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Laid Back Ales
by Andrew L. McFarlane

My visit to the Boyne River Brewing Company of Boyne City, Michigan came in the early afternoon as a break from the slopes of nearby Boyne Mountain. Other than the bartender, who gave me a nod as he attended to two other skiers in for lunch as well, the first person to greet me was a rather unlikely sort to find in a brewpub. She was very talkative and smiled in a welcoming way, but I have to confess that I had a hard time following her conversation. Hannah Hill is just over a year old, and while her mother Cyndi cooks the meals and her father Scott brews the beer, Hannah keeps an eye on things in the front of the house.

While brewpubs are common on the East and West coasts, they are still something of a novelty in northern Michigan. While living and brewing beer in Portland, Oregon, I became accustomed to this most civilized of establishments. The smell of cooking mingling with the rich aroma of malt and the bitter tang of hops seems to me to be just about the ultimate in olfaction. The Boyne River Brewery offers a good selection of craft-brewed beers for every palate and even their own rootbeer: Hannah's Rootbeer. I ordered a real draught root beer and a burger and Scott came out from the back to greet me.

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I first met Scott and Cyndi Hill about a year ago, when we attended a meeting to try and get a "beer appreciation" society started. The society never got off the ground, but I have found it very promising that they and the folks at the Big Buck Brewery in Gaylord have gone from planning to production in less than a year, and that the Grand Traverse Brewing Company has expanded their operation as well. Since their quiet opening on July 1st of 1995, Boyne River has steadily brewed a varied selection of fine ales.

Scott explained how he got started in brewing: "Like most folks who are in the business today, I started at home in late 80s. I enjoyed the process and saw a future in it and enrolled in the Siebel Brewing Institute of Chicago, the oldest brewing school in the country. Though I went to school to go to work for someone else, we ended up deciding to try it on our own. I'm glad we did. Even though it's been a lot of work and we aren't as well financed as some, it's been a very satisfying pursuit.

Peter Lambeth, who shares the brewing duties with Scott, pretty much wandered into a job at the brewery. "I worked for a while in a brewpub in Colorado--not as a brewer--but I talked a lot with the brewers and they let me help out once in a while. I thought that brewing could be a career for me, but Colorado's a whole different world and I wasn't sure that it would work in the Midwest," Peter related. "I really was just coming here to see if they were open."

"He brought in a bottle of homebrew," Scott said, laughing. "That was his interview."

Peter continued, "This has really been a hard job. It's about 90% cleaning and 10% brewing. It's worth it though--very challenging. The brewing part keeps me interested, even when I'm cleaning. I subscribe to several brewing magazines and am always reading and thinking about it. What's really great is that it's a chance to make something instead of just processing food or forms or whatever."

Boyne River's facility is small but effective. The front half holds about twenty-five tables and the bar while the back is divided into a small kitchen, an office and the brewery. We toured the small brewery and I thought that the term "microbrewery" was quite fitting for Boyne River. The copper brew kettle came from a London, Ontario brewery where it was known as an 8 hectalitre kettle. "We just say seven barrels," Scott said.

The two stainless steel fermenters each hold 250 gallons, but with the space requires for the head of the brew as it ferments, there is only room for 200 gallons. By the time the beer has made it to the aging tanks, where it develops its final flavor, there is just over 5 barrels--about 160 gallons. "We're not going to be the largest brewery up here," Scott told me, "And we really don't want to be. We brew two batches once a week, usually on Thursdays. While that's kind of nice to do it all on one day and it is enough to supply the pub and the other places we distribute up here, we are planning to get another fermenter, double the size of our current ones. When we do that, we'll be able to supply a wider area."

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In addition to supplying kegs to other establishments, Boyne River also bottles Hannah's Rootbeer and their Lake Trout Stout. I asked Scott how the came up with that unique name. "That was really Cyndi's idea," he replied. "This area is a real trout fishing center and the lake trout is native to the rivers and lakes." He went on to describe Cyndi's role in the brewery. "She's really the boss. She oversees the pub and the kitchen and she handles all the business aspects--I'm really just hired help."

We returned to the front where my burger was waiting and Scott and I talked about the state of the microbrewing industry in Michigan. "There's a bill coming before the State House again--it comes around every year or so. While I really don't fully comprehend everything that's in it, one thing that I think could really help is a provision that allows brewpubs to serve wine, spirits and beers from other breweries. I'd like to offer other beers than our own--I think that could really help the micro-brew movement."

After I'd finished lunch, the lure of craft-brewed beer proved too strong for me. Scott offered a glass from a selection that included their 10:30 Ale, a lighter brew that they recommend for first time ale-drinkers; Winter White, another lighter ale; an English-style pale ale; the richer Brown Ale; and Lake Trout Stout. As a confirmed stout drinker, I was left with no choice. As Scott filled the glass with rich, brown-black liquid, Peter mentioned some of the other brews they had made or were planning on making. "We like to keep it interesting. There's usually at least on specialty ale on tap. We made a pretty good jalapeno ale this summer as well as some fruit beers. Around Halloween, we brewed a Pumpkin Ale and we've got Groundhog Gold ready to go."

Scott set the glass before me and I contemplated it for a moment. Wine connoisseurs receive most of the notice in the realm of tasting and critiquing beverages, but there are every bit as many components to consider in a glass of beer. I noted the 1/2 inch head on the top with approval. The fine beads of sturdy, white foam denoted a beer that was properly carbonated and would retain the head through the entire glass. Held to the light, the beer was virtually opaque, with only the slightest smoky glow at the edges. Some believe that stout should evolve as other beers have, towards a lighter, less full-bodied state. I am not one of those--if you can see through it, it isn't stout. Finally, the taste.

There was a magical bottle of beer once that I found, forgotten in the cellar, on the night of my brother's 21st birthday. With the exception of that bottle of 2 1/2 year-old Illuminati Double Dark Chocolate Stout, the draught of Lake Trout Stout was the single finest stout I have consumed in the state of Michigan (the entire Midwest, for that matter). The mix of pale and black malts, roasted barley and a bit of wheat coupled with the bitter bite of Chinook hops and the aroma of Cascade hops delivered a true taste sensation. True to predictions, the head did indeed stay until, far too quickly for my liking, the glass was emptied.

Oh well, they can always brew more...

The Boyne River Brewing Company is located in Boyne City, Michigan
419 East Main | (616) 582-5588 | web:

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