Don’t bother with churches, government buildings or city squares. If you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars.
There are those, like Ernest Hemingway, who take their drinking seriously. For them, a favorite tavern or bar must fit as perfectly as a tailored suit. It could be a place with a friendly bartender famed for a listening ear or a low-priced happy hour and a bank of televisions. Whether you are a tourist in town for a few hours and in search for a quick beer, or a local hunting for a favorite haunt, Northern Michigan is stocked with great places to enjoy a drink or seven.
For me, the ideal bar meets two requirements – great beer and an unique atmosphere that allows for conversation. Though there are several places in Northern Michigan that meet those requirements, Beards Brewery is my current favorite. Like all great taverns and bars, Beards takes on the personality of their owners, Ben Slocum and Peter Manthei. Two laid-back young men with a passion for flavor and creative brewing.
After a few minutes chatting with Beards Brewery co-owner Peter Manthei, you feel in the company of a brewing mad scientist (or wizard depending on the brew). When he speaks about his beer recipes, he throws out words like ‘complexity’, ‘gravity’, ‘aroma’, ‘balance’, ‘bouquet’, and ‘finish’. He talks about rare varieties of hops and yeasts as if they were as common as salt and flour. Peter is a self-taught beer aficionado, yet displays no arrogance. With a quick smile and a contagious enthusiasm, he invites you into his world of brewing. For Peter, beer is all about the discovery and process of flavors.
It all started with flour. After graduating from Petoskey High School, Peter found a passion for baking. “I was producing so many pastries, breads and desserts,” Peter said. “I had to give them away so they could be consumed before they became moldy.” What intrigued Peter about baking was the scientific principals behind the chemical reactions. At the time, he was also a coffee aficionado. This led to a natural transition into beer as he neared twenty-one. “I was hanging out a lot with my cousins that were older. They were really into craft beers and planning a trip to Belgium. It was legal for me to drink there, and I knew I wanted to get into beer because it seemed like a great way to explore flavor. So I went to Belgium with them. That is when I really started my passion [for beer]. I would love to go back. I didn’t fully appreciate it because I had yet to develop my beer palate. Going from coffee to beer, there were subtleties that I missed.”
No less of a beer-expert is Ben Slocum. The first time I met him I was with my wife. We were playing a game of Cards Against Humanity with an older couple that joined us at our table. We were laughing at a mildly risque answer to the question “Why am I sticky?” Ben approached to take our empty glasses and asked how we were enjoying our beers. We answered with the lazy sort of ‘they’re really good’ you give to servers. Than he shared that he was co-owner of the brewery. “But you’re so young,” the older woman at the table said. Ben flashed an amused smile. He answered our myriad of questions about the business and beers with a charming grin before returning behind the bar to greet new customers. “He reminds me of that guy from Myth Busters,” my wife whispered. “Not just the way he looks, but his mannerisms too.” It was an apt comparison. Listening to him describe one of his brews, I noticed that he shared the same ability Adam Savage possesses to boil down complex scientific concepts in an engaging and entertaining way so that the lay-person can easily understand them.
Ben is full of surprises. Not only did he help found Beards Brewery, but he is also a world-class rally co-driver. He serves as navigator during endurance races and is also a sought after instructor and team manager. In 2010, he made headlines when he served as co-driver in a $500 1991 BMW that his driver found on Craigslist. Racing against $400,000+ rally cars, they finished third in their class. Ben has also raced throughout the US, Mexico, and Canada and even internationally at Dakar in South America. He has won several races and is in high demand as a co-driver.
After high school, Ben took a few years off of school to recover from an eye accident. During that time, he got involved in motor sports and traveled throughout the Americas. After a few years of spending 30-40 weeks a year on the road, he felt it was time for a change and enrolled at North Central Michigan College. Although both Ben and Peter are graduates of Petoskey High School – Ben in 2002, Peter in 2007 – they never met until at North Central. After graduating there, the two went their separate ways, Ben graduating from Northern Michigan University in 2012 and Peter continuing his studies in Santa Barbara, CA.
“I met a few guys out [in Santa Barbara] that owned a small brewery,” Peter said. “I helped out a bit, well I helped by drinking more than anything else. I thought [brewing] was pretty cool and was something that I could do. Ben came out after I graduated for a fun road trip as I drove my car back to Michigan. We came up the idea of brewing and, when we got home, spent the summer brewing up a bunch of batches. This was in 2011.”
