Behind the Pint with Justin Riopelle, Head Brewer of Detroit Beer Company

Justin Riopelle is the current Head Brewer of Detroit Beer Company, a position requiring creativity, tradition, science, and business that is evolving with an ever increasing understanding of sustainability.  Detroit Beer Company produces some great brews in the historic 100-year-old Hartz Building at 1529 Broadway Street, a stone throw from Comerica Park and home of the Detroit Tigers.  Detroit Dwarf won a silver medal at the World Beer Cup in 2010 in the “Düsseldorf Alt” category and a gold metal for their Lager in the “Bohemian Pilsner” category in the World Expo of Beer.  I had the opportunity to sip some brews, chat about his brewing endeavors and about the current brew climate of Detroit.

First off, how did you get to be the head brewer at Detroit Beer Company?

          I have been working at Detroit Beer Co for about three and a half years with 9 months as head brewer and the years previous as assistant brewer.  I started off homebrewing at Michigan State University while studying biology as an undergrad, later switching to psychology.  It really was serendipitous.  The economy in Michigan was bad; there were no jobs available, even for the college educated.  I happened to have a beer with Kevin Rodger, the head brewer at the time, after taking the GRE down the street at Wayne State. I struck up a conversation that ended with my resume in his hands.  A week later, I got my foot in the door.  I was able to learn as an assistant brewer at both DBC and at Royal Oak Brewery, which just had their 20th year anniversary. It is valuable to me that I had the opportunity to work somewhere with such a history in the Michigan brewing scene. Tim Selewski, the head brewer at ROB, did the program at Siebel and has been brewing for nearly 20 years, starting at ROB a few years after they opened.  His specialty is in classic styles of beer, reading all the old school books like Greg Noonan’s “Brewing Lager”.  Nate Rykse, the head brewer before me, went to UC Davis and brought a more scientific and technical brewing knowledge base.  While assisting both brewers, I was able to learn from both and merge their unique perspectives, more of the historical and classic influences from Tim and more of the technical from Nate.  Flash forward to now and I am brewing beer that has some play with the styles but doesn’t branch too far off.

Why brew beer?

          One of the most interesting aspects of brewing and one that I fell in love with was the historical impact of beer.  A taste of this history was shared by Rex Halfpenny, a BJCP National Beer Judge and publisher of the Michigan Beer Guide, at a tasting he was hosting.  Hearing his stories about traveling and tasting those old school Belgian styles that we tried left an impression.  Tying history of brewing with region and beer style along with reasons why those styles became popular is deeply fascinating.  The scientific components like balancing pH, water chemistry, yeast cycles and being able to draw from my background in biology is also great.

          The blue-collar aspect of the job relates back to my roots.  Growing up my dad was a tool and die maker for Ford Motor Co. and busted his ass.  I remember seeing my dad come home and his hands would be filthy.  There is something really cool about that, working with your hands.  Some beer stuff can get really snobby but it’s hard to be that way when you’re covered in yeast.  That’s why I fell in love with brewing as a career.  It’s a cool mix of being able to blend the past, the blue-collar world, an education, being able to work with my hands, and the science aspects.

 Do you have a favorite style that you like to make?

          It’s tough because week by week I am totally immersed in a beer style. Especially working in a brewpub, I surround myself in the history and understanding of the style.  I’m sort of like a beer polygamist (he laughs) because I have all these intimate relationships with all my beers going on and appreciate them for their unique characters.  It’s hard to pick favorites with one because they are all equally important, especially because I’m selling them, so I have to have each style marketable for my audience.  This is a big difference from homebrewing where you have a lot of room to be selfish, you can take risks, and if you fuck up you are your only critic.  Here I have budgets to work with so you really can’t risk getting too far out there and keep in mind your audience.

