Tucked in a little town 20 minutes outside Ann Arbor is the Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales Brewery. The entrance sits just off the quainter Main Street of downtown Dexter, a community seemingly too wholesome for a brewery.
But Jolly Pumpkin is just that: jolly. Its proprietor, Ron Jeffries, has created an atmosphere that fits into the town perfectly. While the name – a play on the pirate Jolly Roger – may evoke images of a more innocent version of hard-drinking pirates, the beer brewed at the Pumpkin is more art than drink.
The Pumpkin has made a place for itself in the niche market of artisan ales. Employees brew four beers year-round – Oro de Calabaza, La Roja, Bam Biere and Calabaza Blanca – and an array of seasonal ales in the Franco-Belgian tradition typical to artisan craft beer. According to the brewery’s website, the Oro de Calabaza is a strong golden ale permeated with wild yeast and light, peppery spices. The Bam Biere is a lighter brew that is naturally cloudy and bottle-conditioned, balanced with the perfect combination of spicy malts, hops and yeast.
What sets the Pumpkin brewers apart from most other craft brewers is that they age their ales exclusively in oak barrels.
“We use the oak to mature all of our beer as opposed to steel,” Jeffries said recently. “What the oak offers is a habitat for wild yeast and souring bacteria to grow.”
The decision to mature the Pumpkin’s beer in oak is part of a holistic approach to brewing. Jeffries sees beer as an agricultural product. Most of the equipment the Pumpkin brewers use to brew their beer could be used in a variety of agricultural processes, like pasteurizing milk. The ingredients come from the earth and are produced naturally.
The Pumpkin has been open for four years and is every-growing.
“The fist two years we doubled our growth. We’re looking at 30-percent growth this year,” Jeffries said.
Nationally, the craft beer market is growing about 11 percent annually. In Michigan, however, only 1 percent of beer sales are craft beer, which is why out-of-state sales are so important.
Still, the Pumpkin is part of a growing trend in Michigan. The state has become a hotbed for craft brewers, producing beers tasty enough for the casual drinker, yet complex enough for even the most seasoned connoisseur. And these brewers are bringing home the medals to prove it.
“We’ve won a couple different awards. Our Bam beer was selected by Men’s Journal as one of the best 50 beers in the world,” Jeffries said.
Ben Grabill, manager of Beer Depot on William Street in Ann Arbor added that Michigan won nine medals at the Great American Beer Festival last year.
“Michigan has become a mecca for beer now – hands down one of the best beer states,” Grabill said.
The Pumpkin is also a member of the Michigan Brewers Guild, a 10-year-old group committed to the advancement of Michigan brewers, helping them gain acclaim while also bringing quality ales to beer drinkers in Michigan. Jeffries said it’s one of the nation’s best.
“There are maybe one or two other states that are as organized as the Michigan Brewers Guild,” Jeffries said.
The guild holds two annual, seasonal events. The biggest is the Summer Beer Festival, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year in Ypsilanti. The guild also hosts the Winter Beer Festival, which Graham said is expanding as well.
“It has been in Lansing, but we’ll be moving because we’ve outgrown that spot,” he said.
Information is passed through the channels set up by local and national guilds, allowing the craft beer market to grow steadily around the country. The Michigan Brewers Guild is one of the oldest brewers’ guilds in the country.
“Our guild has been organized longer than others, but the more awareness and the more people who are drinking specialty beers, the more opportunities there will be for Michigan brewers,” Graham said.
The guild facilitates a feeling of community among Michigan brewers. There’s optimism that, as the community continues to grow, Michigan drinkers will continue to buy more local craft beer, something also felt on a national level.
“It makes sense for any given market to have represented some local breweries, some regional breweries and some national breweries,” Graham said.
Craft brewers, especially those in Michigan, recognize that competing over the small market of drinkers they share now is futile. Instead, they hope to increase the overall drinking of craft brews.
This way knowledge isn’t kept behind lock and key. Among craft brewers, everyone seems just to want the best beer possible.