As part of my "job" as the Official Wench of Beer in the Ann Arbor area I get to meet a lot of really cool people.
A couple of those very ones stopped by for a chat with me last week.
You probably know them.
Most folks in local beer world do. They're semi-celebrities in the Michigan home brewing scene, and were among the first members of the Ann Arbor Brewers Guild and they love and support all the great breweries in the area!
Please give a warm wenchie welcome to:
Jeff and Susan Rankert!
throws confetti…..Now, to clue you in, "Liz" is "Wench" That is to say, "me."
Welcome guys! What are we drinking to start?
Susan: Hi 'n Dry Rye all around. It is a wonderful beer!
Liz: Agreed, but I'm sticking to what I know and love, the Gulo Gulo. Now, tell me a little about what got you, Susan, started in home brewing.
Susan: Back in the '90's Jeff was well on his way to being an excellent home brewer, and I pretty much just stayed out of his way. But we got the opportunity to go the Germany for a while which meant a hiatus from the home brewing. We lived in an area not really known for its great beers but luckily, Germany isn't a huge country so between that and the fact we were but a short drive from Belgium, we got the chance to really appreciate all sorts of European styles.
Funny story, although I was already knowledgeable as "beer" has always been my alcohol of choice I still sometimes have to prove it. I was in some fancy beer shop in Belgium and had picked up a gueze style and was pondering it when a sales person approached me. He did not look terribly thrilled at the thought of having to "explain" lambics and wild fermentation to a female. Once I asked him the right question about it, he calmed down and we had a nice chat, but I always remember that moment as one where I felt very obvious as an "American" and as a woman holding a beer he assumed I knew nothing about.
Liz: Yes, we ladies sometimes get pushed right off the ball in this biz based on assumptions, don't we? It's getting better, but it still happens. What happened once you guys got back to the states?
Susan: While I was there, I sent "updates" to the local home brewer's guild about the various beers we'd had which was fun. But when we returned I started attending their meetings and I was the only woman in the room. I began helping Jeff with the home brewing projects after that.
Jeff: We collaborate on everything now.
Susan: Jeff does the hard core recipe development…the numbers and calculations. I'm more the right brain of the collaborations….I want to know how a bit of, say, smoky barb-b-que might taste in our porter.
Liz: What is your favorite part of home brewing?
Jeff: Well, once upon a time, home brewing was the only way to get anything interesting or creative, other than to travel a long way to find it. It was the best way to make the sort of beer you wanted to drink. So the simple creative act for me is the best thing.
Susan: Agreed. But I also love the beer brewing community. It's very European in its attitude about beer (and drinking in general). We enjoy beer together, we are not about getting our drunk on however I don't blink if I see someone enjoying a brew at, say, 11 in the morning. I accept that a normal level of alcohol consumption can be part of a healthy lifestyle. Yes, it is a social lubricant. But we don't want to drown in it.
Liz: Well said. Might quote you on that someday. Let's refresh our glasses?
Jeff: I'll try the new one, the kellerbier Daft 'n Dank.
Susan: More High 'n Dry Rye for me thanks.
Liz: (makes mental note of the overabundance of the 'n in the beer names and moves on, 2nd gulo gulo in hand) And so, that's the best thing, what is the worst thing about home brewing.
Jeff: The mess.
Susan: Cleaning up the messes. But I will tell you I am funny about noticing how clean breweries are when I visit them. A spotlessly clean brewery is a sign of a great brewer and staff. And I know how hard it is to keep a place that way, based on my small scale efforts.
Liz: Agreed. The brewing staff at Wolverine has spoiled me for that, I'll admit. I visit a fair number of breweries and always notice when they are not up to the clean standard set here. Since you no longer HAVE to home brew or fly to Europe to get decent beer, what is the motivation to continue doing it?
Jeff: I'm all about trying to recreate some of the amazing brews I've had, especially lagers. I know how hard it is to make a really good one.
Susan: Yes, it's fun to find a particular style you really like and try to make it at home.
Liz: So what is your process, as a team of home brewers?
Susan: Jeff engineers the beer, concocts the recipe, makes the framework. He's a numbers guy so that works. I then execute the recipe.
Jeff: Susan has a more discerning palate than I do so she can help identify off flavors which also helps.
Liz: You guys have been honored for some of your brews at national competitions, right?
Jeff: Yes, but we know how subjective beer judging is.
Susan: And how much depends on a well-run beer judging session. We've served as stewards at several large competitions and will be head stewards for the national home brewer's competition this year. Bottom line: the stewards determine the level of organization and without that, you just can't have a decent beer competition.
Liz: And the awards….?
Susan: Our barley wine won a gold medal and a trip to Sierra Nevada Beer Camp. That was an experience I'll never forget. It was amazing.
Jeff: Our Pilsner won a bronze. And the winning feels great but we take it with a grain of salt. You never know who is judging, what their palate leans towards.
Liz: And so, what's next for you guys?
Susan: We experimented with a wet hopped beer last fall and hope to try that again. There is a new hop variety unique to Michigan called Empire that is having some success. Using ingredients close to home is something we can do here.
Jeff: We like to adhere to traditional processes and ingredients.
Susan: …. as long as we can keep being creative within that….
Liz: Sounds like you guys keep it interesting in the kitchen….Thanks for coming by and have fun with all your creativity and your stewardly organization!
There you have it Wench fans and others! The king and queen of A2 Home Brewing!