Leopold's expands its niche

BY DAVID ENDERS
Weekend Food and Drink Critic
Published October 16, 2002

Todd Leopold graduated from Georgetown University with philosophy and literature degrees, but took a decidedly different course of study for graduate school.

Paul Wong
FRANK PAYNE/Daily
Stop by on Thursday nights for half off night (assuming you can call the coin toss).

Eschewing a masters, Leopold went to the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago, where he learned to brew beer. That led to further study at the Doemen's Brewer's Academy in Munich, Germany, and an apprenticeship in the same city.

"I get crap all the time from my parents," the 32-year-old brewmaster says.

Leopold and his brother, 34-year-old Scott Leopold, opened Leopold Bros. Brewery (523 S. Main St.) in 1999. The establishment is unique in purporting to be the world's only ecologically sustainable brewery, offering beers brewed only from organic materials imported from Germany. (Ecologist Aldo Leopold is a distant relative of the brothers.) But Todd downplays the organic aspect of the brewery.

"It seems people don't really care that much, but we do it anyways. It's the right thing to do," Todd says.

In any case, it would be unfair to suggest the appeal of Leopold Bros. lies solely in the owners' commitment to being forward-thinking. The space itself is comfortable, (Leopold's is by far the easiest bar on campus in which to strike up a conversation with someone you've never met) with the bulk of the seating being long, picnic-style tables. Most of the furniture is used; a few couches in the middle of the room give the bar an atmosphere of being in a really big living room. There is an outdoor beer garden with plants the Leopolds grew. They stocked the jukebox themselves, and it was Todd's idea to offer board games.

"People light up when they see a game they haven't seen in 10 years," he says.

Theme nights, ranging from movies on Mondays to flip night - guess the coin toss correctly and get half off your beer - on Thursdays, also keep people coming back. And there's beer. Really good beer. The kind most people don't know they like until they've tried it.

"Unfiltered lagers are disappearing in Germany, let alone America. There's nothing like it," Todd says. "We started bottling a few months ago. We just started offering our stuff to restaurants this week."

Leopold's experienced its busiest day to date Saturday and Todd has plans to introduce a new beer, a golden lager intended for service in restaurants, at the end of the month.

"I'm here about 80 hours a week. I'm the only one who does the brewing. ... It's a fairly technical process, and I won't be letting anybody else do it for a long time," Todd says.

People he graduated with at the Siebel Institute are now brewers for Budweiser, Heineken and other manufacturers. Computers and analytical lab equipment measure whether beer is ready in such settings, at Leopold Bros., you have to trust Todd.

"It's all experience. You taste the raw materials, you taste the beer, you taste the water," he says.

Building that trust might be the toughest part.

Michigan is "a very blue collar state, and it's hard to get people away from Budweiser. It's too bad, you see a lot of people just getting suckered by mass marketing. ... It's definitely targeted to the college kids."

After a discussion on how lagers differ from other types of beers (they are heavier and brewed at a lower temperature) the conversation returns to the ecological side of Leopold's.

"Everything here is sustainable," Todd says.

The bar is constructed from old doors and the tables, some bearing scorch marks under the finish, were castoffs from nearby Fingerle Lumber after a fire there. Leopold's offers $1 off on pints to anyone who returns one of their six packs, which are packaged in corrugated cardboard for easier recycling. The brewery itself conserves water a number of ways, from high-pressure cleaning apparatus to piping between vessels Todd designed himself.

"When you make beer, it's very water intensive," he says. "Ten glasses of water for every glass of beer. We have 1.2 glasses of water for every glass of beer."

But, like it's appeal, it would be unfair to pin the way things are done at Leopold's entirely on ecological consciousness.

"When you know how the big guys do things, artificial enzymes and everything, it would turn your stomach," Todd says.

I'm pretty sure most college kids don't think too much about that sort of thing. But the response from my friends who go to Leopold's for the first time is invariably the same: "Why have I never been here?" and then "when do you want to come back?"

Leopold's is open 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Mon.-Sat., 6 p.m.-1 a.m. on Sun. Check out their scheduled nights and beer/lemonade selection at www.leopoldbros.com.

Rex Halfpenny, publisher of the Michigan Beer Guide, weighs in on organic brews:

n Organic is something we all need to care about, but most are not ready for, let alone committed to. Given that beer has been around much longer than sprays and pesticides, one could say that organic beer is the original beer, as all beers were made from organic ingredients. Today however, all crops have been cross pollinated, hybridized and modified for mass production: bigger yield per acre, shorter and sturdier to withstand wind and make harvesting easier, thinner husk, etc. All these things require more intervention. Organic is supposed to be sustainable agriculture.

n Given that you cannot taste the difference, organic beer has no attraction other than a "feel good" about supporting sustainable agriculture and to a lesser extent, controlling what is put into the body.

n Redwood Lodge in Flint made only organic beer for two years and gave up. Michigan Brewing Company has a spelt (popular with the health food shoppers) beer using 100 percent organic grown in Michigan spelt and organic New Zealand hops, but the beer is not certified organic because the same tanks are used to make their regular (and more popular) beers. Other Michigan breweries have also made an organic beer, as a novelty.