly Pumpkin is to carefully create the conditions for beautiful beer to be made, then stepping back and allowing mother nature to take her course.  This is something of a contrast with what I would consider “the other” leading wild/sour brewery in the country, Denver’s Crooked Stave.

The savant genius behind Crooked Stave, Chad Yakobson, goes to great lengths to understand every part of the complex science of the fermentation of his beers, better to manipulate it; while Ron Jeffries – no less of a genius, by all accounts – prefers to maintain some mystery and magic.

Head brewer Sean Brennan is intimately familiar with each barrel and foeder, which he needs to be.

Head brewer Sean Brennan is intimately familiar with each barrel and foeder, which he needs to be.

“The process itself is quite simple,” Brennan explained to me as we stood chatting amongst the brewery’s extensive collection of wooden fermentation vessels. “We create high quality wort to spec, give it about seven days primary fermentation with a pretty standard Belgian Sacch strain [Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the usual yeast for fermenting beer] in open steel tanks, then we put it into wood and see what happens.  The trick is to understand the wooden vessels so you can go some way to predicting the outcome, and getting the wood to the right place over time to have the effect on the beer you want in the end product.”

By playing with this process and working carefully with a wide range of spirits barrels, wine barrels and large oak foeders, Jeffries, Brennan and team are able to produce a variety of quite stunning ales.  The sort-of-flagship is Bam Biere, a 4.5% ABV blonde farmhouse ale that matches just the right amount of tartness with a light, spicy, dry-hopped nose.  Bam (named after Jeffries’s hardy Jack Russel) makes up almost 20% of Jolly Pumpkin’s sales, and spends only 4-8 weeks in wood.

Bam Biere

Jolly Pumpkin’s biggest seller, at about a fifth of their output, is fan-favorite Bam Biere.

Toward the other end of the spectrum is La Roja, made in the tradition of a Flanders Red and carefully blended from beers that have spent from two to 18 months in a variety of barrels.  As my friend and ex-Jolly Pumpkin brewer Brian Grace describes it, you will never see a man in more obsessive pursuit of perfection than Ron Jeffries blending beers to make La Roja.

(Naturally, a brewery like this also releases a cornucopia of seasonals, collaborations and one-off beers that, given they robustly age and evolve in bottle, are the object of many-a-geek’s cellaring desires.)

So what does lie behind the whimsical name of this ground-breaking Michigan brewery?  An awful lot if you care to look.  But my biggest takeaway from my conversations with Brennan and Jeffries is that their beer – their art – is something they have designed with a singular purpose in mind: your enjoyment of it.

Ron Jeffries, the man behind Jolly Pumpkin and a lot of tasty beer. (Courtesy of Northern United Brewing Company.)

Ron Jeffries, the man behind Jolly Pumpkin and a lot of tasty beer. (Courtesy of Northern United Brewing Company.)

10 Questions To Educate The Drinking Classes with Ron Jeffries, Co-Founder and Master Brewer of Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales and Northern United Brewing Company

[Note that Ron prefers the job title Chief Squeegee Operator!]

  1. Can you describe what your company does in one short sentence?

We make and sell beer.  That’s about as short as I can make it.

  1. How long have you worked here?

My wife Laurie and I founded Jolly Pumpkin in 2004, and five years later several friends and colleagues, along with Laurie and I, created Northern United Brewing Company.

  1. How and why did you come to be here?

I was a professional brewer for 10 years before starting Jolly Pumpkin.  Brewing was an interest that developed at graduate school, where I became interested in beer production, small breweries and the science behind brewing.

I’ve always really liked beer – a lot – and when I run into friends from college who didn’t know I owned a brewery, their reaction is, “Well of course you own a brewery.”

At grad school I was studying for a master’s degree in science and as I took more classes and my interest in beer grew, I veered into the science behind fermentation and how small breweries work.  It just kept going until I was working at a brewery.

It was always my plan to open my own brewery, and while I was working as a brewer I was constantly refining my business plan and observing the craft beer industry change around me.  When Laurie and I were finally in a position to open our own brewery we wanted to do something no one else was doing, which was make 100% oak aged, wild and sour beers.  We wanted to take our beer to a level of artistry by introducing these wild yeasts and bacteria and bringing a little of the unknown to scientifically clean beer to create these wonderful, beautiful, delicious beers that would stand out.

Who knows what this visor was doing atop a barrel, but it sure looks cool.

Who knows what this visor was doing atop a barrel, but it sure looks cool.

  1. What is your daily routine?

I get up quite early in the morning and do something to get my head together for the day, whether that’s a run or meditating or something like that.  I come into the brewery for about 9 o’clock and will get going on work that will depend on the day of the week.

Monday will usually be a pretty heavy day, with reporting from the restaurants, inventory for the week and stuff like that.  If I’m in town, I usually love to brew on Tuesday and Wednesday.  I use our original 10 barrel system.  And then the rest of the week I’ll do recipe development and prepare for the weekend if we have something going on.

