Note: This profile originally appeared in Issue 57 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.
Reinheitsgebot be damned. American brewers have never exactly been constrained by German purity laws, but Russ Springsteen and head brewer Corey Wentworth are taking experimentation and extreme beer to new heights in Traverse City, Michigan at Right Brain Brewery.
Pushing The Limits
Water, barley, hops and yeast – Right Brain uses the standard beer ingredients, but Springsteen doesn’t see the need to limit himself to traditional recipes. Although the American Adjunct Lager has spoiled the “A-word” for many beer geeks and brewers, Springsteen sees brewing with adjuncts as being completely in step with American brewing traditions.
“We’re brewing beer like beer was brewed when America was founded,” Springsteen said. “They used whatever resources that they had to brew. If they didn’t have barley or didn’t have enough of it they used something else… They were brewing pumpkin beer 300 years ago. We’re not doing anything totally crazy, we’re just bringing back old world brewing.”
Although early American brewers often turned to molasses, pumpkins and other sources of fermentable sugars to make beer when barley was sparse (often resulting in a product that was considered inferior to imported English Porter according to beer historians like Gregg Smith), they probably would have shied away from the adjuncts that find their way into Right Brain’s beers.
Springsteen said that visitors to the brewery’s pub, located just across the hall from the 850-square foot brewhouse in Traverse City’s warehouse district, frequently ask for Right Brain’s famous Asparagus Beer, which uses Michigan’s favorite vegetable crop as an interesting source for flavor.
“We roast fresh asparagus and add it to the beer and it works,” Springsteen said. “It smells like beer. We’ve tweaked it a couple of times, but you can only improve an asparagus beer. People love it, they drink it. It may not move as fast as others, but we go through it and people come from all over and ask for it.”
Asparagus is far from the most interesting adjunct that makes its way into Springsteen and Wentworth’s beers. This year, Right Brain released a Mangalista Pig Porter that was actually brewed with five pig heads, pig eyes, teeth and leg bones. The idea to use the mangalista pig, a fat and hairy breed known for its high quality of fatty meat, came from a dinner that the brewers were invited to in which every food item was paired with wine. Disappointed that beer was left off the menu, the two went to work figuring out how to incorporate the smoky flavors and juicy marrow of the mangalista pig into a brew.
“We boiled the pig because we wanted to cover any pathogens,” Springsteen said. “We decided we would boil it. It seemed to work, I think we nailed it. It’s a beautiful beer – it smells like bacon and it has this incredible odd mouthfeel to it – probably because of the leftover oils in it – and then it finishes like a chocolate porter…. It’s not obnoxious – it’s still beer.”
Along the way, they also made beer using entire cherry pies from a local pie maker. Although the ingredients are drastically different, both beers required experimentation and lots of discussions on how to remove most of the fats and oils from the beer. Springsteen said that the secret to removing the fat, which he did not divulge completely, lied in careful manipulation of temperatures and a lot of patience.
A Rare Breed
The right brain is said to be the part used for creative endeavors. When Springsteen took a creative writing class during his senior year in high school, his teacher had the class take a simple test that would determine which side of the brain they used most. She was clear that there was no right or wrong answers on the test, and that very few students would test as right-brained. When Springsteen announced his right-brained status to the class, the only one to do so, his teacher promptly told him he had done something wrong.
Instantly amused, Springsteen proudly owned the right brained label ever since.
His brewing creativity began as a homebrewer in Boulder, Colorado, where an anything-goes attitude is common thanks to the affordability of the small batches. When he came home to Michigan he worked his way around the state honing his brewing skills before opening his own brewery in 2007.
“.I just had a burning itch for it and nobody would give me a job, so I started researching, researching and researching,” Springsteen said. “I finally found a job at Traverse Brewing when I moved up here… worked at a couple of places… I basically got the information I needed and experience and moved on.”
Now, Springsteen finds himself amongst a group of talented brewers in Michigan. It is a rare brewing community that features incredible breweries that make a wide array of beers from the traditional to the extreme – such as Right Brain and fellow home brewer-turned-pro Joe Short of Shorts Brewing Company.
“I think we recognized because of the homebrewing world that people were trying all of these crazy things and still are,” Springsteen said.
Springsteen joked that he and the brewing team at Right Brain could put professional ballerinas to shame because of their ability to pirouette with hoses through the cramped brewing space that is filled with a seven-barrel brewhouse and six fermentation vessels. However, the dancing won’t go on forever, as an expansion to a bigger location is in the works.
New on Tap
Until recently, Right Brain’s primary business has been conducted at the brewery’s attached pub. Springsteen’s plan had always been to create a space where beer drinkers could drink interesting beer, but also have something different each time they visited.
Originally, only Right Brain’s Willpower Pale Ale was the only beer available outside of the pub and only on draft. But with an expansion to a larger facility and with the ability to either can or bottle, Springsteen is working on selling four new beers to outside accounts – starting with draft-only accounts.
“I truly never expected to grow this fast, so I always just assumed that it would take me years to be able to distribute beer. We had wanted to come in with a rotating menu so that we weren’t brewing the same six beers over and over,” Springsteen said, “which is fine, but I knew I needed a niche in the market – and I also wanted the consumer to say which beer to market rather than just me.”
The newly-distributed beers will be Hawk Owl Amber, Dead Kettle IPA (one of Right Brain’s rare traditional beers), Black “Eye” P.A., and Shadow Watcher Stout.
Meanwhile, Springsteen plans on continuing the experimentation and production of interesting beers for sale at the pub. Springsteen said that a lot of the inspiration for new beers comes from Wentworth’s experience as a chef for 20 years.
After years of experimentation and gaining a reputation for unique and sometimes bizarre brews, Springsteen is starting to feel the pressure that comes with success.
“After four years, it has worked far better than we thought, but it also creates new challenges for us,” he said. “Not that we can’t keep creating new beers, but it gets harder without becoming gimmicky or putting crap out there. We decided the other day that we’re going to create a few new beers, but we’re also going to go to our recipe portfolio and revisit them again.”
And while some of those beers may rely heavily on interesting adjuncts, don’t expect Springsteen and Wentworth to forget about what made them successful in the first place.
“The number one rule we have is it has to taste like beer,” Springsteen said. “Beer number one, and the adjuncts should complement the beer – not the other way around.”
Sean Lewis is a freelance writer and homebrewer. He is currently working on his first book.