If you live in the Midwest, then you’ve probably seen a beer from Arcadia Ales at some point, although it may not have made an immediate impact. I know they didn’t on me–I probably saw Arcadia products dozens of times before happening to order one of their beers at a bar or pick one out among the choices at a package store “mix-a-six”–presumably, the tasty London Porter.
Arcadia, though, is a pretty darn interesting brewery, distributing to 13 states, mostly in the Midwest, and brewing all their beer from the headquarters location in Battle Creek, Michigan, a city known more for being a Kellogg’s Cereal town than a beer destination. And yet, on my recent four day Michigan brewery excursion, I wasn’t about to pass up Arcadia without stopping. I ended up being glad I did choose to pop in, as I had an opportunity to both sample some beers and interview one member of the small team of brewers, a gregarious fellow by the name of Brad Pulver. I learned quite a bit–did you know, for example, that every Arcadia beer is fermented in open vessels using the same yeast? I did not. What follows is the brief interview, and another Arcadia bombshell found at the end of the interview:
Kid Carboy Jr.: How many of you brewers are there?
Brad Pulver: Currently there are three of us, about to be four because another guy has just finished training. That’s in addition to the brewmaster, Josh Davies.
Carboy: Are you in here brewing most days of the week, then?
Pulver: Yeah, pretty much. The way we run our production, there’s usually someone here nearly 24 hours a day. We have a rather labor-intensive process to keep our yeast the way we like it, and often we’re doing multiple brews every day.
Carboy: What kind of labor-intensive process?
Pulver: We do open-top fermentation, using one strain of yeast. It’s Ringwood yeast, from England.
Carboy: So everything is with that one English yeast?
Pulver: Yup. We harvest all of our yeast through top-cropping, gathering samples from the top of the fermenting beer. We use our yeast generation after generation, wheras most breweries will use one particular yeast for about ten generations before starting fresh. We continuously use ours.
Carboy: Are you saying that this yeast that you’re using now is the same that you were using in the beginning? How long can it go?
Pulver: We re-upped, I want to say three or four years ago. Right now we’re on generation…getting close to 500.* Because of our processes we have very strict procedures as far as sanitation and collection. We’re proud of the yeast we use and the way we crop it and harvest it. It’s part of our house flavor. That’s what makes our beer OUR beer. We’re really stringent on santitation so we’re never getting anything cross-contaminated. In fact, we just recently sent our yeast to a lab and they verified that our yeast is nothing but healthy Ringwood yeast with nothing else in it, all those generations later.
*I don’t care what anyone says, that’s pretty freaking amazing.
Carboy: It sounds like you would have one of those signs in the brewery saying “506 batches since last contamination.” I imagine the person who fucks up the yeast is probably in some serious trouble.
Pulver: Yeah, that would not be good, because we are so dependent on that strain of yeast being as healthy and as pure as it can be. But with that top-cropping that we do, we’re able to select exactly the yeast that we want to harvest.
Carboy: So that one strain can really do everything from Angler’s Ale (an English pale ale) to the imperial stout?
Pulver: Yup, it does an excellent job fermenting everything we do, from the low-gravity stuff to the super high gravity. You know, we do the Russian imperial stout, the Hop Rocket, the Cereal Killer barleywine…
Carboy: What kind of alcohol tolerance does it have, then?
Pulver: We’ve taken it easily up to 12% or so.
Carboy: What kind of place within the Michigan beer scene do you see Arcadia as occupying?
Pulver: We’ve got a lot of our beers in the beer bars, and we’ve gotten pretty big with our firkins of real ale. We distribute a high number of cask-conditioned beers compared to most breweries that are doing them right now. That’s something we’re really getting into as of late.
Carboy: So the idea is basically like “traditional English ales with the occasional American twist.”
Pulver: Yeah, basically. I mean, like our Sky High Rye, you’re never going to find a beer like that at a traditional English pub but it’s a great beer and it’s a brew that people who are more into stuff like west coast IPAs will enjoy.*
*It is indeed a great beer, and one to try if you haven’t ever had it. It’s very rye-forward…
Carboy: You know, in my own experience with Arcadia in the past—and I live in central Illinois—if you asked me to name breweries of Michigan, Arcadia would never be the first one I thought of, and yet every time that I have an Angler’s Ale or a Sky High Rye I remember “Oh wait a second, Arcadia is really good.” Do you feel like you go under the radar that way sometimes?
Pulver: Yeah, sometimes. There’s certainly some other Michigan breweries that are out there quite a bit and get a lot of attention, but we’re growing huge right now. Last I heard we had done something like 40 to 50 percent just in the state of Michigan alone last year, and we’re expanding out of the state as well. We’re pretty much operating at max capacity now, with expansion at this building underway.
Carboy: Any other Arcadia revelations or changes to the business that we’re going to be hearing about? Are you looking to expand at all, or is there anything else going on?
Pulver: Well, there’s the cans on the way.
Pulver: Yeah, we’ve purchased this from Maui Brewing Company, they were expanding to a larger system. We actually hired the guy who used to run the canning line at Maui; he’s now working for us. We’re happy to have his canning line here, and we’re getting it ready to take through its paces. We’re looking to tap into a new sector of our market and we thought the cans would go over great with our fans.
Carboy: (At this point I’m squinting in through the brewhouse window at rows of cans) Those look like Whitsun cans.
Pulver: Those are Whitsun cans. The intention is to roll out that beer first in cans because it’s usually our biggest seller. It’s only available as our summer seasonal, but we still sell more of it than any other beer. We just thought it would be great to have a package that you can take to the ballpark, or take it on the river, or take it to the beach.
Carboy: So just Whitsun at first then?
Pulver: At first. I’m sure we’ll eventually get into Sky High Rye; I’m almost certain that will be our next venture into canning.
Carboy: Hot damn, that would be sweet. Well, thank you very much for answering my questions today.
Pulver: My pleasure.
And that’s it! If you’ve been like me, and you haven’t tried as many Arcadia ales as you might have, do yourself a favor and go put together a sampler. You’ll find some uniformly well-crafted brews.