The genesis of Beards Brewery was born on that ride back from California. The two started brewing for themselves upon their return to Michigan. When the beer tasted good they decided to brew more. Soon they were brewing for friends and family. “It was a natural transition to launching Beards,” Ben said. “It is all a fog in the past for me, even though it wasn’t that long ago. That’s not to say that I drink so much I can’t remember. It is simply that it was such a natural progression it is difficult to pinpoint that moment when we said ‘Let’s start a brewpub!’ We were both looking for something to bring us back to town. I worked in the food service industry for a long time and I knew customer service and flavor profiles. [Brewing beer] just seemed to naturally fit. At the homebrew level it was very nail-biting as we decided if we could make this a go. I was graduating college in a year and I needed something professional to do. But our beer needed to be special. In Michigan, you can’t open a brewpub with a mediocre beer. Heck, you can’t open with a good beer.
By securing any funding source they could find, including maxing out credit cards, the two rented a small space in downtown Petoskey. Peter and Ben personally laid the tile for the floor, finished the ceiling and constructed the bar. “That final semester [at Northern Michigan University] was when we were building,” Ben said. “I would get out of class at 9:30pm on Thursday and work all day Friday, Saturday, half of Sunday and Monday until 2pm so I could make a class at 6pm. It was a lot to juggle at once, but it seemed to go well.” They styled the atmosphere of the brewery on their own unique personalities. Paul is a big fan of vinyl records, so all of the music is played on a record and old album covers adorn the bathrooms.
“It was one of my cousins that named the brewpub,” Paul added. “She was hiking with a friend and they came up with the idea of naming a beer, Beerds. We thought that name was too much of a pun, but at the core we liked it. A lot of brewers have beards. Beards sounded hardworking and brewing is hardwork. It takes a lot of effort, care and passion. There is a lot of manual labor in crafting beer. That working man image seemed a great fit for our business. At the time we had a list of thirty potential names, yet half of them were already taken. So we decided on Beards Brewery.”
It is the wonderful variety of beer offered by Beards Brewery that truly makes the place special. They list 49 beers on their website, but have brewed far more. In the last few weeks they have introduced Blackberry Saison, a purple beer, and Our Ginger Beard, a rye IPA featuring fresh ginger, dried lemon, orange peel and Citra hops that was released in collaboration with Our Brewing Company of Holland, MI. “When you visit,” Paul said, “you get a sense of us, even if we aren’t here. That is true even in the beer, which is a story of all the ingredients that go into it. It is a story in a glass. It is a story of the men who harvest the grain and hops. As we get more established, we are focusing on utilizing as many Michigan products, especially grains and hops, as we can. It is how we tell the story of this great place to live, work and play.”
Ben is quick to add, “I get asked all the time, ‘What is your most popular beer? I’ll just have that.’ It sounds hookey, but everything. We have 80 recipes and 7 patents. Our stuff disappears quickly. All of it moves and sells until it is gone. We swap beers almost every day. We brew in small batches so there is always something new. We are tight on beer this summer. We are making it as fast as we can but we are getting busier and busier and busier. There is two ways to look at a business like ours, you can force your beer on the market in the pursuit of growth or you can allow the market to pursue you. We have hopes that people will want our beer so much, that they will force us to grow with demand. We want to make the best beer that we possibly can in the best atmosphere that we can offer. We can’t send our beer to bars and restaurants except on unusual circumstances, because we need it for our customers.”
Their most unique beer is the famed Tree Blood. They claim that there is only one other beer like this in the nation, brewed by a Vermont home brewer. Tree Blood is a maple sap stout. Everywhere in the brewing process that water is normally added, they instead add maple sap from a plot of maple trees just north of Harbor Springs. “Maple sap flows almost like water,” Ben explained. “To make maple syrup, you reduce the sap from 30-60 gallons down to one gallon. That is why the syrup is so thick. We are not getting that reduction. Ours is a 6-8% reduction.” Tree Blood surprisingly carries none of the sweet syrupy flavor you would expect. What the sap bring to the beer instead is a caskwood aged flavor. “The sap brings in minerals and sugars,” Ben said. “This provides an interesting rounded out beer that tastes complex.”
Tree Blood is consistant with Ben and Peter’s promise to use only all-natural ingredients in their beers and absolutely no food colorings. “We put nothing unnatural in our beers,” Peter said. “Every once in a while, someone will notice the chemicals in the brewroom. But those are used only for cleaning. To make good beer, you have to be very thorough in cleaning. But our ingredients are water, grain, hops, yeast and the occasional syrup, honey or juice. And we try to purchase locally as much as possible. If something is grown in Northern Michigan that we can use for our beers, I am going to pay the extra to purchase it.”
When you visit, and you should visit soon and regularly, do not expect to find a certain beer on tap. Beards Brewery rotates through various beers on their 7 taps. There is always a new flavor to try, or an old favorite waiting to be rediscovered. Beards Brewery is located at 207A Howard Street in Downtown Petoskey. Their summer hours are Sun-Thurs 3-11pm and Fri-Sat Noon-Midnight. You may visit them at beardsbrewery.com.