          If I had to, I would say I am a bigger fan of lighter beers, being surrounded by beer all the time.  I love tasting bigger beers, like today I sat down and went over the Belgian Golden Strong Ale, but I’m not going to sit down and have a full glass during the work day.  I’d rather have something a little more delicate like a table or session beer.  In terms of favorites, I really got into lagers as of recent.  It’s a challenging style to craft brewers with its lengthy time to produce.  Craft breweries need to be turning out beers, moving beers, so it hurts a lot of establishments to hold a tank up for 6 weeks or so.  When I get the opportunity, I love drinking lagers because it’s a delicate beer and takes me back to the homebrew days waiting for a brew to be on point.  I had this period, over the summer, where I was able to let a pilsner sit for 4 weeks cold. It was in the fermenter for 5 weeks (fermenting out for a little over a week, then cold conditioning for a month).  A lot of things can go wrong over that time and for it to come out as clean and crisp as it did was great.

Currently do you view Detroit as a beer city?

          I would say Detroit is solidifying itself as a beer city.  We have I think 5 breweries besides us-Traffic Jam & SnugMotor City Brewing WorksBatch Brewing CompanyBrew Detroit, and Atwater.  There are at least two more in planning in the city from what I am told.  We will soon have 7 or 8 breweries.  So we are getting up there.  Hopcat just opened up not too long ago in Detroit.  Jolly Pumpkin opened a place in Midtown and a lot of beer bars are going on. The booze industry in general is gaining with distilleries and craft cocktail places opening all over.

          I like the blue-collar vibe the breweries in the city have to offer. When beer was a necessary part of the world -people needed beer and there were workers to make it-like Stroh’s.  It’s not pretentious like it can be in other well-established beer cities- call it beer snobbery.  I feel like Detroit embraces that spirit of creating refreshing beverages for the working class.

 

          In addition to the hard work brewers do, Detroit brewers are also proving they can work hard together. The brewers from all the Detroit breweries have a collaboration recipe for the fall beer fest at Eastern Market.  All the breweries in the city limits have brewed the same recipe with maybe slight variances based on the brewer and their system.  Each will be made and released in October with an invite to the public to come out to each brewery and taste the recipe to further the community vibe going on in the city.  Brewing is one of the few industries where everyone is willing to help each other.  You can call and ask a competitor a question and you will get that neighborly vibe. There is an appreciation for local business, being genuine, and with the craft movement in general, you feel that spirit that the beer industry is on the rise in Detroit.

How do you see craft beer evolving?

          I think there is a greater concentration on quality control.  We as craft brewers have gotten creative, we have branched out and found niche markets, and the next thing is quality control.  I strive for every beer I make to be quality, to be free of defects and off flavors.  I have the advantage of serving my beer fresh at my pub, and I have a lot of respect for production places because they have the added challenge of keeping the product stable when it could be hanging out warm on a storage shelf. Not too long ago, I would go to the store and I would open up a bottle and it would explode like a homebrew gone bad.  It’s not something you should be getting from a commercial brewery.  I think there is more of a spotlight on this aspect of quality control.  It was easier to get away with it years ago when it was new and the consumer wasn’t as well educated. Now you have bachelors and masters degree programs in this field and customers who are increasingly educated about beer.  I see the future is in this education and quality control.

 

          I noticed that even the customers are asking a lot more thoughtful and detailed questions than when I started years back.  Almost four years ago, you would get a lot of customers asking about what ingredients went into beer.  Now you still get that, but also is this ale or lager or about the hop variety.  There is more access to craft beer and with that comes a more discerning customer.  People are trying more beers and wanting higher quality.  As the consumer is increasingly educated, the producer has to be one step ahead so that they don’t lose out on potential customers.  I know that if I have a bad bottle of beer that I paid for, especially when $10 for a six pack, and I open a bottle and it’s sour or tastes bad, I don’t want to go back.  That’s something always at the back of my mind.  If I produce an off beer, and a customer tastes those off flavors, that could be a customer I lose for life.  In the past, most customers didn’t really know the difference between an infected beer, an off or bad beer, but now they are getting more critical, so it is exciting to meet those challenges of becoming more skilled and discerning in the craft.

You can find Justin brewing at the Detroit Brewing Company most days of the week and will be able stop in for a pint, or two, or three.  Find out what’s on tap here.