Michigan forests can make your head swim from sensory overload. The clean, intoxicating aroma of pine trees. The buzz of forest life. The eye-popping greens, reds, oranges and whites of seasonal color changes.
You could just drink it all in – and thanks to the resourcefulness of Michigan craft beer brewers, you can literally do just that.
As the statewide craft beer scene has developed over the last decade, brewers have looked to their own backyards for flavoring choices. They grow their own hops and use Michigan-grown malted barley, wheat and fruit. A creative few have actually started looking to Michigan forests for some inventive tree-based ingredients.
“I love the woods here in northern Michigan,” said Joe Short, CEO/creative engineer at Short’s Brewing Co. in Bellaire. “They provide some great offerings that we make unique beers with.”
Three of the most common Michigan forest products used in brewing are berries from the juniper tree, the tips of the branches of spruce trees and hardwood tree sap. Like all tree-based products, they’re renewable resources. And those resources stay in tip-top shape when foresters manage the health of forests and strive to ensure that they will be available for generations to come.
Short’s prominently features the taste of Michigan forests in three of its styles – the Spruce Pilsner, the Woodmaster and the Juicy Tree.
“First and foremost, I created these beers because they would be really delicious opportunities to break the mold of pedestrian beer styles by adding some edge and intensity,” Short said. “I never designed these beers from an economic standpoint. I made the beer first and worked backwards from there.”
Short’s example of incorporating ingredients from Michigan forests isn’t unique to brewing. Many Michigan industries rely on Michigan forest products, including the state’s furniture, paper and Christmas tree trades. It’s part of forestry – the science, art and practice of sustainably managing forests and all of their resources for the benefit of humans, wildlife and the environment.
“The woods are great because they provide these specialty ingredients that we use to make super-tasty beer with,” Short said. “They are not highly profitable beers because of the expense of sourcing the specialty ingredients and the labor involved in employing them in the beer, but we do it for that distinct taste of home.”
Short leads an annual foraging trip to a nearby forest in Rapid City to harvest the blue spruce tips that go into the Juicy Tree and Spruce Pilsner. Before they can be used, however, the tips must be fermented in barrels for several months on Short’s production floor. That takes up a lot of room that the brewery could potentially devote to other things, but Short said the end product is worth it.
“It’s delicious and awesome, so we still make a little, but we won’t be increasing production until we get some extra capacity,” he said. “Mostly, it’s just fun to make these beers with indigenous ingredients, and they taste really, really good.”
In Mount Pleasant, the Mountain Town Brewing Co. uses Michigan tree ingredients in three of its signature brews. Its flagship beer, Train Wreck Ale, is an amber ale made with maple syrup collected in Clare, complemented with Frankenmuth-made honey. The Nectar of the Birch and Nectar of the Maple, meanwhile, are light ales that use sap from those respective trees instead of water throughout the brewing process. Each year, Mountain Town uses the reduction from a combined 340 gallons of fresh sap to make 100-gallon batches of each Nectar style.
“Local ingredients taste better, and it’s better for the local economy,” said Jeff Eddington, Mountain Town’s brewery manager. “We use sap instead of water because the minerals give the beer unique flavor. It’s a pain, but worth it for the beer.”
The same could be said of the careful management that goes into keeping Michigan’s state forests healthy and abundant. Forests are much healthier when they are actively managed, which includes cutting trees, planting new ones, fighting disease and monitoring and controlling invasive species. Active management of the forests is essential to responsible environmental stewardship.
Of course, water is another essential ingredient in beer, and healthy forests help our state’s waters run clean. By promoting soils that provide natural filtration and creating a vegetative cover that minimizes soil erosion and sediment runoff, forests keep Michigan water quality high.
In Dexter, Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales uses Michigan-grown juniper berries in its Isla Estraña (Strange Island) brew, a collaboration with South Carolina-based Revelry Brewing Co. Although juniper is more often associated with gin flavoring, the berries give the beer a “pure Michigan funk,” which the brewery proudly declares on the ale’s label.
“We support local companies, so we choose Michigan ingredients instead of other states,” said a spokesman for the brewery. “It’s also important to us that we use ingredients that are sustainable, and that certainly is the case with Michigan forest products.”
Michigan’s forestry industry supports more than 96,000 jobs and contributes more than $20 billion to our state economy. And Michigan’s forests are growing considerably faster than they are being cut – each year about twice as much wood is grown than harvested. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources follows a set of rules to protect forests and makes sure the right amount of trees are cut down to balance the needs of people and animals.
Besides the obvious economic benefits, sustainable and healthy forests are important to every Michigan resident. Forestry creates healthier habitats for wildlife and gives us recreation space.
“The forests here in Michigan add a value that’s hard to measure,” Short said. “We love where we live and we love what we do. You’ll always find our staff enjoying the woods on a run, bike, ski, hike, hunting or otherwise. We cherish our lands.”
Members of the editorial and news staff of The Detroit News were not involved in the creation of this content.