The Alert Facebook-buttonholed Charla Burgess in between bouts of tasting beers and peaches to ask her about her new job and Frankfort’s upcoming Beer Week, October 6-11.
You accepted the mission of Special Events and Beer Education Coordinator at Stormcloud. What does this entail?
My mission is to develop an appreciation for craft beer—as a drink and an industry—in the community. I hope to help people learn about the history and process of brewing, but even more so the diversity of taste in beer offerings, particularly, for Stormcloud, in Belgians. Wine and food pairings have long been mainstream and respected. It’s time beer got its due. People are really now coming to understand and respect that craft beer also offers similar creativity, that it’s an art form. There’s discipline and science and innovation that goes into these craft beers. Some brewers really push the envelope. Those of us who really like to be surprised by different flavor combinations can appreciate that. I think Brian [Confer]‘s beers are sophisticated, with lots of layers. There’s life and complexity from the Belgian yeasts. Brian is always thinking about and working with the chef [John Snyder] on how the beers pair with our food, because he’s a foodie. He understands that it’s all about the total experience.
You’re a farmer. How does this knowledge help you in your new, exalted Beer Priestess position?
As a farmer, in order to sell the vegetables, I had to SELL THE VEGETABLES. In my subscription CSA model, I often had to teach customers about new vegetables. How to eat them. What flavors they combined well with. I sent people recipes. If I didn’t somehow dangle a carrot of approachability to some vegetables, some people would never try them. We get a lot of customers new to the craft beer scene or who say they don’t like Belgians. They’ve been drinking their Bud Light for years, it’s what they know, and it’s what they are comfortable with. At the bar we help them to identify the tastes they like, match that with our offerings, and they often come away learning that light beers don’t have to be one-dimensional and watery. That they can be just as smooth, but also be fresh, twangy, yeasty, and they might like them even more. Wine drinkers (i.e. “I’m not a beer drinker”) discover they like our traditional Belgian dubbel for its rich, raisiny depth balanced by the caramel malt tones. I’m a teacher, too, so I get a thrill in seeing people discover new things. I also know, as a farmer, that it makes economic and environmental sense to use fresh, local ingredients as much as possible. Things just taste better the fresher they are. Our 24:30 Harvest Pale Ale (hops harvested 30 miles away and used within 24 hours of harvest) is a testament to this.
I often say that Stormcloud has offered me the chance to combine all the elements of my farm business that I loved—I truly get a thrill in watching the chef and helping him come up with new food offerings to pair with the different beers, and with my farm or the new Stormcloud kitchen garden, to grow some of the items. I get to grow, create, taste. share—and it’s all organically centered around and growing out from the beer.
Beyond the food and beverages, it seems like a lot of people have really appreciated Stormcloud’s activities—Trivia Night and Game Night, and the spelling bee last year. The brewery has become a kind of community center, especially in the winter.
As a farmer I also learned that success comes from the value-added products. I think at Stormcloud the owners are always asking how we can add value to the total experience—for the customer, the community. And most ideas around here begin with Confer or Schmitty [Stormcloud co-owner Rick Schmitt] saying “We should…” 99% of the time, we really should. Stormcloud’s mission has always been to develop a sense of community.
Why is craft brewing taking off in Michigan?
The success of craft beer in MI right now? Brian or Rick could likely speak best to this, but I would say a combination of things: Traditional markets for cherries and other fruits were declining in profitability. Growers saw how well vineyards produced in our climate, how similar our climate was to other areas having success in growing hops, and with the increase in breweries, perhaps due to the loosening of regulation, hops were in high demand. About 10 years ago I went to a hop growing workshop in TC. A good number of traditional farmers were there, looking to shift gears. I think that breweries may also be thriving here for the same reason that small farms are increasing in number. Collaboration. Cooperation. Sharing of knowledge freely. You love something this much, this good beer, you want to share your passion for it. We have really skilled brewers in Michigan, along with talented chefs, and beautiful local farm/food offerings. In Frankfort, we are blessed with a brilliant microcosm of these. Synergy works to fuel the industry. In these transitional days from traditional manufacturing to tourism and service and entertainment, the businesses that are going to grow are the ones that innovate and work together. I think that’s also what we hope Frankfort Beer Week will generate—synergy among Frankfort’s businesses and a sharing of our passion. With Beer Week, we hope to involve as many local businesses as possible.
What have you been doing to get ready for Beer Week?
We’ve been taste-testing beer with ice cream, chocolate, and other food items all this week, in preparation for our beer pairing workshops, and it’s astounding how food can really complement or dramatically CHANGE the taste of the beer on your palate. And vice versa. Harvest Pale Ale and a fresh white peach? Brilliant! I’m looking forward to celebrating some of the most alluring things about Frankfort and Michigan, draw in locals and visitors, with state-wide promotion. AND…Frankfort ? October? Always breathtaking.