A lot of my time is taken up with things like the TTB: even though they’ve expanded what they consider typical ingredients for beer we often fall outside of that box, so I spend a lot of time online filling in formulas.  And I have interviews, strategic planning with our CEO and doing what I can do to guide the vision of this company.  My wife Laurie is really the chief keeper of the flame, so to speak, so we often check in with our management team to keep our plans in line with where we want to be.

I travel quite a lot – maybe one to two weeks each month outside of December and January – which is usually work with other breweries and trying new things with them.  Obviously then my routine is very different.

Weekends will vary a lot.  This weekend the weather’s looking great, so we’ll try and get out and do some paddle boarding.  No thunderstorms, hopefully.

Jolly Pumpkin's original 10 BBL brewhouse. Jerry rigged from old dairy equipment and such. Still in use today.

Jolly Pumpkin’s original 10 BBL brewhouse. Jerry rigged from old dairy equipment and such. Still in use today.

  1. What is the hardest thing about your job?

Not firing everybody every day.  Going from being the guy who makes all the beer to running the company that makes all the beer is probably my biggest challenge.

A brewery that’s growing is a challenging environment, and as you add more people there’s a lot of personality management that goes on.  The trials and frustrations of making beer are fun to me, that’s what I do.

But having everyone understand the goal and the vision and having everyone work together to achieve it is not something I enjoy.  There are days when I come in and just want to burn the place down and start over.  But that’s not really practical most days.

We have a lot of good people and I want to help them make good beer and be good people, not just at work but in life.

  1. In your view, what does it take to make it in beer?

The industry is challenging and it’s changing very rapidly.  The most bare bones necessity these days is a tasting room.  We started without one, and it’s probably the biggest mistake we made.

I was a brewer and was very focused on brewing and didn’t want to be a bar tender, or have to be the general manager of a bar.  I just wanted to make beer and sell it.  A decade ago that was a mistake we could survive, but with so many beers out on shelf today, I don’t think a brewery without the means to make a connection with people can succeed.

It doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated, but a place to have people try beer, hopefully a place to sell quite a substantial amount of your production, is critical.

  1. What is success for you?

That’s a layered question.  For so many years it was being able to pay all the bills.  Which we often couldn’t do, and that was a big distraction.

There’s also the rewarding aspect of the role we’ve played in the craft beer landscape, and knowing that we’ve played a part in changing how people look at beer, that I consider a success.  To move from having people write us letters telling us we had an infection problem to people calling me up asking how I do what I do and being able to help other brewers make their sour beers better, is very gratifying.

We have little victories too, like persuading the GABF that the saison category should allow Brettanomyces character, which for years they categorically would not permit.  I wouldn’t say I did that on my own, but I at least got people with more influence than me to weigh in.  So success comes in all shapes and sizes.

But while the respect of one’s peers is awesome, being able to pay the bills is super awesome.

  1. If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?

I’m kind of superstitious about change – I don’t even like to mow my own grass because of what it might change.  It’s like that time travel thing: if you change one little thing that might be the wrong thing to change, and then everything goes to shit and you’re the one to blame.

There’s certainly a lot that’s wrong with the beer industry right now, but there’s also a lot that’s right.  And I prefer not to think about what’s bad but rather focus on what’s positive.

Steel primary fermentation tanks contrasted with oak foeders, the place where the magic happens,

Steel primary fermentation tanks contrasted with oak foeders, the place where the magic happens,

  1. Apart from your own, what are your three favorite beers, and why?

That’s a super hard question to answer, because I have so many friends who make fantastic beer, and I would hate to choose between them.  But I guess if I had to pick beers…

  1. I have had a long relationship with Greg Koch. He was one of the first people to reach out when Laurie and I started the brewery, and on the basis of our friendship and the fact they make such iconic beers, Stone IPA is always in my fridge. And if it’s not I’m pretty sad about it.
  2. And then I think about a recent trip to Oregon, where I was out at Gigantic. Their IPA is awesome, and we drank a lot of that…
  3. And we stopped in this little wine company on the Oregon coast called Twist, which is owned by the sister of Russian River’s Vinnie Cilurzo. I drank Blind Pig there and loved it.  I’ve always preferred Blind Pig to Pliny, but they’re both fantastic beers, for sure.
  1. Apart from the Jolly Pumpkin bars, where’s the best place to get a beer in this part of Michigan?

Laurie and I live in downtown Dexter, and we’ve lately been stopping in a place called The Beer Grotto, which is part of a small chain in Michigan.  Dexter is a wonderful town, and The Beer Grotto is three blocks from where we live, so we often enjoy an afternoon on their patio.

Okay, this isn't my photo. I don't know how they did it. There's Ron...and Ron.

Okay, this isn’t my photo. I don’t know how they did it. There’s Ron…and Ron.

Leave a Reply