Imagine life’s first strands, the RNA in volcanic pools wriggling like an eel in attempt to express itself. As it reacts to cyanide and sugar, nucleotides are formed—RNA’s baby food. From these humble beginnings we have a miracle that science is still trying to understand. Information unfurls, cells are born. Earth settles. Not too hot, not too cold, the stage is set for life to really go bananas. Multi-celled organisms split and explode in unnamed oceans. Fish grow legs and walk on land. Things are changing. Flash-forward a few billion years and we have humans drinking beer in cities. They share the planet with termites, giraffes, and more. After all this time, life has done a lot of differentiating.
When drinking Speciation Artisan Ales I end up thinking about these large spans of time, certainly in regards to the patience required for the beers to mature, but more so in how the flavors feel so outside of time, prehistoric, like those first eukaryotes struggling and succeeding to become life. How when you have a sip time narrows, the palate a petri dish for yeast to slow dance on. They say there’s beer to drink about and beer to think about. These beers demand attention. “That’s the goal with the beers that we make,” owner Mitch Ermatinger said. “They’re not meant to be shotgunned, we want you to sit and enjoy.”
While rewarding in their complexity, brewing with the wild yeast can feel like leading blind sheep to the pasture. “We try to guide the beer in the direction we want it to go through, but we leave a lot of fermentation up to nature,” Ermatinger said. “Here’s some food, munch on it and make something magical.” There does seem to be something mysterious at play beneath the cage and cork. How did he learn to coax magic out of microbes?
By now, many are familiar with the Speciation origin story. As a brewer at Colorado’s Former Future, Ermatinger helped spearhead Black Project, a spontaneous fermentation side project so popular it eclipsed its forebearer and became the main gig. In spite of acclaim and a handful of medals won at GABF, Mitch always had the dream of someday opening his own place. There would need to be a homecoming. That came in 2015 when he and Whitney Ermatinger, his co-owner and wife, returned to West Michigan with experience and a business plan. His reputation snowballed as he helped Harmony Brewing Company launch their sour program and distributed personal test batches to community bottle shares. “I was hoping that the quality of the beer would show that we were worth their time and money, and that we were serious about making world class beer,” Ermatinger said. Call it guerilla marketing-lite.
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All the hard work culminated on January 14, 2017 when Speciation released its inaugural beer Genetic Drift, a funky Saison with wild yeast harvested from a crab apple flower found on family property in Holland, MI. Traces of this original culture are sprinkled throughout much of Speciation’s lineup, cultivating a unique identity to the brand. If not the sexiest beer in the Speciation portfolio, Genetic Drift at least serves as a powerful mission statement. As Charles Darwin put it, “Species undergo modification, and existing forms of life descended by true generation from preexisting forms.” Meaning? As the culture evolves over time, it’s important to respect its ancestry. It’s pretty romantic. The dust off a petal helped launch a brewery.
Now, just shy of two years later, Speciation has grown into a different sort of beast. Previously opening the garage only once a month for bottle releases, they’ve finally unveiled regular hours to the public: Thursday through Saturday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Fans have been chomping at the bit. It’s been a long time coming, unfortunately marred by unanticipated frustrations. “My biggest regret is not finding a landlord who was on board with what we’re doing, even basic things like opening a tasting room,” Ermatinger said. “It’s caused a lot of stress dealing with someone who impedes our vision for the company.” Thankfully, after plenty hard fought battles, the team has assembled a space that fits the beer they make.
Hidden in a warehouse on the outskirts of Comstock Park, the building looks more like a place you’d get a root canal than a Berliner Weisse, but once inside the facade seems like an intentional fakeout. The air is thick with a dungeon musk. Low light and picnic tables accentuate the farmhouse cozy. There’s this pervading feeling that you’ve stepped into another era—Jurassic chic. Looking around though, the obvious set piece is the number of barrels stacked high against the walls. It’s a confident decoration choice, confessional in a way: here you are surrounded by what you’ll eventually drink. Spotting a Gray Skies Distillery logo on a barrel teases possibilities; what kind of collaborative experiment could be aging in there?
From snagging Gray Skies barrels to joint recipes with HOMES, Speciation’s collaborative spirit has proven a testament to their success from day one. “We can all make beer better,” Ermatinger said. “Every time we collab with another brewery we learn something about their process, and it goes the other way around too.”
Their relationship with City Built Brewing Company reflects that symbiosis. Brewing roughly ninety percent of Speciation’s wort, City Built provides them the liquid foundation for yeast to create alcohol. They do make a buck as the host brewery, but more importantly, it conveys a mutual respect. Ed Collazzo, City Built’s co-founder, clued me in to a dynamic shift in their partnership. “Beyond our friendship, he needs a brewery because he doesn’t have one. For our new sour program, we’ll need a space to avoid getting bugs in our brewhouse.” City Built has been kicking out awesome kettle sours for a while, but the decision to up the ante with wild fermentation could have to do with friendly competition. “We’re encouraged to do better because he’s in town. There’s a lot of thought behind his plan, both in quality and how he’s changing the sour game in Michigan.” It’ll be a bit before we taste the fruition of this endeavor, but we can sense the Speciation influence in City Built’s November can release, #happyfriendsgiving, a Cranberry Berliner Weisse with lactose.
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Another key to the success of the tasting room will be Quinn Vollink, Speciation’s taproom manager. A long time face at The Sovengard, his relationship with the Ermatingers and passion for sour beer landed him a full-time spot handling day-to-day operations. “The big thing for me is educating the public on our process and getting people excited about what we do,” Vollink said. “I’m a Zingerman’s alumni and I put big pride in making sure everyone leaves happier than when they first arrived.” Knowledgeable and friendly, whether you want to talk to him about yeast strains or the Talking Heads, you’ll want a spot at the rail to get to know Quinn.
Mitch clearly appreciates the help too, “For two years I was working 80-100 hours a week and I was burning out. Then we had a kid. When we had Quincy it made me realize I needed to delegate or I would die. Despite this being so much fun I don’t want to work my life away.” This trust to relinquish control is necessary in both fatherhood and beer. Volatile and fickle, I imagine brewing a sour isn’t altogether different from raising a toddler. “I can’t control all the microbes, there’s too many variables. But I also don’t want control, I want the beer to go in different ways, come together and make something unique.” Spoken like a true dad.
With a little extra time on his hands, Ermatinger has started plotting a next move. “We applied for our winery license, so soon enough we’ll be making wild fermented wine and cider too,” he said. “They’re a funky wine. Similar to lambic.” Essentially wine that’s alive, natural wine is a middle finger to the bore and snobbery put on by sommeliers. “Because we’re not selling to wine people we’re going to be doing things that are unorthodox like a tequila barrel-aged white wine.” Maybe on paper that sounds like dorm room hooch, but the staff promises they would never release a product they wouldn’t drink. Regarding quality control, “Our beers take time, the production staff is constantly tasting them, making sure to see how they taste and if they’re ready or not,” Volink said. “We use the highest quality ingredients and we have fun getting them. I like that we don’t take shortcuts.”
Speciation also takes a page from the wine world when it comes to terroir—how climate, soil, and aspect affect taste. I like to think about it abstractly, like how it feels returning to a family cabin; how bombarded by stimulus both sensory and spectral, the environmental factors congeal into something, well, home. “The whole point of our beer is to make it taste like the place that you’re in. We’re proud to be part of the Michigan beer scene,” Ermatinger said. With a fully-fledged tasting room and a vision for the future, expect Speciation to only get better with time.