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MankerBeer Meets: Pre-CBC: Bret Kuhnhenn/Kuhnhenn Brewing Co.

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Photo: Joe Hakim / realdetroitweekly.com

Michigan, a state host to 100+ craft breweries, but with only one winning the gold medal for best India Pale Ale in the World Beer Cup 2012 – Kuhnhenn Brewing DRIPA (Double Rice IPA). I remember my first Kuhnhenn Brewing Co. beer which isn’t that surprising as I haven’t been lucky enough to try more than a few of the well crafted brews produces by the small brewery from Warren, Michigan. The Kuhnhenn brothers, Bret and Eric started up their business in 1998 but it would take another 3 years before the brewery, winery and meadery finally could open its doors. The brewery used to house a family run hardware store, Lutz Hardware and for the first couple of years Bret and Eric ran it as a combined space for both the hardware store, their home brewing equipment selling business and brewery, until finally settling for just the brewery business.

For several years they also offered up their equipment for Brew on Premises/Winemaking on Premises where beer and wine makers could come and use their equipment. As Kuhnhenn Brewing Co kept growing they unfortunately had to focus on their own production, although they still offer a possibility to come and share their passion for beer through Kuhnhenn Guild of Brewers. Every Wednesday of each month, at 7.30 in the brewery beer enthusiasts gather to collaborate, discuss and enjoy beer. To me, this is what brewing is all about, passion, enthusiastic people and an open and welcoming atmosphere.

I was thrilled to see Kuhnhenn’s name on the list of breweries attending Copenhagen Beer Celebration 2013 and when I heard that Bret was to hold one of the four master-classes I couldn’t help myself to ask for a taste of what it would be about. More than that the below interview also reveals the beer Bret is not too satisfied with and of course a list of all the beers that they are bringing!

 

MankerBeer (MB): Your story with the brewery is a little unusual; you and your brother ran a family owned hardware store, which unfortunately had to close, whereby you turned it into a brewery? Is it true that the boil kettle was made from a yeast starter for a sour dough bread company?
Bret Kuhnhenn (BK): We had no money to start a brewery, We tried a liquidation sale and sold about 1/2 of the remaining hardware. We only got about 10,000 Dollars. That allowed me to go to auctions to buy used dairy or food manufacturing equipment. Keep in mind we are in Detroit where you can get anything fabricated with in 15 kilometers. The first larger piece of equipment was a huge coffee maker, 300 liters in size; we used this as a fermenter in the hardware store. It eventually turned into a kettle / Still as it was steam jacketed.
We also bought a plasma cutter and TIG welder to build the brewhouse. We had some roll-formed SS pieces made and welded and fabricated in the used tanks in house. Used tanks being : The Lauter tun was a hot peanut butter tank from Quaker Oats. The Kettle was a sour dough yeast starter tank from a bread company. We probably went to 20 or so auctions to find tanks with the correct geometry and jackets. I had quotes for someone to build the Lautertun at about $35,000. We have about $8,000 Into the one we have.

 

MB: Kuhnhenn is known both for the great beers, but also for the high quality meads – was it set from the start that you would brew both mead and beer?
BK: We started making mead in 1995. So about four years after we started making beer. I fell in love with this age old Norse beverage. We experimented a whole lot with wild flower varieties of honey. Mead can be as diverse as beer and will expand greatly in the next few years.

 

MB: You are currently expanding and have been looking for a spot to place and start a 38 barrel-production facility, how is it going?
BK: Expansion plans have been a roller coaster for us. Each site we choose requires or business plan to change. We are currently looking a Farm brewery concept. We need to make our move soon as our beers are very high demand. We bought this 45 Hl brewhouse years ago. But finally now we can prove to the bank we can pay back a large loan for the second brewery.

 

MB: At the moment you produce small batches, distributed locally as well as to the wider Michigan area and New York (and some kegs and bottles magically appearing in Denmark) – are there any plans to expand into more states?
BK: Currently we are brewing 2-3 batches a day on our 10 Hl system. We have told our distributors not to take new accounts as I do not want to disappoint current customers. Many already do not get a constant supply of beer, but they take what they can get. When the New brewery opens we will be able to supply about 70 Markets, But not in the traditional marketing way, The beer will only go into the best beer/ liquor stores and Craft beer bars. The plan is to still keep it rare but in more markets world wide.

 

MB: One day you brew pumpkin mead and the next day a 9% abv pale american belgo style strong ale with american simcoe hops, what is the brewing philosophy at Kuhnhenn?
BK: Our Philosophic take on our products is this: Beverages with distinct personalities. Meaning our beer next to each other will be noticeably different . Our Pale Ale doesn’t taste like or even similar our India Pale Ale. Or our Porter doesn’t taste like our Stout. This is done in several ways; 1. Brewing technique, mashing in many temperatures, different boil times, 2. Yeast and fermentation temperature. 3. Tank geometry (actually a large impact) 3. Ingredient variation. We make the beer for ourselves and hopefully some one buys the rest.

 

MB: Would it be possible to keep a similar range of beers with the same beer styles if you would expand? Would size matter in regards to what beers one would have to produce to finance a larger brewery?
BK: We look at the range of beers we make and in order to simplify our production, We will not be pushing the full line of beers. This is what i have been racking my brain at and our business plan goes like this: There are multiple tiers VS. VSOP. XO and Reserve. VS available to all the market area we enter into Pale, IPA etc. VS and VSOP Is for craft beer bars and retail example would be White Devil and Double Rice IPA(DRIPA) . XO is limited ex. Fourth Dementia Olde Ale and Dark Heathen Triple Bock. Reserve is Raspberry Eisbock and super rare vintage Stuff.

 

MB: At Copenhagen Beer Celebration we will see a couple of master classes, of which you will host one about the current beer trends – could you give a short analysis of what status beer have in the US today?
BK: The Beer Industry in the US is in a huge flux right now. Many new breweries popping up every day. The Giants are trying to stop loosing their market share. The Giants are coming out with different brands that sound like hand crafted beer. They however do not realize in doing this they are pointing those customers more towards craft beer because they are marketing and advertising it more that we can. The Giants are loosing their identity. Not sure what they want to become. Some making many flavors of fruity Wit beer, Some making flavors of Lemonaid – like beverages. Beer with the lowest Caloric content. Etc. Are these beers? Well yes. Adding to already huge list of beer styles. They can make excellent craft- tasting beer If they choose. We make these crazy fruit beers as well but it is not our core focus to make beer like lemonaid. We do use adjunct in beers like the Giant breweries, so the now the Brewers Association says I am no longer a craft brewer because of this. Our Double Rice IPA is one of our flag ship beers. As in the name of the beer it uses rice. This beer took best IPA in the world at the World Beer Cup. Which is a Brewers Association event. So drawing the line of who is a craft brewer….. I guess the line is blurry to me.

 

MB: Among your beers which one is your favorite? And which of one (if any) aren’t you as proud of as you might have wished and would like to adjust or improve?
BK: People ask me this question often. I am a mood drinker, the beer I drink sometimes reflects my mood. Like hot day- pilsner, Cold snowy day – Fourth Dementia, Happy and would like a hoppy treat – DRIPA. Happy and ready for a long drinking session- Loonie Kuhnie Pale Ale. Loonie Kuhnie is my oldest recipe and It took four years to tweak it out. We recently did a Cascade hop comparison challenge, We used the same hop grown in a different region in the United States. This was the only change made in the Loonie Kuhnie pale recipe. 9 out of 10 people could tell the difference. The change in the hop was more Orange like aroma than Grapefruit like aroma. All customers liked both of the beers. The original was preferred and was regarded as just more drinkable.

As far as not happy with a beer I made. I made a beer once with potato Juice. The concept was to make a Hash browns beer for breakfast. It was more like a green potato aroma and flavor. Just not good. Next time I will just put the potato in the mash. I know this turns out.

 

MB: What should beer fans really not miss at Copenhagen Beer Celebration?
BK: At the CBC do not miss DRIPA, Fourth Dementia, and Raspberry Eisbock. These are rare types and true Kuhnhenn originals.

I can’t wait to try everyone’s beers!

 

Thanks Bret! Now lets see what Kuhnhenn are bringing in their wondery beer basket (changes may occur and different beers will be poured during different sessions)!

Kuhnhenn CBC Ber List:

  • Fluffer IPA
  • DRIPA 12
  •  Loonie Kuhnie
  •  Simcoe Silly
  •  Aldebaran
  •  Iron Monger Dunkel
  •  Braggot Mead
  •  Raspberry Eisbock
  •  Bourbon Barrel Fourth Dementia

Magnus "Manker" Björnstjerna

Grundare och skribent på MankerBeer.com. Från ett fokus på allt vad USA har att erbjuda och med en kärlek till gedigen amerikansk mat, bra bourbon och framförallt all landets fantastiska öl har Manker nu börjat förstå storheten i belgisk öl.

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